Monday December 7, Late Afternoon
CHAD HUNG UP his coat in the closet, next to his son’s ski jacket and his daughter’s dress coat. He ran his hand down the sleeves of them, as he did every night.
He turned on the old stereo, hitting the “shuffle” button on his CD carousel. Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” echoed through the living room and into the study where he sorted mail and checked his messages. He scanned his Internet accounts on his ancient laptop. Other than an email from his sister Kate, nothing of worth.
He gazed at Maggie’s doggie bed next to the desk, with its half-chewed tennis ball wedged in the corner.
Chad changed into jeans and a sweatshirt, tossed a frozen entrée into the microwave and uncapped a Heineken. His phone vibrated with a text. “In Wyoming. No details yet.”
AMANDA STOOD NEXT to her “beau,” Matthew Baird, like a faithful, adoring Black Lab, although he was the one in the dog house. Her face ached from smiling, but her feet, jammed into a pair of skyscraper Jimmy Choos, protested the most. Her charming fiancé hadn’t returned any of the dozen voice messages she had left, each one more animated than the previous. But she stood next to him, graciously greeting everyone, playing the role of the happy fiancée. The boulder glistened on her finger like a shiny new collar.
“Matt, great to see you.” James Wagner, CEO of Eastport Bank, shook Matt’s hand and slapped his back. “Keep up the good work; we need you in Washington—and congratulations on the engagement.”
Amanda gritted her teeth behind the grin.
The upper crust mingled near the bar in another of their financially incestuous events, this one to support Matt’s bid for an Illinois senate seat. The expanse of tables in the Waldorf Astoria’s banquet room and the expensive flower arrangements disquieted Amanda. A far cry from Matt’s early events. It seemed Conservatives believed Matt could beat a Democrat this year, thanks to the influence of the Tea Party. A who’s who of CEOs greeted Matt, each of them eager to install into office someone who had their backs.
She smoothed her skirt, which paled in the room full of luscious designer clothes. The wives of the Windy City’s movers and shakers made an effort to dress the part. Luxurious fabrics—silks, velvets and satins—glided past her sensible-yet-expensive navy wool suit. “What recession?” would be the response to the wives glistening in gold and platinum. A waiter could be cut to the quick if he walked too close to the razor-sharp creases of the men’s Armani slacks.
“Why is everyone overdressed?” Amanda said through an aching smile.
Matt brushed his lips against her ear. “I tried to tell you. These fundraisers have evolved from cocktail weenies and macaroni salad to canapés and brie. The business community recognizes me as their candidate.”
How long had it been since she stood beside him at one of his rallies? A few weeks before Thanksgiving? Had the crowds swelled so much in a month? Her mouth went dry.
Amanda and Matt had clicked the first time they had met, in May at a charity race for Wiggles and Wags Animal Shelter, another one of Amanda’s board-of-director gigs. Matt had been there, standing a foot taller than the crowd, pressing the flesh. The long-legged senate long-shot with a big heart and a small war chest. She had enjoyed watching him interact with his fellow citizens, listening to their gripes and explaining how he’d change Washington.
Amanda and Matt filled their time alone with frenzied fun. Her abdomen tightened as she recalled their trip to Vail over Thanksgiving, ripping down the slopes all day and romping in bed all night. Matthew Baird played with fire…and her.
But now, his campaign had the feel of what she most despised in politics: a marionette among the puppeteers. She needed to carefully and quietly separate from Matt and his campaign. Although furious with him, Amanda loved Matt too much to hurt his chances.
Why did he make it so much more complicated in the last twenty-four hours? Damn him. “You know, there’ll be more news about us tomorrow,” Amanda said.
“Yeah, hopefully we’ll make Tuesday’s front page.”
“Probably. Me strangling you with my bare hands should make the headlines,” she whispered.
“I’m sorry I didn’t return your calls; it’s been a crazy day,” Matt whispered back. “What’s up?”
What’s up? The sonofa—what’s up? “I wanted to express my delight with the preplanned engagement announcement.” She slid her hand around his inner upper arm and pinched. Hard. “We need to talk.”
“Ouch! Stop it. I can’t tonight; I need to meet with my campaign manager after dinner. Let’s discuss it tomorrow.”
“That’s what you told me last night.”
“Sorry, but it’s crazy right now.”
Darth Vader gasped in the confines of her purse.
“What the—” Matt glanced down at her bag.
If she ignored it, eventually Vader would shut up, but guests nearby began to look over.
“Excuse me.” She backed away from Matt and pulled out her phone as she weaved through the circular tables, each one sparkling with china and silverware, ready for the horde of guests who wanted to see her fiancé manipulate government to their liking.
“What do you want, Dad?”
“The kids are still missing and I can’t get down to Cancun because I can’t find my passport. Miriam is trying to make arrangements, but in the meantime we need somebody in Mexico.”
“Miriam can go down alone—or doesn’t Trent have family?”
“Mandy, please. I need your help. My baby’s missing.”
Her gut burned. “This isn’t the place or the time to talk. I’m at a fundraiser for Matt.”
“Great—he’s got connections. Ask him to involve the authorities.”
“Are you nuts? The last thing Matt’s campaign needs is a girlfriend with a crazy family.” Her mind flooded with images of the fiasco splashed across the front page of the Chicago Tribune. There’d be enough talk over their ten-year age difference. Now the cougar’s family misplaced a daughter? “He can’t know anything about this—nobody can.”
A hand braced her shoulder and Matt’s cologne, a mix of ginger and sandalwood, circled her. “Is everything okay? You look a little unsettled.”
“Um, yes.” She disconnected the call and turned off her phone. “Nothing to worry about.” Rebecca better get that skinny butt of hers back to Cancun. Fast.
They wandered back to the crowd, Matt smiling and shaking hands the entire way, but a number of the rich and powerful avoided Amanda: the ex-husbands of her clients. Bright, shiny new trophy wives on their arms, they politely waved at Matt but skirted Amanda. Sadly, she figured these women would be the next wave of clients in her office.
A movement on the fringe of the activity caught her attention. A pair of steely blue eyes stared back. Jonathan Wallace, Gordon Harding’s impeccably dressed henchman. Amanda had done her homework in prepping to help Celeste, and in most photos, Jonathan could be seen hovering somewhere in the vicinity of Gordo.
She tugged on the sleeve of Matt’s Dolce & Gabbana suit. “Why is Gordon Harding’s right-hand man here?”
“Who are you talking about?”
“Jonathan Wallace, the doer of Gordon’s dirty work.”
“Well, Mr. Harding isn’t taking any of my calls, thanks to my lovely fiancée, so maybe he sent the guy to check out my prospects. Anybody willing to pay the one-thousand-dollar price tag can attend.”
“Matt, I noticed a number of your supporters aren’t exactly my biggest fans. Am I more of a liability than an asset? Maybe this engagement isn’t the best idea—especially with our age difference.”
He wrapped his arm around her neck and kissed her temple. “Nonsense. I want you beside me, all the way. But it might not be a bad idea if you lightened your case load. I’ll need you with me campaigning from now until November. And then we’ll be heading to Washington.”
“Matt, it’s not what I—”
“Wonderful turnout Matthew. Mind if I borrow your lovely fiancée?” Peggy Armstrong shook his hand and then grabbed Amanda’s wrist, pulling her to a corner. “Although having a senator’s wife on the board would be absolutely marvelous, I have to ask, when did you lose your mind?”
Peggy sat on another board with Amanda, the Cook County Coalition for Abused Women. She and her husband Stephen had more money than God, the emissaries of Chicago’s elite.
“Trust me, I’m as surprised as you are—probably more so. Peg, I’m so glad you’re here. What’s going on? How did Matt suddenly become so popular with the Conservative contingent?”
“Stephen mentioned that somebody influential decided to back him and he brought along a number of moguls—which I find fascinating with you on Matthew’s arm. You’re the woman many of them love to hate, having heard tales about what it’s like to be ‘Sloane slain.’”
A low, chirping ringtone emanated from Amanda’s purse. “Sorry, I have to take this call.” Amanda made tracks for the front entrance, pulling out her second phone on the way. “Ian, I need to talk to you about that series of snapshots you sent from Miami. I need more photos. We may have stumbled onto something bigger than catching Winston Lamont porking prostitutes. That flamboyant picture in the condo’s living room? It once belonged to Marco Farms CEO Gordon Harding…and I suspect it still does.”