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.
“Okay, Cassie, you’re all set,” the manicurist said with a smile.
Cassie looked up, realizing she’d been daydreaming. Withdrawing her newly polished fingertips from the drying contraption, she stood, carefully laying her purse strap over her shoulder. “Thanks, Amy. I’ll see you next month.”
“Yes, you will, and I’m going to want to hear all about your trip.”
“Deal.” Cassie smiled, then headed to the new BMW Mark had surprised her with the previous month. She slid into the supple leather interior already planning her next stop.
The dry cleaner, then Mark’s office for lunch.
As she drove, she couldn’t help but smile as she fantasized about all the fun things they would be doing in the weeks to come. A romantic walk along the Thames, a gondola ride at sunset, coffee and dessert at a French café.
It’s going to be perfect.
Rushing from the dry cleaner, Cassie carefully laid Mark’s cleaning on the back seat and made sure it was secured so it would not move around. She flinched involuntarily, remembering the time Mark shoved her to the bathroom floor and berated her because his suits got wrinkled. Stupid! That’s what you are, Cassie! The most important meeting of my career—of my life—and you expect me to wear this? He threw the crumpled suit on the tile floor, then pushed her face in it like a dog being punished.
Stop it! She scolded herself.
It’s different now. He’s changed.
She tried to shake off the negative memory, angry her conscience trampled her excitement and replaced it with doubt. But she couldn’t help it; the memory was strong.
It was the first time Mark had been violent with her.
The first time she saw the crack in his armor.
They’d been married less than a year when she realized there were two sides to Mark. The charmer—the man who won her heart, and the tyrant—the man who was controlling and abusive. She had learned fast what she needed to do to avoid the back-handed side of Mark’s temper. Unfortunately, she wasn’t always successful. However, over the last year, his dark moods had become a thing of the past. That’s why the second honeymoon—a chance at a fresh start.
Everything is going to be fine, she reassured herself as she drove to Mark’s favorite deli and picked up lunch.
Cassie entered the prestigious office building where Mark’s company leased a floor of suites. With her new Gucci sandals clacking on the marble tile, she crossed to the elevator banks, noticing the atrium and lobby weren’t nearly as crowded as they would be on any given weekday. Balancing the to-go box from the sandwich shop in one hand, she pressed the button for the twentieth floor with one of her newly polished fingers. The door immediately opened, and she stepped in. When the elevator doors reopened, Cassie rushed down the hallway, feeling like a kid on Christmas morning. Barely containing her excitement, she swung open the large glass door with the name Gray and Sons etched on it. She always smiled at the play on words but hoped one day soon they would have a son who would follow in Mark’s footsteps. Hurrying to his office, she burst through the door and cheered, “Surprise!”
Mark quickly scrambled to his feet, leaving the woman he was entangled with on the couch. Cassie watched as he attempted to tuck in his shirt, then she turned and saw Amanda—his assistant—buttoning her blouse and straightening her hair.
Cassie stood, unbelieving, her hands shaking. Dropping the carton of food in the doorway, she stumbled backward out of Mark’s office and hurried toward the large glass double doors. Pushing through those, she bolted toward the elevator at the end of the hall. She heard Mark yelling at her to stop, but she didn’t. She couldn’t. Once inside the elevator, she repeatedly pressed the Close button.
Close already. Come on, close.
Looking up, she saw Mark turn the corner and rush toward her. He was within inches of the elevator when the doors finally closed. She heard him shout a string of profanities, and bang against the closed door before the elevator started its descent. Pressing herself against the back wall, she tried to slow her breathing, but her heart raced so fast she felt like she was going to pass out. She bent over, fighting the pinpoints of light, but nausea crept up her throat threatening to explode onto her new sandals.
How could you, Mark? How could you do this to me?
The atrium. The lobby. The parking structure. They were all a blur as she hurried to get away. Her hands were shaking so bad, she fumbled with her key fob, dropping it on the cold cement. With quaking fingers, she picked it up and pressed the button. The taillights flashed, and the alarm chirped. Quickly, she pulled the door open and slid in. Just as she pushed the ignition button, her cell phone chimed. Mark. She wanted to answer it, scream at him all the questions running through her head, but she couldn’t do it. She did not want to hear his excuses. She did not want to give him a chance to explain. As far as she was concerned, there was no explanation. There was no excuse. Mark had played her for a fool, and she had been naïve enough to believe him.
Racing home, she nervously paced around their apartment like a caged animal. Crying hysterically, she felt like she was losing control of her body. Of her life. Of everything. When the phone rang, she ignored it. Knowing she had to get out of there before Mark came home, she hurried to their bedroom. There, at the foot of the bed, sat her already packed suitcases. Grabbing the collapsible handle of the largest one, she stacked the smaller suitcase on top, and threw the overnight bag over her shoulder. As she headed for the door, she heard Mark’s voice fill the living room.
“Cassie . . . Cassie, baby, let me talk to you. Come on, Cassie, pick up! Cassie!” he shouted. “Pick up the phone! Let me talk to you!” She stood like a zombie staring at the phone, terrified to move, terrified to defy Mark. But if she stayed, and allowed him the chance to explain, he would manipulate her like he had done so many times before. But how much worse would it be if she ran? He would find her. Then what? Cassie leaned against the elevator door, knowing she couldn’t stay, but afraid to leave.
Where can I go? I have nothing without Mark.
The courage she felt just seconds ago was gone. Dropping her overnight bag onto the floor, she backed away from the elevator. Then, from out of nowhere, she heard a whispered voice telling her to run. Startled, she swung around, expecting to find someone standing behind her. She scanned the living room and hall, but no one was there.
I imagined it.
Her mind was playing tricks on her. Stepping away from her luggage, she turned toward the bedroom.
Run, Cassidy. Go home!
There it was again. It had to be the voice inside her head. Her gut. Instinct. Whatever it was people called it. Or she was going crazy. Nevertheless, the urgency she felt that very second was empowering. Looking over her shoulder at the phone, she listened as Mark cursed and swore. “Don’t you dare defy me, Cassie! I’m warning you!”
Flinging her purse and carry-on over her shoulder, she pressed the elevator button. The doors opened immediately, and she quickly dragged her suitcases inside. She had nothing to say to Mark; nothing worth staying for. She had tried to make it work, tried to believe him, but his actions pretty much said it all.
She was done trying.
Driving proved difficult through the blur of tears. Cassie kept reliving, dissecting the last several months, questioning everything. She thought the change in Mark’s behavior was proof he cared. A rekindling of his love for her. A renewed dedication to their marriage. Now she realized the changes started about the same time Amanda was hired as his new assistant.
Cassie replayed the phone conversations she’d had with Amanda. They exchanged pleasantries and compliments like friends would. From time-to-time, Amanda encouraged Cassie to come by the office and steal Mark for lunch or even the rest of the day. She helped by clearing Mark’s calendar and freeing up his time. Cassie thought Amanda’s support and encouragement had been instrumental in the revitalization of their marriage. Now she realized nothing could be further from the truth. She wasn’t helping me; she was just making sure I didn’t stumble upon their escapades. How could I have been so stupid?
An hour later, Cassie found herself standing in the middle of JFK Airport, clueless what to do next. She had used a travel agent to book their trip, and before that, Mark had always taken care of their travel arrangements. The most she’d ever done is book a one-way flight to New York. Now she had to figure out how to take a first-class ticket to Ireland and exchange it for a destination stateside.
By the time Cassie had her ticket, made it through security, and found her gate, she was numb. She had walked from one end of the concourse to the other, fought with three different ticket agents, two supervisors, and a manager, insisting she didn’t care how much money she lost by transferring her ticket; she just needed it changed. And if that wasn’t enough, her phone vibrated in her purse every few minutes sending chills down her spine. And when it didn’t vibrate, she was terrified she would turn around and find Mark standing behind her. Now, with her phone in her hand, she ignored the list of calls from Mark and dialed a number she had pushed to the recesses of her mind. She waited, listening as the phone rang. When the familiar voice on the other end of the line said, “Hello,” she took a deep breath.
“Dad, it’s me . . . Cassidy.”