Saturday Excerpt: For Better and Worse by Margot Hunt
Hitting shelves on December 11, this psychological thriller will definitely stick with you. Perfect for cold winter nights that need a suspenseful read, you won’t be able to put down the latest from Margot Hunt.
About For Better and Worse:
On their first date back in law school, Natalie and Will Clarke bonded over drinks, dinner and whether they could get away with murder. Now married, they’ll put the latter to the test when an unchecked danger in their community places their son in jeopardy. Working as a criminal defense attorney, Nat refuses to rely on the broken legal system to keep her family safe. She knows that if you want justice…you have to get it yourself.
Shocked to discover Nat’s taken matters into her own hands, Will has no choice but to dirty his, also. His family is in way too deep to back down now. He’s just not sure he recognizes the woman he married. Nat’s always been fiercely protective, but never this ruthless or calculating. With the police poking holes in their airtight plan, what will be the first to fall apart: their scandalous secret—or their marriage?
I hadn’t known it at the time, but it was the last normal weekend of my life.
If I had known what was coming, I might have chosen to spend those days differently. I wouldn’t have wasted time clean- ing out the refrigerator, for example, or spent that hour running to nowhere on the treadmill at the gym. But no matter what was looming, I still wouldn’t have missed our family’s weekly trip to the beach on that beautiful Sunday in late February.
It was one of the best parts about living in our small seaside Florida town of Shoreham. Most of the rest of the country was digging out from under the most recent snowstorm and shivering through frigid temperatures. We, though, were enjoying perfect beach weather. Not too hot, not too cold.
“Come on, you guys,” Charlie yelled over his shoulder as he thumped up the wooden boardwalk that led from the parking lot to the beach. He was leading our dog, Rocket, on a blue nylon leash, and the black dog trotted after him, his favorite ratty tennis ball clenched in his teeth. The boardwalk sloped crookedly over the dunes, winding through overgrown sea grape shrubs, and they were both soon out of my sight.
“I guess he’s not waiting for us,” I commented.
Will was pulling our beach chairs and assorted gear out from the back of our SUV.
“Do you want me to carry the beach bag?” he asked.
“No, I’ve got it.” I heaved the bag up onto my shoulder. “Are you sure? That thing weighs a ton.”
“I said I’ve got it.” I headed toward the boardwalk, Will trailing after me.
We’d started the tradition of going to the beach every Sun- day morning that the weather allowed, no matter what my trial schedule looked like, or how busy Will was at the office, when Charlie was still a toddler. Back then, Charlie’s favorite beach activity was to stand at the shoreline, and play tag with the water as it rolled in. He’d run from it, giggling and screeching when it reached his plump little feet. The memory always made me smile, especially now that Charlie was eleven and his baby years had disappeared, never to return.
I shaded my eyes and looked for Charlie. He’d already dumped the boogie boards and was down by the shoreline, throwing Rocket’s tennis ball for him where the sand was firm. Rocket was a small dog with ears too big for his head and an energy level that never fully abated. He raced after the ball, barking happily.
“There they are.” I nodded in our son’s direction.
Will and I wove our way down the beach to join them. When we reached the spot Charlie had chosen, Will set up the chairs while I dropped the heavy canvas bag on the sand, relieved to be rid of the weight. I wasn’t sure why I’d insisted on carrying it, when I knew Will wouldn’t have minded.
My husband grabbed his boogie board. “Last one in is a boy band singer,” he called out to Charlie, who laughed his deep, froggy laugh that always made me smile. Charlie ran to get his own board, and the two of them waded out into the ocean. Rocket raced behind them, although he ventured only a few inches into the water, and backtracked every time a wave rolled toward him.
I sat down, took in a deep breath of salt air and felt the tension in my shoulder muscles relax. It was good to be outside in the sunshine, after a week of sitting under the fluorescent lights at my office.
It had been a rough week in the life of Natalie Clarke, criminal attorney and defender of the downtrodden. One of my clients, a single mother named Melanie Bell, had been arrested a few months earlier for drug possession, after the police found a plastic sandwich bag full of pills in her car during a routine traffic stop. Unfortunately for Melanie, it was her third offense, and the best plea deal I could get out of the State’s Attorney assigned to the case—a sour-faced woman named Christine Christof, who hated defense attorneys, as though our doing our jobs was a personal offense to her—was a ten-month sentence. It wasn’t a great offer, and when I’d relayed it to Melanie, she’d burst into tears, insisting that she couldn’t possibly be away from her three young children for that long.
Against my advice, Melanie decided to instead take an open plea. This meant that she would plead guilty to the drug possession and let the judge decide on her sentence. I tried to explain to her that this was a risky strategy. Yes, the judge might be sympathetic to her situation. If she went to jail, her children would end up in foster care, which was never ideal. Melanie had successfully completed a drug addiction program five years earlier, and remained clean until her recent relapse was brought on by a painful hernia surgery. Even though she was a good candidate for another rehab program, the judge could also just as easily give her an even longer sentence than the one being offered by the State’s Attorney. But Melanie had insisted, and on the previous Thursday morning, had entered her open guilty plea.
The judge sentenced her to eighteen months.
Melanie lashed out physically and verbally, and eventually had to be restrained by the deputies assigned to the courtroom. I had to stand aside while they fastened handcuffs to her wrists. “I’m so sorry, Melanie,” I said, meaning it. I had told her the risks, warned her what could happen, but in the end, it had been her decision. Still, I felt badly for her. I couldn’t imagine being separated from Charlie for that long.
When Melanie stopped fighting the deputies, she turned to look at me with an expression that was so malevolent, so hateful, I almost took a step back.
“This is all your fault.” And then Melanie spat in my face.
I’d felt a mixture of pity and revulsion, watching the deputies drag her away. But mostly, as I wiped her saliva off my face with a crumpled tissue I’d found in the bottom of my briefcase, I’d felt weary. I had been practicing criminal law for almost fifteen years, first as a public defender, then opening my own practice. And, yes, there had been moments during that time when I’d triumphed, times I’d helped good people out of bad situations. But then there were the days when my clients felt justified to spit in my face. Somewhere in between were all the other days when I mostly felt ineffectual, a small cog in a broken judicial system. I knew a morning at the beach would chase away my ennui.
I would burrow my feet into the sand, gaze out at the calming vista of the sky meeting the sea, and let the sun bake my skin until I couldn’t stand it any longer and had to dive into the water to cool off. It was just what I needed.
“Do you have sunscreen on?” I called out to Charlie.
He feigned deafness and raced back out into the waves to join his dad. I rubbed SPF 50 onto my pale arms as I watched Will and Charlie ride their boogie boards through the surf. Rocket barked happily in the shallows, waiting for them to reach the shore.
“Mom, did you see that wave?” Charlie yelled. “It was three stories tall!”
The wave wasn’t even close to being that big, but I grinned and gave him a thumbs-up.
“Are you coming in?” he called.
“In a minute,” I said. “I want to sit for a bit and read my book.”
Charlie bent down to pet Rocket, then turned and ran back in the surf after his father. My eyes drifted toward my husband, who was joking and laughing with Charlie about something. Will had started going to the gym regularly recently, and it was starting to pay off. His stomach was f lat again, and I could see new definition in his arm and chest muscles. I was glad he was taking better care of himself.
At least, I told myself I should be happy about it. And yet… I couldn’t help but wonder what had prompted this sudden change in lifestyle. Anxiety fluttered up inside me whenever I wondered if it wasn’t a what that had prompted a change, but instead a who.
Was it possible Will was having an affair?
A decade earlier, I would have laughed at the idea. Back then, when Charlie was a baby, and we were both trying to figure out how to balance parenthood with demanding careers, Will had still been my best friend. We’d delighted together in Char- lie’s smiles and general adorableness, and even the lack of sleep seemed like something we’d one day look back on fondly. Every evening, once Charlie was asleep, we’d collapse on the couch together, usually with a glass of wine and something mindless on the television. And on the weeks when I was in trial, Will would get Chinese takeout, and listen to me practice my closing arguments over cartons of fried rice and kung pao chicken. I wasn’t sure when that had changed. As the years had marched on, first slowly, then faster and faster still, I could feel Will moving away, a distance growing steadily between us. These days, he preferred to retreat to the home office after dinner, rather than spend the evening alone with me. Romantic weekend trips were a thing of the past, replaced by Saturdays spent at Charlie’s soccer games or ferrying him around to karate class and classmates’ birthday parties. I couldn’t even remember the last time we’d gone out on our own, without clients or friends accompanying us. We hadn’t had sex in months.
And now, suddenly, my forty-year-old husband had lost fifteen pounds and was looking like he had in his twenties.
I knew it didn’t necessarily mean anything nefarious was going on. It wasn’t like weight loss was proof that Will was having an affair. Except…there was also his recent obsession with his phone. The device was practically glued to his hand, day and night. Will never, ever left it behind, not even just to head into the kitchen to rummage through the fridge. And whenever I walked up behind him, he’d suddenly set the phone facedown, so I couldn’t see what he was doing. When I asked him why he was hiding it from me, he said I was being paranoid.
Am I being paranoid? I wondered.
Will and Charlie rode in on a wave together. Charlie whooped as he fell off his boogie board and the wave crested over him. Will managed to stay on his board, but just barely. He stood up to shake the water out of his hair. I was fairly sure he was sucking in his stomach, and wondered if it was for the benefit of the gaggle of tanned, bikini-clad twentysomethings who were sit- ting a few yards away.
“Dad, come on,” Charlie said, ready to plunge back into the ocean.
“I’m going to take a break,” Will told him. “Rocket is dying to chase his ball.”
Rocket, hearing both his name and the word ball—his favorite of all the words he knew—started barking frantically. Will grabbed the damp and sandy tennis ball and pitched it down the beach. Rocket raced off after it. The bikini girls watched and laughed as the small dog leaped athletically in the air to catch the ball in his mouth. Rocket trotted triumphantly back to Will, his whiplike tail wagging happily.
“He’s adorable,” one of the girls said, rising up on her elbows, flaunting a taut core. And another, not to be outdone, chimed in. “What breed of dog is he?”
Will turned and grinned at them. “He’s a terrier mix, but he thinks he’s as fierce as a rottweiler and as fast as a greyhound.”
The girls tittered with laughter. “That’s so cute,” one of them cooed.
I rolled my eyes behind my sunglasses.
“Mom,” Charlie called. “Take a picture of me riding this wave!”
I obediently pulled out my digital camera and stood. Just as I was wondering if the sunlight was too bright, too harsh, a cloud passed over, softening the glare. I quickly snapped a bunch of photos as Charlie turned back to the ocean and paddled out with his boogie board.