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 high school trying to make her bangs not wing out on the sides.
Ashley 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. The most exclusive neighborhood in the area.
Jason was, according to office wife gossip, famously good-looking and equally scary. Ashley 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.
Ashley 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 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?” Ashley 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, his compact build that made people think he was a professional golfer or a swimmer.
“Hey, babe.” Steven grazed a peck on her cheek. She could smell the scotch and tried to remember exactly when it was that he had started ending his day with a glass.
Lots of changes.
“How was your day?” Ashley 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 today. 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 old bat?” 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 drag down 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 Steven brought up the idea of selling the loft, the argument had lasted nearly three days before Ashley had agreed to consider it. She “considered” it to be an asinine idea, but also valued peace and quiet 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. Ashley stifled a sigh 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.
Where Victoria’s suburban house could be labeled a McMansion, it was nothing compared to her stepbrother’s home. There was no “Mc” in this mansion. Wood and stone melded with complex rooflines and acres of glass to create an impressive, if intimidating estate.
The circular drive was relatively empty except for a few catering vans and Victoria’s white Mercedes. Steven parked his BMW and glanced over at Ashley. “Okay, remember what we talked about?”
She cleared her throat. “Compliment Victoria on the caterer’s display and then act surprised when she says it was her plan.”
Steven nodded. “And?”
“If any board members talk to me, I should work the conversation around to you and the volunteering you did in school.”
“I don’t know if fraternity car washes count …”
But he was already getting out of the car.
They were let in by a uniformed member of the catering staff. Only Victoria would hire a door-opener.
“There you are, Steven!” The door-opener-hirer clicked impressively down the hallway in towering Louboutins. Ashley didn’t have to like the woman to covet her footwear. Her honey blonde hair was artfully styled in a French twist and she was poured into a striking red cocktail dress several degrees fancier than Ashley’s.
“Oh, hello.” Victoria’s voice cooled considerably as she paused long enough to run her gaze over Ashley. “That’s an … interesting dress.”
Victoria turned her attention back to Steven. Ashley tuned them out as they chattered, studying the interior instead. It was the opposite of Victoria’s polar icehouse of glossy white tiles and ecru walls. Here, dark woods and deep colors reigned and, according to Google Maps, the entire back of the house had pretty spectacular river views.
She trailed her fingers over the stately entryway table. It was a fantastic piece, slightly distressed and undeniably masculine in its bulk and lines. Something that would sell in a day at Dwell. Victoria’s stepbrother either had excellent taste or a really good decorator.
A door down the hallway opened and Ashley froze in place.
The man who stepped out was easily the most beautiful person she had ever seen. Tall and broad-shouldered, he had thick, dark hair and a stride that ate up the distance between them.
Power, confidence, perfection.
Ashley shut her mouth, which had unfortunately fallen open. He entered the foyer and she was treated to a closer look. Sculpted bones and a strong jaw under a ruthlessly trimmed beard. Sharp angles and smooth plains. It all blended into a face fit for an angel. A fallen one.
No wonder the office wives fanned themselves when they talked about him.
He wore the tailored charcoal suit with a careless comfort. His silk tie had thin stripes of forest green that matched his piercing eyes. Piercing eyes that she could see clearly because the man had stopped less than a foot away from her. Crap.
She tried to rearrange her features into a serene expression, or at least one that looked less pained. He watched her intently, not speaking.
“There you are, Jason.” Victoria’s cultured tone from the opposite side of the foyer cut through Ashley’s haze. “Steven, this is our host, Jason.”
The Adonis extended his hand to Ashley and — with only a second’s hesitation — she mechanically placed hers in his warm, strong grip. It wasn’t a handshake, she thought as he tugged her a half step closer. It was a suggestion.
“Hello.” His voice was like whiskey. Smooth with a slow burn that lit her up from the inside.
She felt a jolt travel up her arm. She was holding a live current.
“Hi.” It came out as part squeak and part whisper.
“Jason!” Victoria barked.
Ashley watched a cloud, shades darker than irritation, pass through those emerald eyes.
He shifted his gaze from her flushed face to his stepsister, still holding Ashley’s hand firmly in his. “Yes, Vicky?” His eyebrow raised mockingly.
If killer bees could shoot out of eyes, Ashley was pretty sure Jason would have been anaphylactic on the word “Vicky.”
“This is, Steven,” Victoria repeated.
“Hello, Steven.” He managed to sound both disinterested and dangerous. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Steven must have sensed the same in his tone because he laughed nervously. “Don’t believe everything your sister tells you,” he joked.
“Stepsister.” Jason corrected crisply. He immediately turned his attention back to Ashley. She felt her cheeks flush. “And you are?” His tone was lower, warmer now.
She cleared her throat. “I’m Ashley.”
“Steven’s fiancée,” Victoria said pointedly.
Jason ignored her. He brought his other hand to cover their joined ones. “A pleasure.”
Why did that sound like a threat? And why was she suddenly picturing sheet-shredding sex?
Then, just as suddenly, he released her and turned on heel. Ashley sagged against the table and blew out her breath.
“Friendly guy,” Steven joked and Ashley could tell he wasn’t happy with the dismissive treatment.
Blatantly rude. Blazingly sexy. He obviously didn’t think highly of Victoria either. Who was he? Enemy or ally?
Guests began to arrive and Ashley busied herself making small talk. She was used to being on her own at these events. Steven found it easier to work a room without her tagging along, which was fine with her. There were only so many times she could listen to the “deal that came down to the bet on the ninth hole” story.
“Ashley! You look great!” A lovely woman with a short, dark pixie haircut approached and gave Ashley a quick hug.
“Cara! I’m so glad to see you.” Ashley returned the hug. “I wasn’t sure if you and Kevin were coming tonight.”
Cara’s husband, Kevin, worked with Steven at the firm. Cara was an attorney with a hefty caseload of pro bono work who also ran marathons and volunteered at her daughter’s school once a week. At five feet nine with enviable fashion sense she could have easily been a willowy runway model. Tonight’s ensemble was a sexy eggplant wrap dress that complimented her flawless bronze skin and a chunky, mixed metal necklace with matching chandelier earrings. Cara was never short on wow factor.
“We can’t stay long. The sitter has to leave early. She’s got SATs in the morning. Are you here for the duration?”
“It looks that way. We even came early so Steven could give Victoria a hand with the party prep. So I imagine I’m here forever.”
“Watch out for that one,” Cara said, pointing a manicured finger toward Victoria who was chatting with a small knot of people near the doorway. “She’s a monster.”
“I feel my fight or flight instincts kick in every time she talks to me,” Ashley joked.
“I’m serious, Ashley. Victoria Van Camp is a sociopath. There is nothing human about that woman.”
“Steven keeps assuring me that she’s a wonderful person who doesn’t hate my guts. I’m kind of glad to know that someone else gets the same vibe from her.”
“It’s no vibe. You listen to those instincts,” warned Cara. “Victoria has a history of setting her sights on a man, seducing him, and then discarding him. Three years ago, she started on Kevin.”
“Kevin? Your Kevin?” Kevin fit the tall, dark, and handsome bill perfectly and from all appearances was head over heels in love with Cara and their daughter.
“She underestimated him, and she certainly underestimated me. I wasn’t about to let some bored socialite turn my husband into a play toy. She didn’t take it well. She went to HR and complained that Kevin was sexually harassing her. The complaint was unfounded, obviously, but he still was suspended for a week while they investigated and the investigation stays on his record.”
Ashley’s jaw dropped and she couldn’t help but stare at Victoria.
“You look shocked.”
“I just thought she was a bitch.”
“Well, she’s definitely that, too.”
“How can you be in the same room with her? I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from smacking the martini out of her hand and punching her in the face.”
“I fantasize about that. But I comfort myself with knowing that someone that batshit crazy will end up taking herself out eventually,” Cara sighed.
“You’re a better woman than I am.” Ashley plucked two glasses of champagne off of a passing waiter’s tray. “To not being batshit crazy.”
Cara clinked her glass to Ashley’s. “Amen. So did you meet Jason?”
“You mean the sexiest man in the universe? He shook my hand and I’m pretty sure my fingerprints melted off from the heat.”
Cara laughed. “Told you!”
Eye-gougingly bored. That was how Ashley would describe her state as the woman next to her droned on about how she and her husband Herbert Something-or-Other bred wire fox terriers for ten years. Ashley assumed those were dogs. Cara and Kevin had made their exit earlier to relieve the babysitter, leaving Ashley to fend for herself.
The only hot spot of the evening — besides Cara’s bombshell — had been Jason’s introduction, and she hadn’t seen him since he disappeared back down the hallway, leaving her smoldering in his wake.
“And of course, you know, just because Horatio Brandenchild III was no longer a viable stud, we simply couldn’t just get rid of him.” The woman pressed a heavily jeweled hand to her heart.
“Of course not,” Ashley agreed, half-listening. She scanned the room that Victoria had called the grand salon and spotted Steven near the massive fireplace with a scotch in hand, laughing at something an older gentleman was saying.
She bit back a sigh. It wasn’t so long ago that Steven would have preferred a nice, cold beer to a glass of scotch. But beer and Friday night pizza didn’t fit in as nicely as scotch and golf. He had taken lessons all summer long and was proud of his progress. Ashley had gone with him once or twice, but her swearing and club tossing made them both decide that golf was not her game.
She was starting to think that if she didn’t decide to change her course to match Steven’s, they would completely diverge. Were his choices so much better than hers? Sure, he brought them more financial security than she had ever expected. But did it have to come at the cost of who they were? Or at least who she was?
Ashley straightened her shoulders. The mental pity party wasn’t helping anything.
Mrs. Herbert Whoever was just wrapping up her description of how they sent Horatio III to live with a cousin on a farm in Iowa where he could wile away his days under the shade of leafy maple trees and chase livestock.
Ashley smiled and made an appropriate-sounding comment, picturing a pancaked champion terrier tiptoeing out from under a very large cow. She shifted her weight from foot to foot.
Her champagne glass was empty, her bladder was full, and her feet hurt already. It was time to sneak off. She excused herself and headed out of the room.
One small but exquisitely decorated powder room and waiter with a tray of champagne later, Ashley was in better spirits. She peeked into the salon and spotted Steven still at the fireplace with a fresh scotch and a cluster of people.
He wouldn’t notice if she just ducked out for a few minutes. Maybe find a couch on which to face-plant. There had to be less formal rooms somewhere off the stately, arched hallway.
The second door on the left yielded carpeted stairs leading down. She darted a quick look over her shoulder before shutting the door quietly behind her. She flicked on the light switch and descended.
The stairs opened into a spacious room with a pool table, Jumbotron-sized TV, and a bar. She pried off her shoes and squished her grateful toes into the plush, cream-colored carpet.
There were doors and windows that led outside to a covered patio, and, if it wasn’t so dark outside, Ashley knew she would be staring at a yet another beautiful river view.
There was a hallway past the bar with yet another powder room, a fully equipped home gym, and a large glass window. The room beyond was dark, but when Ashley peered against the glass she could just make out painted lines on a court.
This guy had a freaking racquetball court in his house.
This was too good of a find to ignore. Ashley hurried to the next door and found the entrance to the court. Outside was a rack with racquets, balls, even gym towels.
Maybe it was the champagne, but when faced with a perfectly good unused racquetball court, Ashley couldn’t think of a reason not to hit a few balls. Just for a minute, of course.
She dropped her shoes and grabbed a lightweight racquet.
Ashley had met Steven her sophomore year of college in gym class playing racquetball. She had pegged him in the kidney returning his “unreturnable serve.”
Still holding her glass of champagne, Ashley balanced the ball on the racquet, bounced it once, and then fired it at the front wall. The satisfying sproing noise made her laugh. She hiked up the skirt of her dress and skipped to catch the ball on the bounce. Volleying with herself, she moved leisurely across the court.
“I thought all the entertainment was upstairs.” The deep voice echoed around the court catching Ashley completely by surprise.