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Susan Elizabeth Phillips

The Great Escape

The sixth book in the American's Lady series, 2012

FOR DAWN

Even though you’re prettier and dress better,

I still love you, dear friend.

Still, for the millionth time Lucy wished she could have a real family. All her life, she’d dreamed of having a dad who mowed the lawn and called her some kind of lame pet name, and a mom who didn’t get drunk and keep losing jobs and having sex with everybody.

From First Lady

Chapter One

LUCY COULDN’T BREATHE. THE BODICE of her wedding gown, which had fit so perfectly, now squeezed her ribs like a boa constrictor. What if she died of suffocation right here in the vestibule of the Wynette Presbyterian Church?

Outside, an international army of reporters stood at the barricades, and the sanctuary inside bulged with the rich and famous. Only a few steps away, the former president of the United States and her husband waited to escort Lucy down the aisle so she could marry the most perfect man in the world. The man of everyone’s dreams. The kindest, the most considerate, the smartest… What woman in her right mind wouldn’t want to marry Ted Beaudine? He’d dazzled Lucy from the moment they’d met.

The trumpets rang out, announcing the beginning of the bridal procession, and Lucy struggled to pull a few molecules of air into her lungs. She couldn’t have picked a more beautiful day for her wedding. It was the last week of May. The Texas Hill Country’s spring wildflowers might have faded, but the crepe myrtle was in bloom, and roses grew outside the church doors. A perfect day.

Her thirteen-year-old sister, the youngest of the four bridesmaids in her unfashionably small wedding party, stepped off. After her would come fifteen-year-old Charlotte, and then Meg Koranda, Lucy’s best friend since college. Her maid of honor was her sister Tracy, a beautiful eighteen-year-old so smitten with Lucy’s bridegroom that she still blushed when he talked to her.

Lucy’s veil fluttered in front of her face, suffocating layers of white tulle. She thought about what an incredible lover Ted was, how brilliant, how kind, how amazing. How perfect for her. Everybody said that.

Everybody except her best friend, Meg.

Last night after the rehearsal dinner, Meg had pulled Lucy into a hug and whispered, “He’s wonderful, Luce. Everything you said. And you absolutely can’t marry him.”

“I know,” Lucy had heard herself whisper in return. “But I’m going to anyway. It’s too late now to back out.”

Meg had given her a fierce shake. “It’s not too late. I’ll help you. I’ll do whatever I can.”

Easy for Meg to say. Meg lived a completely undisciplined life, but Lucy wasn’t like that. Lucy had responsibilities that Meg couldn’t begin to comprehend. Even before Lucy’s mother had taken the oath of office, the country had been fascinated by the Jorik menagerie-three adopted kids, two biological ones. Her parents had shielded the younger children from the press, but Lucy had been twenty-two at the time of Nealy’s first inauguration, which made her fair game. The public had followed Lucy’s dedication to her family-the way she served as a surrogate parent to her siblings during Nealy and Mat’s frequent absences-her work in child advocacy, her sparse dating life, even her less-than-exciting fashion choices. And they were definitely following this wedding.

Lucy planned to meet her parents halfway down the aisle as a symbol of the way they’d come into her life when she was a rebellious fourteen-year-old hellion. Nealy and Mat would walk that final stretch with her, one on each side.

Charlotte stepped out onto the white runner. She was the shyest of Lucy’s sibs, the one most worried about not having her older sister around. “We can talk on the phone every day,” Lucy had told her. But Charlotte was used to Lucy living in the same house, and she said it wouldn’t be the same.

It was time for Meg to step off. She glanced over her shoulder at Lucy, and even through yards of tulle, Lucy saw the concern that dragged at Meg’s smile. Lucy longed to trade places with her. To live Meg’s carefree life, running from country to country with no siblings to help raise, no family reputation to uphold, no cameras shadowing her every move.

Meg turned away, lifted her bouquet to her waist, plastered a smile on her face. And got ready to take her first step.

Without thinking, without asking herself how she could consider doing something like this-something so awful, so selfish, so unimaginable-even as she willed herself not to move, Lucy dropped her bouquet, stumbled around her sister, and grabbed Meg by the arm before she could go any farther. She heard her voice coming from a place far away, the words thready. “I have to talk to Ted right now.”

Behind her, Tracy gasped. “Luce, what are you doing?”

Lucy couldn’t look at Tracy. Her skin was hot, her mind reeling. She dug her fingers into Meg’s arm. “Get him for me, Meg. Please.” The word was a plea, a prayer.

Through the suffocating tulle shroud, she saw Meg’s lips part in shock. “Now? You don’t think you could have done this a couple of hours ago?”

“You were right,” Lucy cried. “Everything you said. You were completely right. Help me. Please.” The words felt alien on her tongue. She was the one who took care of people. Even when she was a child, she’d never asked for help.

Her sister Tracy spun on Meg, her blue eyes flashing with indignation. “I don’t understand. What did you say to her?” She grabbed Lucy’s hand. “Luce, you’re having a panic attack. It’s going to be okay.”

But it wouldn’t be okay. Not now. Not ever. “No. I-I have to talk to Ted.”

“Now?” Tracy echoed Meg. “You can’t talk to him now.”

But she had to. Meg understood that, even if Tracy didn’t. With a worried nod, Meg lifted her bouquet back into position and started down the aisle to get him.

Lucy didn’t know this hysterical person who’d taken over her body. She couldn’t look into her sister’s stricken eyes. Calla lilies from her bouquet flattened beneath her stilettos as she moved blindly across the vestibule. A pair

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