Monday, July 16
Atchafalaya Basin, LA
Madison Archer-Pershing swallowed her horror. Her estranged husband stood ten feet away, arms crossed over his chest, staring at her with a grin somewhere between smug and malicious.
She knew nothing about chess, and Todd had come to play the ruthless, four-D kind. The husband who had once tried to kill her was her worst nightmare, bursting the bubble of safety and passion she’d shared with Matt Montgomery for the last twelve achingly beautiful days and threatening to tear them apart.
She didn’t dare let him. She refused to give Todd an inch.
Madison had ducked and run for too long. The time to fight had come.
“No.” She stepped out from behind Matt’s protective body, hands on her hips defiantly, and glared back.
“What did you say?” Her husband’s narrowed eyes filled with threat, terrifyingly reminiscent of the night she’d fled his bloody knife and run straight to Matt, despite their agonizing three-year separation.
Matt shoved her behind him again with a reprimanding scowl. “Madison…”
The submissive inside her yearned to obey almost like a physical ache. Matt had taken on the role of her Dom and her lover. He had listened. He had cared. He had kept her safe. He had shown her a side of herself she’d never indulged and made so many of her fantasies come true. He had become her moon and stars. But the woman in her would not obey. Todd was her mistake. Matt shouldn’t be the one to pay for that. She had to meet the bastard she’d married head on.
Madison wrenched away, burying the guilt for her disobedience, and sent Matt a silent apology. Todd only respected power, and if she gave hers to Matt, her husband would interpret her submission as weakness.
“I said no,” Madison repeated, then faced Todd. “If I didn’t have any leverage, you wouldn’t be here negotiating our divorce in person. You would have sicced lawyers on me while you fucked strippers, snorted an average family’s annual salary up your nose, and engaged in whatever shady shit keeps you from kissing your grandfather’s ass. I’m not spending three months in DC with you.”
“Listen, you little cunt…” Fury twisted his face as he stomped toward her like he intended to crush her with the fingers he’d balled into fists.
Matt stepped between them, his demeanor a warning. “Don’t you ever call her that again.”
“Stop embarrassing yourself, Romeo. You think Madison cares about you?” Todd scoffed. “You’re a stiff dick to her. I stopped
giving it to her more than a year ago, so I’m not surprised she went looking for a chump with a hard-on. But her spread legs don’t mean anything. Do yourself a favor and bail. Her pussy is nothing special, and there’s plenty more out there.”
“I’m going to fucking end you.” Matt lunged for him.
Madison pushed him back with a silent entreaty.
“Oh, try it. Please,” Todd drawled, looking almost gleeful. “What was it your pal said? You’d look pretty in prison?”
“You’re disgusting,” she spit at her husband. “And transparent. Stop attacking Matt and deal with me. I’m the one you’re married to. I’m the one who captured you murdering your cousin on video. I’m the one threatening to blow up your house of cards.”
To her left, Deke chuckled, enjoying Todd’s humiliation. When she glared at him, he disguised the sound by clearing his throat behind his fist. “Sorry.”
Todd glowered at Matt. “See what happens when you give the girl some dick? She grows a set of balls. Given the dungeon equipment I saw through the open door at the end of the hall, I’m guessing you like her a lot more when she only opens her mouth to scream or suck cock.”
Matt looked an instant from beating the hell out of Todd, and Madison had to stop him. His fury merely told Todd their weakness and gave him a cudgel to use.
One-Mile stepped between the men, shooting his best friend a quelling stare before he addressed her husband. “How about less trash talk and more negotiation?”
Todd acted like the proceedings were beneath him, but he relented with a roll of his eyes. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Matt?” One-Mile prompted, asking indirectly if he’d gotten his temper under control.
He cursed under his breath, then nodded. One-Mile turned to her, gesturing with a sweep of his big hand.
The floor was all hers.
“Like I said, I won’t spend three months with you,” she told Todd. “I need to be with my dad.”
“Don’t act like his condition is life-or-death. He’s going to survive, for fuck’s sake.”
“The doctors think so. But it’s cancer. It’s unpredictable. And he’s going through it alone
.” Guilt for that was killing her. When her dad needed her most, it must seem as if she couldn’t be bothered to spare him even a phone call. If not for Todd, she would be by Daddy’s side, holding his hand through every test and procedure.
“Stop being dramatic. And don’t use your father’s illness to avoid your obligations. If you want a divorce, come play the good little wife for the cameras until my grandfather’s reelection.”
She wasn’t going to talk Todd out of this. He had no good side to appeal to, and—as he’d reminded her—his grandfather was a powerful senator who could buy off the press and threaten social media companies into suppressing the video of Brent’s murder.
“All right. But I will visit my father before coming to DC.” When Todd opened his mouth to object, she held up a hand to shut him up. “The optics would be bad if I didn’t. Publicize my visit if you want. I don’t even care if your grandfather tries to get sympathy votes from my pain anymore. But you’re not stopping me.”
Todd dissected her with a familiar, flat stare, as if he sought to identify a dead bug on the sole of his shoe. That expression used to hurt. Once, it had reminded her how badly their marriage was failing. Now it only assured her that she was getting to him.
“One visit,” he snapped. “In the next week, we’ll coordinate a trip to your father’s hospital, complete with press. You’ll wave, be appropriately teary, and take someone along to support you. Not him.” Todd tossed another glare at Matt. “After that, you’ll come crawling to DC like the white trash you are, and you’ll be mine until after the election. That’s nonnegotiable.”
She glared back, secretly relieved Todd hadn’t insisted on coming with her. “Press is fine for my walk into the hospital, but the actual visit and my father’s room both remain private.”
Todd shrugged as if conceding that point meant nothing. “A sick, shriveled old man isn’t good for our image, anyway.”
Madison gritted her teeth. How had she ever been vulnerable enough to be taken in by this snake? “After that, I’ll return to DC, but I want separate residences.”
“No. If we don’t live together, the separation will be noticed. You’ll stay in our apartment.”
She’d known the request was a long shot. And as much as she hated it, Todd was right. “I’ll pretend to play house, but I will not be alone with you—ever. I’ll be hiring round-the-clock bodyguards.”
He laughed. “Do you think any muscle in DC would protect you against a Pershing?”
If they ever wanted to work in the swamp again, no. She resisted the urge to lean on Matt and considered her options. But she was out of her element, and she needed protection guaranteed to put her safety first. “You’ll pay for two bodyguards of my choosing, not based in DC, to watch over me twenty-four seven.”
“Why are you stupid enough to imagine I would do that?”
“Spin it to your advantage to increase the family’s likability and win your grandfather more votes. Say Winston’s enemies have made political threats against me, and being the protective husband you are, you insisted on ensuring my safety. Since the rumors of your—how do I say this nicely?—leisure activities have been a part of Winston’s image problem, that might go a long way to quieting the rumors that our marriage is empty and you get your jollies by seducing too-young girls. By the way, how is Todd Junior?”
He scowled. “You can’t prove he’s my kid.”
“Please… He looks just like you, and your father writes that girl a check every month so you don’t have to submit to a DNA test.”
Todd lunged at her. “If you don’t shut the fuck up, I’m done negotiating.”
“You’re not,” Matt insisted, stepping between them. “She needs two bodyguards. I’ll be one of them.”
Madison gaped. Did he understand that Todd would take every opportunity to humiliate him? And if that didn’t satisfy her husband’s twisted side… Well, he’d proven he wasn’t above murder.
Todd hesitated, his shrewd stare volleying between her and Matt. “Okay, Romeo. This will be fun. I’ll pay whatever your going rate is. Who’s your other watchdog?”
“I am,” Ethan Garrison piped up, settling his ball cap on backward before crossing his inked arms over his chest.
Matt whirled with a narrow-eyed glower. “No.”
Ethan shrugged. “Not your choice, sport. You don’t like it? Take it up with the bosses. They had the same idea about her protection, and this was their decision.”
Madison tried not to wince. Matt and his youngest peer got along, as the old Southern saying went, like oil and water. They neither liked nor trusted each other. How the hell was this going to work?
Deke nodded in confirmation. “Hunter, Logan, and I talked about it for nearly two hours last night. Nash was their first choice, but he needs more recovery time after dancing with the three tangos’ knives. So…Ethan it is.”
One-Mile shrugged apologetically. “Sorry. My dance card is full, buddy. And Zy, Trees, and Kane are all on missions.”
At the Texas border. Matt had mentioned something about a human smuggling ring they were tracking a few days ago… So that left Ethan.
“Then it’s settled.” Todd gave a self-satisfied smirk. “If you want a divorce, the three of you will come to DC as soon as you’ve visited your father so I can get you ‘pregnant.’”
She glared his way. “You’re not touching me.”
“God, no. I’m working on a new pet. Even if I had the time to knock you up, I don’t have the inclination.”
“Who’s the girl?” Madison asked without a drop of jealousy. “I already feel sorry for her.”
“A French attaché’s daughter. She’s got the untouched heart of a child and the mouth of a whore.”
Madison recoiled. “Is she legal?”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Todd quipped.
“You disgust me. Has she even had her first period?”
“Now you’re just being a bitch. We’re done here.”
“We’re not,” she insisted. “I need some time to myself each week.”
“No, you don’t. Because I won’t be languishing at our place with you and your babysitters. Most of the time, you’ll have the whole apartment to yourselves. Do whatever you want.”
She didn’t bother pointing out that, if he was supposedly getting her pregnant, he had to be home often enough to do the job. Instead, she repositioned her demand. “That’s a relief, but I meant away from that stifling cage.”
Because he’d always had uncanny foresight into whatever she was up to, Madison deeply suspected he’d had the apartment surveilled. If she wanted any privacy, especially with Matt, she had to have the freedom to leave.
When he looked like he was about to refuse, she cut in again. “If I’m trying to get pregnant, won’t it look good if I’m exercising? Seeing my doctor? And if I’ll be photographed more, won’t I need to have my hair fixed? My nails done?”
Todd clenched his jaw
tight. “Fine. One day a week.”
Madison wanted to push for more, but his limits and patience were clearly at their end. Besides, time away wasn’t her biggest battle. “I won’t be telling you where I’m going.”
“Only if you share wherever you are every moment you’re away…” She stared expectantly, knowing damn well he wouldn’t.
“That’s not fucking happening.” He snorted. “Your day away is during the week, and you’re always home by nine p.m. Nothing can interfere with scheduled campaign stops, most of which are on weekends. Sunday family dinners are sacred.”
Those parameters weren’t perfect, but she’d won a major concession from Todd. That was enough for now. And since she was about to be under a microscope, she would have to choose her “public” outings wisely if she didn’t want Todd and the world knowing her business.
“I’ll make that work. When are we announcing my ‘pregnancy’?”
Todd didn’t scramble for the calendar on his phone, which told her that the Pershings had preplanned everything. “There’s a community event in a key suburban center on the last Saturday of September. We’ll announce there that we’re expecting. At that point, you’ll be six weeks pregnant, not enough to show…but enough to know. Roughly five weeks later, days before the midterms, we’ll give Grandpa’s constituents the sad news of your miscarriage.”
“How am I doing appearances if I’m supposed to be recovering?”
“You’re a trooper. It’s far more important for you to help your beloved family spread the message of democracy for all than to cry in your bed. But since you’ll be bereft, I’ll do the talking. The morning after the midterms, you can leave quietly to ‘visit home.’ A few weeks after that, I’ll announce that I’ve filed for divorce. I’ll break down in mourning over the loss of our child and the devastating news that you’ve begun fucking your former lover since returning to this godforsaken bayou. I’ll use nicer words, but that’s what the public will hear.”
What a bastard, and Todd’s snickering proved he not only knew it, he took pride in his deception.
“I love how you managed to make yourself the victim in this scenario. Wouldn’t all those same constituents be shocked to know the last girl I caught you in bed with was a full two years from being legal.”
“You can’t prove that ever happened. If you said that publicly, I’d bury you in the press.”
Exactly the reason she’d never bothered to tell anyone. “Todd, I don’t care what or who you do anymore. Just…get out of my sight. I don’t want to deal with you again until I have to.”
Her husband looked her up and down, his stare lingering on her tender nipples prodding the front of Matt’s oversized T-shirt, making her want to cover herself. “I’ve seen more than enough here. Who’s getting me out of this shit hole?”
Jack Cole, the cabin’s owner, looked at Todd expressionlessly, despite the fact her husband had derided the place the Cajun’s beloved late grandfather had built with his own two hands. Clearly, Jack didn’t give a crap about Todd’s opinion.
Jack motioned to the door. “You’re coming with me. Pierce and I will make sure you find your way back to your hotel.”
“That hillbilly hovel?” Todd sneered like dealing with his lessers and their trappings exhausted him. “No, I’m going back to civilization.” With a last dismissive glance, her husband looked her over, his eyes narrowing when Matt stepped between them again to protect her from his raking gaze. “It’s fitting that my backwater bride is getting railed in the swamp by her cowboy lover. You two deserve each other.”
Then he was gone. Madison didn’t even bother being offended. She was too relieved to see him go. But she had no illusions. She’d negotiated a few concessions and a temporary reprieve. Todd would have her under his thumb for the better part of three months. And she had no doubt the experience would be hell. She just hoped that she and Matt got out of it alive—and still together.
The second the door shut, Matt spit some choice curses and paced. He had to get his shit together. If he didn’t, he’d punch the wall since he couldn’t demolish Todd’s face. As his footsteps ate up the floor, he did his best to swallow down anger—good practice for the next three months—then faced Madison, who looked apprehensive as hell. She was his biggest concern. Though her husband hadn’t touched her, the son of a bitch had gone straight for her emotional jugular.
“You all right, honey?”
Matt didn’t believe her subdued murmur, but he gave her credit. She’d defended herself well, despite having zero time to brace for the asshole’s cruelty. He wished he could have protected her more, but anything he could have done would have made her a bigger target.
Todd was playing a long game. He’d been willing to make a minor concession or two in today’s battle, but he’d been awfully fucking confident he would eventually win the war. What did the cockbag have up his sleeve?
“You sure?” Matt asked her.
“Yeah. The good news is, Todd is usually more vile, but knowing he had four highly trained operatives willing and eager to kick his ass and throw him to the gators constrained him. The bad news? Once we’re in DC, Todd will do everything possible to discredit and torment me. And he’ll try to pit us against each other. You watch.”
That had already occurred to Matt. “If we refuse to take his bait, he can’t cause us strife.”
Deke approached, shaking his head. “He won’t make it that simple, kids. He ignored you for so long, Madison, because you were his. He didn’t question that. No one did, so losing you never concerned him.”
“It shouldn’t now. He doesn’t want me.”
“But he doesn’t want to lose you to any other man, either. Seeing you with someone else, looking so obviously well pleasured… That rankled his pride. Over the next few days, the possibility of his ‘backwater bride’ slipping through his fingers will gnaw at him. Over the next three months, he’ll do whatever necessary to chain you to his side. Since he grew up in DC, he only knows the dirty way to play the game. From what I observed, he’s shrewd, and he has no qualms about using coercion or deceit. Most of all, he refuses to lose to someone he thinks is beneath him. His ego won’t tolerate it.”
“You’re right. Todd was livid when he lost a sous chef to a junior congresswoman from the other side of the aisle last year. So he found some of her college classmates willing to say she liked group sex, the kinkier the better. She’s currently down five points in her reelection bid.”
“That was Todd’s doing?” Deke looked reluctantly impressed. “Damn…”
Matt scowled. “Is it true?”
“Does it matter? The damage is in the accusation. No one waits for the truth before they judge.” Madison wrung her hands. “I can only imagine what Todd will do to me. And to you.”
Matt wished like hell he could erase her anxiety. Impotent fury beat at him.
“She’s right,” Deke added. “Start thinking underhanded and put countermeasures in place, or you two will never defeat Todd. He’ll be ruthless. And he won’t stop coming at you until he succeeds…or he’s forced to relent. You have to be smart every moment of every day. Don’t give him any ammunition, for fuck’s sake,” Deke warned
before he addressed Madison. “Don’t wear your emotions on your sleeve.” Then he turned to Matt. “Don’t be all caveman and let your protective instinct flatten your self-control. When you’re there, you’re her bodyguard, not her lover. You can’t shield her from every snide stare and degrading comment, so learn to let them roll off your back.”
Rage roiled in Matt’s gut. “I’m supposed to do nothing while he hurts her?”
But he knew the answer.
Deke raised a brow. “If you were bodyguarding someone you weren’t fucking, how much would you do to stop a nonthreatening verbal punch?”
Grinding his teeth, Matt resisted the urge to argue that Deke was incredibly protective of his wife. But he and Kimber weren’t about to be holed up for three torturous months with a vindictive sociopath. Oracle’s co-owner was dispensing valuable advice. Matt swallowed down his yeah-buts and listened.
“I’ll keep my shit wired tight.” Even if he would hate every minute of it.
“And I’ll do my best to hide my feelings.” Madison clasped her hands in front of her nervously.
“I got your backs,” Ethan swore.
Matt wiped the knee-jerk scowl from his face. If the punk was willing to circle the wagons when it counted, he needed to bury his annoyance. “Thanks.”
The tatted-up operative nodded, for once sidelining his snark.
“You know that by the time you reach DC, the apartment you share with Todd will be wired for visuals and sound in every room,” Deke said.
“I think it always has been—except his bedroom.” Which was also key-fob restricted. “That would explain a lot.”
Matt whirled. “He’s been spying on you since you married him?”
“He always seemed to be one step ahead of me if I ever thought about going against his wishes. Thank goodness I was in public when I talked to Sadie about my go-bag. Do you know if she’s okay?”
“Does anyone suspect her?” Matt asked Deke. If the coed had helped Madison escape, he owed the housekeeper’s daughter to keep her safe.
“We contacted her shortly after Madison arrived in town,” Deke said. “She thanked us for letting her know you’re okay. At that point, she said no
one suspected her of lending you a hand. We told her to contact us if she ran into a problem, but she’s been radio silent.”
“Sadie is smart. A lot smarter than I was when I first got to DC.”
“She was raised in the shadow of the figurative swamp. You growing up in a literal one didn’t prepare you for their perfidious shit.” Deke turned to Matt. “Same with you. Stay suspicious. Err on the side of caution. Assume that anything you say or do in that apartment will be recorded and used against you.”
If he couldn’t touch Madison—or even talk to her—how was he supposed to take care of her? Thank fuck she had negotiated one day a week away from the apartment. The rest of the time? Goddamn Todd. Already, the asswipe had outmaneuvered them, forcing them to live in the prison of his making. “We’ll need a place to…decompress. Someplace beyond private.”
That would be the only time he and Madison could drop their facades. Knowing he couldn’t lay a single finger on her otherwise, even to reassure her, chafed Matt raw. Fuck, how would he resist her for six days when he could barely stand not touching her for six hours?
“Decompress, huh?” Deke grinned. “Yeah, don’t do that—or anything you don’t want made public during the divorce proceedings—at the apartment. Todd will plaster it all over the tabloids.”
“And brand me a whore.” Madison looked overwhelmed, as if the scope of their separation in all but name was hitting her like a ton of bricks.
“Exactly,” Deke concurred. “Let me put out a few feelers, figure out where you can ‘decompress’ each week. I’m sure your vehicle is bugged and tracked, too.”
“I’ll get you some wheels, too,” Deke vowed. “Just give me a few days.”
“Anything else we need to know?” Matt focused on facts—and forcing down his fury.
“Apparently, Winston Pershing is not thrilled with this divorce.” Deke faced Madison. “He hand-picked you for Todd.”
“And he doesn’t like to lose.” Her acid smile told him she’d run into the brick wall of the senator in the past.
“So before giving you up, he’ll try to make you heel.”
“Good luck. I’m
not a dog.”
“What about the rest of the family?” Matt inquired. “Any potential allies at all?”
“His wife, Agatha, will be somewhere between chilly and hostile. She was friendly early on, but when I wouldn’t blindly overlook Todd’s faults the way she pretended not to notice Winston’s, she turned cold. She smugly thinks she’s ‘won’ because she outlasted five decades of mistresses and is still his wife. All she did was swallow her humiliation until age overcame the senator’s ability to sustain an erection.”
That sounded bent as fuck. Matt shook his head. “Cynthia and Roger?”
She scoffed. “Todd’s parents are completely dependent on Winston, so they’ll toe the line. If Cynthia inadvertently expresses empathy, they’ll supply her with more valium.”
“What about your Uncle Martin?” Matt remembered Madison mentioning the man. “Could he help?”
She shook her head. “It was a bitter pill when I realized he was in Winston’s back pocket. I stopped talking to him.”
Jesus, from the moment she’d been duped into saying ‘I do,’ she’d been surrounded by vipers. “I’m sorry.”
“Thanks. I was so shocked and disillusioned. Growing up, he was my favorite uncle…and he sold me out for a better job and a little pile of green. For months, I prayed karma would strike him down.” She sighed. “Then I worried I was becoming as jaded as everyone around me.”
She wasn’t morally bankrupt, but Matt didn’t reassure her. Madison wouldn’t hear him, and holding back was good practice for the next three months.
“In the DC swamp, scruples are a weakness. Thinking with yours is like wielding a butter knife to take down a firing squad,” Deke warned Madison. “Todd knows you. He’ll use every bit of that knowledge to twist you until you capitulate.”
“Ethan and I should go,” Deke said. “You two figure how you’ll communicate without words or your usual…um, nonverbal strategy. While you’re at it, strengthen your connection so you function as one unit. Your lives may depend on it.”
Fuck. He was right.
Matt nodded Deke’s way. “Anything else?”
“Jack will be in touch when it’s time to go. For now, Ethan, bring in the cooler of
Garrison grumbled but headed out to grab a giant red container from the boat.
“Thank you for everything,” Madison murmured. “You didn’t have to help me—any of you.”
“None of us like bullies, and after seeing that video of your husband straight-up murdering his own cousin, he deserves to go down. Besides, my badass brothers-in-law value Matt more than they’re willing to let on. Keeping you safe keeps him happy.” Deke shrugged and his gravelly voice turned rueful. “Not to mention the fact both Hunter and Logan are married to ladies who would skin their balls if they threw an innocent woman to the wolves.”
Despite the grim situation, Matt smirked. “I don’t know Bailey well since she’s quieter than Kata and Tara, but she’s no less likely to string Joaquin up for not helping a lady in need.” He turned to Madison. “The bosses are protective like that.”
“Everyone at EM and Oracle is.” Deke’s expression said he had zero fucks to give anyone who called them overbearing or sexist. Then he glanced out the window at Ethan wrangling the cooler from the boat. “Well, the verdict is out on the kid.”
Knowing the little bastard would be his backup on this mission chapped Matt’s ass. “And there’s no one else available? From what I’ve seen, he’s only interested in getting laid and isn’t above trying to poach.”
“I was a punk at twenty-one, too. But you and Ethan need to hash out your shit and bury whatever hatchet is butchering your cohesion. Or Todd will cleave a wedge between you. And Madison will be the one to suffer.”
“Then Ethan needs to stop being an asshole and leave her the fuck alone.”
“It takes two to tango,” Deke reminded as he headed to the front door to hold it open as Ethan stumbled in with the cooler. “Figure out whether you’re leading or following, then fix it.”
Once Garrison plopped the insulated container on the counter with a grunt, Deke clapped him on the back. “Ready?”
“Yeah.” He turned to Madison. “You good, sweet pea? Need anything?”
“I’m fine. Thanks.”
“Positive? A hug, maybe? A shoulder to cry on? A full-body massage?” He grinned.
“A real man?”
“Shut the fuck up.” Matt batted the backward ball cap off his head.
The kid caught it, sputtering.
Madison sent him a quelling glance, but she didn’t hand him his ass and tell him to shut the fuck up. Matt wished she would, but she seemed to think Ethan’s hardcore flirting was harmless. He needed his ass kicked, and Matt itched to do the job.
“What I need is some time to figure out how I’ll deal with Todd.” She sighed.
“You married a real tool.” Ethan shoved his ball cap on again and slanted an annoyed glance at Matt. “Maybe you should reconsider your taste in men.”
Deke pivoted to Ethan, wagging his finger like a parent would a child. “If you can’t shut your trap, ...