Story Excerpt

The Wedding Ring

by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
 

WeddingRing_Laurie-Harden
Art by Laurie Harden

1.

The smell of coffee woke her. Serena stretched her arm across the soft sheets to find Dylan’s side of the bed cold. She eased her eyes open. He’d actually pulled the covers up and placed them under the pillow.

She smiled. In the five days they’d been married, he hadn’t done that before. She had teased him a lot about leaving the bed unmade.

His answer was serious at first: We’re in a hotel, babe. They make the bed for us.

Then he slowly realized she was joking. They’ll make the bed, babe, he said, if we ever leave it.

And finally, he said, I’ll make the bed the minute I know we’re not going to use it.

Oddly, that last memory stabbed her heart. She sat up, covers pulled to her chest. The room wasn’t as dark as it had been; light filtered in around the thick curtains.

She blinked. The smell of coffee was strong. She made herself take a deep breath and smile. Dylan was in the other room, with room service waiting for her. He probably hadn’t wanted to wake her. He’d done that the last two days, telling her that she needed her strength.

And then he leered.

He had a good leer. She loved that leer, because of the twinkle in his eyes. He was the most handsome man she had ever seen—even after she had taken her beer goggles off.

She hadn’t been drunk when she met him, but she hadn’t been sober either. She’d been standing in one of the casino’s beautifully decorated hallways, just outside the etched-glass windows of the most popular nightclub in the place. She was wearing a slinky silver dress she had bought with her surprise slot winnings.

At the behest of the desk clerk when she checked in, she had taken one free pull on the gigantic slot machine in the lobby—and she’d won $10,000 instantly.

She was cautious with her cash, always had been. She had put five thousand in an account in a major bank here in Vegas, planning to transfer all of it and close the account when she got home. The remaining money was found money that she added to her vacation stash.

And the first thing she had purchased had been a dress so slinky, she felt like another woman.

She drank like one too, a little something every night, hoping it would give her courage—or at least, make this two-week trip a bit more fun. The trip hadn’t started as a single-woman adventure. Initially, she had booked it for herself and her boyfriend of long standing, Charles. When Charles ended their relationship three months before, she had kept the trip on the schedule because she felt she had something to prove.

She called this trip the Liberation Vacation.

Three days in, she’d been feeling more restless than liberated. She was also feeling a bit pathetic. The alcohol helped a little, but only a little. It led to her dancing by herself in a casino corridor because she wasn’t certain she could face the flashing lights and blaring noise and ultimate shocking aloneness of dancing by herself inside that nightclub.

Then Dylan showed up—a blond god in a silk suit. He was romance-novel gorgeous, broad shoulders, muscular torso, narrow hips, a body that she later learned was as perfect unclothed as it was clothed. His hair was trimmed just enough to be stylish, but not enough to make him look fussy. He had stuffed the tie in the pocket of his jacket, making him a little less perfect.

When he saw her, he had smiled at her, and extended his long-fingered hand. “A woman as pretty as you should never dance alone.”

It had been a long time since someone called her pretty. Suddenly, the highlights she’d put in her hair, the weight she’d lost in the buildup to this Liberation Vacation, money she’d spent on the slinky dress she’d probably never wear at home were all worth it.

She took his hand, surprised and pleased to find calluses. He tucked her hand in the crook of his arm and led her inside that nightclub. They danced and drank and laughed and laughed and laughed, and by the time they were done, their hands were all over each other.

She’d never been a public kisser, but she had been that night—hell, he could have taken her on the bar if he’d wanted to. In fact, she suggested it. He had said he didn’t want them to get arrested at their magical first meeting.

After the nightclub closed, they ended up in his hotel room first and barely made it through the door before the suit and the slinky dress came off. Combustible sex, of the kind she’d only read about, and then more sex, and some room service, and finally a bit of conversation, in which she learned that he was in Vegas to celebrate his own freedom—only his was a sad little freedom: His father had died two months earlier, and Dylan—he was Dylan Thomas, named for the Welsh poet—had been his father’s caretaker for the past two years.

Freedom, and liberation, and the surprising loneliness.

Oh, clearly they had realized they were kindred souls. He was footloose now that the estate was settled, and she had to go back to work, and, he said, he loved Denver, had always meant to live there—and he’d give it a try for her. By the end of the day, that “try” had turned into a certainty, and the two of them knew they couldn’t live without each other.

The Elvis Chapel was a cliché she wanted to avoid, but they both wanted to marry immediately, thinking it romantic. No plans, no preachers, no haggling over the bests. No china patterns, no wedding invitations, just them—him in his silk suit (which they had to have pressed) and she in her slinky dress, commemorating the moment of meeting.

He bought her roses and she bought him a matching boutonniere. They picked out expensive rings, with matching ruby stones and thick gold. He paid for hers, and she paid for his, and they clutched the boxes as they left the jewelry store, carefully located near some of the other chapels.

Only one chapel looked like a sedate place. At the edge of the Strip, where the rents were probably still cheap, the building was small and tasteful with soft organ music playing in the front, and a lovely little white-and-gold backdrop used for photographs.

A substitute preacher married them—the regular guy was on his own honeymoon (Isn’t that romantic? the substitute asked with a comfortable smile)—and took a dozen photographs after Serena and Dylan filled out all of the various paperwork.

Her friends would hate it that she married Dylan so soon after meeting him, but while he paid the preacher, she texted them photos anyway, so they could see her joy as it happened. The photos covered everything: the chapel, Dylan from the side, the back, and then grinning at her as he walked up. The preacher gave them the actual wedding photos and a disk with the images so they could print out more copies.

Afterwards, they went back to Serena’s hotel because her winnings had earned her an upgrade to one of the suites, and a conversation with the front-desk clerk had gotten them yet another upgrade—a honeymoon suite, complete with champagne, caviar, chocolate-dipped strawberries, and two free room-service meals.

Now, she followed the scent of coffee into the living room, after wrapping a robe around herself. The covered room-service tray sat on the large table that she and Dylan had used for carnal purposes more than once.

There was no Dylan, and there was no note. She checked the bathroom. She frowned, wondering where he had gotten to, when her image in the mirror stopped her short.

Her lips were swollen, her cheeks scratched by stubble, her gold-streaked hair messy. She looked well and thoroughly satisfied.

She smiled at herself—and then the smile faded as she realized what was missing.

Dylan’s toiletries.

He’d spread them across the vanity—the special shampoo for his gorgeous hair, the shaving cream for his ultrasensitive (and oh, so lovely) skin, even his toothbrush. All missing.

Her heart skipped a beat, and she thought she misremembered where the toiletries had been, but she hadn’t. She knew she hadn’t.

Maybe he had put them in the half-bath near the door—she had teased him enough about his “products,” since he actually had more than she did. Maybe he was hiding them because she’d embarrassed him.

She pulled the robe tighter and walked across the suite to the half-bath near the door.

It looked lovely, with its little flower vase in one corner of the vanity and the hotel toiletries on the other side. Who knew that the sight of a clean bathroom, beautifully decorated and absolutely perfect, would set her heart racing.

Racing and sinking at the same time.

She walked out of the little bathroom, her hands shaking now. Her body knew what her mind was refusing to acknowledge.

He wasn’t here.

He had left.

But that wasn’t possible. They loved each other. People who loved each other didn’t treat each other like this. They didn’t. They just didn’t.

She walked quickly through the entire suite, suddenly angry that it was as large as the first apartment she had ever had. Lots of places to hide; lots of places to conceal things.

She looked in closets—empty except for her things. Her slinky little dress hung on a hanger, alone, not near his silk suit. He had said those two things should remain forever together.

Their wedding clothes.

Her dress. Alone.

She swallowed hard, kept looking. His suitcase was gone. His toiletries were gone. His clothes were gone.

The bed was made.

There was no note.

Except . . .

She stomped to the dining table, and lifted the lid off the room-service tray.

One meal. Eggs, lightly scrambled. Toast, dark. A slice of watermelon. An uncut banana for later. And a pastry for dessert.

Just like she liked it.

And no note.

No damn note.

She flung the cover across the room. The cover clanged as it hit the wall, then clattered all the way to the floor. The sound was not satisfying.

Her lower lip trembled at the thought. That word: Satisfied. The bastard.

Her eyes teared up, and she took a deep breath.

She went back into the bedroom and grabbed her phone, clicking it on, and froze.

It had reverted to factory settings. He had switched it to factory settings. All of her information was gone.

How had he gotten her password to unlock the phone?

And then she remembered him watching her as she opened her phone. Watching over and over again.

Her fingers shook, but she typed in all her information, then asked the phone to download her information from the cloud.

The phone told her that she did not have a cloud account. In fact, her phone told her she did not have any kind of account, and she had to sign up with a service provider.

She pulled the phone out of its case, saw the little scratch along the back that had been there since another case broke and her keys had defaced the phone’s smooth surface.

It was her phone. But it didn’t act like her phone.

She took a deep breath. It hitched. She took another, willing herself to remain steady.

Her purse sat on the chair near the window. She opened it. Her wallet was there, and so was the cash. Her driver’s license —I’ll have to change that when I get back, she had said with a laugh the night they married, when she decided to take his name. His name. Jesus. His name.

She refused to let her mind go any farther down that road. She had her driver’s license, her credit cards, her insurance card, everything. But she stared at her wallet, afraid it would all bite her in ways she didn’t understand.

She couldn’t use her phone, but she could use the hotel’s phone. In the closet, there was a phone book. She flipped the pages until she found hotels and casinos, kept flipping until she found his hotel, the one she had watched him check out of. But maybe he hadn’t. Maybe he—

She called the front desk of that hotel, asked for Dylan Thomas, and waited as the clerk checked.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the clerk said. “We do not have a guest by that name.”

She tried her last name, a variation on his name, asked the clerk to see if someone was using the same credit card that Dylan had used when he stayed there about a week ago.

The clerk’s tone got frosty. “Ma’am, I’m sorry. We don’t give out that information.”

“He’s missing!” Serena said, her voice suddenly sounding like someone else’s. Screechy and terrified and watery, and oh, so devastated. Was she devastated? She didn’t want to be devastated. She couldn’t be.

She had known him less than a week.

But she had married him.

The bastard.

“Oh dear, ma’am,” the clerk said, and now her tone was sympathetic. “I’m afraid legally I can’t just give this to someone over the phone, but we will work with the police on this. I hope you find him, ma’am. I’m sorry.”

And then the clerk severed the connection.

Serena stared at the receiver as if the phone itself had caused Dylan to disappear. She made herself hang up. Hiccuping sobs threatened, but she wasn’t going to allow them out.

She needed breakfast, but not the breakfast he had provided. She went back to the dining-room table, grabbed the banana—the only thing that wouldn’t have gotten cold or soggy—and then went to the bathroom with the gigantic shower.

She turned the water on scalding hot, stripped off the robe, and stepped inside, managing to control her mind until she lathered parts only a few other people had seen. Then she remembered the feel of Dylan’s long fingers.

And that was when she started to scrub—not just to get the feel of him off her skin but the memory of him out of her mind.

Forever.

 

2.

She didn’t feel better when she got out of the shower, but she felt different. Raw, aching. Determined.

She toweled off her hair, looked at herself in the mirror, and saw—not the satisfied woman from earlier but someone new, someone with flushed skin and flat eyes, someone who had an expression of sheer fury, and the look of someone who could do actual damage with that fury.

In the shower, she had come up with a plan.

She needed to call the police first. She had the sinking feeling that Dylan had taken everything from her, so she couldn’t rack up charges on the hotel phone.

Once the police were involved, then she would work with the hotel. After she got started on that, she would find out what happened to her phone.

She would check her accounts, and if he’d cleaned them out, which she expected (God, she was stupid—and no, she wouldn’t let that thought loose too much or she’d collapse in a sobbing puddle of uselessness)—if he cleaned them out, she thought loudly to herself, with emphasis, to control her emotional and unruly brain, she would pawn the damn wedding ring with its lovely stones that still glistened on her finger.

He had left all of her cash—five hundred dollars—which was something. Had he cared for her even a little bit? Or had he forgotten that she had cash?

She wiped her hand over her face. Emotions later. Situation first.

She sat on the hard living-room couch, grabbed her mostly useless phone, and hit the emergency button. A keyboard showed up on screen, allowing her to call 911.

She did, and said, “I think I’m the victim of a terrible crime,” and refused to burst into tears.

 

3.

The police showed up fifteen minutes later. Two male officers and a female detective. The detective identified herself as Angela Castillo, part of the Las Vegas Sexual Assault Detail, which made Serena start. She hadn’t reported a sexual assault.

She’d reported the marriage, the possible loss of everything, his disappearance, but not—

And then she flushed.

When looked at from a legal perspective, if he had no intention of staying married to her, then—

She excused herself, went to the pristine small bathroom, and threw up.

Castillo stood in the doorway. She was in her forties, in shape, with caramel-colored skin and dark eyes that seemed to miss nothing. She waited until Serena had cleaned herself up before saying,

“Come on. Let’s talk alone. Where would you be the most comfortable?”

Suddenly Serena wasn’t comfortable anywhere. The whole hotel room was the scene of the crime. The whole damn city was the scene of the crime.

Castillo looked at the officers. “Just give us a minute.”

“No,” Serena said. “We have to find him before he gets away.”

“You don’t know when he left?” Castillo asked.

Serena shook her head.

“Okay, a description, then, and his name. We can start there.”

Serena gave his name, and his description to the officers. “I have a picture on my . . .” and then her voice trailed off. Her phone had been wiped clean. “Maybe with the papers?”

She had put the wedding certificate in her suitcase. She walked to the closet she’d been using, opened the suitcase, and the documents—which had been in a folder on top—were still there. She hadn’t put them in the little pouch underneath where she usually put important information while traveling. She had been proud of that damn marriage certificate. She had looked at it whenever she opened the suitcase.

She pulled out the folder, opened it, saw that the certificate remained, but there were no pictures any longer—at least not of him. One of her, the only one alone, the bride shot, the preacher had called it. She stood before the gold altar in her slinky dress, clutching the roses. She had looked pretty and happy and hopeful.

Naive little idiot that she had been.

Serena swallowed. “He took them. All of them. Pictures and everything.”

“Let me see.” Castillo had slipped on gloves. She reached for the folder.

Castillo didn’t look at the photo, but at the marriage certificate. Then she showed it to the officers, who were also in the room.

“This isn’t a valid marriage license.” Castillo looked at the officers. “We’re going to need someone from Financial and Property Crimes ASAP. Tell the captain we need—oh, never mind. I’ll call it in. You go down to the desk, ask to get copies of all of the security video for this floor for the last week, and this morning’s video as well. See if we get a good image of this guy.”

The officers nodded and then walked out of the room.

“Let’s sit in the living room.” Castillo was holding the folder with its one pathetic photograph, clearly waiting for Serena to make a decision.

Serena nodded, then followed Castillo to that hard couch. A sexual-assault victim? But she’d given her consent. Over and over. And the sex had been good. It hadn’t been coerced.

But it hadn’t been what she thought either. It hadn’t been the celebration of two people in love, two people who had found each other despite the odds.

She frowned and rubbed her hands on her knees, feeling an ache throughout her body.

Dylan had violated her. Not sexually, not really. She would have wanted him even for that one-night stand.

But he had violated her emotionally. Intellectually. Personally.

In every single way that counted.

Now, these revelations were taking her heart and crushing it, one little piece at a time.

4.

The next few days were a blur of interviews, explanations, and bureaucratic horrors. Dylan had emptied her bank accounts, taken cash advances from her credit cards at the hotel casino—where she had identified him as her husband on that giddy first night (and every night thereafter). He had taken an online second mortgage against her house.

Serena’s housesitter had stopped a stranger from letting himself in—with Serena’s keys—so that he could help himself to her belongings. The stranger had looked nothing like Dylan. Believe me, Serena’s sitter said, I would have remembered a handsome blond. This guy was short and dumpy and smelled of onions.

Dylan had taken the SIM card from Serena’s phone, replacing the card with another. He hadn’t wiped the memory as much as stolen everything about the phone that made it Serena’s.

Except he hadn’t known about the automatic cloud backup. Once the helpful man at the cellular store had helped Serena reset her phone, the cloud downloaded, with a few extra treasures.

Photographs of Dylan, not the ones in the memory—he had clearly deleted those at night while she slept—but buried in the texts she had sent her friends. She had forgotten about those, and told Castillo about them.

The detective Castillo had brought in from Financial and Property Crimes, a hard-faced woman named Kree, had asked for permission to dig through the phone. The phone was where Dylan had gained most of his access. He had everything of Serena’s, from her Social Security number to her passwords, neatly stored in a little unmarked book which she had shown him, a book she kept in her carry-on (with another copy at home).

He had emptied her accounts the day he left, but the other things—the second mortgage, the new credit cards in her name, the credit lines he had opened with her very stellar credit number—those had all happened while she slept, sated from their lovemaking.

Castillo had looked at Serena with empathy. Kree had looked at her with hard-edged pity. Serena had the sense before the end of the first day that Kree believed most financial-crime victims got exactly what they deserved.

But Kree was efficient and helpful. She got the new credit lines and second mortgage canceled, got the various banks to absorb all of the losses except the important ones—at least to Serena. The actual cash he had taken from her accounts he had done with her written permission, using the signature she had stored in her phone, and he had done so while she thought she was still married to him.

At Kree’s advice, Serena consulted with an attorney (one free hour, thankfully), and the attorney said that withdrawing permission after a major fraud had occurred was often hard. Especially since Serena had been in Dylan’s company when the fraud happened. The banks would probably sue on that one, the attorney had said, and while they wouldn’t win, they would tie her up in court.

Much as this attorney wanted to represent her, he said, she would be better off writing off the losses and beginning again.

His words were harsh; his manner hadn’t been. In fact, he had apologized several times, as if he were personally responsible for Dylan’s actions.

Everyone was kind to her, and with the exception of Kree, treated her like Dylan had broken her.

Serena was beginning to like Kree more and more. Kree didn’t care about Serena’s emotional state. Kree wanted to put Dylan away.

“This con is incredibly organized,” Kree said one afternoon when Castillo wasn’t in the room. “This Dylan guy had a team. The substitute preacher, the guy at your house. I’m sure there were others. And they targeted you and played you. They’ve done this before. Just not in Vegas.”

“I-I’m the first?”

“Here, it seems,” Kree said. “We can’t find any evidence of this happening to someone else. I have an associate reaching out to the hotels to see if someone reported something like this to them, but the hotels should call us if they realize that a major fraud ring is working the city.”

“Maybe the women involved didn’t report it,” Serena said, trying not to wrap her arms around her torso. She’d been doing that a lot lately. “It’s pretty embarrassing. I mean, who would think—”

“Do you know how many people elope in Vegas with someone they just met?” Kree gave her that flat stare. “Enough so that at any given time, there are at least fifty wedding chapels in this city. Fifty. A good half of the weddings here are between drunks who just met.”

“Thanks,” Serena muttered, knowing Kree believed Serena fit that description. She didn’t want to correct Kree’s misperception. Serena hadn’t been drunk at her wedding—at least with alcohol.

“That’s what’s bothering me,” Kree said, ignoring Serena’s slide into self-pity (which Serena liked; it was enabling her to ignore her slide too). “With this many wedding chapels, and so many lonely whatever-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas women coming every single day, we should have encountered this crew before. And we haven’t.”

“If they’re not local, how did they get the chapel?” Serena asked.

“He really was a substitute preacher, hired for two weeks while the regular guy went on vacation,” Kree said. “Of course, all of the substitute’s information was false. It went deep enough that a cursory background check would have seemed on the up-and-up.”

“So everyone there—?”

“The regular organist was sick that night,” Kree said. “Severe food poisoning, which she got two days into the substitute preacher’s gig.”

“You think he did it,” Serena said.

Kree nodded. “Like I said. Organized. We’re bringing in the FBI on this. They have a crackerjack financial-fraud team, and since this ring crossed state lines by going after your Denver house, they’ll be handling a lot of the case.”

“You’re not?” Serena felt like she was losing her lifeline.

For the first time, Kree smiled at her. “I’m sticking on this one, whether the feebies like it or not. What these guys did to you . . .”

Kree shook her head, then bit her lower lip. Her entire body was rigid with fury.

“What those guys did to you,” she said after a moment in which she took control of her voice, “that was personal. Getting to know you, seducing you. They didn’t just steal the identity of a name on a credit card. They took your identity, made you volunteer to get a new name, and let you think you were walking into the sunset with the man of your dreams. They’re not in this for the money. They’re in it to destroy their marks. That’s unacceptable. We have to catch them before they do it again.”

Serena’s throat had gone dry. She had to swallow three times before she could speak.

“They didn’t destroy me,” she said, but her voice sounded almost like a whisper. Broken. Ruined.

Kree looked at her.

Serena swallowed again. “They didn’t. I’m right here. And I’m going to destroy them right back.”

 

5.

The first thing Serena did upon returning from the police station was to move to a different room. The hotel comped it, as if they were responsible for Dylan.

The new room was in a different wing, with different décor. She still had a suite, but it looked nothing like the old suite, and she was grateful for that. She had moved her own suitcase, after the police were done with it, and as she hung up her clothes, making the room a hundred percent hers, her fingers ran across the almost-invisible zipper beneath her clothes.

The pouch where she stored her important papers while she was in a hotel room. She always removed them and put them in her purse when she got on a plane, but otherwise she left them here.

She hadn’t expected to be robbed by her own husband.

Serena took a deep, calming breath, something that still wasn’t habit yet, and made herself open the pouch.

The documents for her new money-market account—the one she had set up for taxes and incidentals from her win the day she arrived—were still inside. Her fingers lingered over them. She hadn’t told Dylan about this account. She had told him that she had saved some of the money for taxes, and they could spend the rest, but she hadn’t told him she had started a new account to hold that money separate from everything else.

She would have told him, but it had slipped her mind. He had made it slip her mind.

She smiled, feeling the first ray of hope in days.

She grabbed her phone to check the account, then realized she hadn’t set up online banking for that account. Instead, she called the bank using its 800 number, that old system which felt so twentieth-century now.

After she punched in more numbers than she cared to think about, she discovered a piece of information that made her giddy: She still had the full five grand of her winnings.

She suddenly didn’t feel broke anymore.

She certainly had less money than she had when she fake-married Dylan, but she wasn’t going to live paycheck to paycheck, like she had feared.

She let out a shuddery sigh and sank down on a nearby chair. Dylan hadn’t taken everything, the damn bastard.

That realization gave her an odd feeling of power. He hadn’t entirely outsmarted her. He wasn’t totally brilliant. He could be defeated.

She could defeat him.

She just had to figure out how. . . .

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2018. The Wedding Ring by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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