Jacob St. Claire walked through the Museum of Science and Industry entrance as though he were King Tut himself. With his shoulders rolled back with confidence, his thick, graying hair slicked back away from his face, he strutted through the crowd until he finally found what he’d been hunting. His daughter.
Addison caught her father’s eye through the thick crush of investors, charity mongrels, and politicians and froze. He’d been expecting her to meet him at his home so they could arrive at the fundraiser together. Appearances were extremely important to Jacob St. Claire, and having to search out his daughter didn’t look good. Even from across the room, with dozens of people milling around between them, he could send a lightning strike of agitation through her.
“Addy, you okay?” Her lifelong friend, Charity, followed Addison’s gaze. “Oh. He’s pissed.” She whispered the obvious.
Not many people would be able to look at Jacob and know exactly what he was thinking. Putting on a show for the public came first; his anger would have to wait. But Addison and Charity knew him, knew the little crinkle on the side of his mouth wasn’t caused from a happy-to-be-here smile; no, anger boiled just below the surface.
Addison handed Charity her glass of wine and excused herself. Better to hurry to his side now than to make him continue stalking her. Going to him would alleviate some of his anger, but not all of it. Her father was an important man in the city. Sitting high on the committee of zoning, he could put businesses in business or out, depending on his mood, and their wallet size. Growing up she’d seen her father as a shining soldier, like most daughters did. He was her daddy after all, and daddies would always be heroes to their little girls. But as she’d grown up, she’d seen things, heard things, learned things that made the halo over her father’s head less radiant, less straight until it was all but a rusted ring dangling from his shoulder.
“Hi, Daddy.” She stepped up to him as he finished his conversation with another investor. He plastered on a large grin and leaned in to kiss her cheek.
“Addison.” He gripped her shoulders, fingers digging into her as he placed another kiss to her opposite cheek. “You were supposed to meet me at the house, you made me late.” No one around them could hear him, and if they could, she wondered if his poisonous tone would give them the same skin-crawling sensation it did her.
It didn’t matter. After tomorrow, she’d be free. Free of her father’s attempts to control her life. Free of whatever arrangements he made for her future. No more wondering how he would react to a decision she’d made. He would be occupied, up to his receding hairline in legal trouble.
“I’m sorry. Charity picked me up, and we went for dinner before heading over.” She curled her lips into the polite smile she’d perfected over the years. Her father didn’t hold a senate seat or such power as that, but that didn’t matter. There were plenty of people wanting to buy his votes, his cooperation, or his signature. He was well known in polite society, and other societies as well.
Just another day, and she’d be able to walk away.
“Jesse wanted to accompany us, but he needed to take care of something first. He’ll be around a bit later.” He checked his clunky Rolex and gave her a pinning look. “I assured him you’d be delighted to see him and to accompany him home.”
“I wish you hadn’t.” Addison kept her voice low, hoping she was able to keep her disgust hidden. Just the name Jesse Stephanos made her skin crawl. Hearing that she was expected to accompany him anywhere set her hair to stand on end. “I’m going out with Charity in a bit. We have plans.” Of course, he wouldn’t approve, and she didn’t expect him to; he never did.
“You need to accept your future.”
She knew that tone, knew what it meant, and that arguing against it would be futile.
“Jesse’s a good man.”
Addison looked up at her father then. Good man? Did he even know what that meant anymore? Had he ever? “Daddy, I’m not ready.” She tried to look away, but he gripped her arm. The tightness of his grip drew her attention back to him.
“It’s been a year, Addison. I’ve let you grieve for that drug addict long enough. It’s time for a new start. Jesse can give you that.”
Addison stared down at where his hand held her, seeing the indents on her skin around his fat fingers. He must have realized where they were finally, and released her, rubbing her arm in almost an affectionate way. She wouldn’t bruise, but she’d be sore the next day.
“I can’t. I won’t.” She shook her head. On this subject, she wouldn’t budge. She would not date Jesse Stephanos much less marry him, and after tomorrow, she wouldn’t have to worry about that anymore. But the memory of Steven, her fiancé, her dead fiancé, would continue to hold onto her as the days passed. “He wasn’t a drug user,” she mumbled, knowing her father’s anger would only increase with her insistence.
Steven had never so much as smoked a cigarette. No way had Steven driven himself into that wall on I90, too high to even see it coming. It hadn’t happened that way, no matter what the police report or her father had said. Steven’s sin hadn’t been drugs; it had been trying to marry her. If his brakes hadn’t been used, it’s because they hadn’t been working.
“Mr. St. Claire!” A stout man with graying hair interrupted them, holding his hands out in greeting. Addison stepped aside to allow the man full access to her father. She stood idly by while the two exchanged pleasantries. “I was hoping I’d run into you tonight.” At that, Addison looked to her father, having been trained much like Pavlov’s dogs to salivate at the idea of escape whenever those words were uttered in her presence.
“Well, then I’m glad I made the trip this evening. Addison, my dear, why don’t you find Charity. I’m sure she’s waiting for you.”
He added, “Don’t go too far though.” She gave a quick nod and shuffled off into the crowd seeking out the safety of a corner.
Addison found a secluded spot near a dessert table and snatched a glass of wine from a waiter walking by; it wasn’t strong enough, but it would do.
“Hey, there you are.” Charity slid up to her side. “I was beginning to think I was going to have to actually go over by your father.” She gave a weak smile and pushed back a thick curl from her face. Charity stayed as clear of her father as Addison wished she could.
“Someone wanted to do business, I was sent away.” Addison drained the last bit of Pinot from the glass.
“Are we staying, leaving, or are you attached to him now that he found you?” Charity hated the social scene, especially when Addison’s father arrived. Her own father sat on a city board, but didn’t do much work with Addison’s father. The pressure to be the perfect daughter never applied to Charity. Her parents already believed she was the perfect daughter. Unlike Addison, who was under constant attack and surveillance.
She took a deep breath and reminded herself it was only for another night. One more night. Come tomorrow afternoon, she’d be clear of the lies, the corruption, all of it. She’d be able to go out without her father’s men tailing her, tattling her every move to him. She could go to a club, could play with a man and not worry he’d end up with a broken nose the next day. She wouldn’t have to hear about how sick and perverted her life was, and how ashamed he was of her, or listen to any more threats of having her committed to a hospital that would clean her of all of her whorish ways. Her father never understood, and there was no point in trying to explain anymore.
She was twenty-four years old. She didn’t need to explain to him, she just needed to get the hell away from him.
One more night, then she’d have her meeting. Her stomach twisted at the idea. Going to the police station would take every bit of courage she had in her. Going against her father, against the Stephanos family, wasn’t something she’d considered lightly.
“Addison.” Charity touched her shoulder. “What’s up? Why are you so tense tonight?”
Addison threw on a smile, knowing Charity would see right through it. “Nothing. I’m okay. Just tired.” Emotionally and physically, but she wouldn’t go into details. The less Charity actually knew, the better.
“Guess who?” Jackson, Charity’s boyfriend, popped up behind Charity and covered her eyes. It was a childish game, one they’d played since high school when they met.
As usual, Charity giggled and guessed incorrectly, rattling off the names of which ever celebrity she fancied at that moment. Jackson gave her a playful swat to her backside, careful no one but the three of them saw, and spun her around to kiss her.
Addison watched the two of them with the same envy as she’d had when they started dating in school. Even after four years of college spent mostly on opposite sides of the state, they managed to keep their relationship steady. During all the stress and deadlines, Jackson had been Charity’s rock. And when Addison had lost the only thing that mattered to her, had lost Steven, he’d been her rock, too.
“Hey, Jackson.” Addison hugged him. “Wasn’t expecting you.”
“Yeah. I told Charity I probably wouldn’t make it, but I needed a break.” In his last year of law school, Jackson spent most of his time with his nose buried in books.
“I can’t wait for you to finish.” Charity ran her hand over his cheek, pushing away his dark hair.
“A few more months.” He smiled down at her, curling an arm around her waist and pulling her close to him. “I can only stay an hour. What have you girls got planned tonight?”
Addison glanced back over at her father. Had he taken the hint that she wasn’t going anywhere with Jesse Stephanos, or would he still be expecting her to obey him, like some little girl? She caught sight of Jesse walking into the room, his thick black hair slicked back from his olive-skinned face, his dark tailored suit making him look even darker, and he headed straight for her father.
Her stomach clenched when he reached him. Jacob shooed away the man he was talking with and gave his full attention to the little sleaze of a man.
The two were in a heated discussion. Whatever Jesse was telling him didn’t make her father happy. Charity was talking, but Addison’s attention was focused solely on her father.
Another man, one older, thinner than her father walked up to the pair and joined their discussion. Jesse made introductions, hands were shaken, and the conversation continued. More heated stares between Jesse and her father, and then her father started to look around the crowded room. For her, he was looking for her.
“What’s your father doing talking to Detective Jamison?” Jackson asked with more than a little curiosity. Addison’s heart dropped into her stomach, her breath caught in her throat.
“Probably just getting a bribe.” Charity laughed, but kept her voice low. The three of them knew what sort of person Addison’s father was, and in any other circumstance Addison probably would have just rolled her eyes. But that name meant something. Something horrible for her.
“That’s Detective Jamison?” She gripped the wineglass even harder as she watched her father still scanning the room for her.
“Addy? You okay?” Charity asked, no more levity in her voice.
“I have to go.” She plunked her glass down on the table beside her and ran for the nearest exit. She heard Charity calling after her, heard Jackson’s voice follow her, but she didn’t stop. She couldn’t. Not now. She had to go, to run. Get out of the city and right this moment. Not tomorrow. Not the next day. Right now.
Because her future, the one she’d been counting on—the one she kept telling herself was only a day away—was standing in that damn museum with her father, telling him, and that creep Jesse, everything she’d already implied, and all about their meeting scheduled for the next day.
Just before she ran through the doorway toward a back exit, she looked over her shoulder. Her father’s brown eyes caught hers. Hatred. Anger. Betrayal lurked there. Her heart stopped, but her feet didn’t. Without another glance, she ran from the room, from the museum, and from her life.