Cassie looked at her Maurice Lacroix watch as she pushed open the gym door. The anticipation building inside her was like nothing she had ever felt before.
“I can’t believe you’ll be gone an entire month,” Jill said as she tossed her gym bag over her shoulder. “No wonder you’ve been putting in extra hours at the gym.”
“Yeah, right!” Andrea said belligerently. “Cassie has been a perfect size three for the five years I’ve known her.”
Cassie tensed at Andrea’s backhanded compliment. Even though her friend was right, no one knew the real reason Cassie worked so hard to maintain her perfect figure.
No. Don’t go there. Things are better now.
“Tell me again where you’ll be going?” Jill asked as they crossed the parking lot.
“Ireland, London, Spain, Italy, and Switzerland,” Cassie listed, excited just thinking about it. “Then we’re taking a ten-day cruise down the Rhine through France and Germany. After that, we go to Amsterdam where we’ll be staying in a penthouse suite overlooking the Amstel River.”
“I’ve seen brochures for those river cruises,” Jill said. “They’re not like those massive cruise ships with tennis courts, water parks, and screaming kids running everywhere. They’re sophisticated and romantic. They attract a completely different clientele.”
“And Mark insisted we book the most expensive suite on the ship. It has its own wraparound balcony, a spacious sitting area, and gorgeous furnishings. It’s going to be incredible.”
“But why go now? It’s going to be cold this time of year.”
Textbook Andrea. If there was a negative, she was sure to find it. “Because this was the best time for Mark’s schedule. Besides, we will be indoors a lot of the time, touring museums and art galleries, exploring restaurants and cafés. And when we’re on the ship, we will be snuggling together on the balcony of our amazing suite watching the scenery pass by. It will be quiet and intimate. Just what we need.”
“I could never talk Dan into something like that,” Andrea whined as she passed her foot under the back bumper of her Mercedes. “Last year, his idea of a grand vacation was a trip to the Bahamas with a business meeting sandwiched in the middle.” She dropped her gym bag in the trunk, then passed her foot again. “I already told him I’m going to Italy this year without him. And, the money I save by leaving his workaholic butt at home is going to buy me a whole new wardrobe.”
“You’re not actually going by yourself, are you?” Jill asked.
“No, I’m taking my sister. I need someone to count my drinks and keep me in line, so I don’t do something reckless.”
Jill and Andrea continued to debate the finer points of the perfect vacation while Cassie’s thoughts turned inward. She was both nervous and excited about their upcoming trip. Not only was it a dream vacation, but it would give Mark and her a fresh start—a chance she never would have imagined possible just a year ago.
She flinched, not realizing she had tuned out her friends kibitzing. “Sorry, Andrea, my brain is all over the place today. What did you say?”
“I asked—for the third time—when do you leave?”
“Ahh . . . tonight. I have some last-minute errands to run this morning, then I’m going to surprise Mark at work with lunch.”
“What’s he doing at work on a Saturday? Especially the Saturday before vacation?” Andrea asked.
“He’s been putting in extra hours these last few weeks, tying up loose ends and making sure his VIP clients are evenly divided among his associates. I’m hoping by the time I get there; I can persuade him to leave early.”
Jill squealed with excitement. “How exciting! You’re going to have such an amazing time. Take lots of pictures.”
“Of landmarks,” Andrea clarified with a dry laugh. “I don’t want to see a complete pictorial of what you did while you were gone. There is only so much you should share with your friends.”
Jill laughed while Cassie blushed at Andrea’s outrageous comment. Exchanging hugs all around, Cassie hurried to her car feeling giddy and excited, and all the things she hadn’t felt for so long.
Okay, Cassie said to herself as she pulled out from Fitness Sphere’s parking lot and into the stream of traffic. First the nail salon, then the cleaners, then lunch with Mark. Please, please, please, let him be willing to leave early. She knew she was taking a risk; Mark did not like it when she showed up at the office unexpectedly. He’d ranted on more than one occasion how unprofessional it looked when wives showed up unannounced and distracted their husbands when they should be working. But since it was a Saturday, and none of the partners should be there, Cassie figured it wouldn’t be that big a deal.
I’ll play it by ear. If he’s too busy, I’ll just drop off lunch and go. Besides, I’ll have him all to myself for a whole month without work monopolizing his time. What’s one more afternoon?
Cassie waited for the traffic signal to turn green, her fingers drumming on the steering wheel.
What if he’s engrossed in a deal? Or meeting with one of his partners? I don’t want to upset him by interrupting. Maybe I should call?
“Call Mark’s phone,” she said to her voice control, but before it connected, she canceled it. “Where’s the fun or spontaneity in that?” No. I just won’t ask him to leave. I’ll bring lunch, no strings attached.
In the ten minutes it took Cassie to drive to the nail salon, she changed her mind half a dozen times regarding lunch.
Why am I acting like this? Things are different now. Mark has changed.
Cassie shuddered, an emotional trigger whenever her thoughts traveled to darker times. Mark’s work had been a major obstacle in their marriage, but it was not the most hazardous.
Shake it off. Dwell on the good, not the bad.
It had been her mantra for the last year.
Only the good.
Cassie thought back to the first time she’d seen Mark. She’d been in New York three years and had just started working the late shift at an all-night café. It was only her second night on the job when Mark strolled in looking like a fashion model straight from a photo shoot. His deep complexion, coffee-colored eyes, and charismatic smile mesmerized her, and the designer silk suit he wore had suave sophistication written all over it. But Rachel—one of the other waitresses—gave her the quick 411 on him. Business office around the corner. Routinely stopped in on his way home. A major workaholic. Always ordered a Black Tie to go. Never had time to sit down.
But that night, Mark’s routine changed. He went out of his way to introduce himself to her, then sat at the table she was clearing and struck up a conversation. It was the first of many.
Night after night, Mark showed up at the café, sat in Cassie’s station, and swapped stories with her. His stories were all about business; hers were about art school and crazy customers. Cassie found him charming, and his commanding presence filled the room, but never once did she consider Mark might be interested in her. He was so far out of her league it wasn’t even funny. She just figured they were sharing polite conversation, anecdotes about their day, nothing more.
But soon enough, Mark invited her out. The first time he did, it caught her completely off guard. She deflected his invitation to a business function, using her hectic schedule as an excuse. She explained that juggling school, work, and her studies allowed no time for a social life. Mark accepted her refusal with a gracious smile but insisted he would ask her out again. Cassie wrote it off as harmless flirting. He was a gorgeous businessman, wealthy, and probably had supermodels on speed-dial. She, on the other hand, was just a third-year art student, barely making ends meet. She knew the novelty of their relationship would eventually wear off, and when it did, he would go back to spending time with his high-end friends, and she would go on being a barista until the art community discovered her talent.
Then he asked her out again.
When she refused a second time, he asked if their age difference bothered her. She assured him age was just a number. Even so, when she found out he was nine years her senior, she was shocked. Never would she had guessed he was that much older than her. Clearly, he wore his age as easily as his Tommy Hilfiger ties.
Two months into their nightly repartee, Cassie finally conceded. Mark showed up later than usual and proceeded to tell her about his latest venture. She sat down at the end of her shift and completely lost track of time. When she realized they had talked the night away, and there was no way she could make it to class on time, Mark convinced her to play hooky. Laughingly, he claimed it was a sign they were meant to spend the day together. His smile was so engaging, so charming; she agreed to go.
From that day on, they spent every spare moment together. At first, their dates were simple. But soon, movie dates turned into Broadway openings. Hot dog cart dinners in the park evolved into fancy dinners at five-star restaurants. And when Cassie embarrassingly explained she didn’t have the wardrobe for some of his favorite haunts, packages from swanky boutiques showed up at her apartment.
Cassie soon realized Mark wasn’t only wealthy, but influential. No matter the restaurant or the time, not a dinner went by without someone walking over to their table to shake Mark’s hand or give him a pat on the back. Even women would interrupt their candle-lit dinners to make time with Mark. Cassie found these intrusions awkward and intimidating. It was obvious these women were flirting with Mark, and at times, he seemed a little too accommodating, kindling insecurities in Cassie. But Mark assured her it took different kinds of grease to keep the wheels of business turning, and she had nothing to worry about.
But Cassie did worry. She knew Mark wanted to take their relationship to the next level. After all, he was a thirty-year-old man, not a college junior. And as much as Cassie liked to think of herself as a rebel—leaving home at an early age, striking out on her own, turning her back on the do’s and don’ts of her childhood—she couldn’t shake the conversations she’d had with her mother regarding abstinence and intimacy. Her mother had challenged Cassie not to sacrifice her virginity for anything short of amazing, passionate, lasting love, and never to confuse love with sex. And even though Cassie hated her mother for leaving her, she was afraid if she disregarded her advice altogether, the memories of her mother would evaporate, and she would have nothing left.
Until Mark, abstinence had been a non-issue. She was in New York for one reason, and one reason only: her art career. That was her main focus. That and a job to pay for the expenses not covered by her scholarship. She’d been driven and had stayed on course, and Mark respected the boundaries she had laid down.
Until the night he took her home.
They had been dating for two months before Mark took her to his Fifth Avenue apartment. That was when she realized the extent of his wealth. Mark’s apartment wasn’t on the twenty-fifth floor. It was the twenty-fifth floor.
When the elevator doors opened, she stepped directly into the entryway of Mark’s lavish, magazine perfect apartment. The view, the architecture, the decor, everything fit together flawlessly.
Immediately, Cassie felt out of place in the opulent surroundings. She didn’t feel she had what it took to fit into Mark’s world. She was a nobody from a no-nothing town. She didn’t come from a prestigious family, have a career, or even a degree. In fact, she had missed so many classes in the last two months—because of time spent with Mark—she had dropped out of art school before they could kick her out. She gave the associate dean an elaborate story about complications with an ongoing health issue. And since she had a stellar record with a promising future—according to one of her professors—she was given the semester off to take care of her health without jeopardizing her scholarship.
But standing in Mark’s elaborate penthouse, knowing the elite circles he traveled in, Cassie wondered if she would ever be able to measure up.
“What do you think?” Mark moved closer, staring at her with his warm brown eyes.
“Not nearly as beautiful as you,” he said as he gently caressed her cheek with the back of his hand.
She wanted to believe him, wanted to belong in his world.
“Here, I’ll show you around.” Mark reached for her hand and gave her a tour. From the terrace balcony, to his richly paneled study, to the gourmet kitchen, everything in Mark’s apartment was done on a grand scale. Then they walked the marble hall that led to the master suite. Mark opened the double doors, and Cassie nervously looked around, knowing she shouldn’t be there.
Mark stepped closer. “I want to share my life with you, Cassie. I want to give you all of this.” Then, dipping his head to the nape of her neck, he uttered his ultimate desire. “I want all of you.”
Cassie’s inhibitions slid to the floor along with the silk dress Mark slipped from her shoulders. That night she had made a decision. She would never go back to the town of Liberty, her efficiency apartment, or the world of Cassidy Martin. She would only move forward into the world of Mark Grayson.
As she lay awake that first night, Mark pressed against her back, she struggled with what she’d done. Her mother’s words taunted her. The self-deprecating barbs from her conscience condemned her. She muffled her cries, turmoil and resentment churning inside her, giving way to anger.
If you cared, Mom, you wouldn’t have left me. You and your god abandoned me a long time ago. It’s my life, and I am going to live it how I want to. You can’t tell me what to do anymore. I’m a grown woman. I will make my own choices. And I choose Mark.
Cassie moved in with him the very next day.