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ABSOLUTE BETRAYAL


www.wickedpublishing.net


ABSOLUTE BETRAYAL

By

Bestselling author

Roni Meyrick



What the reviewers say about the authors’ works:

Ronni Meyrick

“Hero”

Ronni Meyrick has written a beautiful love story with detail and sensitivity for her lead character, a military vet. She tackled PTSD, partner abuse and family dynamics that any one of us could identify with the characters. I look forward to reading more from this author.

—Dogls Goods


This is such a beautifully written story. Ronni's attention to details and her respect in the way she handled the injuries and the wartime flashbacks of Jack to the emotional and physical turmoil that Carrie endures shows what a talented writer she truly is.

—Cheryl Jones


I love this book so much I can't even put into words how much. As a veteran, it alone makes me proud to read any military story, but as the former spouse of veteran who suffers from PTSD and TBI it hit home a little more.

—Amazon Customer



Dedication


To the woman who loves me unconditionally, no matter how stupid I am…My lovely wife K. When I zone out writing something new, she ensures I have food and an endless supply of coffee, also acts as a beta reader for me.

For Mum, whose unwavering support, encouragement and love mean everything to me.

For Dad, who I know is sitting on his cloud thinking to himself, ‘Oh Lord, what is she up to now?’ I hope you’re proud of me.

I love you all!



Acknowledgements

To my beta readers, Debs Arminshaw, Sue Collins, Kristen Webber, Ratna Summers, & Syd Sexton. I’d be lost without you all and your feedback. Thank you!

My mentors Dawn Carter & Shiralyn Lee. You’re awesome, ladies! I’ll never be able to repay you for the amount of time and effort you’ve spent teaching me the right from wrong. (No I don’t want to take out stock in Majestic Wines or Smirnoff Vodka, to help with the whole repayment!) LOL…I love you both loads, and hope we continue to work together.

Adrian (AJ) Smith, my editor, thank you for such an outstanding job.

My fellow Wicked Sisters, who are always there whenever I have a question, or to just chat and break my day up. (Giving me a rest from writing – If only for a few minutes.)

Kate Charlton, (My sister from another mister & terrible twin) and Karen Tighe. A girl couldn’t ask for better friends. You’re amazing, love you both.

Ratna & Alan Summers, my friends come family. You’re always there for me or Mrs M whether that be at the end of the phone or a quick coffee at your house. When you decide with Mrs M that I need a break, I find myself whisked away from pounding the keys, as we tour a local landmark or visit an attraction. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Xxx

Also, my thanks go to my readers. It’s your kind words and friendship that drive me and encourage me to write more…Thank you. Xxx



ABSOLUTE BETRAYAL

Successful business woman, Stella Williams couldn’t ask for anything more in life after marrying her girlfriend Jennifer, who was about to give birth to their baby. But as quickly as life had dealt her the winning hand, it rapidly chose to tare her world apart.

While dealing with emotional loss, she is forced into parenthood alone, and spends the next few years struggling with her new identity as a single working mother. But when she discovers a legal document that had been hidden away from her, she soon realizes how her empire is on the verge of new threats.


ABSOLUTE BETRAYAL

Chapter One

Over cold hallway tiles, the click-clack of Stella Williams’s heels echoed as she rushed down one of the many corridors at St. George’s hospital. Pale walls, fluorescent lighting, and pager announcements gave her anxiety an even bigger boost while she juggled her briefcase and phone in her clammy hands. Her mind filled with trepidation, and regret screamed at her to hurry. How could I be so selfish? Jen’s going to kill me if I miss this. I promised I’d be there for her. Fuck, why did the baby have to come early?

***

The smell of disinfectant mixed with the room’s dim lights made Jennifer want to vomit as she bore-down once again and pushed with all her might.

“Where the hell is she?” she cried. “Arhhh, it feels like I’m giving birth to a cannon ball.”

She gripped her mother-in-law’s hand with her swollen fingers and squeezed tight.

“She promised to be here for this.”

Helen placed a cool cloth over her daughter-in-law’s forehead and wiped her brow. “I’ve left countless messages on her phone. She’ll pick them up when the plane lands and she can turn her phone on. She loves you, Jen, and I’m sure she’s just as eager to be here.”

“Fuck! Why the hell did I agree to do this?” Jennifer pushed again and held her breath while contorting her sweat-ridden face caused by the agonising pain coursing through her.

The nurse placed her cool fingers on Jen’s wrist and checked her pulse. “Doctor, the pulse is a little weak.” She looked over at the monitor. “You have another contraction coming, Jennifer, get ready to push.”

“Breathe, Jen, just like they taught you. We can do it together,” Helen eagerly offered.

Jennifer squeezed even tighter on her hand and dug her fingernails into the skin. “I want it out of me. Get it out. I can’t take it anymore. I’m too tired.” She blew out a long breath. Her body trembled, and her teeth chattered, and then she became limp with exhaustion. Her eyes rolled back, and her dry cracked lips parted.

“Jen?” Helen’s panicked voice alerted the doctor to an unexpected situation.

Suddenly the room filled with an obnoxious loud beeping sound. The doctor looked up from between Jen’s legs and frowned at the monitor for both mother’s and baby’s heartbeats.

The nurse examined the numbers on the machine, which dropped drastically from 130 to 99, then she calmly told the doctor, “We have non-reassuring fetal distress.”

She placed her hand on Jennifer’s shoulders and gently guided her over on to her side. “Jennifer, your baby’s heart rate has dropped. Changing your position will help.”

“I’m just going to insert a small tube inside your vagina to spray the baby’s head with anaesthetic, and then I’m going to take a blood sample to test for oxygen levels. Nothing to worry about at this stage, just a formality,” Doctor Bourne informed her. She carefully inserted a small needle inside the tube. “This won’t hurt your baby.”

“What’s happening? Is my baby okay?” Jen’s panicked weak voice asked.

Doctor Bourne collected the blood sample in a glass tube and then analysed it in a machine in the delivery ward. A few minutes later, she had the results. “Baby’s blood is at p H 7.20, which is borderline. We’re going to increase your fluid levels via a drip.”

Jen looked over her shoulder at her mother-in-law. “Helen?”

“It’s okay,” she answered, then bit her trembling lower lip.

Not understanding why everything was spinning out of control, Jen constantly looked back and forth at Helen and the nurse. “My baby’s okay, isn’t it? Please tell me my baby is okay.”

The nurse stood between her patient and the monitor, and while she looked down at the dropping heart beats, she said softly, “I need you to remain calm, Jennifer. Let’s concentrate on making baby’s journey as comfortable as possible.”

Doctor Bourne assessed the mother and baby’s situation, then while removing her latex gloves, said, “Call down to the operating theatre. Tell them we need to prep for an emergency C-section.”

Jen attempted to raise her head but failed. “No! I want to give birth naturally!” The sensation struck through her crotch like lightning as another torturous contraction shot through her.

“Okay. But if your blood pressure increases further, we’re going downstairs.” The doctor moved back between her legs, and as she settled into position she sucked in a loud breath, her eyes widened. “The caesarean might not be a feasible option now. Your baby’s already crowning. Three more long hard pushes and the head will be out.”

With every fibre of her being, Jennifer clenched her teeth and bore down. A series of grunt-like screams left her lips a few seconds later as she felt a burning sensation and the baby’s head crowning.

“Good, another push like that and the head will be through. Come on, Jen! Give it everything you’ve got.”

Helen kissed her cheek. “Just one more, Jen. Once the head is out it’ll be easier.”

Doctor Bourne practiced the breathing pattern technique, with “hee, hee, who” and encouraged Jen to follow her direction.

“Hee, hee, who,” Jen practiced, while focusing on the doctor’s instructions. Even though she tried to keep up with the technique, her shoulders were pulled up tight around her ears, and her neck muscles had become rigid. Panic enveloped her, causing her to over-breathe in short, sharp gasps. Pins and needles prickled in her hands and fingers, and light-headedness affected her ability to control her actions. Her dry mouth became numb—she was exhausted and scared.

Doctor Bourne cupped her hands around the baby’s head when a herculean scream left Jennifer’s throat before she gave another push. “That’s it. The head’s out. Baby will soon be here.”

A few moments later, the wail of a newborn filled the room.

The doctor listed the baby up and placed it the waiting nurse’s arms.

“It’s a boy!” She attached two clamps on the umbilical cord then passed Helen a pair of scissors. “Come on, Grandma, you need to cut the cord.”

Helen kissed Jen’s cheek, then gently touched the full head of black hair. “He has the same colour hair as Stella.”

Looking up at her mother-in-law through watery eyes, the corner of Jennifer’s mouth turned up slightly. “He’s perfect.”

The nurse draped blanket over him, then carefully guided him of his mother’s arms. “I just need to clean him up, Jennifer. You can have him back in a minute.” wiped him down with some warm water and cotton wool and rubbed him over with a soft terry cloth towel to stimulate his blood vessels, then carried him across the room and wiped him down, then wrapped a diaper over his tiny body, and placed a blue cap on his head.

Unseen by the doctor, nurse, and the over-joyous grandmother, Jennifer experienced an uncomfortable surge of energy. The muscles in her face and arm went into spasm. She had a strange sense of dizziness, and then her body shook, while her mind became disconnected to her surroundings. Fear filled her, and then she lost consciousness.

The beeps on the monitor quickly changed from frequent to a couple of long beeps, and then one long extended beep.

The nurse immediately handed the baby over to Helen and rushed over to the bed.

“You’ll have to wait outside the curtain,” Doctor Bourne instructed as she ushered Helen back and pulled the curtain around the bed. Her first thought was to make sure the blood was still flowing to where it needed to go, so she used the technique of chest compression by pushing down on Jennifer’s chest.

After a few minutes, the nurse took over, and again, she pushed down on Jennifer’s chest.

Doctor Bourne reassessed the patient’s situation and told the nurse, “She’s in V-Tach. Get me a crash cart!”

The nurse rushed out of the room and grabbed the handle to the defibrillator, then hurried back. She glanced at the monitors as she handed the paddles to the doctor. “We’re losing her?”

Doctor Bourne worked with speed as she charged them, ready to deliver a shock to Jennifer’s heart to re-establish a regular heartbeat. Then she placed the paddles over her chest and administered the shock.

***

Why did I have to go to New York for those business meetings? Leaving Jen alone so close to the birth was a bad idea, Stella told herself.

A sign pointed to her left told her where the delivery unit was, so she pushed the door open and hurried down yet another corridor, constantly monitoring the signs for any indication to where she should go.

Her feet skidded to a stop in front of light coloured double doors, and she tugged aggressively at the handle, grunting with every pull. They wouldn’t open. The blinking light from an intercom call button on the wall caught her attention. She switched her phone into her other hand, then pressed the button repeatedly with utter urgency.

“Hello,” an angry voice answered through the small speaker. “You do realise there are babies, new mothers, and expectant mothers in here trying to sleep?”

Stella’s eyes grew wide, she smacked herself in the forehead as she realised the stupidity of her actions. “Hello, my name is Stella Williams, my wife, Jennifer Williams-Reece, was admitted earlier,” she said, feeling giddy from her ragged breathing.

The electric lock buzzed loudly in the empty hallway. She pulled the handle violently and fell through the door as it swung open with ease. A nurse’s desk was immediately in front of her, and the grey-haired matronly looking woman sitting behind it scowled with displeasure.

Two women with their heads low and leaning slightly towards each other stood in a corridor to the right of the desk, drawing her attention. One of them glanced her way before rushing over and engulfing her in a hard embrace.

“Where have you been?” Her mother’s small frame filled her arms.

The tall, muscular physique of her best friend, Claudia, stepped up to her side. The blonde wrapped an arm around Stella’s shoulders and gave them a squeeze.

Stella’s gaze landed on Claudia. “What are you doing here?” Claudia was not only like her sister, she was also her family and business lawyer.

Helen took Stella’s hand and squeezed it in her palm. “Love, there’s something we need―”

Stella’s breath caught at her mother’s tone, and her posture straightened. She gazed at her intently.

Unshed tears shimmered in Helen’s eyes. Her mascara had run, leaving trails of black lines down her cheeks. The one sentence she’d said was hoarse, and her dark hair was ruffled, sticking up at all angles.

“What’s going on? Where’s Jenny? Has she had our baby?”

Helen took Stella’s arm and guided her into the Relatives Room. “You have a healthy six-pound ten-ounce baby boy.” She guided her daughter into a chair then closed the door.

Stella’s feet slid on the floor as she stood and turned to the door, intent on going to her wife and son. She staggered as a small hand restrained her by her wrist, holding her in place. “I want to see them, let go of me. What aren’t you telling me?”

Claudia sighed heavily and rubbed her hand over her forehead. “There was a problem, Stel. Jen has…Jen is…” Her voice cracked and betrayed her emotions. “I…she…Oh fuck! How am I supposed to do this?” She placed her hand over her mouth, then looked directly at Helen with water-filled eyes.

Stella followed Claudia’s focus and looked to Helen for answers. “Do what? I don’t understand.”

The vice-like grip her mother had on her forced Stella away from the door. “Jen had some complications, love. She didn’t make it.”

“What?” Stella’s stomach flipped over while her thoughts scrambled.

Helen stepped closer. “I’m so sorry, darling, but Jen died a couple of minutes after she gave birth.”

The room spun, and the contents of Stella’s stomach threatened to spew onto the floor. Sweat beaded on her forehead, and her knees buckled.

“No!”

The piercing wail filled the room. Her eyes burned with the saltiness of her tears as they streamed down her cheeks. Her body shook as heart wrenching sobs broke from her very soul, tearing it asunder. Surrounded on both sides, she clung to her mother and Claudia’s arms desperately.

The loud click from the door handle turning caused the three of them to flinch. A tired looking dark-haired woman dressed in green scrubs entered.

“Are you Mrs. Williams?” The slightest movement of Stella’s head answered her question. “I’m Doctor Lydia Bourne. I delivered your son and was with Jennifer when she died. I’m sorry for your loss. I did everything within my power to save Jennifer.”

Claudia moved to the doctor’s side and placed a hand on her forearm. “What happened?”

“From what we can tell, Mrs. Williams-Reece had a heart attack. However, we can’t tell you what caused it.” Doctor Bourne took a seat. She sighed heavily and scrubbed her face with her hands. “We’ll have more answers once an autopsy is completed.”

Stella’s tear-filled eyes bored into the doctors. “I…I…don’t understand.”

She swallowed hard against the Sahara-like dryness in her mouth and licked her lips.

“We visited her doctor last week. Jenny and the baby were given a clean bill of health. If something had been flagged I would never have gone to New York.”

She was bombarded with memories of her and Jennifer. The way they held hands while walking in the park, the laughs they shared with friends and family, and the most recent, lying in bed with her beloved wife with her head on her bump talking to their baby. The movement of their child as he kicked and moved around whenever he heard her voice was a rush, and there was nothing she enjoyed doing more than spending time with them. The memories brought on a fresh round of tears, and her cries of anguish possessed her once again.

“This can’t be right, you’re wrong!” Denial swept through her veins.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Williams. If you’d like to see your wife, I’ve arranged for you to do so in one of the viewing rooms downstairs in the morgue.”

I don’t want to see her. I’ll lose my shit if I see her laid out.

“No, I don’t want to do that…I just can’t!”

Helen stood. “Would you like to see your son?”

When a nod was her only answer, she guided her daughter out of the room.

“He’s with your father.”

Claudia’s strong tanned arm linked with Stella’s, and Stella found herself being led out into the hallway. Nothing registered as she staggered along. The pain in her heart filled her body, and her head thudded with her heartbeat, making her squint with the intensity.

They stopped in front of a plain brown door. Doctor Bourne opened it and held her arm out to indicate that Stella should enter. “Your father and son are in here. Due to him being three weeks early, I’d like to keep him overnight for observations.”

As she walked into the room her gaze landed on her father’s tall form. His back was to them as he stood in front of a window. His soft whisper echoed as she took a tentative step forward.

The sound of the door closing caused Thomas Williams to turn around. In his arms swathed in a fleece white blanket was the baby.

“I don’t know if I can do this!” Stella turned and jerked toward the door. But she once again found herself unable to move as her mother and best friend grabbed hold of her arm. “Please, let me go.”

Helen dug her heels in. “No, you need to see your baby.”

“Please, I don’t think I can do this without Jenny.”

“Nonsense! Your boy needs you.” Helen released Stella’s arm and took her grandson from her husband. “Please, Stella, be the mother Jen would want you to be. I know you envisioned this scene as something you’d be doing together, but unfortunately, fate had other ideas. The poor mite needs to bond with you as soon as possible.”

Stella looked at her baby. He had Jennifer’s nose and heart shaped mouth. It felt like a kick in the teeth to look at him. The most important person in her life had been viciously stolen away from her, and their hours-old son was her spitting image.

Helen’s patience waned, and without a second thought, she laid the little one in Stella’s arms and stepped back out of the way. “Support his head, love.”

Stella focused on the small pale wrinkled face. The dam inside her broke, and she slid unceremoniously into a chair. Tears streamed down Stella’s face as she studied her son properly for the first time. She stroked his cheek gently and reached up to remove his hat. His hair was as black as the night, the same colour as hers.

Claudia took a step closer and reverently ran her hand over his head. “Wow, he has the same colour hair as you.”

Tears still ran down Stella’s cheeks she looked up at her friend. “We chose the donor to resemble me. We knew he’d have some of her features as she was carrying him, but we wanted him to have some of my attributes as well.”

Thomas kissed his daughter on the forehead. “I’m so sorry, love.”

She reached up with her free arm and wrapped it around his neck, pulling him down into a desperate hug. “What am I going to do, Dad?”

He patted her back and rubbed soothing circles on it. “First, we need to give this little man a name. We can’t go around calling him Baby Williams for the rest of his life.”

Looking down, she allowed a sad grin to grace her face. “Jen and I liked the name George.”

Claudia placed a soft kiss on his head. “Welcome to the world, George. I’m your Aunt Claudia. I’m going to love you forever and treat you like a prince. I’m sure your mummy will be mad at me when she realises how much I intend to spoil you.” When she stood back up, tears were in her eyes. “What about a middle name?”

“That was to be a surprise…” Stella chanced a brief glance to her parents. “His full name is George Thomas. We thought he should have one family name, so we chose to include his brilliant grandfather’s.”

Thomas’s chest ballooned, and he stood tall and proud. A gentle smile tugged at his lips, as her tears mirrored in his eyes. “I’m honoured.”

Her eyes once again fell on her son. “So, my little one, what are we going to do now? Without your other mummy, I’m lost. But I’ll promise you one thing, you’re going to know everything I know about her and we’ll talk about her all the time when you’re older. I could never love anyone more than I love her. I’ll try my best to raise you as she would’ve liked.”

The family gathered around them and watched as Stella bonded with George. “We’ll help as much as we can, too.” Helen placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.

Stella knew it wasn’t going to be easy. While trying to raise her son correctly, she also had two successful international businesses to run and her own grief to deal with.

How am I ever going to cope?

Something her mother said stuck in her mind. George needed her, and no matter what, she’d make sure he had everything he would need in life.


Chapter Two


Seven Years Later

The sun beat down on Stella’s face as she sat on the back patio enjoying her early morning coffee. The soothing dark liquid calmed and bolstered her for what her day held in store. Her ever-present laptop lay on the table in front of her, open and ready for any problems either of her businesses should encounter.

An excited giggle echoed around the house, and the sound of heavy running footsteps slapped against the hardwood floor. “Mum, Mum, Mum. Look what I’ve found!”

She placed her mug down and turned in time to catch the excited seven-year-old, George. “Hey, slow down.”

He stared down at the floor, causing her to grin and lean down to kiss his face.

“Now, what was so important?”

George held a small stack of creased, slightly yellowed papers out to her. “I found these in an old suitcase in one of the rooms at the top of the house.” He separated them out across the table and pointed to one of the photos. “Is that my mum when she was younger?”

Stella picked up the photograph of her wife a smile curled at her lips as she remembered when the picture was taken.

“Yes, and it was only taken twelve years ago.” She did a quick calculation in her head. “She would’ve been twenty-one.”


Come on! Dance with me!” Jennifer raised her arms above her head and swayed her hips in time to the music.

Stella’s eyes moved to the large event screen mounted at the side of the main stage of the festival. Her eyes squinted together, and her head shook from side to at the grunge band piping out a low bass. “It’s not really my thing, perhaps a bit later when the dance music starts.”

Jennifer reached out, snagged Stella’s hand, and pulled her away from the tent entrance. “You only live once, baby. I know how well those hips can move and shimmy.”

Stella rolled her eyes as she was propelled forward into a group of gyrating bodies. Jennifer joined the crowd; she turned her back to Stella and inched closer until she felt Stella’s hands on her hips and her pelvis tuck neatly against her arse. .

I’d do anything to make you happy, Jen.”

Jennifer’s head rested against Stella’s right breast; she arched her head and puckered her lips. Without hesitation, Stella seized Jennifer’s lips with her own and flicked her tongue over her lips.

Hey, you two, smile!” Claudia jumped in front of them with her camera raised to snap a picture.


George hopped onto her lap and took the picture from her fingers. “She’s so pretty.”

Over the years, she’d come to see more of Jen in their son. He had a mix of both of their senses of humour but had Jen’s laugh and mannerisms. “She was, and I couldn’t have loved her any more than I did.”

“Why didn’t she have a mum or dad?”

Stella bit her lower lip and worried it between her teeth as she considered her words carefully. “She did. But they died when your mum was a teenager. They were involved in a horrible car crash and didn’t survive. She told me she has no other family members.”

George seemed to consider what his mother said. She’d never denied him the knowledge of his other mother and was happy to answer whatever questions he had about Jennifer.

He held a yellowed piece of paper up and then unfolded it in front of them. “What does that word mean?”

He pointed to the top of the document, and Stella squinted.

What the hell! She did a double take and her eyes widened as she stared at it unblinkingly―it was an adoption certificate with Jennifer’s name printed at the top. How could I have missed these when I sorted through her things?

“The word is adoption,” she finally answered after she’d gathered her wits and remembered George’s question. Her eyes scanned the document and settled on an official court stamp. The name of her adoptee was Josie Reece, named as Jennifer’s aunt. Slapping her hands on to the arms of the chair, she pushed herself up.

“I won’t be a minute.” Her brisk stride took her to the downstairs bathroom.

After running water into the sink, she splashed some on her face. The reflection looking back at her from the mirror was not the one she was used to. Large black circles ran under both eyes, making them appear sunken, and the skin on her face was grey in colour. Her hands formed into tight fists as her stomach rolled unpleasantly, bile rose in her throat, and made her take several deep breaths to combat the nausea.

A loud bang sounded from the front of the house, and Claudia’s low timbre voice called out. “It’s only me.”

Stella wiped her face on a towel and opened the door to find George waiting for her.

George twisted the toe of his shoe on the tiled floor and didn’t look up from something he’d been entranced by on the wall. “Mum, have I done something wrong?”

Stella shook her head. She reached for his hand and led him back into the garden. “No, son. I’m surprised, that’s all.”

Claudia strode out onto the patio and slammed her briefcase down on the table. “Stella, we’ve got a huge problem.” She bent and kissed her godson on the forehead. “Can you give us a minute to talk, please?”

“Okay, Auntie Claudia.”

Stella watched him race into the house to ensure they were alone before she turned to Claudia. “What’s up?”

Claudia took a seat then reached over and poured herself some coffee from the cafetière Stella had prepared for herself earlier. “The accountant Jen used to file her tax returns and keep her books was sent to prison a couple of months ago for defrauding the Inland Revenue, embezzlement, and being responsible for some creative accounting on behalf of some unsavoury characters.”

Stella’s head fell into her hands. “Do I want to know who these people are?”

Claudia shook her head from side to side. “Anyway, that’s not what I am here about. When I discovered what’d happened, I hired a new accounting company. They came in to conduct an audit on the main club last month and have only just finished. Something was picked up on.” She took a deep breath, then climbed to her feet and started to pace up and down the patio. “The minute I tell you, I know you’re going to blow up.”

Stella pinched at her bottom lip. “Come on, spit it out!”

Stella’s hand left her mouth, and she folded her arms across her chest and drummed her fingers impatiently on her biceps.

Claudia cringed and took a step away from her friend. “Apart from the prior accountant, there is someone stealing funds from the main club.”

The coffee pot and cups tipped over as Stella jumped to her feet and slapped the table hard with her hands. “For how long? Do we know who is responsible?”

“I don’t know how to say this…but it’s been going on for over ten years. I wonder why the club was never audited. I guess they must’ve missed them by mistake.”

Realisation smacked Stella in the face, and she sunk back into her chair.

“Okay, we’re going to sort this out today.” Her voice was low and dangerous, and there was a murderous glint in her eye. “I need to drop George off with mum first. Then you and I are then going to the club.” Today is not going to end well for someone. “I also need you to look into something for me.”

She picked up the document George had found and handed it to Claudia.

“Apparently, Jen was adopted. I need you to find out everything you can about this.”

“What!” Claudia snatched the paper from her hands and scanned it. Her eyes threatened to bulge out of her head as she read the last line. “Fucking hell, she told us she was an orphan. Her parents had died!”

Stella stared into her friend’s eyes.

“I know, and what makes this worse is that George was the one to find it, which is even more upsetting than the lie itself. He has questions, and to tell you the truth, he’s not the only one. Please help me to sort this mess out. I don’t want there to be any skeletons in her closet that will come out and bite me on the ass, or worse—” She closed her eyes to fight the tears that stung. “That she has family members who might try to take George from me.”

Claudia scooted around the table and wrapped her arms around Stella. “I’d never let that happen. Anyway, you’re registered as his mother and legal guardian.” When Stella’s lips curled up in a small smile and she wiped her tears on the sleeve of her jumper, Claudia released her. Jennifer’s adoption certificate folded easily along the creases, and she slipped it into her briefcase. “I’ll have someone start the research straightaway.”

“I appreciate it, and if you can think of anything else I can do to protect George, go ahead and do it. He must remain safe through all of this. Until we have news on that…we’ve bigger dragons to slay.” Stella picked the phone up and pressed a speed dial button. “Let me call my mum and make some arrangements for George, then we can get down to business.”


***


The ride to the main club was made in silence. Stella’s blood boiled, and her stomach muscles tightened. She pulled into the first available parking bay, and they jumped out and marched towards the club entrance. As she pulled on a large bronze handle attached to the glass doors, she expected some resistance, but when it opened freely, she stumbled back. “That’s weird.”

Claudia’s eyebrows moved close together as she frowned. “I thought the club was closed during the day.”

The loud bass sounds pumped out and seemed to shake the building.

“It’s supposed to be.”

They hurried inside. Both of them tripped over their own feet and abruptly stopped, their mouths dropped open in shock at what greeted them. The dance floor was heaving, as at least forty people crowded on it, all of them swaying and gyrating to the music.

“What the hell’s going on here?”

Claudia scanned the unusually well-lit club and spotted a familiar face behind the bar. However, it was out of context, she would never expect to see another friend here, especially serving drinks.

“What is she doing here?” She asked nobody in particular. “Hang on, I’ll be right back.”

Stella watched as Claudia moved to the bar and beckoned the barmaid closer with a finger. The small redhead beamed a smile at Claudia that lit up the place. Yet, as Claudia spoke the woman’s face fell. Claudia pointed in her direction, and she watched the woman’s eyes bulge.

Claudia walked back to Stella and motioned with her head towards a set of stairs that led up to a gangway that served as an entrance hall to the offices. “Naomi is up there.”

Stella was intrigued, and her unwavering gaze settled on the woman at the bar once again. “Who was that?”

“Her name is Carly Martin, and she’s an old friend of the family. I didn’t know she was employed here. But I haven’t seen her in six months. Apparently, she’s been too busy working to call me.”

Stella led them up the gangway to the manager’s office. When they reached the door, she thumped once on it, then pushed it open.

The club manager, Naomi Crawford, sat behind a large black glass desk. Her head of short black curls was down, and she never once looked up as they entered, she was too preoccupied in her task, cutting up long neat lines of white powder on the desktop with a razor. A purple twenty-pound note was rolled up next to her free hand, the fingers of which twitched towards it.

Stella swore under her breath as she strode across the room and swept her hand angrily over the desktop and scattered the powder to the floor. Her hand grasped the front of Naomi’s purple shirt, and with a Herculean heave she pulled Naomi’s small frame across the glass and threw her onto the floor.

“Get the fuck out of my club now!”

“Stella!” Naomi stumbled to her feet and backed up toward the exit. “What…what are you doing here?”

Claudia grabbed Naomi by the collar of her shirt and dragged her to the door. “You heard the lady, get out, and don’t come back.”

“Claudia, apart from the staff, everyone else downstairs needs to leave. I want to question our employee’s one by one. Someone’s going to tell me what the fuck has been happening here.”

Stella moved to the other side of the desk and sat in the large high-back leather chair. She reached down to open one of the drawers, and when she saw its contents, she slammed it shut quickly.

“Don’t let her leave! Find something or somewhere to restrain her, and call that pal of yours who works for the drug squad. I want them here as soon as possible!”

A fast-loud knock sounded on the door, and it swung open. Claudia’s friend from the bar walked in carrying a tray of cups and a pot of coffee. “Sorry to interrupt, I thought you might like some coffee.”

Stella stood and took the tray from her then extended her hand. “Thank you, I was going to ask Claudia to ring down for some. It’s nice to meet another of Claudia’s friend’s.”

Carly shook her hand in return. “Likewise, I hoped I would one day get to meet you.”

“Is the cellar door here still lockable from the outside?” Stella released Carly’s hand and moved to stand next to Claudia. Carly’s eyes narrowed as she frowned, but she bobbed her head up and down. “Excellent! Claudia, throw her arse in there until your friend arrives. They can deal with her.”

Carly bit her lower lip and took a step towards the door. “If that’s all, I have to get on with the clean-up downstairs.”

“You bitch!” Naomi screamed as she was pulled roughly out of the room. “Jenny knew what was going on here. She approved and helped me run the whole operation!”

With great strides Stella crossed the room and stood toe-to-toe with Naomi. Her fist curled into a tight ball, and with the speed that Mohammed Ali would be proud of, she punched Naomi squarely on the nose. Her knuckles burned from the impact and reddened immediately. Don’t react to the pain…don’t give her the satisfaction of seeing how much that hurt.

“How dare you talk about my wife like that? Jen was an angel compared to you, and she would never have condoned any of this.” She tilted her chin towards the door, an indication for Claudia to get Naomi out of the room. “Get her locked up safely.”

When the door closed behind them, Stella shook her hand, flexed her fingers, and rubbed her tender knuckles. She fell back into the chair and stared transfixed at the powder arches left across the desk. Jen can’t have been mixed up in this shit…there’s no way she’d ever do that.

An hour later, Stella and Claudia had turned the office upside down and found more large packets of white powder taped to the underside of the file cabinet drawers. The last place to check was the desk drawers. Claudia reached it before Stella and rifled through them.

Stella saw her open the large one at the bottom that acted as a small filing cabinet and watched as her hand halted in mid-air. “What is it?”

Claudia slammed it shut and steered Stella away. “It’s best you don’t know until the police get here.”

“We arrived just in time I see.” A tall brunette wearing a blue combat uniform and a bullet-proof vest stepped into view in the doorway.

“Bev, it’s good to see you again.” Claudia greeted her friend with a hug and then introduced Stella. “We’ve found several large bags of narcotics in here you’ll need to deal with. But there’s also something else I want you to see. Stella, you need to look at this, too.”

Her arms crossed along the back of the chair as she stood behind it and leaned over to see what Claudia was going to reveal. With the top end of a pen, Claudia hooked it under the lip of the drawer and pulled.

Stella gasped then covered her mouth. “What that fuck are they doing in my club?”

Bev reached in and lifted a small black handgun out. “Holy crap, this is a Ruger LCRx .38 special. It’s super light-weight and easy to conceal.” Looking back into the drawer her eyes widened. “There’s a small arsenal in here. Without touching anything else, I can see a Baretta M9, and an old British service revolver, the Webley MK VI. The Webley fires a large .455 cartridge, and is one of the most powerful top-break revolvers ever produced.”

The Ruger was returned carefully to the drawer. The glint of something silver caught her eye, and she reached out for it and pulled it out

“What the hell was this woman into?” Bev pulled the combat knife from its sheath.

“Jesus, where did that come from?” Stella’s eyes widened as the glinting sharp edge of the blade reflected the ceiling lights.

“That’s what I’d like to know. This is a black Tanto Ka-Bar. It’s US military grade.” Testing the weight of it in her hand, she sighed. “Very light, and probably made of steel. The blade is possibly seven or eight inches long.”

Claudia took Stella’s arm when she noticed her friend’s grey complexion and led her to the sofa. “Bev, just get them out of here. The rest of the club needs to be checked. You might want to bring in a drug dog or two to sweep it. CCTV will tell you exactly what we’ve done since we arrived.”

The next two hours passed in a blur as they sat and watched things being bagged and tagged throughout the building. Several members of staff had been arrested along with Naomi, and the club was being torn apart by search teams and forensics. Two police vans had already been filled with evidence, and they were now working on a third.

Stella stood on the gangway and watched the action unfolding below her. Her eye caught slight movement at the bar, and she glanced to her right, Carly was leant back with her elbows on the large oak polished surface, and observed the police officers’ every move.

“Your friend seems to be clean.”

Claudia appeared at her side. “Carly’s a good woman and would never knowingly get mixed up in any of this shit. She graduated university last year with degrees in economics, business administration, and mathematics. She aced every course and left with a two one in each subject. I think she’s been awaiting the right managerial position before moving on to greener pastures.”

Stella’s eyes widened. “Exactly how old is she?”

Claudia laughed as she led them back into the office. “She’s twenty-eight.”

She walked to the phone, lifted the receiver, and ordered more coffee for them.

Stella rubbed her face tiredly with both hands and blew out an explosive breath. “So what are we going to do now?”

“I’ve organised for a forensic accountant to check the books for all your clubs, starting with this one.”

A knock at the door stopped her from saying anything else.

Carly entered with another tray and placed it on the desk. “The police are finished downstairs. Is there anything else you need me to do, or can I go home?

Stella’s gaze locked on Carly, the green eyes drew her in, causing her breath to hitch and her stomach to roll pleasantly. A sensation she hadn’t felt for years bubbled deep inside her. Lust.

Swallowing against her incredibly dry throat, she managed a smile for the pretty redhead. “No, you can leave. We’re going to be here for a while, and I’m sure one of us can figure out how to work the coffee machine.”

“Thank you.” Carly walked out of the room but surprised both the other women when she stopped in the doorway. “If there’s anything you and Claudia need help with, I’m only a phone call away. Claudia has my number.”

Stella looked deep into her eyes, and tried to judge how sincere the offer was. When she saw no change in Carly’s body language, the right side of her mouth curled upwards. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Stella waited until they were alone in the office and turned her attention back to Claudia. Her shoulders slumped as she sighed wearily.

“What a massive clusterfuck of a mess this is! Can you call all the other staff members who work here and tell them there will be a mandatory meeting at the club tomorrow morning? If they can’t make it for any reason, then they’re to speak to me directly.”

“I can do that, and if I have any other information from the forensic accountant tonight, I’ll contact you straightaway.”

Sagging back into the chair, Stella closed her eyes to combat the newly formed stress headache. Managing two businesses was becoming too much. You should’ve hired a manger when Jen died. Her inner voice of reason, but logic, had always been a curse.

“All we can do now is wait.”


***


An hour later, Carly entered her flat and kicked her shoes off, which sent them flying into the cream hallway wall. She cringed at the black mark they left.

What a day! she thought a she sauntered into the kitchen, retrieved a beer from the fridge, and then flopped down into her worn leather recliner. Her degrees hung on the walls around her. When she looked at them every day, it was like a slap in the face that she wasn’t using them to their full ability. I can’t help it that the right job hasn’t come along.

Her thoughts returned to the night’s events. Never in her wildest dreams did she expect to see her illustrious friend Claudia Miller in a Misfits nightclub, especially with the owner. The two women were obviously close but not close in a biblical sense. The looks they shared seemed sisterly, and the easy banter between them indicated they’d been friends for a long time.

She couldn’t even begin to imagine what was going on in the club―well, apart from the drugs. That was obvious from the number of bags removed and the fact she’d seen Naomi and a few other staff members dealing in the past.

Poor Stella, perhaps I should talk to Claudia about the other rumours I’ve heard. But they’re only that…rumours. Still, I think Stella has a right to know what Naomi’s been doing right under her nose.

Chapter Three


The gentle breeze coming through the window blew softly over Stella’s face—she welcomed the sensation. Sat at her desk with her small reading glasses perched on the end of her nose, she was deeply absorbed in the financial report for her real estate company. Overall, it was flourishing, and now that she had more international offices and competent staff to run them, her investments were growing nicely.

The gravel stones on the driveway crunched as a vehicle approached the house. Glancing at her watch, she noticed it was late. Who the hell could that be? She stood and stretched over the large pine desk and peeked out the window. Claudia’s midnight blue, BMW M6 convertible ground to a stop, and she watched as her friend climbed from her car. Instant nausea filled her as she saw Claudia hesitate, take a deep breath, and scrub her face with both hands.

It had been nearly two weeks since she’d seen her, which was rare. Claudia made a conscious effort to visit them at least once a week so she could spend time with her godson. However, the reports she’d been compiling for Stella had taken precedence over everything.

Her arm reached out, and she swung the window wide open. “Are you coming in or turning into a new statue for my garden?”

Claudia flinched and jumped two steps back. “Jesus! Are you trying to give me a heart attack?”

Stella chuckled to herself as she pulled the window closed and made her way downstairs. Halfway to the bottom, she heard another car. Jesus, who else is here? She yanked the door open and discovered her mother. This can’t be good. They gang up on me whenever someone has bad news.


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