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Undercover Love

Chapter 1

Yoga pants and a pizza.

That’s really all Ashley wanted, but it wasn’t in the cards for her tonight. She glanced at her watch as she hustled down the sidewalk in the breezy North Carolina spring air. By the time she got home, she was only going to have an hour to undo the damage of inventory day and get presentable.

She wasn’t exactly fond of the idea of giving up a much-needed relaxing Friday night to attend some cocktail-attire, back-patting celebration. She sighed and slid her sunglasses on against the glare of the late afternoon sun.

It was even worse knowing that the dreaded Ice Queen was hosting. She imagined that in high school Victoria was the manicured, perfectly coiffed Homecoming Queen. Meanwhile, Ashley had spent those same years trying to make her bangs not wing out on the sides.

She scrubbed a hand through her coffee-colored—now bang-free—hair. She was no all-American beauty like Victoria. Her dark eyes were a little too big, her mouth a little too full, especially when her lips were pursed in thought.

She had more confidence now than in her high school days but she often felt that familiar twinge of adolescent insecurity whenever golden girl Victoria was around.

It could be because the woman hated her.

Granted, she had never come out and said, “I hate you,” but the subtext was clear.

Ashley slid behind the wheel of her hatchback and eased into downtown Wilmington traffic.

She knew better than to voice her concerns to Steven. Her fiancé was a devoted fan of all things Victoria. They were brokers at an investment firm owned by Victoria’s grandfather…or step-grandfather. In the beginning, Steven insisted that his friendly relationship with his co-worker was nothing more than his ticket to a corner office. But Ashley sensed that at some point during the ass-kissing he really started to admire Victoria. Now Ashley was forced into uncomfortable social situations on a regular basis.

The metal bangles on her wrist jangled violently as she gripped the wheel.

Tonight, however, was no mere celebratory opening of the custom in-ground pool, Jacuzzi, and outdoor kitchen/wet bar—courtesy of Victoria’s divorce settlement from Husband No. 2. Tonight was a fancy dinner party celebrating some accomplishment of the grandfather.

Cocktails at 7:00, the invitation read.

The only potentially interesting part of the evening was the location. It was being held at Victoria’s stepbrother’s home on the Cape Fear River. In the most exclusive neighborhood in the city.

Jason was, according to office wife gossip, famously good-looking and equally scary. She was curious to see him and his home. Maybe the evening would give her some good design ideas for the store. Or maybe it was one of those chrome-and-white, post-modern monstrosities that bachelors who hire interior decorators end up living in.

She doubted that even scary hot Jason and his sprawling estate would save the evening. If he was in any way related to Victoria, he was most likely a sociopath in Armani.

But tonight was for Steven’s career. She sighed as she pulled into the parking garage. It was a phrase that was becoming more and more common in their conversations.

She thumped her head against the headrest. Things had changed so fast in the two years since her graduation. An engagement, a move to the loft, and a promotion to store manager at work. Meanwhile, Steven was steadily climbing the corporate ladder.

A year ago, Ashley would have said they were on the same page, a team ready to take on the world. And now…

Well, no one said life was going to be easy. Sitting in her car feeling sorry for herself wasn’t going to fix anything. But maybe putting on a happy face and a nice dress might help a little.

She hopped out of the sedan and headed for the elevator. Spotting her neighbor, Ashley raised a hand to wave and then realized what the woman was doing.

“Mrs. Menifield!” Ashley rushed toward the elderly woman in the hot pink sweat suit who was attempting to maneuver a small-wheeled shopping cart up the concrete stairs, one step at a time.

“Oh, hello, Ashley! How was your Easter?” she puffed, yanking the cart up another step.

“Mrs. Menifield! What are you doing? Why aren’t you taking the elevator?” She made a grab for the cart handle.

“I was watching that Dr. Oz yesterday, and he said a good way to stay healthy is to take the stairs instead of the elevator.”

“But you live on the fourth floor!” Ashley tugged the handle out of Mrs. Menifield’s grasp.

“That’s how I’m going to get in good shape,” she chirped. “And then Mr. Morton will ask me to be his bridge partner.”

“Well, at least let me take the cart for you. I could use some exercise, too.”

Eighteen minutes and four flights of stairs later, Ashley deposited Mrs. Menifield and her groceries in the kitchen. “Mrs. Menifield, please promise me you won’t take the stairs again when you have so much stuff to carry.”

“But how will I get my stair workout in?” Her brow was crinkled with worry.

Ashley pulled the last items—a giant can of Ensure and a bottle of cheap rum—out of the depths of the cart and set them on the counter. “How about you take the elevator up with your things, bring them inside, take the elevator down, and then walk back upstairs?”

Mrs. Menifield clapped her hands. “That is a wonderful idea!” She picked up the bottle of rum and wiggled it at Ashley. “Stop by sometime for a cocktail, and you can help me measure my thighs to see how thin I get!”

* * *

Ashley hustled up two more flights of stairs and dove straight into a hot shower. She was toweling off when she heard the front door. A minute later, Steven breezed into the bathroom, ice cubes clinking in a glass.

He was a good-looking man in a country club kind of way. Tan and blond and lean.

“Hey, babe.” He grazed a peck on her cheek. She could smell the scotch and tried to remember exactly when it was that he had started ending every day with a glass.

Lots of changes.

“How was your day?” She watched him in the mirror as he shucked off his button-down and pants. He tossed them on the floor next to the hamper and headed, naked, to the shower.

“Great!” his voice echoed off the tile.

“You’re home late. Did you have a meeting?”

“I went for drinks with a couple guys after work. Pre-party party. How was your day?”

She told him about her Mrs. Menifield experience while winding sections of her hair around the barrel of the curling iron.

“Why the hell do you bother with that soon-to-be corpse?” He twisted the water off and grabbed a towel. “When we put this place on the market I hope none of the buyers run into her in the elevator. She’ll tank the property value.”

Steven’s latest idea in his ever-expanding life plan involved putting the loft on the market and buying a roomy place in the suburbs. Ashley had a feeling that Victoria had planted that particular idea. It seemed like Victoria had made Steven her little pet project at the office, always offering up advice for ways to “get ahead” or make the partners “take notice.”

The first time he brought up the idea of selling the loft, the argument had lasted nearly three days before she had agreed to consider it. She “considered” it to be an asinine idea, but also valued peace at home.

She ignored his comment and set her hair with spray. A little wild, a little tousled. Perfect.

He padded past her to the closet. “Hurry up. We’re going to be late.”

Gee, darn. She stifled a yawn and shimmied into the black sheath dress, her latest bargain find. It was a bit more low-cut than was probably appropriate for a buttoned-up kind of function like this, but it sure made her feel good. “How do I look?”

Steven hustled out of the closet tying his tie and paused to look at her. “You probably should have put your hair up. You know like…” He gestured around his head. “Well, there isn’t really any time to fix it now.”

He hurried out of the bathroom, and Ashley wondered how often other women had the irrepressible urge to flip off the men in their lives.

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