They tell me I will die here. This place I do not know, this dark, dank, rancid dungeon, where nobody wishes me well and most speak languages I don’t understand—this is the place I will call home for the rest of my life. That’s what they tell me. It’s getting harder to disbelieve them.
There are people in here who want me dead, some for retribution but most to establish their own notoriety. It would be a sure path to celebrity to kill me or one of my friends, known collectively as the Monte Carlo Mistresses. That was the moniker that stuck in the international media. More imaginative than the earlier ones—the Gang of Four, the Bern Beauties, the Desperate Housewives. Less chilling, to me at least, than the one that ran on the front page of Le Monde the day after the verdict: Mamans Coupables.
So I wait. For a miracle. For newly discovered evidence. A confession from the real killer. A sympathetic ear to my appeal. Or simply for the morning when I wake up and discover this was all a dream. The last three hundred and ninety-eight mornings, I’ve opened my eyes and prayed that I was back in Bern, or, better yet, back in Georgetown, preparing to teach American literature to hungover underclassmen.
And I watch. I turn every corner widely and slowly. I sleep sitting up. I try to avoid any routine that would make my movements predictable, that would make me vulnerable. If they’re going to get to me in here, they’re going to have to earn it.
It started out as a day like any other. I walked down the narrow corridor of G wing. When I approached the block letters on the door’s glass window—infirmerie—I stopped and made sure my toes lined up with the peeling red tape on the floor that served as a marker, a stop sign before entering.
“Bonjour,” I said to the guard at the station on the other side of the hydraulic door, a woman named Cecile. No last names. None of the prison staff was allowed to reveal anything more to the prisoners than their first names, and those were probably fake, too. The point was anonymity outside these walls: because of it, the inmates, once released, wouldn’t be able to hunt down the prison guards who hadn’t treated them so nicely.
“Hi, Abbie.” Always responding to me in her best English, which wasn’t bad. Better than my French. After a loud, echoing buzz, the door released with a hiss.
The prison infirmary was the length and width of an American gymnasium, but it had a lower ceiling, about eight feet high. It was mostly one open space filled with about two dozen beds. On one side was a long cage—the “reception” area—where inmates waited their turn to be treated. On another side, also closed off and secured, was a room containing medical supplies and pharmaceuticals. Beyond this room was a high-security area that could hold five patients, reserved for those who had communicable diseases, those in intensive care, and those who posed security risks.
I liked the infirmary because of the strong lighting, which lent some vibrancy to my otherwise dreary confinement. I liked helping people, too; it reminded me that I was still human, that I still had a purpose. And I liked it because I didn’t have to watch my back in here.
I disliked everything else about it. The smell, for one—a putrid cocktail of body odor and urine and powerful disinfectant that always seized me when I first walked in. And let’s face it, nobody who comes to the infirmary is having a good day.
I try to have good days. I try very hard.
It was busy when I walked in, the beds at full capacity, the one doctor, two nurses, and four inmates who served as nurse’s assistants scurrying from one patient to the next, putting figurative Band-Aids on gaping wounds. There had been a flu going around, and at JRF, when one person got the flu, the whole cell block got it. They tried to segregate the sick ones but it was like rearranging chairs in a closet. There just wasn’t room. JRF—L’Institution de Justice et Réforme pour les Femmes—operated at more than 150 percent capacity. Cells designed for four held seven, the extra three people sleeping on mattresses on the floor. A prison intended for twelve hundred was housing almost two thousand. They were packing us in shoulder to shoulder and telling us to cover our mouths when we coughed.
I saw Winnie at the far end, wrapping a bandage on an Arab woman’s foot. Winnie, like me, was a nurse’s assistant. The warden ordered that we not communicate, so we were assigned to different cell blocks and different shifts in the infirmary.
I felt a catch in my throat, as I did every time I saw her now. Winnie has been my closest friend since my husband and I moved to Bern, Switzerland, for his job at the American Embassy. We lived next door to each other for five years, mourning the late working hours of our diplomat husbands and sharing each other’s secrets.
Well, not all our secrets, it turned out. But I’ve forgiven her.
“Hey.” She whispered in her lovely British accent. Her fingers touched mine. “I heard what happened. You okay?”
“Living the dream,” I said. “You?”
She wasn’t in the mood for humor. Winnie was a stunning beauty—tall and shapely with large radiant eyes, chiseled cheekbones, and silky, ink-color hair—which made it all the harder to see the wear around those eyes, the stoop in her posture, the subtle deterioration of her spirit. It had been just over a year since the murders, and three months since the conviction. She was starting to break down, to give in. They talked in here about the moment when that happened, when you lost all hope. La Reddition, they called it. Surrender. I hadn’t experienced it yet. I hoped I never would.
“Movie night,” she whispered. “I’ll save you a seat. Love you.”
“Love you, too. Get some rest.” Our fingertips released. Her shift was over.
About ninety minutes later, I heard the commotion as the hydraulic door buzzed open. I had my back turned to the entrance. I was helping a nurse dress a laceration on an inmate’s rib cage when one of the nurses shouted, “Urgence!”
Emergency. We had a lot of those. We had a suicide a week in JRF. Violence and sanitation-related illnesses had been on the upswing with the worsening overcrowding. It was impossible to work a six-hour shift without hearing urgence called at least once.
Still, I turned, as guards and a nurse wheeled in an inmate on a gurney.
“Oh, God, no.” I dropped the gauze pads I was holding. I started running before the realization had fully formed in my head. The shock of black hair hanging below the gurney. The look on the face of one of the nurses, who had turned back from the commotion to look at me, to see if it had registered with me who the new patient was. Everyone knew the four of us as a group, after all.
“Winnie,” I whispered.
“No. Please, no.”
I sharply parted the people around me, bouncing off them like a pinball, rushing to Winnie. Two guards saw me coming and moved forward to restrain me as the doctor and two nurses hovered over Winnie, working feverishly.
“Let me see her. Let me…permettez-moi…”
All I could see, between the two guards containing me, was the back of a nurse and the lifeless body of my best friend. The doctor was speaking quickly—too quickly for me to understand—and one of the nurses rushed to retrieve some medicine from the drug cabinet.
“What happened?” I called out to no avail, using the wrong language again in my panic.
I tried again to get around the guards. I just wanted to see her. I wanted her to see me. But one of the guards threw a forearm into my chest and my feet went out from under me. I fell hard to the floor. My head slammed on the tile. The guards dropped down, using gravity to their advantage, pinning me where I lay.
“Please. S’il vous plaît,” I managed. “Winnie…”
Then, between the two guards restraining me, craning my neck as far off the floor as I could, I saw the doctor, a middle-aged man with long gray hair, straighten up, relax his posture, and shake his head at the nurse. He wrapped his stethoscope around his neck and turned toward the nurse who was retrieving the meds. “Marian,” he called. “Il n’est pas nécessaire.”
“No!” I wailed.
He looked up at the clock on the wall. “Le temps de mort…ah, il est quatorze heures quarante.”
Time of death, 2:40 p.m.
“You…you…killed her,” I said, the last words I heard anyone say before everything went black.
Darkness, even though the room was well lit. Cold, even though the room was so humid that my shirt stuck to my chest and sweat dotted my forehead. The blood I tasted in my mouth, the searing pain in my ribs, the bruises on my wrists from the handcuffs that now chained me to the wall—those were real. Somewhere, as I swooned in and out of consciousness, I’d put up a fight. Bits and pieces flashed at me. Kicking and punching. I think I bit someone’s arm. But it didn’t matter. None of it mattered anymore.
I saw it now, what Winnie saw. La Reddition. Surrender. Don’t fight it, and it will be easier. La Reddition was extending her hand to me, but I hadn’t shaken it yet.
Time had passed. Best guess, about ten hours since my best friend had died.
The cell door opened. Boulez, the warden at JRF. Dark hair greased back. Immaculate three-piece suit, tie perfectly knotted. He looked like the politician he was. In America, Boulez would be a city councilman planning a run for Congress. In France, he was a prison warden waiting for his chance to move up in the Ministry of Justice.
“I will not waste our time with pleasantries,” he said, which seemed appropriate, given that his employees had just murdered my best friend and beaten and shackled me.
I looked around my cell, roughly the size of my walk-in closet back in the States, before we moved. Mildew on the walls and ceiling. Dark spots on the concrete floor, like oil stains in a garage—except these were the product of human, not vehicular, malfunction.
This was Le Mitard, the prison within a prison. Solitary confinement, to Americans.
Boulez didn’t enjoy being here. He didn’t like to get his manicured hands dirty. He had a purpose for visiting me, and he was about to get to the point.
“Tell me what drug you used,” he said. “It will be a simple matter of inventorying the contents of our drug cabinet to see what is missing. Easier for us if you just confess.” His English, though heavily accented, was flawless. Most of the educated French spoke fluent English.
I coughed. Blood spattered onto my brown pants.
“I will not ask a second time,” he said.
“Good. So I won’t have to keep ignoring you.”
He blinked his eyes in concentration. His mind took a moment to track what I’d said. Then he grimaced. “Or was it suicide?” he asked. “Each of you had access to the drugs. Either she killed herself or you poisoned her. Which was it, Abbie?”
His delight in saying these words to me was evident. We both knew that neither of those alternatives was true. But he was making it clear that one of them would be the official story.
“Winnie would never kill herself,” I said. “Don’t you ever say that she did.”
“Ah.” He raised his chin. “So, murder.”
He was trying to get a rise out of me. This guy should stay a prison warden forever. There was no better outlet for sadism.
“You would naturally blame her for your predicament,” he said.
I coughed again. Same result. I wiped my chin on my shoulder, not having my hands available to me.
“I’m not going to forget what happened today,” I said. “Someone’s going to pay for this.”
“I have a better idea.” Boulez walked toward me, confidently enough given my restraints. He stood a few feet away, just outside the reach of my legs should I kick out at him.
“Confess to the double murder,” he said. “And what happened to your friend Winnie will be considered a suicide.”
Sure. None of the four of us had confessed at trial. Boulez wanted to be the hero who secured my confession, a piece of red meat he could toss to the carnivorous international media—and to the French voters, when the time came.
“And if I don’t?” I asked.
“Well, you’ve already committed two murders. A third? We cannot imprison you beyond your natural life, now, can we? But there are other ways to punish, Abbie.” He walked back toward the cell door. “I’ll give you forty-five days to think about it.”
“I think you mean thirty, Boulez.” A French law had been passed recently, limiting time in Le Mitard to thirty-day stretches. But everyone at JRF knew there were ways around that restriction.
“Did I say forty-five? Ah, well.” The corners of his mouth curled up. He rapped on the door with his knuckles. It popped open with a buzz.
“Boulez,” I said. “You won’t win. One day I’m going to walk out of this place.”
His eyes narrowed. Then his smile broadened. “Madame, you are the most famous criminal in the history of France. You’ll never walk out of here.”
With that, Boulez disappeared. The lighting, controlled from outside the cell, went out, plunging me into darkness. For thirty days. Or maybe forty-five.
Or maybe for the rest of my life.
All because of two nights in Monte Carlo.
Just over thirty minutes after leaving Bern’s airport, the jet touched down on the tarmac in Nice so smoothly it felt like we’d landed in butter. Or maybe it was the Champagne, already numbing my senses, coloring everything wonderful. Wonderful is what I had been promised. Wonderful is what all of us, for different reasons, needed. We needed to bathe ourselves in luxury. We needed a four-day dream.
“I am officially on vacation!” I announced to the group, taking the last swallow of my Champagne.
“It’s about bloody time, love!” Winnie reached across the aisle and grabbed my arm.
Serena, seated across from me in the small cabin, raised her empty glass and tossed her long blond hair. “Bonjour, Monte Carlo. And that, my friends, is the limit of my French.”
“Don’t forget Chardonnay and Merlot,” I added.
“Touché,” she said.
“See, your vocabulary’s getting better by the second.”
I looked around at my friends. How did I get so lucky? Serena Schofield, the Amazon blonde—a former U.S. Olympic skier who placed fifth in the downhill at Lillehammer. Bryah Gordon, born in Johannesburg under the oppression of apartheid, the youngest of our clan at thirty-one and the smartest by far, our resident encyclopedia on topics large and trivial, a beauty in her own right with flawless coffee-colored skin and kinky African hair cropped at her chin. And Winnie Brookes, of course, the exotic Brit, the Diva, we called her, as breathtaking as any runway model working today, who, most of the time, seemed utterly oblivious to her beauty.
Then there was me. Abbie Elliot. What these interesting and gorgeous women were doing with me was anyone’s guess. For all the complaints I had about leaving the States and moving to Switzerland, all I had to do was look around at these women to find a silver lining.
“I think for the rest of this trip, I’m going to speak with a British accent.” I turned to Winnie. “Bloody good show, love,” I tried, doing my best Monty Python imitation.
“And I’m going to be an American,” she replied. “Hey, how ya doin’? You got any countries we can invade?”
We got off the private jet—thank you, Serena—bathed in the rays of a welcoming, lowering sun. An SUV drove us to the area of the Côte d’Azur Airport marked private aviation, where our bags were waiting for us inside.
“Do we have a car?” Winnie asked.
“A car? Cars are so pedestrian, dahling,” said Serena in her best Zsa Zsa voice, with a wink at all of us. None of us was poor by any stretch of the imagination, but Serena lapped us several times over. To know her, you’d have no idea how rich she was. She was as sweet and down-to-earth as anyone I knew. But this weekend would be different. She had money, and she clearly planned on spending it.
We followed Serena through a door that led out to a large landing pad—and a large, sleek, silver-and-gray helicopter.
“Serena, really!” said Bryah, with maybe a hint of nervousness. Bryah didn’t get out much. Her husband, Colton, was what you might call controlling if you were being polite. If you weren’t being polite, you might call him something else. The long and short of it was, Bryah had never been on a girls’ weekend like this.
“Why drive when we can fly?” Serena ran over to the helicopter and climbed in. I couldn’t believe it—but then again, I could. Money was no object, and Serena wanted us to live a fantasy for four days.
“You couldn’t find anything bigger?” I asked.
Once we were belted in, the helicopter lifted quickly, causing a minor rebellion in my stomach. But soon we were soaring over Monaco, and nothing else mattered but the sloping hills of the French Riviera, the blue expanse of the Mediterranean, dotted with yachts and sailboats heading back to port for the evening, and the pink-green sky, against which the sun was beginning its descent toward the horizon.
“Did you know that Monaco is the second smallest country in the world?” Bryah asked.
“Fascinating,” said Winnie. She and I made eye contact, suppressing smiles.
“Bryah, honey,” I said, patting her leg, “we’re going to have fun. Don’t be nervous.”
A mere seven minutes later, we were landing on a helipad by the beach. We unstrapped our restraints and waited for the pilot to open the door.
“Wait,” said Serena. She reached into her bag and removed three overstuffed envelopes, handing one to each of us. I opened mine and found a thick wad of euros.
“What is this?” Winnie asked.
“That’s fifty thousand euros each,” she said. “Gamble with it. Shop. Do whatever you want. Just promise me you’ll spend it.”
“Can I buy a car?” I asked. “A small island?”
“How about a movie star?” Winnie asked. “Think I can rent Brad Pitt for the weekend?”
“Brad Pitt? Too old, Win,” I said. “One of those younger boys. Zac Efron, maybe.”
“You want an athlete,” Serena suggested. “David Beckham. Rafa Nadal.”
“Rafa, maybe,” Win agreed.
We looked over at Bryah, who had remained silent. She considered the money, looked at Serena, and allowed a wry smile to play on her face. “You could get into a spot of trouble with this bit of money,” she said.
We all looked at each other, giddy and slightly intoxicated, relaxed and eager, and broke into laughter. Outside the window of the helicopter was Monte Carlo, the playground of the rich and famous. We were all stifled in our own way, mothers and wives living in our adoptive Swiss city, and these four days would be our chance to escape. To live someone else’s life.
“Bryah,” I said, “I think that’s the idea.”
It was only minutes before we were at the entrance of the Hôtel Métropole. It was near dusk and it looked like the light had been turned down on a dimmer switch. The air was warm and thick. Porters in gray jackets and hats took our bags and cheerily greeted us, first in German—mistaking the heritage of the blond Serena—and then in English.
The hotel was fabulous. We walked through an ivy-covered granite archway that made me feel as though someone should be trumpeting our arrival. The patterned stone path was lined with candles in ornate glass holders, potted Japanese plants, and tall, manicured pine trees that probably had a fancy name but looked like anorexic specimens to me. The hotel loomed before us, basking in the low light. The next thing I knew, I had a Champagne glass in my hand and the bubbles were tickling my nose as I drank and walked. Someone from the hotel was explaining about a recent remodeling, someone named Jacques Garcia, and I nodded importantly and said, “I love his work,” even though I had no freakin’ idea who he was. Winnie was sashaying in front of the pack, singing something and waving her arms, probably attracting the attention of all the male porters in her tight green sundress.
“So exciting!” Serena hugged me close and we clinked glasses.
The large, airy lobby smelled and looked like money, from the checkered tile floor to the skylight to the elaborate lamps hanging from the ceiling—picture candelabra covered with tents—to the guests, the men in tuxedos and many-thousand-dollar suits, the women in evening gowns and pearls.
“I could learn to like this,” I said.
“Schofield,” said Serena to the man at reception.
The man hit a few keys and said, “Simon?”
“Simon?” The three of us said it in unison to Serena. Simon was her husband. Think: rich and dull. Nice enough, I guess, though I never saw the connection between those two.
Regardless, the point was that we were escaping this weekend. Four days, just for us—meaning no husbands. That meant something different to each of us, I thought, but something nonetheless.
“Buzz kill,” Winnie sang.
Serena laughed. “His assistant booked it for us. Force of habit, putting Simon’s name down.”
“I can’t wait to see this room,” said Bryah.
“Forget the room.” Serena clapped her hands together. “We’re going to the casino. I feel lucky!”
“Forget the room?” Again, the three of us, almost in unison. We overruled her. We wanted to see this suite we’d heard so much about.
“Wow,” I said, as though it were a two-syllable word. The presidential suite, a double penthouse. They called it the Carré d’Or. It sounded like a perfume. It looked like a palace. Fresh roses everywhere. Complimentary Champagne and macaroons. Expensive artwork. A view of half of Monte Carlo. As I may have mentioned, I could learn to like this.
I didn’t come from money and I didn’t have any to speak of, by which I mean that Jeffrey and I were perfectly comfortable—but we had no summer villas, no private jets. And no complaints, either, by the way. Still, it differentiated me from the others. Winnie had grown up with money in London. Bryah and Serena had married into it. They’d probably seen penthouses like this one before, though the way they scattered like cockroaches to explore it, maybe this was above even their typical expense level.
It was the most opulent thing I’d ever seen. The lounge area, probably suitable for a helicopter landing, was all dark parquet with rich gold and maroon accents. The floor-to-ceiling windows revealed the Mediterranean and a terrace that called out to me. First, I took a peek into a bathroom—marble and sandstone, a delicious ivory-colored tub, a shower big enough for a small family—“Yes, that will do,” I decided.
Then I looked into one of the bedrooms, the front one, twice the size of mine in Bern, the walls decorated in flowers and light shades of green and opening to reveal a dressing area and table on one side. I directed the bellman to drop my and Winnie’s bags here; we’d be sharing this front bedroom, while Serena and Bryah would share the back one.
Then to the terrace. Winnie was already out there, cutting quite a figure as she looked out over the Monte Carlo Casino, the Mediterranean, and the pink sky beyond. The breeze carried her dark hair off her back.
“This terrace, alone, is bigger than my first apartment in Georgetown,” I said. “Twice the size.”
“I know, mate. It’s just lovely.” Winnie turned and opened her arms, as though she were showcasing herself. “Hello, Monte Carlo!” she said.
Serena popped her head into the room. “Get dressed, ladies,” she said. “We’re going gambling.”
Le Grand Casino’s exterior displayed the triumphant, ornate architecture of royalty, a palace of gold. We passed a number of sleek foreign cars parked at the entrance and showed our passports at the door. (Citizens of Monaco, Bryah informed us, were forbidden from gambling in the casino.)
The atrium was adorned in gold; it had marble columns and sculptures in glass enclosures, and the double-height ceiling was open to the second floor. It felt like we were at the opera, not a casino. (The person who designed this casino, Bryah explained, also designed the Paris Opéra. We had to get some liquor in her fast.)
We paid our way into a private gambling room that had frescoed ceilings, lavish molding, and sculptures and paintings everywhere. The attire was jacket and tie for the men, gowns and cocktail dresses for the ladies. All of us except Bryah were wearing black cocktail dresses—Serena’s and Winnie’s were strapless. Bryah, on the other hand, opted for something gold and more conservative.
Bryah always covered up more than the rest of us. I thought I knew why.
Anyway. We were among Monte Carlo’s elite, the world’s elite—movie stars and athletes and speculators and Fortune 500 CEOs, wagering staggering sums of money, most for the pure sport of it.
“Roulette,” said Serena. “You can’t come to Monte Carlo and not play European roulette.”
This was something I knew. I didn’t gamble much, but when I did, it was always roulette.
The European roulette wheel had thirty-seven individual pockets, numbered zero through 36. Half the numbers were red and half were black. The bettor simply had to guess in which space the bouncing ball would stop. You placed your bets on a board. You could bet on individual numbers; on a block of two or four numbers; on the first twelve, second twelve, or third twelve; on numbers 1 through 18 or 19 through 36; on an odd number or even; on a black number or red. The payout varied with the degree of risk. Winning on an individual number obviously had the biggest payout, thirty-five to one, whereas betting that a number would be red, for example, was only a two-to-one payout because you had a fifty-fifty chance.
Serena took a seat and put down fifty thousand euros, which drew the attention of the other three players and a small crowd behind them. Each of the players—an Indian in a tuxedo, a heavyset Italian with a beard and ponytail, and a young woman who appeared to be American—looked at Serena, trying to place her. A movie star? An heiress?
“She’s an international drug smuggler,” I told the woman with the Italian, a bleached blonde with a long, curvy body.
The croupier—the dealer—gave Serena fifty yellow chips, each chip representing a thousand euros. Serena placed five of them on the number 5, her finish in the downhill in the Winter Olympics.
A straight bet. A bad bet. Terrible odds. The Indian bet reds. The Italian took 1 through 18. The American placed a corner bet, centering her chip at the intersection of squares 31, 32, 34, and 35.
The croupier spun the roulette wheel clockwise and said, “No more bets.” He dropped the ball into the wheel in the opposite direction of the spin. The ball bounced against the tide as the wheel spun, finally landing in the pocket for 19.
“Nineteen, red,” said the croupier. The Indian doubled his money. Everyone else lost. Serena lost five thousand euros—roughly six thousand American dollars. That was a trimester of boarding school in New England for one of my kids.
“Place an outside bet,” I said to her. “Bet a column, or odds or evens or a color.”
“Bor-ing.” Serena put another five chips on 5.
“You have less than a three percent chance of winning,” said Bryah.
“Oh, let her play. Best of British, Serena!” Winnie said.
“No more bets,” said the croupier.
Our drinks arrived. Cosmopolitans for each of us. To me, the vodka tasted better than the Champagne. The bubbly goes to my brain too quickly.
“Eleven, black.” Good news for everyone but Serena.
“You can’t keep putting five thousand down on a single number,” I said.
“You’re right.” Serena winked at me. She put ten chips down on the 5.
“No more bets.”
Serena raised her glass to me in a toast.
Serena put another five down on 5.
“No more bets.” The ball tripped and danced around, ultimately settling in the pocket numbered 6.
“I’m getting closer,” said Serena. I’m sure that was great consolation after having lost twenty-five thousand euros in the space of ten minutes.
The Italian put two chips down on square 5 as well and smiled at her, his eyebrows dancing. But then he put five chips on reds to cover his stupid inside bet.
“No more bets.” The croupier did his thing and the small ball did its little jig.
A crowd had begun to gather behind our table. The blond American, throwing money away on thirty-seven-to-one odds, dropping five thousand euros a pop on the number 5.
Soon, Serena had depleted her fifty thousand euros and laid out another fifty for the croupier. People behind us mumbled. I doubt it was flattering talk.
This was classic Serena, always seeking a competition, always sizing herself up against others, never shrinking from a dare. This, I knew, was what she wanted from this weekend, something wild and risky.
I stood behind her. Winnie was talking with a tall man who looked Spanish. Bryah was on her next Cosmo and lightening up, now cheering Serena on instead of explaining the crappy odds to her.
“Sticking with five, then,” I said, my hand on her shoulder. It was her money. Who was I to tell her what to do?
“Sticking with five.” Serena reached back and patted my hand.
It didn’t get any better for her.
People began to applaud with each bet Serena placed. I didn’t know if it was encouragement or ridicule, but she had drawn quite a crowd.
“You think I’m crazy.” Serena looked back at me.
I bent down and kissed her cheek. “I think you’re wonderful.”
“Love you, sweetie.” She was down to her last ten chips, her last ten thousand euros. She put five down on 5.
The crowd reacted with audible disappointment. I’d been wrong. They admired her spirit, if not her strategy. They were doing the same thing we were doing on this trip, living vicariously through others, watching this woman take wild risks.
Down to her last five chips. “Do I change?” she asked me.
“Do you believe in it?”
She paused. “I believe in us.”
I leaned down to her. “Then bet on us. The four of us.”
“Madame?” the croupier asked.
Serena looked at me and smiled. She bet her last five chips.
On the number 4.
Another audible reaction behind me. What was she doing? Why change now?
The roulette wheel spun. “No more bets.” The ball danced one last time for us.
The crowd went up in a roar.
“Four, black,” said the croupier.
My head was throbbing the next morning and I needed to melt for a while. The best beach and pool are the private ones at the Monte Carlo Beach Hotel, which is actually just over the border in France—something I knew without Bryah telling me. Bryah wasn’t her normal encyclopedic self this morning, having probably even less familiarity with a night of drinking than I. We had some thoughts of shopping, seeing the royal palace, Princess Grace’s grave—but first we all just wanted to chill.
We were all suffering but enjoying it at the same time. By the time we dragged ourselves to the beach club, it was almost eleven. The sun was high and brutally hot. The air was clear and dry and the sky was cloudless. The Mediterranean was an endless deep blue. The good life.
The pool at the Métropole was great, but this one was the place to be. That’s what we were told, anyway, and it turned out to be true. The place was at full capacity, making it hard for us to scramble together four chairs. There were plenty of swimmers in the humongous pool, but the sides were lined with people sitting and getting their legs wet. It was like a singles bar.
“A bit knackered, are we, girls? Then nothing like a dip.” Winnie slipped off her cover-up, revealing her black bikini. Two dozen men injured their necks in the process of getting a look at her. Serena, though not Winnie’s equal in beauty, was even taller and still had an athlete’s lithe body. Her bikini was gold. It seemed like we were under a spotlight.
Bryah kept her cover-up on—“It’s not like I need a tan,” she joked—consistent with her routine. We’d never talked about it. After the sprained arm, the dislocated shoulder, the broken fingers, the bruises on her forearm or thigh or back—somewhere in there it stopped being a coincidence, ceased being clumsiness. It wasn’t a regular thing, which meant that her husband, Colton, wasn’t a serial abuser. He was just a small, spiteful brute. And it was never Bryah’s face. Always a part of her body she could cover up. Which meant Colton was cautious. That, for some reason, made me despise him all the more.
I’d wanted to say something to Bryah so many times, but the three of us made a decision not to: she knew we loved her, that we’d do anything for her. If she wanted to talk, she would.
“Well?” Winnie looked back at us. She fingered the clasp on her bikini top. “When in Monte Carlo?”
Most of the people at the pool were topless. I would not be one of them; a red bikini underneath my cover-up was as racy as I got.
“When in Monte Carlo,” said Serena. She was still intoxicated by her performance at the casino last night. It wasn’t about the money per se; it was about her competitive nature. She’d turned her last bet of five thousand euros into a payout of 175,000 euros, putting her up 75,000 for the night. That’s over 100,000 U.S. dollars, if you’re keeping score.
Serena went first, removing her top. Winnie quickly followed. They covered themselves in suntan lotion, with extra for their headlights, and sauntered over to the pool to dip their toes in.
“I hate them,” I told Bryah. A waiter appeared out of nowhere. I ordered bottles of water, Champagne cocktails, and fruit plates for each of us.
Bryah settled in, donning fashionable shades and stretching her limbs in ecstasy. She really seemed to be unwinding. Serena and Winnie were making out okay, too. About a dozen men surrounded them within seconds of their approach to the pool. They were the flirtatious ones in our crew.
Sometimes it was more than flirtation. Serena hadn’t been faithful to Simon. The marriage had grown loveless, and sexless, years ago. Simon was good to her, by which I mean he provided for her, but that wasn’t really Serena’s style. Serena craved excitement, adrenaline, and there were only so many times she could jump out of an airplane or race a Formula One car around a track. She wanted passion in her love life. So, on two different occasions over the last five years, she’d found it with another man. And she’d been remorseful both times. She even suspected that Simon knew. My theory: She wanted Simon to know. She wanted him to fight for her. She wanted him to want her.
Now, it seemed, all she had was Katie Mei, the child she had adopted from China after two near-term miscarriages had ended her appetite for pregnancy. Katie was everything to her.
And Winnie? She was married to James Bond. Christien had been with British intelligence for years before taking a desk job with the British Embassy in Bern. Christien was handsome and mysterious. Just Winnie’s type. They were two drop-dead-gorgeous people with two drop-dead-gorgeous children. But something was off with them. It was hard to pinpoint it. And Winnie wasn’t one to complain. It was just the way she talked about Christien, the absence of enthusiasm. Winnie doted on her kids and threw herself into her charity work, raising money and advocating on behalf of autistic children, honoring her autistic brother, Winston. (That’s right, Winston and Winnie. Her parents had a sense of humor. Having these two kids, they always said, was a Win-Win situation.)
“If you’re a woman anywhere at this pool right now, you hate Win and Serena,” Bryah said with a chuckle. She was probably right. Almost every head was turned in their direction, and, look, this wasn’t exactly a pool full of homely people. Most of the women here were more done-up than the women at the casino, and at least half of them had improved a body part or two with surgery.
Drinks arrived, and I started on the Champagne. Why not? I was on vacation. I didn’t miss Jeffrey, I had to admit. I missed my kids, but I would have missed them in Bern, too. Richie and Elena were in boarding school in Connecticut, the same school Jeffrey attended as a child. I’d objected but lost the argument. I usually did, which was hard for me to admit. It was one thing for the kids to be in Connecticut when we were at Georgetown—Lakeville was about six hours by car, ninety minutes by plane—but quite another when we were in Switzerland. But I couldn’t ask Jeffrey to turn down this position at the U.S. Embassy, and I couldn’t ask my kids to pick up and leave the only school they knew, a school where they were happy.
“Enough,” I said to myself. “I’m on vacation.” I finished my Champagne and decided to drink Winnie’s, too. One of her poolside suitors had already bought her one.
“Let’s jump in,” said Bryah. “Want to?”
I looked at her and smiled. What was I waiting for? And why? Jeffrey? He was probably with his girlfriend at this moment.
“That sounds perfect,” I said.
Not everyone at the Monte Carlo Beach Hotel was having a wonderful time. Four men stood on a private balcony, sharing binoculars, observing the activity by the pool with something less than warm feelings.
“You see what I mean?” Colton looked at the other husbands. “Not just catching a tan, are they?”
“At least Bryah still has her bloody top on, Colt.” Christien couldn’t say the same thing for his Winnie.
“This is why you called?” Simon asked. “This is why we had to fly down here?”
Colton turned to Simon. “Look at them, man. Your Serena, as much as anyone—but all of them. It’s like they aren’t married women!”
“And you should have seen them last night at the casino. A gaggle of wild stukkies, they were. Waltzing in, attracting attention. Not shying away from it, I can tell you.”
“Colton’s right. We should do something,” Jeffrey said in agreement. “This is unacceptable.” Tall and lean with carefully coiffed hair, he now looked more like the top U.S. diplomat he was than the Georgetown international relations professor he’d once been, back when he’d first met Abbie.
“There you go, brah.” Colton’s normally pale skin was purple with rage. To the others, he didn’t fit with Bryah. A forty-eight-year-old, pudgy, temperamental white man with an exotic young black wife. A cerebral young lady with an angry man who fancied a bulldozer over a handshake.
“And what,” asked Simon, “are you planning to do?”
“Not let them get away with it, that’s what.” Colton lifted his beige shirt, revealing a handgun stuffed in his pants.
“Bloody hell, Colt.” Christien, with the baritone voice, the detached manner. He took one step back.
Jeffrey stepped back, too, but didn’t speak.
“You’ve lost your mind!” said Simon. Prematurely gray but still physically fit at forty-four. Too focused, he would admit, on adding to a portfolio that already could keep generations in comfort. The adopted girl, Katie Mei, had been good for him, grounding him a bit more.
“This whole thing was a waste of time.” Simon looked at his watch. “My jet’s leaving in one hour. I need to be back in Zurich tonight. Will you all be joining me?”
Christien didn’t answer, keeping a cool stare on Colton’s weapon.
“Will you be joining me?” Simon asked again.
Jeffrey, the stuffy diplomat, raised the binoculars again. Abbie was in the pool, laughing at something a young man said to her. The man was younger, more muscular—more exciting than Jeffrey. He lowered the binoculars and looked alternately at Colton and Simon.
“I want to hear what Colton has in mind,” he said.
After the pool, we returned to the hotel. Winnie and I, sharing the front bedroom, chatted like schoolgirls about the cute boys at the pool while we put on makeup and plucked eyebrows and drank Champagne from long-stemmed glasses. Winnie went through a box of tissues as her allergies momentarily flared up. I was doing fine except that I had some water in my ear from the pool that numerous Q-tips failed to remedy. Life’s rough, right?
Then dinner in our hotel at Yoshi, Joël Robuchon’s Japanese restaurant. Quaint in terms of size—seating only forty—but not in design, which was luxurious Japanese modern with muted colors and stone. At the far end, the room swept open to a second story, from which hung a pearly eight-foot spiral chandelier. Beyond the far wall of glass was an ornate Japanese garden.
Serena and Winnie sat on the burnt-orange silk banquettes along the wall. Bryah and I took the comfy yellow chairs across from them. The table was set with black plastic mats, black-and-clear water glasses, and glass plates. A soft light burned in a green glass in the center of the table. Before we could say banzai we were drinking the house’s Bruno Paillard Champagne.
We were, quite simply, having a blast. We were sun-drenched and intoxicated and giddy. Over salmon sashimi and our first flask of sake, we decided to forgo our usual topics of conversation—global warming, nuclear proliferation, emerging markets in Latin America—in favor of describing the looks on our husbands’ faces during sex. In a nutshell: Simon looked like a chipmunk holding his breath. Colton, a seal giving birth. Christien gnashed his teeth as though he were about to pass a bowling ball. My Jeffrey was always a quiet one, closing his eyes intensely as though he were trying to remember the lyrics to a song.
“When was the last time, for any of you?” Bryah asked. She actually won; she and Colton were intimate last week. For Winnie, it was weeks. For me, months. For Serena, years.
“Wait,” I said. “Do you mean, when was the last time Jeffrey had sex? Or the last time he had sex with me?”
The joke fell flat. Even I had surprised myself with the comment. Winnie knew about Jeffrey’s affair, and I’d alluded to it previously with the others but never so explicitly.
“I don’t think Simon cheats,” said Serena. I was alarmed at how matter-of-factly she put it. She poured from a new flask of sake, which had been recommended by the sommelier. “He’s only attracted to things he can buy or sell.”
“Honestly, I don’t know about Christien,” Winnie chimed in. “I don’t think he cheats, but I never know anything about him. Y’know, last week he had a bit of the lurgy? I only found out when I heard him puking in the loo. And then I took his temperature and it was bloody through the roof. Not five minutes before that, I’d asked him if he was feeling up for a jog and he said, ‘Could be,’ with that straight face of his. Then he’s keeled over on his arse spilling his guts. He’s just got one speed, that one: man of mystery. Sometimes I want to remind him that he stopped playing Double-O Seven eight years ago.”
The edamame—salted, boiled soybeans in the pod—were fresh and firm and the octopus salad and boiled potatoes were seasoned to perfection. We shared orders of prawns tempura and vegetable fritters and grilled black cod wrapped in a banana leaf. A broth soup with tofu topped it off until dessert. I preferred the lime snow eggs but everyone else liked the lychee sorbet best. Ah, well, we celebrate our diversity.
More sake, and we were perilously close to being drunk—or perilously close to being so drunk we no longer realized it.
“Colton is just so insanely insecure,” said Bryah. “Whatever else—and I know what you all think of him—it all comes down to that. Insecurity.”
“I’d like to box his ears right, I would,” said Winnie, the alcohol loosening her discretion.
“No, I mean—oh, this is yummy.” Bryah had her first taste of the new sake.
“By all means, keep drinking, Bryah,” said Serena with her patented wink. Bryah was the most petite—probably a hundred pounds soaking wet—and I was a lot closer to her than to our tall, leggy friends across the table. Bryah and I were matching them sip for sip, regardless.
“But here’s an example. We were at dinner a few weeks ago and Colton’s talking to the waiter. The waiter’s a grad student in psychology. He said he was doing a thesis on the relationship between psychotherapy and Christianity. Colton makes a comment that Jung is the founder of psychotherapy. The waiter didn’t say anything, but later on, Colton realizes he meant Freud. It bothers him so much that he looked stupid to the waiter that he finds out the waiter’s schedule and makes us go back there for dinner again, just so he can strike up another conversation with the waiter and correct himself.”
“That would qualify as insecure,” Serena said in agreement.
“So here’s a question.” Bryah was coming out of her shell more and more as the weekend traveled on. “Raise your hand if you’re still in love with your husband. Honest, now.”
I looked at each of the ladies. Eight hands among us, all resting on the table.
I raised my hand.
“Abbie, really?” said Serena.
“No, I have another question,” I said. “Why are we spending our time on our getaway weekend talking about our husbands?”
“As of now, we aren’t,” said Winnie. “Promise?”
Our hands all met in the center of the table. Screw the husbands. We had each other. And the night, as they say, was still young.
He watched them from the other side of the street, across from the Hôtel Métropole and the restaurant, Yoshi. Laughing and stumbling and hugging, the four lovely ladies. The four gorgeous troublemakers.
They’d spent the entire afternoon at that pool, then had gone back to the room to shower and prepare. Cocktails on the terrace, no doubt, then dinner at Yoshi at nine. A busy day for them. A day that, from the look of things, was far from over.
He stamped out his cigarette, his first in more than ten years. Excusable under the circumstances, he thought. Being nervous was natural, even for someone who prided himself on his focus during storms.
He did feel nervous, yes, but in a positive way. He felt invigorated. He felt dangerous and volatile and he liked the feeling of empowerment. Light on his feet and ready for action. And always comforted by this fact: the decision would not be his. It would be her decision. No—their decision, the four of them.
He was merely reacting. Eradicating a wrong. Avenging an injustice. This wouldn’t be his fault.
Also comforted by this fact: he could always pull the plug. Abort. Right now he was only thinking, preparing. He could always change his mind.
But his pulse was popping. He felt anger in the clench of his jaw, saw it in the white of his knuckles. He wasn’t going to change his mind. This was unacceptable. He could be a lot of things. He’d been called a lot of things.
“But never a fool,” he said.
“Acting your age is overrated!” I shouted—forgetting that I was a mother of two and a forty-one-year-old wife who’d been married seventeen years. Not that anyone else heard me. The music’s bass line pulsated like a collective heartbeat throughout the dance floor, where about two hundred of us were gyrating and throwing ourselves around and screaming for no apparent reason, other than that it was fun. Overhead scanner lights swiveled about desperately, cutting through the darkness. Fluorescent-tube lights adorned the walls, sometimes emitting a strobe effect, which made us all look like we were moving in slow motion as we danced around at top speed and the DJ above us orchestrated the entire thing.
It was sticky-hot and we were wall-to-wall people and I kept thinking, Who concert, Who concert, but it would have dated me if I’d said anything to the vast majority of the dancers, whose average age was probably late twenties. The place was huge, the dance floor the principal focus, but there were still plenty of people crammed into the bar and seating areas, where they would have the privilege of dropping almost thirty euros for a bottle of water or a Diet Coke. Mix in some liquor and you needed a second mortgage.
Well, I would, anyway. These were the jet-setters, the sheikhs and celebrities and assorted robber barons—and their adult children, vibrant and aimless in their ignorant youth. I missed ignorant youth. But I was living it again tonight.
Someone grabbed my arm. Winnie. “I’m going to the bar!” she yelled. She had to repeat it twice over the pulsating thump, thump of the music—or maybe that was my heart beating.
“If you need to sell an organ to buy a drink, make it a kidney,” I said. “You have two of them.”
“All right, then,” she said, which roughly translated to: “I can’t hear a word you’re saying.”
I thought of following her but this was too much fun. I danced back-to-back with Serena and we almost stuck to each other from the sweat. I looked up to the open-air ceiling, through the exposed pipes to the freckles of stars overhead.
Nice night, I thought. This must be someone else’s life.
Three songs later, I’d burned off all the calories from Yoshi. Even Serena, the Olympian, was in need of a break. We couldn’t find Bryah.
We danced back to our seats, a semicircle of red leather within which were nestled tiny cocktail tables topped by candles. Winnie was seated next to a well-heeled man in an expensive suit with a full head of hair and a manicured beard, easy enough on the eyes but attractive more for his carriage, his evident ease with himself. He had his arm over the back of the leather and, thus, over Winnie.
“Who’re the hotties?” Serena said to me in what passed in this place as a whisper, meaning she was practically screaming in my ear.
Another man, wearing a dark suit and white shirt with an open collar, was chatting with Bryah while he nursed a glass of clear liquid that could have been anything. He was younger and stockier than the guy with Winnie, an athlete, maybe.
“Hey!” Bryah grabbed my hand and pulled me to her. “This is Luc,” she said. “These are my friends Abbie and Serena.”
“Enchanté,” he said in a deep voice, giving each of us the European double-kiss greeting.
“He’s a race-car driver,” Bryah said. “He raced the Grand Prix here.”
“Really,” said Serena, her interest piqued.
My eyes stole around the two of them to another man in a cream silk shirt and black slacks talking to another woman. His eyes met mine and he managed a seamless departure from his conversation. The next thing I knew, he was extending his hand to me. He was dark and swarthy, a few days’ growth of beard on his face, thick dark hair messed in a haphazard style.
It took just that long for my brain to connect the dots, to recognize the face from the dozens of movies I’d seen.
“Damon Kodiak,” we said simultaneously.
“Enchanté,” he said, then the kiss to each cheek. His cologne was something outdoorsy.
I felt something warm course through me, and it wasn’t the bass line of the music. Yeah, I thought. Enchanté.
“You’re stunning,” he said to me. “If I may.”
It was like a dream. The darkness punctuated by the fluorescent colors. The thousand-dollar bottle of Cristal on the table. The alcohol numbing one part of me and awakening another. The attention of an A-list Hollywood actor with a barrel chest and a deep voice and piercing blue eyes focused, for the moment, on me.
“You may,” I said. You definitely may.
I didn’t know if time was standing still or accelerating. It became irrelevant. Two bottles of Champagne became four. The dizzying lights began to seem natural. The throbbing, percussive music became my pulse.
The darkness cast Damon’s face in shadow, but somehow I could see him clearly. The powerful, scruffy jaw, the warm eyes, the messy hair. At some point, his hand had become planted on my knee. At some point, that had felt natural, too.
“I love this song!” Winnie shouted. Something in French, a woman’s husky, sultry voice over pounding electronic music. The four of us had become eight. Winnie with the wealthy Frenchman, a man named Devo. Serena with the Grand Prix driver, Luc. Bryah was with a well-dressed musician from Morocco named François.
Make that nine of us. An American, whom Damon seemed to know, a heavyset man in a silk shirt, assorted jewelry on his fingers, and a goofy hat. He was pretty goofy himself, but it seemed like he was springing for the booze and nobody was complaining.
“Do you want to dance?” Damon asked me. The way those signature eyebrows arched, I could see that he didn’t.
“I’m fine where I am,” I said. We’d formed our own little cocoon at the table.
“Are you?” That strong hand, moving slightly on my leg.
I leaned into him. “Can I be honest?”
“I didn’t like Four’s a Charm. I liked Three. And I thought Five was funny, too. But Four? Four guys break out of prison and steal all the evil warden’s money? C’mon.”
Damon nodded. “They wanted that one. I didn’t want to do it but they did.”
“The money men,” he said. “The financiers. I had a ten-movie contract with them and they usually let me decide, but—once in a while…”
“Once in a while they make you do one that stinks.”
He smiled widely, as if genuinely amused. “I have to tell you, Abbie, most women wouldn’t admit to me that they hated one of my movies.”
“I’m not most women.”
“No.” He sipped from his Champagne. “No, you’re not.”
A group of women half my age stood a distance from us in slinky, sparkling outfits, noticing the famous actor making my acquaintance. One of them called out to him. He turned and gave them a warm smile, sending them into hysteria, before turning back.
“Admirers,” I said. “Does that get old?”
He considered that. “Only when I’m trying to focus on something else. Or someone else.”
Bryah broke into hysterical laughter, something François the musician said. Winnie was stroking the trimmed beard of her Frenchman, Devo, as if she thought it was funny. She’d grown very comfortable with him, and he with her. Serena was leaning in so close to the hunky race-car driver that they were on the verge of kissing.
So was I, I suddenly realized, as I turned back to Damon. “What project are you working on now?” I asked.
His eyebrows arched. “Right now, I’m working on you. How am I doing so far?”
He smelled so good. I was getting lost in those eyes. Dreamy was a word I used as a child, and I could see why. A fantasy. Someone else’s life, right?
“Tell me something nobody else knows about you,” I said. It felt exciting to ask. It felt intimate. It felt right.
He thought about that a moment. “I guess there is one thing,” he said, his eyes sparkling. “Whenever one of my movies comes out. I’ve never told anybody.”
“Tell me,” I said.
He brought his lips to my ear. The whiskers from his two days’ growth brushed against my cheek. He whispered to me, sharing something nobody else knew. Or so he claimed. But I believed him. I believed everything about him right now.
“I think that’s cute,” I said, when he was finished.
“Cute,” he repeated. “Cute.”
“No, I mean—it shows how much acting means to you.”
“A window into my soul? Something like that?”
“Something like that,” I said.
“Let me tell you something else.” He leaned in again. I felt a chill run up my spine. “I want to touch you, Abbie,” he said. “I want to put my hands on you. Tonight. Just one night.”
“Where?” I said without thinking. I was done thinking. I was finished with rational calculation. I was ready to surrender. “Tell me where you want to touch me.”
He never moved from my face. But he answered in a whisper, his lips tickling my ear. He told me where.
Excerpted from Guilty Wives by Patterson, James Copyright © 2012 by Patterson, James. Excerpted by permission.
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