Read an Excerpt
I can't believe I'm sneaking out of my own house, Claudia Jefferies thought, pitching her pink travel bag through the second-story window of her quaint brick home nestled in the heart of downtown Richmond. But what choice do I have? I either skip town until the story dies down or live in constant fear.
Before second thoughts set in, she gathered her courage and jumped. Claudia landed in the flower bed, but instantly sprang to her feet. And her sister said she needed to go on a diet! Humpf. If not for the soft cushion padding her stomach she would have broken her ribs.
Moving swiftly, she cleaned the dirt off her clothes, retrieved the bag and climbed over her neighbor's fence. She had to hurry, or she was going to be late to meet Max. The sun crept over the horizon, turning the sky a pinkishorange hue. Like her, the night was making a hasty retreat, falling to the shadows like the leaves sailing to the ground.
Feeling a chill in the autumn wind, Claudia pulled her cashmere scarf tightly across her shoulders. Cold singed her ears, reminding her of the drastic measures she'd taken last night to conceal her identity. Against the advice of her sister, she'd driven to a neighborhood dubbed the Devil's Playground and found a small, out-of-the-way beauty salon. Once seated in the vinyl chair, she'd ordered the gum-popping stylist to "chop it all off and dye it black." The young woman stared at her as if she'd just confessed to committing double murder. Surprise pinched her plump face, and her pierced tongue lay limp in her mouth.
"Is there a problem?" Claudia asked, shifting uncomfortably in her chair. Did the woman recognize her? Was that why she was copping an attitude?
"Don't do this, ma'am. He's not worth it."
Now, Claudia was the one with wrinkled brows and puckered lips. The stylist wasn't making any sense, and she was so loud she'd attracted the attention of the entire salon. "I don't understand," she whispered, hoping the woman would follow her lead and lower her voice. "Who's not worth what?"
"Sisters storm in here every day demanding I chop their hair off, only to regret it when they reunite with their boyfriends a week later."
"Well, I'm not one of them. I'd sooner become a lesbian than take my ex back."
The stylist drew her fingers through Claudia's lush brown locks. "Are you sure about this? Normally I wouldn't dissuade a client from trying something new, but you have the kind of hair most women dream of! It's long and thick and full of body."
"I'm sure, and if you finish within the hour, I'll give you a very generous tip." Claudia patted her purse as if it was stuffed with hundred-dollar bills. "Please hurry, I'm in a rush."
That was all it took.
Forty-five minutes later, Claudia sailed out of the beauty salon feeling like a younger, trendier version of her thirty-year-old self. Angled bangs fell dramatically across her right eye, thick layers kissed the tips of her ears and the sleek, black hue gave her a bold, bad-girl edge.
Touching her fingertips to the nape of her neck, Claudia wondered if she'd ever get used to the chic, no-fuss do. Unrecognizable now, she loved the anonymity that her new look provided and planned to use it to her advantage. That was why she was making a run for it while she still had the chance.
With fast, quick steps, she hustled down the alley, toward the city center. Another block and she'd be in the clear, home free. But instead of shooting across the intersection, she paused at the top of her street.
Reporters, clutching coffee cups and microphones, were camped out on her lawn like a bunch of well-dressed vultures. They were peering into her windows and trampling through her garden to set up camera equipment. Spotting her favorite reportera woman who took on only the meatiest news storiesreminded Claudia of just how serious the situation was. Anger welled up inside her, but she swallowed hard and gathered herself. Claudia never imagined that she'd be the lead story on the evening news, and as she considered the events of the last two weeks she cursed the day she'd laid eyes on William Prescott III.
Shivering like a naked woman sleeping on a park bench, Claudia stuck her hands into her pockets and resumed walking, her thoughts on the man she'd been married to for the better part of a decade. Disgust churned in her stomach at the thought of her heartless ex-husband.
The night they met played in Claudia's mind like a movie on the big screen. When William Prescott, CEO of the largest investment firm in the South, approached her at a bar mitzvah she'd been hired to plan, Claudia wasn't sure what to make of him. The suave, brown-eyed businessman had a reputation with the ladies, and after he introduced himself she could see why. He was forward, the type of guy who wouldn't take no for an answer, and although he was too aggressive for her tastes, she admired his self-confidence. He was ten years her senior, but after dating a string of immature boys, she welcomed being with a strong, take-charge man. Dating a man of William's stature opened doors for her, and when they married after a brief, whirlwind courtship, the city's elite had come calling.
Her event-planning business, Signature Party Planners, took off like a rocket, netting six-figure profits that year, but her life was far from perfect.
Shaking off bitter memories, she turned onto Atwell Avenue. Anxious to put more distance between herself and the media hounds, Claudia hustled across the street as if her life depended on it. And it did. The sooner she got out of Richmond the better.
A black Honda Civic with personalized plates was idling at the curb. Her heart pounded, beating strong and fast. Approaching the car, she glanced cautiously over her shoulder. Claudia didn't see anyone, but that didn't mean no one was watching. Opening the back door, she slipped inside and dropped her bags at her feet.
"You weren't kidding about wanting a drastic change," Maxine said, turning around to face her. "I almost didn't recognize you! Cutting your hair short was a good move, sis."
"Let's get going. I don't want to attract any attention."
A scowl pinched her scarlet-red lips. Ghetto chic, and proud of it, her older sister could give an exotic dancer half her age a serious run for her money. "This is not a shuttle service and I'm certainly not a cabbie, so get up front."
"Just drive. I'll explain later."
"I don't even know where we're going."
"The airport!" she yelled, her eyes shooting out of her head. "Where are you going?"
"I'm not sure yet. I just need to get out of town." Peering outside the window, she clicked on her seat belt and slid down in her seat. "Someone might be tailing us, so be on guard. Reporters are very crafty, and they'll do just about anything to get a story."
"You've been watching too much TMZ!" Laughing, Maxine put the car in Drive and joined the light, early-morning traffic. "Are the reporters still camped outside of your house?"
"There were more pulling up as I left."
"Keep your chin up, sis. I know the last few weeks have been tough, but hang in there."
"'Tough' is an understatement. Since the arrest my life has become a living hell."
"Oh, come on. Things aren't that bad."
"You're right. They're worse." To keep from having another breakdown, Claudia slowly drew air in and out of her lungs.
How could something like this happen to someone like me? she wondered, fighting back tears. She'd done everything the right way. Gone to university. Graduated with honors. Worked tirelessly to build her event-planning business. But it was her desire to have a family of her own that had been her downfall. And so she'd overlooked William's selfish ways and stayed in the marriage as long as she did. "I woke up this morning thinking the last few days were a bad dream, but then the phone started ringing and I remembered how many lives William destroyed, how many people he's hurt."
"Is that why you called and asked me to meet you here?"
Afraid she'd dissolve into tears if she spoke, she nodded in response.
"The story will die down before you know it." Maxine watched her kid sister in the rearview mirror. "You've been through far worse and survived, so try not to stress."
Claudia drew strength from her sister's words. She'd come a long way, overcome insurmountable odds. It was a miracle she'd made it out of Lynchburg's eight-block housing project in one piece, but despite all the hard times, she knew growing up in the hood had made her who she was todaya tough, hard-nosed woman who wasn't afraid to fight.
If that's true, her conscience challenged, then why are you running away?
Because what happened last night terrified me.
"I thought I was strong enough to handle all of the media attention," she began, shuddering at the thought of what had taken place twenty-four hours earlier, "but it's become too much. The prank calls, the cruel stares I get whenever I'm out in public."
"The chatter will die down before you know it."
Claudia wasn't so confident. Not after everything that had happened since her ex-husband's arrest. Her mind slipped back to two weeks earlier, to the day her peaceful, uneventful life took a turn for the worst. She woke up that morning with a smile on her face, a song in her heart and a reason to celebrate. Finally, after months of William's bitching and complaining, their divorce was final. He was gone, out of her life forever.
Or so she thought.
Shaking her head, she remembered the exact moment her world came crashing down around her. The phone rang, and a husky voice on the other end asked her to comment on William's arrest. Claudia hung up the phone. It had to be a prank call. A bunch of bored suburban kids who had nothing better to do than play phone games. But the calls kept coming. The Wall Street Journal. Newsday. Her friends and associates. It seemed everyone knew the details of the case except her.
Their questions were harsh, probing. And filled in the missing pieces of the puzzle. Her ex-husband and three of his business partners had been indicted on eight counts of corporate fraud. Logging on to the computer confirmed it, and the pounding in her headthat started seconds after the first phone callquickly infected the rest of her body. The whole city was talking about the collapse of Qwest Capital Investments, and Claudia couldn't turn on the television without seeing another interview with a teary, shell-shocked investor. Her heart went out to each and every one of them, from the retired naval officer to the school superintendent.
Claudia didn't know what to believe, and everything she read bordered on lunacy. She was stunned by the arrest, absolutely blindsided by it. William was a lot of things, but he wasn't a crook, was he? The question ran through her mind again when the two plainclothes detectives arrived later that day to interview her.
Or rather, to interrogate her.
They questioned her about William's business dealings and eyed her suspiciously when she didn't give them the answers they were looking for. Then, after an hour in the hot seat, they accused her of being his accomplice. Burning with indignation, she vehemently denied the accusation. The detectives were convinced she was lying and threatened to haul her down to the precinct for further questioning. Images of being handcuffed, booked and fingerprinted attacked her mind. What would her clients think if she was named as a coconspirator in the case? And how would it affect her company? When it was all said and done, would she even have a business to worry about?
Claudia cleared all thoughts of her ex-husband and his troubles from her mind. Like she'd told the two detectives who'd interviewed her, William wasn't her problem anymore, and she had better things to do than waste time pondering his guilt or innocence.
"How long will you be gone?"
"I'm not sure. A month. Maybe longer. It all depends on how things play out. I was thinking of going to Lynchburg to see Aunt Hattie, but I haven't made up my mind yet."