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"Fix your skirt. It's tucked under at the hem."
Juliette Stanton sighed and shook out the ruffled bottom of the denim miniskirt she'd borrowed from her freer, more eclectic sister, and adjusted the loose flowing cotton top hanging off one shoulder. "This is insanity at its finest." She zipped her suitcase closed and turned back to face Gillian, her twin. "Tell me again why you spent your hard-earned savings so I could take a vacation." Juliette loved her sister dearly but didn't want her worrying or pampering her just because she was going through a difficult time.
Juliette slipped the luggage tag into the compartment on the side of the suitcase, muttering as she packed and not giving Gillian a chance to answer. "Much as I appreciate the gesture, I don't want a vacation. I don't need a vacation. I simply need to get back into my life."
Gillian laughed. "Exactly right. You need to get a life, which is why you're going on this trip." She placed her hands on her hips, wrinkling the cream-colored pantsuit she'd borrowed from Juliette. The twins had traded outfits as part of an elaborate plan to elude the reporters and get Juliette to the airport unnoticed.
Though Juliette understood the need for the charade, she hated the deceit. She shot her sister a disgruntled look. "I'm going on this trip because you cared enough to arrange it for me," she said, her voice softening.
"And you have to admit, getting away from the tabloids and rumor mill has to hold a certain appeal," Gillian added.
Knowing her sister was right, Juliette reached over and squeezed her tightly.
"You know I love you, too," her sister said.
Juliette knew. If not for her twin's solid support, getting through these past few weeks would have been impossible. Since the day Juliette had bolted from the church, the reporters had been ruthless, staking out both Juliette's house and Gillian's apartment in hopes of getting the scoop on the Runaway Bride. But no one outside of Gillian or the groom knew why Juliette had called off the wedding.
And no one would. At least not until she figured out how to protect her father and let him retire from the senate, his reputation and pride intact. At which point the press could have at Stuart Barnes and his shady dealings.
"So have you heard from the louse?" Gillian grabbed a pillow and sat down.
Juliette shook her head, emotion clogging her throat. Although she'd never say she'd been in love with Stuart, what they'd shared had been comfortable and secure. Too comfortable, she acknowledged now.
With hindsight she could see the reasons for her engagement. They were twofold and simple. Juliette adored her mother and father and idolized their loving relationship. They were wonderful parents who'd managed to keep a family intact despite the fishbowl in which they lived. Juliette wanted a stable family and comfortable marriage like her parents had. She'd believed she could share those things with Stuart, a childhood friend she thought she knew well.
And then there was the other reason she'd gotten engagedthe one Juliette hated to admit, even to herself. While neither her mother nor her father had ever asked for her to sacrifice, she'd always taken the expected road. Perhaps because Gillian had taken on the part of the wild child, Juliette, the older sister by a matter of minutes, had always seen her role as that of the good girl. So when Stuart set his sights on Juliette, she'd fallen into the relationship without question. Because she'd recently been hurt by a man more interested in her father's name and connections than in her, Stuart who'd always been a part of her life, seemed safe. And because her parents liked and trusted him, they'd been thrilled and could claim "they knew Juliette and Stuart belonged together all along."
But they hadn't belonged together and if Juliette had looked hard enough, she'd have seen the signs. Yet she'd never questioned their relationship, not even their lukewarm sex life, which deep down she'd blamed herself for. Certainly her previous painful affair hadn't boosted her confidence. Perhaps she'd known all along that if she questioned her decision, she'd discover she'd repeated her mistake. Stuart wanted leverage in achieving her father's soon-to-be-vacant senate seat. Nothing more. Especially not Juliette Stanton, the woman.
"Earth to Juliette." Gillian snapped her fingers.
She shook her head. "Sorry. Too much thinking going on. No, I haven't heard a word since our confrontation in the church. But what's he going to say? 'Thanks for keeping the press off my back so I can take your father's place in November'?"
Gillian sniffed in disdain. "He could say, 'I'm an ass.' That would be a start."
"I agree. And considering he all but threatened to drag Dad down with him, he's trusting me to keep quiet about why I bolted." Stuart was her father's protégé. His choice to succeed him. If Stuart's shady dealings came to light, Juliette's father, his decisions and choices would all be suspect, tainting the good he'd accomplished during his tenure.
Gillian clenched her teeth. "He's trusting your love for Dad."
Juliette let out a harsh laugh. "He's certainly not banking on my love for him." Or what was left of it.
She'd thought they shared caring and consideration based on their years of friendship. Even after scandal had hit the papers, accusing Stuart's business partner, Congressman Haywood, of laundering Mob money through Coffee Connections, their import-export business, she'd believed her fiancé's denials. In this instance, she hadn't shut her eyes to the truth, rather, like her father, she'd believed in Stuart's integrity. And since Stuart hadn't been labeled as an accessory and the story about Congressman Haywood had later been retracted, she'd trusted her instincts.
How wrong she'd been. Again. She'd caught Stuart red-handed, his business partner and the reputed Mob boss having a tête-à-tête in the church minutes before she and Stuart were to be married.
She faced her life and the lies at last, confronted him and walked out. And though her parents supported her decision and her need for privacy, she knew they too were waiting for an explanation.
Gillian let out a groan. "We both agree that this needs to be kept under wraps until you figure out a plan, but I don't like the fact that Stuart's let the press pin you with the Runaway Bride rap." She picked up a videotape box containing the movie of the same name. "You might have similar hairdid I mention I love the curls?" She flicked at one of Juliette's long spirals with her fingers. "And since this is the last time I have to sit for hours with the blow-dryer to copy your stick-straight hair to fake out those reporters, I'm eternally grateful."
Juliette laughed. "Thanks." She loved her new look, too.
She'd secretly always envied her sister's ability to thumb her nose at convention and just be herself, cameras and press be damned. Juliette hoped her new loose-flowing perm, like her free-spirited sister's, would change both her appearance and outlook for her upcoming trip. If there was ever a time to let loose, this vacation would have to be it.
"Did you pick up those things for me at the mall?" Juliette asked her twin. If her fiancé had been interested in planning a honeymoon instead of a political campaign and election, she'd have the wardrobe basics ready to go. But Stuart had insisted they couldn't get away. Now she knew why.
"Got 'em. I put them in the empty suitcase while you were on the phone earlier. And you'd be so proud of how I finagled that trip without being followed." Gillian grinned, obviously pleased with herself.
Juliette cringed. "I'm sure I don't want to know. It seems everyone's been making sacrifices to accommodate me these days." She hated the high maintenance perception that was the result of this nightmare. First her stylist had agreed to do spiral curls and a haircut at her house, not wanting his salon inundated by the press, and now her sister was running around like an undercover spyand loving every minute.
"They're not sacrifices, they're favors. And we love you, so we don't mind. But I hate that you're stuck in the house and practically branded, you know?" Gillian tapped her foot impatiently against the hardwood floor. "Damn, I wish we could leak this story." She shook her head. "But we can't."
"Not yet. Dad's established a long tradition of serving this country. He's well liked and respected. He has a place in history he's earned. No way I'll let him go out tainted by scandal. He doesn't deserve it."
Gillian nodded. "I agree."
For their father's sake, the secret had to stay secret a little longer. Juliette drew a deep breath. "I'm ready."
"Okay." Gillian rose from her seat and grabbed for a bag.
"So let me get this plan straight. I drive your car dressed like you, while you sit in the passenger seat pretending to be me," Juliette said.
"So far so good."
"We drive past the reporters, to your apartment where the rest of the vultures are waiting, and pull into the secure underground garage."
Gillian nodded. "Right. Where they have no access." Her laugh bordered on giddy at the thought of outwitting the press. "They think you're visiting me and to reinforce the impression, I, dressed as you, go up to the lobby and out to the convenience store on the corner before heading back inside. They won't be looking for us to go anywhere while we're presumably hanging out together."
"Meanwhile I slip into the back seat of Dad's car, driven by his chauffeur, cover myself with a blanket and end up at the airport."
"Exactly. And if anyone happens to see you, they'll think you're me. No one's going to bother following me once I have no access to you. Voilà! You're home free and on your way."
Juliette stretched her arms out wide. "Ready to begin a glorious week of fun, sun and solitude."
Her sister's gaze darted from hers. "You got the first two right," she muttered.
Juliette narrowed her eyes. She'd grown up in the shadow of her daring, more adventurous twin and she knew Gillian better than she knew herself. The shifting eyeballs and muttering under her breath meant her sister was up to something. "What aren't you telling me?" Juliette asked.
"Not a blessed thing." Gillian glanced at her watch. "You don't want to miss your flight. We need to get going."
Juliette grabbed her suitcase. "Okay. And if I haven't said it before because I was too busy complaining, I am touched you'd spend your savings on meand I want to pay you back." Although both girls had trust funds set up in their name from their grandmother's will, neither lived off the interest or principal. Each chose to make their own way in the world, Juliette as a public relations consultant for a pharmaceutical company, Gillian as a teacher.
"It's not a gift if you pay me," her sister reminded her. "Consider this my broken wedding gift to you."
Juliette squeezed her sister's hand. "I'm so lucky to have you."
Gillian grinned. "Yeah, you are."
They made their way into the two-car garage attached to the old cottage Juliette rented, where Gillian had parked her car.
"Promise me something?" Gillian asked. "It's private on the island and if we've done this right, no cameras are following you, no press is around to ask questions. Let loose and be yourself, okay?"
"You read my mind." Juliette wasn't surprised that the twin connection was at work again. She laughed, knowing she'd already decided to take advantage of this time to be free and experiment with who Juliette Stanton really was. She never should have fought Gillian's attempt to get her to take a vacation. She settled herself into the driver's seat, put the key in the ignition and turned her wrist.
"So," she said over the rumble of the car's motor. "Let the adventure begin."
One week after his initial visit, Doug Houston stood in the luxurious open-air lobby of Secret Fantasy's main building waiting for the object of his fantasy.
Guilt swamped him over the thought of this whole damned trip and the charade he'd have to employ to get his story. Guilt wasn't an emotion Doug was familiar with, especially when it came to getting the job done. But this job was too important to let something like unexpected feelings get in the way.
He was at this resort tracking down Juliette Stanton, Chicago's Runaway Bride, so he could dig up dirt on her ex-fiancé. And therein lay the source of his guilt. He could console himself with the fact that he wasn't out to dig up dirt on her and in that, at least, he hadn't lied to Merrilee.
But Doug had a nagging feeling the reasons for Juliette's run from the altar had everything to do with Doug's recent troublesand his journalist father had taught him never to ignore a burning gut. Treat it with antacids, maybe, but pay close attention. After the last fiasco, Doug damn well would.