Alana thought she was marrying the man of her dreams, but she couldn’t have imagined the nightmare her life would become.
Stephen was everything Alana thought she wanted in a husband. Handsome, attentive, and on his way up in the political arena. He seduced her with his charm, but as soon as they said their vows, his mask began to slip and she saw the controlling monster that he hid from everyone. Now she has nowhere to run.
Carter was roped into escorting his mother to a political fundraiser for Stephen Ashton.
He and Stephen roomed in the same dorm when they were in college, but drugs were found. Stephen convinced everyone they were Carter’s, and he had three of his friends lie to back him up. No one believed Carter’s innocence, not even his parents, so he enlisted in the military the next day and walked away from a potential career that he’d never really wanted.
He still has a score to settle, so when he sees Stephen’s stunning wife slip outside, he follows. He’s not surprised she wants to escape her husband. Had he forgotten her birthday or something just as trivial? He remembers Alana from childhood as being an obnoxious little girl trailing after him. He gives her a way to leave Stephen. He’ll hide her for a couple of weeks, then return her with a slightly tarnished halo.
Revenge is sweet.
Until he realizes exactly what he’s gotten into or how deep Stephen’s obsession for Alana runs, but will Stephen resort to murder to make them pay?
Alana chased her dreams when she was a child, like a butterfly flits from flower to flower drawing in the sweet nectar. Back then, her dreams were more about becoming a real princess.
Her parents said she was their little princess but she wasn’t so sure. She didn't have a crown or a castle, although their house was big and there were a lot of servants.
But children grow up. She met Prince Charming, or so she’d thought. Her gilded cage soon became a nightmare that she couldn’t escape.
“Are you ready?” Stephen asked. He came up behind Alana as she stood in front of the full-length mirror in her bedroom.
Startled, she jumped. He did that a lot—quietly coming up behind her. He enjoyed scaring her. She looked over her shoulder, then at their reflection in the mirror. Take a breath, she told herself as she smoothed her hands over the pale yellow gown he’d chosen for her to wear tonight.
She'd once thought Stephen Ashton was the most handsome man she'd ever met. He still was, if she were truthful. Everyone said they made a beautiful couple, and how lucky she was that he'd married her. They were already calling them the golden couple.
His smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Did I frighten you?”
She hesitated, and then returned his smile with one of her own. “A little. I guess I was lost in thought.”
“Thinking about tonight?”
No, she’d been thinking of her life and wondering how she, the daughter of a senator and a socialite mother, could have ended up with a life like the one she now lived.
“I asked you a question,” Stephen prodded.
She smiled. “I’m sorry. Yes, I was thinking about tonight.”
“Worried I won’t get enough donations?”
She shook her head. “No, you always get exactly what you want.” She was pretty sure her sarcasm was lost on him. He was a great politician. He knew how to tell you one thing, but do something entirely different. He was very good at making promises he never planned to keep.
He moved in front of her, studying his reflection in the mirror. He frowned and wiped away the white powder residue on his nose that he’d missed. He straightened his tie, then satisfied, he faced her again, casting a critical eye over her. When he frowned, she wondered what she might have missed.
“Simple elegance might be acceptable any other night, but not tonight. We need to present a picture of wealth and power. Turn around.”
She grit her teeth, but didn't think about disobeying him. His hands at her neck sent a shiver of revulsion down her spine.
He laughed lightly. “I know what you need. I wish we had time to make love. Maybe later.”
She closed her eyes. He’d left her alone the last couple of weeks, going to his mistress instead. Yes, she knew about Gina. Stephen didn’t try that hard to hide his affairs. But get angry? No, she was grateful to her. Having her husband otherwise occupied meant less time she had to endure his company.
Did Stephen leave marks on Gina, too? Probably. Why would she expect him to be any different with his current mistress or any of the others before her, for that matter?
Alana was pretty sure he'd been going to Gina lately and that was why he hadn't come to her bedroom. It wouldn't do if she had bruises that she couldn't cover with makeup. Not right before a gala event that was extremely important to raising money for Stephen's campaign. It would take longer than a week for them to fade completely.
Her lip curled as she remembered the first time. The following morning, he’d gifted her with a diamond bracelet and a tube of concealer. She hadn’t wanted either. She’d asked for a divorce instead. He’d only laughed, then he showed her how difficult it would be to leave him.
And tonight, after the fundraiser, he would teach her more lessons. God, she was so tired of it all. Her shoulders slumped.
Stephen went to her closet and then to the safe where she kept her jewelry. He spun the combination and then opened it, bringing out a magnificent diamond and topaz necklace. He tossed the small, heart-shaped, silver necklace inside the safe and then slammed it closed.
“This is better, don’t you think?”
"Of course," she lied as she quickly straightened. She tried not to cringe as he placed the heavy necklace around her neck and fastened the clasp. Funny how his hands always felt cold and clammy to her.
He turned her until she faced him. His gaze raked over her again. "Damn, you’re the most beautiful woman I've ever seen," he murmured, almost as if speaking to himself. "I've missed making love to you. Tonight, I'll give you everything you've been wanting."
Did her smile wobble?
His gaze took on a crazed glitter that she’d come to recognize all too well.
Her brain frantically tried to think of something to say as his grip on her arms tightened painfully. “Stephen, you’re hurting me,” she finally cried.
“You have missed me fucking you, haven’t you?” he ground out, ignoring her plea.
His laugh was short and bitter. “You’re right, it has been too long. I think you’ve forgotten the lessons I’ve tried to teach you.”
Something inside her snapped. "No, of course, I haven't forgotten your lessons. I see them the next morning when I wake up. They usually cover my body." Just as quickly as the defiance rose inside her, it was gone.
“What did you say?” His eyes blazed with fury.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”
“If you embarrass me tonight, I’ll kill you. Do you understand? I want this senate seat.”
“Yes,” her voice cracked as she downed her head.
He stepped away from her, straightening the cuffs on his tailor-made suit. “Now you’ve upset me when I only wanted this night to be perfect. I hope you’re happy.” He moved past her. “Get your wrap. The limo will be out front. I swear if you screw this up tonight, they’ll never find your body.” He turned at the door and cast a withering glare at her. “Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
"Be downstairs in five minutes and don't keep me waiting or I'll make you pay later."
Without another word, he left her room.
She sucked in a sob as she sat at her dressing table. Just as quickly, she came to her feet, going to her closet and bringing down her yellow silk wrap. She took one last look in the mirror, making sure everything looked perfect, then left her room.
His parents waited with him at the bottom of the staircase.
“Don’t I have the most beautiful wife?” Stephen beamed. None of his earlier outburst showed.
“Stunning,” his mother agreed. Her husband nodded his approval.
When Alana first met Stephen’s mother, she’d mistakenly thought she’d gained another mother, but hoped this one would show more support for her interests, rather than the outward appearances her mother thought were so important.
When Stephen began to change, she'd gone to Margaret, feeling confused. Stephen's mother explained that was what it meant to be a politician's wife. The men were under so much pressure that they had to have some kind of outlet to vent their frustration.
Alana hadn’t confided in her again.
When she told her mother what was going on, she'd been no help either. She reminded Alana that someday she would be First Lady, and that was worth putting up with a few minor misunderstandings.
She’d explained there was nothing minor about the beatings Stephen dished out.
If anything, her mother only made matters more difficult for her. She'd gone to Stephen and repeated what Alana told her. Alana suspected it was more because her mother didn't want the fact that Stephen beat his wife to become public knowledge accidentally. Heaven forbid there be any scandal attached to their name.
That night, Stephen left more than bruises. He’d broken her arm, and then told her if she ever went to anyone else with what happened in their bedroom or hurt his career, he’d kill her. He reminded her there was no place she could hide that he wouldn’t find her.
“How are you, dear?” Margaret asked as she took Alana’s hands in hers, studying her daughter-in-law’s face.
“I know how she is,” Albert boomed, seemingly unaware that his son was anything other than perfect. “She’s about to become a senator’s wife and then First Lady of our great United States.”
“Now, Dad. There has to be an election first for me to become a senator, and we have to raise enough money tonight to fuel my campaign so that I’ll win,” Stephen reminded him, then laughed.
Alana smiled as they went to the waiting limo. That’s what she did, she smiled. At least, she didn’t have to talk on the way over to the banquet hall where the fundraiser was being held. She only had to look beautiful and say all the right things.
And of course, never make a scene—like running out screaming and begging someone to put a stop to her nightmare. She was afraid they would only lock her away, which might not be so bad.
Carter wondered how the hell he’d gotten roped into escorting his mother to this fundraiser. When he helped her out of the car, she smiled up at him.
As if reading his mind, she said, "Thank you again for agreeing to bring me. I don't know what I would've done if you hadn't. Albert and Margaret are some of our oldest friends. It's bad enough that your father couldn't be here." She pouted.
Was she serious? "I don't think he could help being in the hospital with kidney stones. I hear they're pretty painful." Not that he and his father were that close.
Her hand fluttered around her face as they started up the stairs. "Well, of course, you're right. That's not what I meant at all. I'm sure your father wishes he could be here as well."
She stopped and turned around at the top of the stairs when someone called her name.
She smiled and waved. "I knew we should've rented a limo. Everyone is coming in limos."
"Always the social climber," he muttered.
"What did you say, dear?"
He shook his head. Appearances meant everything to his parents, which was why he tried to stay as far away as possible. The only reason he'd flown in was because his mother had called and said she thought his father had a heart attack. It turned out to be kidney stones. Painful, but in his father's case, not life-threatening.
Carter would be leaving tomorrow. He'd already been here a few days. He could only stand politics in small doses and that was all his parents, or their friends, knew to talk about.
"Oh look, there's the Ashton's." She raised her arm and waved.
Carter casually turned and watched as Albert got out of the limo and then assisted his wife. He hadn't seen them in quite a while. Not much had changed, except they looked slightly older.
His gaze turned to Stephen as he exited the car. His eyes narrowed as anger flared inside him. Nothing about Stephen had changed, perfectly groomed as always. Not one blond hair on his head out of place, impeccably dressed. Probably the same bastard he'd always been.
Carter's attention was suddenly riveted on the woman Stephen assisted out of the car.
She was magnificent in a pale yellow evening gown that accentuated her curves without clinging too much. Her coal-black hair was artfully arranged on top of her head with a couple of curls to frame her face. Something stirred inside him that he'd buried long ago.
The woman was stunning, and that was an understatement.
"Don't they make a beautiful couple? You know, they say Stephen will be president one day. Alana will make a magnificent First Lady." She turned her gaze up to his. "You remember Alana, don't you? She's Senator Taylor's daughter. She came over to the house a few times, but that was years ago. If you ask me, her mother is a bit of a social climber," she conspiratorially added.
He looked back at his mother with a raised eyebrow. Kind of like the pot calling the kettle black, he thought to himself.
"Let's go inside," she said. "It's getting rather chilly out here."
She took his arm, and they walked inside. The spacious room was already starting to fill.
As his mother made her way around the room, she was in her element and didn't really need him by her side. He made his way to the bar on the opposite side of the room. He would need something strong to get through the night.
The ornate oak bar was polished to a high gloss. A mirror reflected the crowd of elites pouring in. He’d grown up surrounded by all this, but left as quickly as he could. He frowned. Or in his case, he was forced to leave. Maybe he should be thanking Stephen for the role he played in almost ruining his life.
"Bourbon," he ordered. Once he had his drink, he leaned against the back of the bar and watched as the Washington society mingled.
Everything had to be perfect, of course, from the glittering chandeliers to the jewels on the women's necks. Pristine white cloths covered the tables for the ten thousand dollars a plate dinner. The waiters had already arranged the fine china and polished the silverware so you could actually see your reflection. Crystal glasses waited to be filled with a premium wine. Waiters already carried trays with fluted champagne glasses filled with the golden nectar.
The center of attention was Stephen and Alana. Carter studied her. Maybe he should've paid more attention to her when her parents visited. A slight smile curved his lips. He remembered an obnoxious little girl who followed him around demanding his attention because she was 'the little princess’. She'd been eight, and he was eleven. He hadn't cared what or who Alana thought she was when they visited. He wanted to ride his bike.
He supposed she’d finally got her wish by marrying what could possibly be the future president of the United States. His stomach curled at the thought.
"Carter, isn't it?" An older man asked as he came up beside him and ordered something stronger than the champagne.
Carter vaguely remembered Leonard Wake. Carter was pretty sure he was in congress and had been there for quite some time. He straightened and shook the man's hand.
"Yes, Carter James, Mr. Wake."
"I haven't seen you around in years." He glanced around the room. "You're probably better off than the rest of us. I mean, staying away. Fewer complications in your life."
Carter studied him for a moment. If he remembered correctly, Leonard had always been a bit of a rebel, bucking the establishment rather than giving in. "Some of you have to fight for us little people," he casually commented.
Leonard nodded toward the couple of the night. "I don't think he'll be the one to do it."
"They’re saying he'll be president someday."
"God help us if he ever gets elected to that position."
Carter shrugged. "I take it you’re not as enamored with him as everyone else."
"Sorry to hear about your father," he changed the subject.
That was Washington, don’t look too deep. Fine by him. "He should be released tomorrow."
"Are you going to be sticking around for a while?"
"Probably not. I can only take so much of this town."
Leonard studied him. "I always figured you would go into politics." He was thoughtful for a moment. "Didn’t you have some kind of trouble in college?"
"I was accused of selling drugs out of my dorm room. I was expelled. That pretty much ended any thoughts of a political career." He squared his shoulders, waiting for the look of shock that usually appeared on people's faces when they were reminded of what happened all those years ago.
"Didn't you room with Stephen?"
The congressman nodded. "I never did care for him. He has a damned beautiful wife, though."
They both looked toward Alana. She’d been separated from Stephen by the crowd of people and was standing with a group of women. She smiled and nodded, speaking very little. Carter watched her for a moment, noticing her movements were almost robotic.
"I see my wife is casting evil looks in my direction. It was nice seeing you again. Thanks for your service to our country." Leonard was thoughtful for a moment. "You know, young Stephen might have done you a favor when he accused you of being the one to have the drugs. Not everyone believes what he says, though." Without another word, he walked off.
It was funny, his parents hadn't believed him when he said he'd never taken drugs, let alone sold them out of his dorm room. All they spoke about was the scandal he'd caused.
The next day, he'd packed a bag, and then enlisted.
Maybe he'd say hello, just for old time's sake. He set his empty glass on the bar and sauntered over to where Stephen was greeting his adoring fans. Stephen talked to a group of men and thanked them for their generous donations before he turned away and came face to face with Carter.
Carter couldn’t stop the slight smile from curving his lips as he saw the look of shock, then the flicker of fear that crossed Stephen’s face. He quickly brought his emotions under control and reached out to shake Carter’s hand. When Carter only stared at him, Stephen dropped his hand to his side.
“Well, I didn’t imagine I’d have your support,” he snarled.
“You don’t. I escorted my mother. She likes you more than I do. Besides, political fundraisers aren’t high on my list of ways to spend a Saturday night.”
He squared his shoulders and nervously glanced around. “We were just kids in college,” he said, keeping his voice low.
“I grew up pretty fast. Thanks to you.”
“Listen, if it’s money…”
Carter laughed. “Worried I might tell everyone what really happened?”
"They didn't believe you back then. They won't now." Stephen's eyes narrowed. "But if you do anything…"
Albert tapped the microphone at the head table. "If everyone would kindly take their seat, they'll start serving the wonderful meal that the best chef in town has created."
"If you'll excuse me." Stephen turned, and his demeanor immediately changed. He smiled and waved or shook hands as he made his way up front.
Yeah, he was pretty sure Stephen hadn’t changed. He was the same bastard he’d always been. Carter had to admit that he’d enjoyed making his old roommate squirm just a little.
Everyone took their seats as they began to serve the meal. Stephen and his family sat at the front table, the center of attention. All the important people gave the same tired speeches while everyone ate. Stephen was the last one to speak.
Carter watched the rapt faces of his adoring groupies eating up everything he said. When he fell from grace, and he was sure Stephen would, they would be the same ones who'd crucify him. But for now, they knew which side their bread was buttered on. Stephen was quickly rising to the top of the political arena. They wouldn't want to be left behind.
After the meal was over and the tables cleared, a string quartet came in and began to play discreetly in the background. People mingled and gossiped about the new scandal that was sweeping Washington this week. Some other poor bastard would be raked across the coals, ending his career.
Alana separated from the small group she was with, whether by choice or by design, he wasn't sure. It almost seemed as if she was trying to escape. Not that he could blame her.
She slipped outside. An interesting move for a politician's wife while at a fundraiser for her husband.
A clandestine meeting, perhaps? He wouldn't blame her if that was why she sneaked out.
He doubted that Stephen had changed from the jerk he knew in college. Now he was curious. He casually strolled to the doors she’d left through.
She didn't hear him walk up as she leaned slightly over the stone railing. Damn, she was stunning.
"You seem deep in thought. What has captured your attention so effectively?"
She flinched and then relaxed as she glanced in his direction. "I was thinking if I jumped, I would probably only break a few bones, but I would still wake up in the morning." She immediately blushed. "I'm joking, of course."
He didn't think so, but whatever her problems were, they weren't his. She was even more beautiful up close, though: delicate features, haunting green eyes framed by long, black lashes. Stunning was too tame a word to describe her.
She was still a politician's wife. "They say your husband is going to be president of the United States eventually. How do you feel about being First Lady?"
Her gaze narrowed. "Are you a reporter?"
His laugh was short. "No, I'm Senator James' son. I remember you as that obnoxious little girl who used to follow me around telling me you were a princess."
Her smile was almost sad. "You were older and refused to play with me."
"That was very rude of me."
She tilted her chin. "Yes, it was. It's a wonder I didn't have to go into therapy because of the way you treated me."
"I don't know, you seem to have survived my rejection. You've apparently done well for yourself by marrying Stephen." For just a moment, he thought he saw a flicker of anger in her eyes. "I take it everything is not perfect in Camelot."
She turned away and stared into the dimly lit garden. Up-lights shone on trees that had been around forever.
"The kingdom walls are too high, and it would seem there's no escape."
"Stuck in the ivory tower, are you, Princess?"
"With no way out."
He wondered if she was serious. He almost smiled. Karma could be a bitch. Stephen had destroyed Carter’s life when he’d been young and impressionable. It was only turnabout that he should do the same to him.
"Are you serious about wanting to escape?" he casually asked, leaning a hip against the stone railing.
Her gaze was almost frantic as she looked around. "I can't. He'd find me."
"Not if you're with me." She still looked undecided. He reached into his pocket, brought out his extra set of keys, and laid them on the stone ledge. "I'm going back inside. If you decide that you're serious about escaping, make your way to the black town car in the valet parking area. You can hide in the trunk until I get my mother home. I have a private plane and I'm leaving tonight. It's your choice, Princess." He turned and went back inside.
Carter figured she was pissed at Stephen for some minor infraction. Maybe he forgot her birthday. She was like everyone else who was involved in politics—shallow. Except, when he opened the door a short time later, he noticed his keys were gone from the ledge. He looked around the ballroom but didn't see Alana anywhere. His gaze stopped on Stephen.
It seemed as though he was looking for someone as well.
Carter suddenly smiled as he realized his evening had gotten just a little bit brighter.
Whoever said revenge tasted sweet was right, because it did. He’d have a little fun with
Stephen’s wife and then return her with a slightly tarnished crown. Stephen would have to work like hell to cover up the scandal.
He felt a twinge of guilt when it came to Alana, but then he remembered her as being a snotty little kid. He doubted she’d changed, either.