Pretty Little Wife – Darby Kane

A MONSTER. She missed the signs before. Maybe ignored them without fully realizing it. Now she couldn’t unsee them. Adrenaline raced through her as she tore their bedroom apart. Overturned the laundry basket and scattered the contents. Shoved the bed, banging her shin on the metal bed frame before pushing the mattress to check underneath. Crawled on her knees across the floor, ignoring the shooting pain as bone struck hardwood. She even checked behind the heavy curtains he insisted they use because light in the morning gave him a headache. The revulsion festering inside her, carefully tucked away for years so as not to spill over and contaminate their tenuous peace, exploded. A wave of scalding heat ran through her, poisoning and erasing every good memory. The stupid blackout curtains. She’d searched for weeks for the combination of the right color and the perfect dark liner he’d barked at her to find. Never mind that she preferred waking up to the light pouring in or that the heavy material gave the room a suffocating sense of darkness. His rules and his needs.

All of her energy—all of that pent-up hate—built and concentrated until it boiled. The recent string of slights and snide comments she’d ignored. The frustration she’d choked back. The disappointment that she’d let her need to feel normal, to mimic everyone around her, lead her here. To him. Throwing all her weight into it, she tugged and yanked on those precious curtains. Pulled as a scream rumbled up her throat. A ripping sound screeched through the room, and her balance faltered. The stiff material she’d pulled painfully taut at last gave. The left side shredded on the rod, and the pressure holding her up released in a whoosh.

Her feet tangled and she fell. She landed in a hard sprawl near the end of the bed then stayed there, staring at a blank space on the white wall, wishing she’d made better choices. There in the quiet, she heard the snap. That barrier deep inside her, walled off and hollow, that allowed her to stumble along and ignore what she needed to ignore, crashed down. Anger and distaste, disappointment and guilt. The emotions tumbled and mixed, spilling through her, flooding every cell. As soon as the rush of flaming heat arrived, it evaporated. Dried up and disappeared in the space between breaths. She felt nothing. Chapter Two AN HOUR HAD PASSED SINCE THE INITIAL FRENZY.

SHE’D MANAGED to sit up, but not much more. She balanced on the edge of their bed buried in a pile of clothing. Dirty and clean mixed until one merged into the other. Jeans and sweatshirts lay scattered around, thrown in her haste to dig to the back of every drawer and search through every hidden nook. Random thoughts slipped into her mind then whipped right back out again. She couldn’t hold on to an idea or manufacture an explanation for what she’d found. None that made sense or matched the stories he told. Not one. The truth bombarded her, but her brain refused to focus. Every time she tried to fit the pieces together, to decipher, something inside her misfired.

Such an ordinary thing landed her here, in this upended state. Clothing. She’d been searching for the T-shirt he blamed her for misplacing while doing the laundry. As if that were even possible. “Lila?” She jerked at the sound of her name. He shouldn’t be home for hours. Of course he picked today to slip away early. To surprise her. What do you want now? “Where are you?” he shouted to her as he stomped through the house. Her muscles refused to move.

They’d clamped down, locking her in a haze of blurry vision and fogged thinking. The damn videos. She’d punished herself by watching the first one. Then the next. That’s as far as she got before the breath left her body. Minutes ticked by while she stared at the cell screen. Her fingers clenched around the phone she’d never seen before. The one he hid from her in the chest of drawers he insisted she leave alone because she didn’t fold clothing the way he wanted it folded. Stored behind stacks of thin and faded T-shirts he kept promising to weed out and throw away. So many promises .

gone. Didn’t take a genius to guess why he’d been so territorial over a piece of furniture. It was his hiding place. The phone clearly meant something to him or she would have known about it before now. No one hid meaningless things. The screen, now dark, the battery having blinked off, tormented her. Somewhere in minute two or three of listening to those female voices spin in her head, her brain clicked off. All those years of pushing the dark back, of denying and pretending she’d locked this type of horror out of her life, of wallowing in guilt until it threatened to suck her under, jammed up on her. The memories. They flooded her now.

All the yelling and name-calling. The questions. So many questions. This couldn’t be happening again. “Lila? Where the hell are you?” The house was big but not that big. He’d find her soon in the massive bedroom at the far end of the hall, lost in a pile of his precious belongings. “Hey . ” His voice faded as he stalked into the middle of the wardrobe bloodbath and stopped. “What the hell happened in here? Why did you touch my stuff?” His stuff. He viewed everything, even her, as his property.

For a few seconds, she stared at him and wondered why she’d ever agreed to that first date. He’d been charming, sure. All guy-next-door with his light brown hair and bright blue eyes. He was tall, but not threateningly so. Attractive in his confidence. His smile had won her over. He seemed . harmless. That’s what she’d craved. The benign.

Now she wanted to punch that mouth and keep hitting until silence blanketed her. “Why are you just sitting there? What’s wrong with you?” he asked as he turned in a slow circle, taking in every inch of her rampage. “I was looking for your shirt.” Her voice came out steady, amazing even her. “The one you lost.” He said it as if that were a fact. “I appreciate the effort but you should have asked before you went rifling through my things.” “I live here, too.” “Okay, but you have to admit that this looks . ” “What?” She had no idea how he would twist his way out of this one.

“Unhinged.” Oh, right. Of course he would say that. Blame her. This time—this time only—he wasn’t wrong. She felt unwound. Held together by a thin thread of sheer will and nothing more. “I found this.” She held up the new-to-her phone. His expression didn’t change.

His mouth didn’t so much as twitch. “What is it?” As if he didn’t know. The lying asshole. “Don’t do that. It’s yours, and we both know it.” He let out a long breath. It came out as an exhausted sigh, as if he’d been stuck with her for too long and had grown weary. “Now, don’t get hysterical.” Gaslighting. She heard it in the fake soothing cadence of his voice.

In every syllable. “I haven’t moved.” She forced her voice to stay flat. Sucked all of the emotion out of the words to prevent him from throwing them back at her. He glanced at the phone then to her face. “But you’ve let your imagination run wild. I know you.” He didn’t, but leave it to him to find a way to make himself the wronged party in this. “That’s not true.” “Look at this mess.

” He motioned toward the empty dresser drawers. She tightened her grip on the phone. “You didn’t even use a different pin.” “That’s enough.” The deeper they waded into the emotional morass, the more in control he sounded. That placating voice. He even held up his hands in mock surrender as if he needed to calm her down. “Listen to me.” “Go ahead. Try to explain.

” “I shouldn’t have to.” He stopped the sentence there and held her gaze for a few seconds with an unwavering glare. “But the reality is it’s nothing. A practical joke by a couple of students that went sideways. Nothing to worry about.” He thought she was an idiot. That was the only explanation. Her muscles shook, but she forced her body up. Somehow managed to get to her feet and stay there. “I know what I saw.

” He sighed at her again, full of indignation and unsteady tolerance. “What you think you saw. Because I promise you’re wrong.” More gaslighting. The trick jumped out at her now. He formed sentences and revised history to make her think she was the unreasonable one. Turned and twisted the facts until she questioned her brain and her eyes. Dumped her in a place where she doubted everything except him. Not this time. He’d done the one thing she couldn’t slap an explanation on, or let him weasel out of, or chisel down into nothing.

Her fingers clenched around the phone until the plastic dug into her palm. “Get out.” All that fake civility vanished as his mouth curled in a snarl. “It’s my fucking house.” He had never hit her, but maybe that had been a matter of good timing and a bit of luck. The right push and this could be it. Every cell inside her screamed to move, but she refused to back down. She took a step closer, challenging him on the most basic level. Questioning what he insisted belonged solely to him. She lifted her chin higher.

“The house is ours.” His hand whipped out and caught her around the throat. “Say that again.” She tried to swallow but couldn’t. Said his name, but it came out as a harsh whisper. Her spirit refused to break. “It’s ours. Mine as much as yours.” Those fingers flexed against her skin. His palm pressed against her windpipe, daring her to push him past the brink.

He didn’t squeeze, but the hatred pulsing off him told her he could and would never regret it. Pure disdain. There was no other way to describe it. As if he wouldn’t blink if she disappeared. He leaned in until his mouth hovered over her ear. “Did you pay for the house, Lila? One mortgage payment? One tax payment? A water bill?” He’d put her name on the title, but he viewed the property as his. He deposited money into the joint account to cover bills. Not a penny more. He let her write the actual checks, but he controlled every dime, every month, then looked like he expected her to thank him for being a great provider. “You never gave me that choice.

” She wanted them to be equals. That’s what she’d signed up for when they got married. It’s what they’d agreed to. But with each year he took more control and lessened her role. Turned her into some sort of dress-up doll he paraded around town. She silently fought back by going out to dinner less and never attending his events. He’d sweettalk and push, and now she recognized every move as manipulation. Nothing more than a long con that she’d fallen for until he’d gone one step too far. “I run this household,” he said. His money.

His house. He made the decisions, even the ones that impacted her job and where they lived. Him, him, him. She’d conceded so much ground to him. She had no idea when it’d happened or why she’d let her life get so small. No more. The unspoken declaration vibrated through her. “Do it or let go.” Her voice strained against his hand. He frowned at her.

“What?” “Kill me. That’s where this is heading, right?” Every move and the dragging anger in his voice pointed there. Despite his need for control, his mood had always been pretty even. But she had something on him now. Something that could break him and ruin that shiny reputation he stoked with neighborly good deeds and a fake smile. It was as if her breaking point this afternoon tipped off his. He shook his head but didn’t let go of her neck. Her hand covered his. She tried to pry his fingers off, to put an inch of distance between them, as the panic constricted her throat. That quickly, he dropped his arm to his side.

The swift move had her tipping forward when all she wanted to do was run away. After a few seconds of her stumbling, he put his hands on her forearms to steady her. “I’m not the kind of man who hits.” “Because that’s the bar? You don’t beat me, so you’re a great husband.” “You’re pushing me, Lila. I advise you to stop.” He never blinked as he watched her. “This thing with the phone really is nothing. Don’t let your imagination fill in gaps that don’t exist.” “The videos—” He made a tut-tutting sound.

“I told you. Silly girls doing silly things. That’s all.” Liar. It was as if he’d forgotten about her previous life. She’d played verbal gymnastics with people much more cunning than him. The kind who would be smart enough not to use the same password on their secret phone as they used on their usual one. “If that’s true, then why did you save them? And why hide the phone?” “For insurance.” “How? Even if the videos were a prank, they could be used to ruin you. I heard your voice on one.

” She feared she would never forget what she’d heard. “Explain how you’ve protected yourself. Us.” “I don’t appreciate your tone.” When she started to respond to that, he held up a hand and talked over her. “This discussion is over. I’ve told you what you need to know, and now you can stop worrying about this. There’s more to it than the videos. I have the whole matter handled.” She knew that was a lie.

All of this was one big lie. She didn’t ask anything else, because the responses would be more of the same. Nonsense and bullshit. He smiled in a way that made her feel more like prey than a wife. “Now that we’ve resolved that . ” He leaned in and kissed her on the forehead. She fought off a flinch but just barely. Maybe that’s where he wanted her energy focused, because he swooped in and pried the phone out of her hand before she realized what was happening. “Clean this room up. I came home early to take you to dinner, but I can’t do that with this mess.

” Then he walked out, cell phone in hand. To him, that was it. He actually thought his comments and weak assurances ended the conversation. That she would slink back into her life, forget what she’d seen, and move on. That she was too stupid to have forwarded some of the videos to her email before the battery on his top secret phone died. She would review them all and tease out every detail. And no, she would not let him turn this around and make it her fault. He’d always known the one thing she could not live through again . and he’d crashed their marriage right into it. She’d handle it.

She didn’t before, but she would this time. She would be the one to stop him.

.

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