Cecilia Montgomery has been America’s sweetheart since the day she was born. A member of the prestigious Montgomery family, the US equivalent of royalty, her childhood was cut short after she was nearly kidnapped. Since then, Cecilia has been hidden away, her adolescence spent at an exclusive boarding school. So when an opportune moment presents itself, Cecilia seizes the chance to become someone else. To escape. To disappear. To have the life she always dreamed about, far away from her mother’s biting remarks and her sheltered upbringing. Cecilia says goodbye to the Montgomery name and legacy to become Lia Washington: relaxed, wild, in love, free and living on her own terms for the very first time. But being on your own isn’t always as easy as it seems…
“Senator Montgomery! Senator Montgomery! Roll down the window! Just for a second! Senator Montgomery!”
There was a bang and a shout—some photog getting so close to the limo that he tripped and slammed his camera into the side of the car—and so the most hellish part of my day from hell truly began.
The rest of the paparazzi crowded around the limousine’s tinted windows as it eased through the wrought-iron gates of the South Palm Memorial Cemetery. They couldn’t see me or my mom and dad, would only go home with pictures of their own cameras’ reflections. But that didn’t stop them. Nothing ever stopped them. Some people made a living just by selling whatever pictures they could get of our family. And now the one unfamous person in my world had died, and of course the photographers were still here, clamoring for shots of the living.
Sometimes I really wished their cameras would spontaneously combust in their faces. But only when I was feeling truly pissed at the world. Like now.
“Five minutes, Cecilia,” my mother said tersely, glancing up from her tablet to check her Cartier watch. “We have to get this show on the road. I have a briefing at three.”
I felt my father’s body go rigid, even with him sitting clear on the other side of the limo.
It’s Gigi’s funeral, I thought bitterly. You couldn’t take one day off?
What I said was, “Yes, ma’am.”
Outside the windows, rows of white and gray headstones stretched into the distance for what seemed like miles. It was all so anonymous. My grandmother didn’t belong here, camouflaged by the dreary sameness. She belonged someplace special.
My mom’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t take that tone with your mother.”
The great Rebecca Montgomery, aka dear old Mom, loved to refer to herself in the third person. Ever since I was a toddler, it was:
Look, Cecilia, Mommy’s on TV!
Mommy will only be gone for three weeks, but don’t worry. Miss Jessica will take care of you!
No, no! Mommy can’t hug you right now. This suit is couture.
Yeah. The word “maternal” was not in her vocabulary.
“It’s not as if I can take the time off right now,” she added, reading my mind. “Not when there’s so much work to do.”
Of course there was. It was an election year. Nothing was more all-consuming for my mother than an election year.
She huffed out a breath and placed the tablet aside, opening a compact to check her perfectly bobbed chestnut-brown hair.
“I still don’t understand why we had to fly all the way down here to this godforsaken swamp for her funeral when we have a perfectly beautiful burial plot back in Beacon Hill.”
“Because my mother lived here,” my father said, still staring out the window. “She wanted to be buried here. You never gave her anything she wanted in life, Rebecca; you’d think you could at least give her this.”
“Oh. So I see everyone’s ganging up on me today.” My mother clicked the compact closed and shoved it back into her black Birkin bag. She had a right to be surprised. My father, a high-powered defense attorney for Boston’s wealthiest residents, usually saved all argumentative tones for the courtroom. I hardly ever heard him raise his voice or even snipe at my mom, unless it was from behind very firmly closed doors. “It wasn’t entirely my fault that Maura and I didn’t get along. She did play a hand in it, you know.”
“But she’s still Dad’s mom,” I said quietly. “And my grandmother. And we’re never going to see her again.”
You could at least pretend to be sad.
My mother sighed her impatient sigh. “Cecilia . . .”
“Mom, please,” I said, my voice shaky. “Could you maybe not be a bitch right now? Just for today?”
My left cheek exploded in pain. I didn’t even see my mother move until she was settling back into her seat across from mine, tucking the hand that had just slapped me into her purse.
My left eye prickled over with purple and gray spots. I brought my quaking fingers to my cheek.
“Was that really necessary?” my father asked.
I blinked, surprised he’d even bothered. He’d never said anything to her the many other times she’d smacked me.
“Stay out of it,” she growled at him.
My father clenched his jaw and looked out the window. Mother tugged down on her suit jacket and glared at me. “How dare you?”
It had been a long time since she’d hit me. Possibly because I had hardly seen her for more than an hour or two here and there over the past two years. Maybe I hadn’t had time to piss her off enough. But now? On the day we were burying my grandmother?
“Gigi was my best friend,” I muttered to the door, turning the stinging side of my face away from her. “Just leave me alone.”
“What was that? If you’re going to speak, at least enunciate,” my mother said.
I sat up straight, trying very hard not to tremble. “I said, Gigi was my best friend. And she was more like a mother to me than you’ve ever been.”
My mom made an indignant noise at the back of her throat. “I should throw you right out of this car, young lady.”
“Like you’d ever do that,” I shot back. “You’d rather die than let me see the light of day.”
I hadn’t even been allowed to go out for my eighteenth birthday last month. Instead my mother—or rather, her assistant, Tash—had sent me a gift at boarding school, but she hadn’t otherwise acknowledged it. No call, no text, no e-mail. Just a hand-delivered box from Tiffany containing an ugly ladybug pendant I immediately donated to my graduating class’s silent charity auction.
I crossed my arms and sat back, but the huge bun her stylist had fashioned out of my mane of curls held my skull away from the headrest at an uncomfortable angle. My irritation spiked. Even though I was sitting here declaring my ability to be my own person, I’d spent the entire day letting her order me around as always.
I said the Kenneth Cole, Cecilia, not the Calvin Klein.
Take off that god-awful lip color. Did you pick that yourself? When was the last time we had your eyes checked?
And then, when she’d seen my hair hanging loose around my shoulders: I’ll have Felicia come take care of you next. How you deal with all that hair, I have no idea.
And what had I said all morning long? “Yes, ma’am.”
Sometimes I really loathed myself. I should have asked her how she dealt with having a stick up her butt all the time.
Of course, my hair wasn’t the only thing about me that my mother couldn’t wrap her brain around, but it wasn’t surprising, considering her hair had always been tame and shiny and cut above the chin. I had inherited her skinny bones and angular face, and my dad’s extreme height and dark curly hair—though he kept his almost entirely shaved. My skin color was all my own, somewhere between his dark chocolate and her milky white. I pushed my butt all the way back so I could straighten my posture, barely containing the urge to rip out the three hundred bobby pins stabbing me in the skull.
“Please, Cecilia,” my mother said with a derisive chuckle. “If you want us to treat you like an adult, you should stop moping like a child.”
My face burned.
“We’re here,” my father said gruffly. “Five minutes, Cecilia.”
Of course he was agreeing with her timeline. He always agreed with everything she said. Which is how I’d ended up with her last name instead of his. But I felt suddenly too exhausted to argue anymore.
The mound of dirt and the casket on its metal lift were situated about three rows in from the car. My grandmother’s grave site sat beneath the shade of a huge weeping willow. She would have loved it, and the thought brought fresh tears to my eyes.
I stepped shakily out of the car. It was stiflingly hot and humid.
My mother’s security team sat on alert in the Town Car behind ours along with Tim “the Tank” Thompson, the former pro wrestler who had followed me around for the past ten years. I sensed their eyes on me as I slipped my sunglasses on and walked over to the grave site, alone, feeling oddly exposed without Tim there as my shadow. But he’d been told, I was sure, that I was to have these five minutes.
Because my mother refused to let anyone ever get a glimpse of me, I would not be allowed out of the limo during the actual service and burial later. Ever since I was eight years old and a man named Scott Smith had attempted to kidnap me for ransom, my mother had kept me on a short leash. Well, more like locked up in a cage and transported from place to place only by heavily armed professionals.
It was why I had spent the past ten years cloistered behind the brick walls of the Worthington School, where no camera phones were allowed and every student signed a confidentiality clause. Why I’d never seen the inside of a movie theater or a Starbucks or a commercial airport. Why I’d spent every summer trapped in our house on Martha’s Vineyard with a team of tennis coaches, academic tutors, and etiquette experts grooming me for the day I’d emerge from the suffocating cocoon in which I’d spent most of my life.
Suffocating like the starched jacket of the black suit I’d been forced to wear, which now itched at the back of my neck under the glare of the sun as I approached the grave. The length of the pencil skirt—just above the knee—clamped my legs together and made my steps small and awkward in my black kitten heels. I finally came up alongside the white coffin and lost my breath, imagining Gigi inside. Instead I trained my eyes on the sky as blue as cornflower and dotted with white clouds. I wanted to say the right thing. Tell her how much she’d meant to me. But she knew all that. And the first words that came spilling out of my mouth weren’t so much a grateful homage as a selfish plea.
“How am I supposed to do this?” I asked, my voice cracking. Sudden, hot tears streamed from the corners of my eyes. “How am I supposed to do this without you?”
It was all I could think to say. Then I bowed my head forward, covered my face with my hands, and wept.
* * *
An hour later, it was all over. At least a hundred friends and family members stood alongside her grave while the pastor spoke and my father and his sister cried and my mother’s lip wobbled dramatically.
Our driver stood under the shade of a palm tree alongside the car, which was parked at the front of a winding line of limos and Town Cars awaiting their passengers. He watched the proceedings while I stared through the window, open half a centimeter so that I might catch a stray word. My face and eyes were dry, my skin itching from the tears I’d shed earlier. And the longer I watched, the angrier I felt.
The whole thing was a sham. My parents hadn’t even told my grandmother’s real friends where she was being buried. This was not about her. It was about my mother. The senator. The glamorous Senator Montgomery, fourth child of Jack and Marianne Montgomery and niece of former vice president Frederick Montgomery. Currently, my mother was the highest-profile Montgomery in the country with her ascension to the US Senate, and she had no intention of stopping there. She had turned my grandmother’s funeral into a networking party.
Finally the flowers were strewn, the dirt was tossed, and those in attendance were saying their good-byes. I sat up straighter as my parents approached the waiting cars, my father supporting my mother as if she were the one suffering.
I steeled myself for round two, but my parents and their entourage of bodyguards slipped between parked cars and walked up a slight incline on the other side of the roadway. I had to turn around and crane my neck to see where they were going. The driver moved away from the car to join the rest of the security team. They stopped at a spot atop a grassy knoll near the brick fence that surrounded the cemetery grounds. I saw Tim find a position midway up the hill. My father stood just behind my mother’s right shoulder. Always, always, he stood behind her.
“We’d like to thank you all for coming and showing your respect for my husband’s late mother, our late mother, really,” my mom began, her hair shimmering in the sun. “One of the great matriarchs of our family.”
Bile. I tasted actual bile. Matriarch? Our mother? My mother had treated Gigi like crap. Any overtures from my father’s mother were swept under the rug. Any offers of advice or assistance were scoffed at. How dare she get up there and act like Gigi had meant something to her?
“Maura also meant a good deal to our daughter, Cecilia,” my mother continued, gazing down at the car. “The two of them had a special relationship, and for that we will always be grateful.”
My fingernails dug into the flesh of my palms. I was sweating under my arms and along my upper lip. She was such a liar. Such a fraud. And I hated her. I hated what she’d done to my life. I’d never had a boyfriend or even a real friend. Never been allowed to invite anyone to my house, go to a regular party or out to a concert. I was hardly even a functioning human being.
Heat crept up my neck as my heart pounded out of control. I unbuttoned the suit jacket and yanked the tight sleeves from my arms, straining my shoulder muscles in the process. It didn’t help. I couldn’t breathe. I needed air. I had to get out of there. I had to.
My hand fumbled for the door handle, but then I froze. If just one member of the paparazzi happened to turn their head, they would be on me like starving crows on roadkill. I wouldn’t get two feet from the car before the security detail easily caught up with me and tossed me back inside.
My eyes darted around the confines of the limo as my pulse raced and raced and raced. Suddenly I felt a cool breeze on my ankles and realized that the air-conditioning was blowing. The car was running. I turned and glanced at the ignition. There dangled the keys.
Without thinking, I got on my knees and shoved myself through the open window that divided the driver’s seat from the rest of the car. Within seconds I was behind the wheel—thank God the Tank convinced my mom that my learning to drive was necessary for my safety. The crowd was at least six or seven cars behind me to the left, eyes and lenses riveted on the senator. There was nothing in front of me but open road.
I clicked the car into drive, put my hands on the wheel, and pressed my foot down on the gas pedal.
* * *
I had been on the road for fifteen minutes when my phone began to ring, but I refused to look at the screen. I gripped the steering wheel with slick fingers, hardly able to take a full breath. But even in all my panic and elation and terror and sadness, my logical side was still functioning, and it was telling me that the cops were going to be on me in about thirteen seconds. A scrawny black girl behind the wheel of a stretch limo with livery plates? That was something people were going to notice.
I had to get off this highway. But where the hell was I supposed to go?
I had barely asked myself the question when a sign appeared before me. An actual sign for Everglades National Park. Gigi used to take me there every December 26 for a picnic at a secluded spot near the water. No one would ever look for me there, and there were enough trees to hide the limo, even if my mother somehow got NASA to train a satellite on the area. Which she could totally do.
I just had to find the right turnoff once I got inside the park area. Then maybe I could stop for a while, give myself some time to think, figure out what I was going to do next. I eased the limo off the road.
A few drivers peered curiously out at me as they blew by in the other direction. I noticed that the driver had left his black hat on the passenger seat, and I jammed it down on top of my hair. Not the greatest disguise in the world, but better than nothing.
More signs pointed off to various sections of the park. Fishing piers, wildlife preserves, designated water sports areas. Finally, I found what I was looking for: an old, chipped sign that read PICNIC GROUNDS with a red sticker slapped across it—CLOSED. I ignored that, just like my grandmother always had. I almost laughed, remembering how her irreverence had stressed me out, how I’d spend the first half hour of any picnic worried that we were going to get caught. Never the rule breaker, and now I was breaking every rule in the book.
As soon as I turned onto the packed dirt road, the trees and undergrowth bent in around me. High above, the canopy of leaves blocked out the sun, and long green grasses swished against the sides of the car. I eased my foot off the gas and realized that my ankle hurt from being in the same tense position for so long. Finally I found myself able to breathe. Able to think.
What the hell was I doing?
Did I really think that this stunt would prove anything? That I could escape my mother? No, in fact, I didn’t. When I’d crawled through that window, I hadn’t been thinking at all. I’d been working on instinct, hopped up on emotion. I had wanted to get away, plain and simple. I’d seen my chance and I’d taken it.
The question was, what to do now? I took a deep breath and considered my situation. I had a ton of cash in my backpack—the bag I never left home without—from the tutoring services I offered at school. Okay, the flat-out writing-papers-for-other-kids business I’d been lucratively running behind Tim’s back for the past five years. Most of the money was hidden under a floorboard in my room back home in Boston, where I made deposits every break, but I’d brought my latest haul—about two thousand dollars—with me, in case the school did one of its random sweeps while I was away at the funeral. If I could just get somewhere, somewhere off the grid, maybe I could really and truly be free.
I came to the end of the road and hit the brakes. The car stopped soundlessly. Fingers trembling, I shoved the gearshift into park. Before me was the bog where Gigi and I had picnicked just this past December. Where we’d tossed out a couple of lines and sat munching on cold fried chicken, not catching anything and not caring. I’d leaned my head against her shoulder and we’d daydreamed about going to Europe together. We’d talked about how once I turned eighteen, I could do anything I wanted, I could escape, and she’d be here to do it with me.
Except that she wasn’t. Thanks to one tiny blood clot, she was gone.
I leaned back in the seat and cried. I cried in total earnest and abandon in a way I hadn’t since Tash had called me to tell me Gigi had passed. For the first time in forever, I was truly and completely alone, no bodyguard hovering, no driver or personal assistant or tutor listening in. I cried with everything I had in me.
And by the time I stopped, I had a plan. By the time I stopped, I knew I wasn’t ever going back.
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