October in Dallas, Texas…
Rylee Florence smoothed the lacy dress over her hips and held her breath. She looked into the bridal shop mirror, and all the stress she’d been carrying on her shoulders since last night melted away.
It was gorgeous.
The alterations made it like a second skin. Her breasts were perfectly accented by the sweetheart neckline. The dress nipped in above her hips and flared out beautifully into a short train covered in lace and pearls. It was flawless, but she hated the niggling thought in the back of her mind warning her it might all be a waste.
“If it wasn’t for that Sweetie Belle pony’s hair, I’d say you were picture perfect.” Her mother’s voice purred a soft Texan lilt from the couch behind her.
Rylee tipped her head and caught her mother’s gaze in the mirror. No judgment. Just a tease. Rylee’s room at her parent’s home was filled with collections of My Little Pony. And Rylee’s hair had been various shades of pink and purple for the last twelve years–since she was sixteen years old.
Up until then, Rylee and her mom had been a matching pair. Champagne blonde hair. Ice-blue eyes. And the prettiest cowboy boots money could buy.
“You like my purple hair.”
“You know I do, my Sweetie Belle.”
“Will it be too much for Grandmother? I could always have it dyed out and then put back later.” Concern crept into Rylee’s voice.
“Heavens no, your grandmother loves your hair too. She’d be furious if you changed it.”
A chuckle rolled up through Rylee’s chest. Grandmother Agatha was ninety-six, but she still lived alone in her own house and liked to brag to everyone that she could do everything she’d always been able to do.
“Do you think Jeff will like the dress?”
“Oh, sweetie. He’ll love it.” Her mother got up from the couch and approached the raised dais. “What about your name?”
“What do you mean?”
“Mrs. Jeffrey Douglass Harrington the third. Don’t you want to keep your name too? I’d consider hyphenating.”
“Mrs. Jeffrey Florence hyphen Harrington the third. Or Mrs. Jeffrey Harrington the third hyphen Florence.” Something shivered and twisted in the pit of Rylee’s stomach. Neither were right. Nothing had been quite right since she’d accidentally overheard her fiancé of nine months on the phone in the middle of the night, last night, ordering some guy taken care of.
Ordering someone hurt?
Ordering someone’s death?
His words and his tone had left her feeling scared.
And what about the other middle-of-the-night calls? The ones he’d given stupid excuses for when she’d asked.
But telling her parents she thought her soon-to-be-husband might be mixed up in criminal activity or be a criminal himself… How did a person do that? A week before one of the biggest weddings in Dallas society circles. The media had dubbed them the sweetheart couple of the year.
* * *
She’d known Jeff for years. Their families had vacationed together every summer since she and Jeff were in college. They’d seemed like decent people.
Jeff had always been sweet and kind and romantic, and she still couldn’t believe he’d said those words. As a couple, they had good chemistry. Plus, he had goals of being in the senate. Maybe more. They were a true power couple.
She could be wrong, maybe she heard wrong.
She could be ruining their lives and their future over a misunderstanding.
Sometimes it really sucked being rich and having the public so invested in her private life.
“Rylee, you look worried. What’s wrong?” Her mother was wearing the same what’s-really-going-on look that she’d worn the night Rylee had punched her sweet-sixteen-party escort for sexual harassment. She hadn’t been mad at Rylee for punching the guy, only for trying to hide why she’d done it.
Rylee shrugged and tried to force her doubts about Jeff away. “Just nerves. One week. It’s so close. It’s hard to believe.”
She should ask her mother’s advice, shouldn’t she?
She really should. Just … not right now.
Rylee looked back at her reflection in the mirror. The dress was everything she’d ever dreamed it would be. And her mother’s face was filled with so much joy.
Ruining this perfect moment wasn’t an option.
“Well, the wedding planner has a few more things on our list to approve today.” Her mother pushed a stray lock of hair from Rylee’s cheek and tucked it behind her ear. “Why don’t you take a few more moments to soak in the splendor of that dress, and then we can finish up. Your dad has that dinner gala tonight with clients and potential investors. Are you still up for that?”
Rylee had completely forgotten about the gala. How was she going to act like everything was fine? What if Jeffrey kissed her and she flinched? If she broke up with him, it was going to be a scandal, and her parents would be humiliated.
She didn’t care what people thought of her. But ruining her parents’ reputation or putting a stain on her family name, that thought made her blood freeze over.
“Mom.” This was it. She was going to pull a full stop on the wedding. It was the better choice.
Nope, can’t do it. Rylee forced out an I’m-okay smile.
“Nothing. I’m good. I’m looking forward to the gala and seeing dad. He’s been gone for weeks.”
Her mother cupped Rylee’s face and stared deep into her eyes.
Rylee could feel her mom peeling away the steel façade Rylee had erected around her emotions like it was no more than tissue paper.
“Rylee Agatha Florence, if something’s wrong, you can tell me. You know that. Anything. No matter what. Even if it means this wedding doesn’t happen. Do you hear me?”
Tears burned from behind Rylee’s eyes, but she didn’t let them fall. She nodded. And pulled away. “It’s just nerves, Mom. I promise.”
That had been the moment.
Her mom had given her an opening, and she’d let it float away like a kid watching their balloon sail up into the sky.
Suck it up, Ry. Make this work. It was nothing. It had to be a misunderstanding. He can’t be what you’re thinking. You heard wrong.
Rylee took a careful step off the dais in front of the mirror. “Can you undo me, please?”
Her mother took another extra-long pause and then helped get all the laces and hooks undone on the back of the dress. It slipped to the floor. A puddle of white and lace and dreams.
Her mother gathered it up and marched it over to the door of the large fitting room.
The boutique attendant took the dress, and then another young woman–this one in her thirties with bright blonde hair and an Elle Woods powder pink suit and matching pink stilettos–popped her head in. “Can I come in and go over the rest of our agenda for today?”
It was a lot of pink. Even for a My Little Pony fanatic.
Her mom stepped back and coughed to cover a laugh. Almost made it.
Margaret Florence had been raised on one of the largest cattle ranches in Texas. Stilettos and pink suits weren’t in her wardrobe. Never had been. And even now, after years of being married to a real estate mogul, she still preferred jeans and boots. Designer jeans and boots, but still. Her mom always kept it simple, classy, and western. And other than her bleached blonde hair color, Rylee favored her mom’s rustic fashion sense.
“Of course, Sarah. What’s on the agenda?”
Rylee yanked her jeans back on, tucked in her white button down top, and buckled the thick western leather belt. Then she sat on the low couch where her mom had been sitting and shoved her feet into her well-worn turquoise and brown Lucchese boots.
“What’s first?” Rylee inhaled deeply. She could do this. Everything would work out. If she said it enough, maybe she could convince herself.
“Your fiancé’s lawyer is outside. I told him to wait. Something about a beneficiary paper that didn’t get signed a few weeks ago. Then I have a car to take us to see the ballroom and chapel set up for final approval.”
Rylee slapped her thighs and stood. “Okay. Let’s do this.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Sarah tapped her iPad. “Everything is ready, Ms. Florence. All the way down to the purple napkins with the My Little Pony outline embossed in silver. They came out really cute.”
“Excellent. Shall we?” Her mother held out a hand, beckoning, and Rylee grabbed hold.
The second they stepped outside into the cool overcast October afternoon, a large man in a dark gray suit stepped forward. He was familiar. Rylee remembered meeting him, but she couldn’t recall his name.
“Forgive me, ladies. I do apologize. I promise I only need a couple signatures, and I’ll be out of your hair forever.”
“What did we miss?” Rylee asked.
“A couple of the beneficiary pages from the will. When my assistant proofread the full document, they were blank. Nothing out of the ordinary.” He held out a heavy leather folder and handed her a pen. Then he pointed. “Here.”
She signed the blank line.
Then he pulled up the top page and revealed another signature line. “And here, Ms. Florence.”
Rylee signed the second line and handed him back the pen. “Anything else?”
“No, ma’am. Enjoy your wedding and honeymoon, Ms. Florence. I hear Jeff is planning to fly you himself to a cabin in the mountains.”
Rylee gave the lawyer a polite smile and then dismissed him with a nod.
She and her mom got into the waiting black town car. Her mother looked out the window at the lawyer, her lips flattening into a disappointed thin line. “Jeff needs to hire your father’s lawyer.”
“I don’t like him.” Her mom said and turned her head away from the window to meet Rylee’s gaze. “You shouldn’t work with him again. There’s something about him I don’t trust.”
“Done.” Rylee didn’t particularly care for the lawyer either, but she hadn’t been willing to argue with Jeff. The two men had known each other for years. Her mother’s opinion, though, was a stamp of approval or dismissal. She trusted her judgment explicitly.
Her mom’s face relaxed, and a smile of victory curved on her lips. “Good.”
* * *
The rest of the day went off without a hitch. The ballroom was beautiful. The chapel looked like a dream. The purple napkins with the outline of Sweetie Belle were amazing.
Rylee had taken one and folded it up and tucked it into her pocket. Even if her marriage would not be exactly as she’d envisioned, the wedding would be perfect and beautiful.
She fidgeted with her phone in the car. Typing out a text to Jeff and then deleting it three times. She needed to see him. She needed him to look at her and smile and kiss her, and all this worry and doubt would fade away.
“Can you stop at Jeff’s office on our way back. I want to remind him about the gala tonight. Tell him I’m going over to your place to get ready and that I’ll meet him there.”
“Of course, sweetie.”
The town car pulled to a stop in front of a contemporary glass office building. It was the senator’s campaign office. Jeff was the campaign director. He knew everyone. And while his goal was to get Mitchell Hollins elected this year, he’d already begun planning out how to follow in his footsteps and ultimately supersede him in the future.
Jeff was ambitious, and he worked hard and possibly … ordered people’s murders?
Rylee mentally cleared the worry from her mind and climbed the steps. You have to stop thinking about it. You have to move past it. You are strong and capable, and telling your parents that you think Jeff might be a criminal isn’t an option. There’s no proof. You’re ruining a good thing.
She punched in her code and pushed open the door, surprised to find the main area empty. The lights buzzed annoyingly above her head, making the silence all that more profound. She walked across the still office, her footsteps muffled on the carpeted floor.
Except there wasn’t complete silence.
There were noises. Muffled groans she recognized. And moaning. And flesh slapping against flesh.
Her heart didn’t know whether to be broken or relieved. A cheating asshole story would solve everything. Except could she handle seeing the betrayal live and in color? Who was he fucking? Did it matter? How long had he been sleeping with her and another?
Nausea welled in the pit of her stomach.
She had to hold it together. She could stave off the hurt and brokenness and betrayal and deal with it later in the safety of her parents’ home where Jeff couldn’t get to her.
Rylee took a deep breath, put her hand on his office door, and pressed down the lever handle. The door swung open, and she was met with a view of Jeff, bare-assed and balls-deep in the office secretary.
“What the fuck, Aaron. I told you–” His words trailed off when he saw it wasn’t his assistant. “Fuck. Ry. It’s not what it looks like.” He turned to face her. Full frontal.
She’d never been so disgusted by a penis in her life. Or a man. She didn’t want to see either of them ever again.
“What would you call this?” She waved a hand at his flopping penis and the naked secretary bent over the back of his couch. “It certainly seems like you’re fucking the office secretary to me.”
His face reddened. His gaze blackened, and Rylee had to fight every urge not to take a step backward. That look. How dare he be angry at her. She had done nothing wrong.
But that look. That look carried a threat that made Rylee think of the overheard phone call from the night before, and a coldness like ice crept up her spine.
He grabbed his pants from the floor and yanked them on, tucking his still-erect penis out of sight.
The naked secretary grabbed her clothes and fled out the side door.
“Rylee. She means nothing. I love you. We will be fine. We’re going to be a powerful force together, Rylee. A Harrington and a Florence.”
Hold back the pain.
Hold back the tears.
Channel the anger.
Hate him for this. You would if you hadn’t heard that phone call.
“How dare you? How dare you think that this is something I would be okay with? I’m not, and we’re done.”
“The wedding is next week, Ry!”
“Thank-fucking-god!” Rylee yelled. “Better I know you’re a lying cheat now than after we exchanged vows that obviously mean nothing to you. Less paperwork.” Each word brought her wrath closer to the surface, like a bubbling volcano preparing to spew molten lava. “I’m worth more than this. I deserve someone who cares about me. Who wants to truly be with me. We were good together. We could’ve been happy.” Tears burned in her eyes.
No. He didn’t deserve to see her tears.
She sucked back the rising sob and grit her teeth. “Goodbye, Jeff. Enjoy her, and don’t you even dare show your face at my father’s gala tonight. Is that clear?”
“You belong to me, Rylee.” His voice carried anger and sharp derision all in the same breath. He took an aggressive step toward her, and Rylee mirrored his movements, backing out of the office.
She shook her head. “No. I do not.”
He stopped advancing, and the tightness in her chest released slightly.
“Ry. I love you.” This time his tone was soft and smooth like a devil luring a soul into hell with promises of overwhelming pleasure.
Her heart sped in her chest. How had she missed this manipulative behavior? How had she not noticed? How had she not felt his insincerity? How had she been this blind? How often had he used that voice on her before?
“Goodbye, Jeffrey.” She spun on her heel and marched out of the office and to the town car waiting at the curb for her. Their driver was waiting for her with a pleasant smile.
The chauffeur opened the door for her, and she slipped into the back seat with her mother and the wedding planner.
“The wedding is off, Mother. I’m sorry.”