of Secret Service agents stood by the heavy front doors, their eyes watchful. Just beyond, a crowd of onlookers waited, a sea of television cameras, a horde of reporters…

Today, President Cornelia Case Jorik’s oldest daughter, thirty-one-year-old Lucy Jorik, is marrying Ted Beaudine, the only son of golf legend Dallas Beaudine and television newswoman Francesca Beaudine. No one expected the bride to choose the groom’s small hometown of Wynette, Texas, as the site for her wedding, but…

She heard the purposeful strike of male footsteps on the marble floor and turned to see Ted striding toward her. Through her veil, she watched a beam of sunlight play on his dark brown hair, another ray splash across his handsome face. It was always that way. Wherever he went, sunbeams seemed to follow. He was beautiful, kind, everything a man should be. The most perfect man she’d ever known. The most perfect son-in-law for her parents and the best imaginable father of her future children. He rushed toward her, his eyes filled-not with anger-he wasn’t that sort of man-but with concern.

Her parents were right behind him, their faces masks of alarm. His parents would appear next, and then they’d all come pouring out-her sisters and brother, Ted’s friends, their guests… So many people she cared about. Loved.

She searched frantically for the only person who could help her.

Meg stood off to the side, her hands in a death grip on her bridesmaid’s bouquet. Lucy pleaded with her eyes, prayed Meg would grasp what she needed. Meg started to rush toward her, then stopped. With the mental telepathy shared by best friends, Meg understood.

Ted caught Lucy’s arm and swept her into a small antechamber off to the side. Just before he shut the door, Lucy saw Meg take a deep breath and stride purposefully toward Lucy’s parents. Meg was used to dealing with messes. She’d fend them all off long enough for Lucy to-To do what?

The long, narrow antechamber was lined with hooks holding blue choir robes and high shelves bearing hymnals, music folders, and musty, ancient cardboard boxes. A trickle of sulfurous sunlight oozed through the dusty windowpanes in a door at the end and somehow found his cheek. Her lungs collapsed. She was dizzy from lack of air.

Ted gazed down at her, those cool amber eyes shadowed with concern, as calm as she was frantic. Please let him fix this like he fixes everything else. Let him fix her.

Tulle stuck to her cheek, held there by perspiration, by tears-she didn’t know which-as words she could never have imagined speaking tumbled out. “Ted, I can’t. I-I can’t.”

He lifted her veil just as she’d pictured, except she’d pictured him doing it at the end of the ceremony, right before he kissed her. His expression was perplexed. “I don’t understand.”

And neither did she. This raw panic was unlike anything she’d ever experienced.

He cocked his head, gazed into her eyes. “Lucy, we’re perfect together.”

“Yes. Perfect… I know.”

He waited. She couldn’t think of what to say next. If only she could breathe. She forced her lips to move. “I know we are. Perfect. But… I can’t.”

She waited for him to argue with her. To fight for her. To convince her she was wrong. She waited for him to take her in his arms and tell her this was merely a panic attack. But his expression didn’t change except for an almost imperceptible tightening at the corner of his mouth. “Your friend Meg,” he said. “This is because of her, isn’t it?”

Was it? Would she be doing something so unimaginable if Meg hadn’t appeared with her love, her chaos, and her swift, brutal judgment? “I can’t.” Her fingers were icy, and her hands shook as she tugged at her diamond. It finally came off. She nearly dropped it as she pushed it into his pocket.

He let her veil fall. He didn’t beg. He wouldn’t know how. Nor did he make even the slightest attempt to change her mind. “All right, then…” With a brusque nod, he turned and walked away. Calm. Controlled. Perfect.

As the door shut behind him, she pressed her hands to her stomach. She had to get him back. Run after him and tell him she’d changed her mind. But her feet wouldn’t move; her brain wouldn’t work.

The knob turned, the door opened, and her father stood there, with her mother just behind, both of them pale, tense with concern. They’d done everything for her, and marrying Ted had been the best thank-you gift she could have given them in return. She couldn’t humiliate them like this. She needed to get Ted and bring him back. “Not yet,” she whispered, wondering what she meant, knowing only that she needed a moment to pull herself together and remember who she was.

Mat hesitated and then shut the door.

Lucy’s universe collapsed. Before the afternoon was over, the world would know that she’d dumped Ted Beaudine. It was unthinkable.

The sea of cameras… The herds of reporters… She’d never leave this small, musty room. She’d live the rest of her life right here, surrounded by hymnals and choir robes, doing penance for hurting the best man she’d ever known, for humiliating her family.

Her veil stuck to her lips. She tore at her headpiece, welcomed the pain as the combs and crystals pulled her hair. She was crazy. Ungrateful. She deserved pain, and she ripped it all off. The veil, the gown-snaking her arms behind her to work at the zipper until the white satin lay in a puddle around her ankles and she stood gasping for breath in her exquisite French bra, her lacy bridal panties, blue garter, and white satin stilettos.

Run! The word shrieked through her brain. Run!

From outside the chamber she heard the crowd noise grow momentarily louder and then muted again, as if someone had opened the front doors of the church, then quickly closed them.


Her hand grasped one of the dark blue choir robes. She jerked it from its hook and pulled it on over her disheveled hair. The cool, musty robe slipped along her body, covering her French bra, covering her tiny panties. She stumbled toward the small door at the end of the antechamber. Through the dusty windowpanes, she saw a narrow, overgrown walkway enclosed by a cinder-block wall. Her hands weren’t working properly, and the lock didn’t give at first, but she finally managed to open it.

The walkway led toward the rear of the church. The cracked pavement grabbed at her stilettos as she made her way past an air-conditioning unit. Spring thunderstorms had blown trash into the gravel at the side of the path: smashed juice boxes, bits of newspaper, a mangled yellow shovel from a kid’s sandbox. She stopped when she reached the end. Security was everywhere, and she tried to think of what to do next.

She’d lost her Secret Service detail a few months earlier, at the end of her mother’s first year out of office, but the agency still guarded Nealy, and since she and her mother were so frequently together, she’d barely noticed the absence of her own detail. Ted had hired private security to supplement the town’s small police force. There were guards at the doors. The L-shaped parking lot overflowed with cars. People were everywhere.

Washington was her home, not this Central Texas town she’d failed so miserably to appreciate, but she remembered that the church sat on the edge of an old residential neighborhood. If her legs could carry her across the alley and behind the houses on the other side, she might be able to get to one of those side streets without anyone seeing her.

And then what? This wasn’t a well-planned escape like the one Nealy had pulled off from the White House all those years ago. It wasn’t an escape at all. It was an interruption. A suspension. She needed to find a place where she could get her breath back, pull herself together. A child’s empty playhouse. A hidden nook in someone’s backyard. Someplace away from the chaos of the press, from her betrayed bridegroom and bewildered family. A temporary hideout where she could remember who she was and what she owed the people who’d taken her in.

Oh God, what had she done?

A commotion on the other side of the church caught the guards’ attention. She didn’t wait to see what it was. Instead she stumbled around the end of the cinder-block wall, rushed across the alley, and crouched behind a Dumpster. Her knees were shaking so badly she had to brace herself against the side of the rusty metal bin. It exuded the fetid stench of garbage. There were no cries of alarm, only the distant noise of the crowd packing the bleachers that had been set up in front of the church.

She heard a thin cry, like a kitten’s mew, and realized it was coming from her. She made herself creep along the row of shrubs that separated the old Victorians. The shrubs ended at a brick-paved street. She rushed across it and into someone’s backyard.

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