Bethany Paxton went completely still, holding her breath when she felt the whisper of her husband's warm, mint-scented breath brush her cheek, then the press of his mouth. "Feel better, baby."
She wanted to tell him there was no way she would ever feel betternot when she had been forced to play stepmother to a teenager who had to have been the devil's spawn. Her ultraconservative Bible belt parents had lectured her over and over about using the word hate, but she could truly say that she hated her husband's fifteen-year-old daughter. The bitch-in-training went out of her way to work Bethany into a frenzy wherein she'd seriously considered murdering the girl.
One time when she was slicing fruit for a salad, she'd gripped the handle of the knife and had been ready to plunge it into Paige's heart. The thought was so shocking that Bethany called her twin brother, telling him of her wicked thoughts, and he was able to talk her off the proverbial ledge.
Later that night, Bethany downed a bottle of wine, went to sleep and didn't wake up until her children roused her, crying that if she didn't get up they were going to be late for school. Now when she drank herself into a stupor it didn't matter whether she got out of bed or not. That's what live-in housekeepers were for. As hired help, the woman got up early and made certain her son and daughter were washed, dressed and fed breakfast before she walked them to the corner to wait for the school bus.
At first Damon had balked at hiring a housekeeper when a cleaning service came in twice a week to clean, dust, vacuum and do the laundry, but Bethany did what she hadn't done since she'd first laid eyes on Damon Paxton sitting at a table in an upscale D.C. restaurant more than ten years ago. She had seduced him.
Twenty years his junior, Bethany offered Damon the best sex he'd ever had in his life. It hadn't mattered that he'd been married with a young child. She'd wanted Damon, and after a torrid affair and an uncontested divorce wherein Damon had given his wife a sizable settlement, Bethany had married her prince.
Opening one eye, she squinted at the clock on the bedside table. It was almost eight, and that meant in another hour she would be alonealone to think about the turn her life had taken. She was only thirty-five but felt years older. She was drinking much too much, and the result was she'd gained weight and the skin under her eyes was puffy.
As Mrs. Damon Paxton she'd found herself isolated, snubbed by the wives of her husband's business associates, which initially led Bethany to doubt her attractiveness and femininity. However, when rumors surfaced that she was a tramp and home wrecker she realized it had been retribution. The first Mrs. Paxton was D.C. royalty, and Bethany was a former beauty queen who had grown up in an Alabama trailer park. Only within the privacy of her bedroom did she feel confident enough to ensure her marriage was on solid footing.
Turning over and staring up at the gossamer fabric draping the antique canopy bed, Bethany knew she couldn't continue the pretense that she had the perfect life and the perfect marriage. If she were truly honest, she would admit that both were in the toilet.
Something had to change; something had to give; she had to change or she would end up like her mother, who'd looked seventy at forty, was depressed, broken and had been dead a week before her body was discovered when a neighbor called the police after she'd noticed a strange odor coming from the adjoining apartment.
Her parents had moved out of the trailer and into a one-bedroom apartment once all their children had left home. Her dad had gone to West Virginia to visit his sister, who'd been hospitalized with a terminal illness, when he was notified that his wife had died from natural causes. It had been the last time Bethany had visited Parkers Corner.
Bethany sat up, opened the drawer to the bedside table and removed a cloth-covered journal and pen. Flipping to a blank page, she jotted down a list of things she needed to do: Diet. Call dermatologist about Botox. Contact personal trainer. She closed the book, picked up her cell phone, scrolled through her directory and tapped the button for her dermatologist, leaving a voice-mail message for someone to return her call. Minutes later she confirmed a session with her longtime personal trainer.
Dieting was easy. All she had to do was drink more water, increase daily portions of fruits and vegetables and limit eating red meat to twice a week. She would give herself two weeks of dieting and exercise before emerging from what had become a period of self-isolation. Damon's social secretary had called her with an update of his calendar and Bethany would call Caroline and let her know to which of the events she would accompany her husband.
Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, she walked from the bedroom to her en suite bath. One thing she had insisted on when she and Damon had gone house hunting: she had to have her own bathroom. Living in a double-wide with six other people and one bathroom had scarred Bethany for life. She could never linger more than three minutes because someone was always knocking on the door. What family members didn't know was the bathroom had become her sanctuarya place that in her imagination had become a magical place where she as a princess waited for her prince to come and rescue her from the squalor, poverty and the ridicule of other kids who constantly reminded Bethany that she was wearing her older sister's hand-me-downs.
But that all changed as her body filled out. Boys had begun to notice her long legs, natural wavy flaxen hair, luminous violet eyes framed by long charcoal-gray lashes and her seductive smile that never failed to elicit gasps from the opposite sex. It had taken hours of practicing in front of the bathroom mirror before Bethany was able to lower her eyelids, tilt her head at an angle and peer up at a man through her lashes to get him to do whatever she wanted.
Her smile, body and face had been her ticket out of the tiny mill town and into the spotlight as beauty queen, soap opera actress and news correspondent. When she was assigned to cover a newly elected representative from her home state, her life had changed forever. It was her first visit to the nation's capital and the first time she came face-to-face with Damon Paxton. As one of D.C.'s most influential lobbyists, Damon was purported to be as powerful as any man, past or present, who'd occupied the Oval Office.
Bethany stared at her reflection in the mirrors above the counter that created an illusion of infinite space. Pale ash cabinetry and a raised one-step from the vanity area functioned as a dressing room; a water closet and low tub were screened by sliding ash doors fitted with light-filtering frosted glass.
Her bathroom had become her retreat when she closed and locked the door, shutting out the constant bickering between her son and daughter and Damon when he went on incessantly about up-and-coming politicos and veteran elected officials whom he'd sought to bring into his sphere of influence.
It was no wonder she'd begun drinking. It was either booze or drugs. Even when her college friends were smoking marijuana and/or snorting cocaine, Bethany had never been one to experiment, because she feared becoming addicted like her father, who had become hooked on painkillers after he'd broken his back when he'd slipped on a wet floor at the garage where he'd worked as a mechanic. He'd tried suing the owner, but lost his case because he'd neglected to wipe up the oil that had been leaking from the car he'd been working on. Her father was forced to retire and wound up on welfare with a Medicaid card and food stamps.
And she didn't need a therapist to tell her why she had begun drinking more than usual. It was because of Damon's daughter Paige. It was as if the girl existed solely to disrupt her father's marriage and to make their lives a living hell. Beth knew the girl blamed her for breaking up her father and mother's marriage. What Paige hadn't known was that her parents' marriage had been over for years.
Opening a drawer under the counter, Bethany took out a jar of cleansing cream her dermatologist had recommended to offset the dry, red patches that occurred whenever she used soap on her face. Going through her morning ritual, she washed her face, brushed her teeth, followed by a liberal amount of mouthwash, then showered and shampooed her hair. The clock on a table in the dressing room chimed the hour. It was nine o'clock, and that meant she had the house to herself. Abigail and Connor were probably boarding their bus that would take them to a private school, while Paige was settling into her second-period class at a nearby high school.
After slathering her body with a scented moisturizer, Bethany walked back into her bedroom to get dressed. She didn't have to think about what she would wear, because it was always the same: a matching set of underwear, white T, fitted jeans and running shoes. There had been a time before she'd married Damon that jeans and running shoes were relegated to weekends. But that was when she'd worked as a news correspondent.
She wasn't complaining, because she'd traded her career for marriage and motherhood, but Bethany couldn't have predicted she would become a stepmother to a surly, impudent teenage girl. Walking out of the bedroom, she made her way down the carpeted hallway to the back staircase that provided direct access to the gourmet kitchen, pantry and the housekeeper's one-bedroom apartment. Mrs. Rodgers had become an invaluable addition to the family, because her presence allowed Bethany the freedom to make and keep appointments that coincided with her children getting off the bus at the end of a school day.
There were two things Damon had insisted on: she would become a stay-at-home mother and she had to be home in time to meet their children's school bus. She was still a stay-at-home mom, but Mrs. Rodgers filled in for her whenever she wasn't there when her children came home from school.
Entering the kitchen, Bethany went completely still when she saw Paige sitting at the table in the breakfast nook flipping the pages of a magazine. "What are you still doing here?" The question had come out harsher than Bethany wanted it to.
Paige Paxton's head popped up, her cold blue gaze raking her stepmother's too-perfect face like a bird's talons. Even with no makeup, wet hair, jeans and a T her father's trophy wife was stunning.
The teenager's thin upper lip curled into a sneer. "If you'd put my school calendar up like you do Connor's and Abigail's, you would've known that I don't have classes today. The teachers have staff development today and tomorrow."
"I would have put it up if you'd given it to me," Bethany countered, walking into the kitchen and over to the coffee-maker. She turned it on and placed a pod into the well.
Paige made a clucking sound with her tongue. "What-eva," she drawled.
Resting a hip against the counter, Bethany crossed her arms under her breasts. "Are you or aren't you going to give me your calendar?"
"I'll think about it."
Spots of color dotted Bethany's cheeks. "What's there to think about, Paige?"
Paige's gaze went back to the magazines with photos of models wearing incredible clothesclothes the girls at her school wore when they didn't have to wear the regulation uniform of a charcoal-gray pleated skirt, matching knee socks, white blouse with a red tie and navy blazer. "I think I want to be homeschooled."
Bethany froze for the second time in a matter of minutes. "Where is this coming from, Paige? I thought you liked your school."
"I'm surprised you even think. I was under the impression the only thing you know how to do is fuck!"
An audible gasp escaped Bethany's parted lips as she took a step and then stopped herself before she could launch herself across the space separating her from the girl. Her hands curled into tight fists. "If you ever utter that word in my presence again I'll make certain you'll never spend another night under this roof."
Paige's eyes narrowed as she pushed to her feet. "I don't think so. This is my father's house."
"Wrong, Paige. This is also my house, and don't forget I did you a favor when I told your father you could come and live here because you didn't want to move to Idaho. Disrespect me again and you're outta here."
A wave of color suffused Paige's face, which appeared more pale than it actually was because of the inky-black hair she'd inherited from her mother. "I don't have to talk to you."
"Then don't," Bethany retorted as she struggled to control her rising temper. Connor and Abigail had never argued or fought with each other until their older sister had come to live with them. Now the bickering was nonstop. "If you don't want to live here, then I'll talk to your father about sending you back to your mother."
"I don't want to live with her."
"You don't want to live with her, and you don't want to live with me. I suggest you make up your mind, because right now I can't see you celebrating your sweet sixteen here."
Rolling her eyes, Paige flopped back down to the cushioned bench seat. "What do you want from me?"
"An apology will do," Bethany said.
"You want me to tell you I'm sorry even when I don't mean it?"
Resting her hands at her waist, Bethany stared at Damon's eldest child. "Maybe I just need to hear it even if you'll never mean it."
There came a beat. "Okay
I'm sorry. There. I've said it," Paige spat out.
"Apology accepted." Bethany decided to extend the olive branch because going toe-to-toe with the child was wearing her down. "I was going to make breakfast for myself. Would you like me to fix something for you?"
"Do I look like I need to eat?" Paige snapped.
"If you think you're going to lose weight by not eating, then you're taking the wrong approach," she told Paige as she opened the built-in refrigerator and took out a carton of eggs.