First Chapter Friday: Sideways (Sarina Bowen World of True North Speakeasy series)

SIDEWAYS

“Get out of town.”

Tracy Thayer fumbled with her cell phone, staring blearily at the time. It was six a.m.

“Who is this?” Her voice was raspy. She didn’t typically get up this early. Who the hell was calling her this early in the morning?

“It’s Bernie.” Bernie Montague was the communications director for her father’s congressional office. And her boss.

Her boss?

Tracy rolled onto her back and sank into the luxurious thousand-count Egyptian cotton sheets while she tried to make sense of what he was saying. “You want to repeat that?”

“Not particularly.” He sounded pissed.

Tracy tended to wake up slowly. A morning person she was not. Especially since she’d been up late consoling her brother over his broken engagement. “What’s wrong?”

“Reporters got ahold of a news story about you.”

“Me?” She was the picture of responsibility. She never did anything to jeopardize her family’s standing.

“A dating app, Tracy? Really?”

Oh shit. Except for that. Shock rendered her mute. No one was supposed to know about the app. No one. Even her best friends—with the exception of Pete Nguyen and his girlfriend, Britt, who had worked on the technical details—had no idea she’d developed a dating app. Her heart began a rapid tattoo.

Her family didn’t know. Her father was a politician, long-standing in the House of Representatives, like his father before him. And her brother was currently running for state office.

She knew enough about the media to know this wasn’t a good thing. No reason to pretend ignorance. “How did they find out?”

“We don’t have time for this.”

She wasn’t sure why it was so urgent.

Bernie began to rant. “A secret? You of all people know how damaging a secret can be.”

“I was trying to protect everyone. You’ll be able to spin this.”

“If I had known about it and had a month or two to plan, with a detailed talking points memo, but right now we’re in strict damage-control mode. You need to get out of town before the vultures start circling. Luckily I got a heads-up from a friend at the Globe.”

Tracy shoved to sitting and swung her feet to the floor. “Why do I need to leave?”

She had media training. She worked part time in her father’s office in Boston doing marketing and social media. She could help.

“We need to craft a statement and get the messaging exactly correct,” Bernie said. “Right now, we need you inaccessible. No comment until we nail it down.”

She couldn’t do that from her condo?

“Just take off for the weekend. Jesus Christ. I still have to break this to your father.”

Her father got up early every morning and took a long walk on the grounds of their family estate in Wellesley. He should be having his morning breakfast, oatmeal with cinnamon and dried cranberries and walnuts, and a single hard-boiled egg, right now. If he had the television on, he was about to be shocked.

“It’s not like I killed someone.” As she woke up more, she was starting to get more pissed.

“Damage control, babe.” Bernie sighed. He sounded tired.

“Where do you want me to go?”

“Someplace no one will think to look for you.” She could hear Bernie pacing his home office. “Rent a car under an alias and lie low. Turn off your cell. Call me on Monday from one of your burners.”

He was taking this pretty seriously.

Her throat closed and she curled into a ball. What would her father think about it all? He was up for reelection and his opponent had been trying to make something dirty stick to her father for months.

She had the means to deliver a blockbuster exposé about her well-known political family. Not that she ever would.

The irony wasn’t lost on her.

But that would have to wait for later. Right now, she needed to get the hell out of Dodge.

She threw a couple pairs of khaki crop pants and washable silk button-up blouses into her traveler suitcase. Ballet flats, a small case of Tiffany casual jewelry, and her overnight cosmetic case. She grabbed her small emergency wallet which included a thousand dollars cash, a debit card, a burner phone, and a fake ID.

She thought about the situation and went to her safe. She pulled out an ID she’d never used before. Cee-Cee. Her imaginary persona. The one she’d created when she was a teenager and wished for a different life.

Some kids had imaginary friends.

Tracy had created an imaginary identity.

She’d never used Cee-Cee before but instinctively she tossed it in her Balenciaga bag—having her secret come out without the benefit of spin ahead of time could be the catalyst to finally bring Cee-Cee to life. She’d always hesitated but the alarm in Bernie’s voice had been surprising. He was usually unflappable. His brain worked in twenty directions at once, always coming up with the perfect spin, so him freaking out about this was a big fat clue that it was bigger than she expected.

Being the daughter of a politician, she’d gotten used to traveling under aliases when the occasion demanded it. Perhaps this time she could become Cee-Cee.

Her doorbell buzzed.

Tracy frowned. She lived in a building with high security. She peered through the security hole. Shit.

A reporter she’d had drinks with a few months ago was on her doorstep. He’d dropped her home after their date. She didn’t even know why she’d gone out with the guy. Reporters were necessary tools in the political world but having a relationship with one was a bad idea. Although she didn’t think that was why he’d asked her out, she also knew that he’d use their connection to his advantage if the opportunity presented itself.

Only one dating option was worse than a reporter. Someone high profile and sought after by the press.

Too many opportunities for conflicts of interest. Too many possibilities that reporters would follow them and inadvertently reveal something about Tracy or her family. Some politicians courted the press but not the Thayers.

And she had a secret that would surprise everyone.

Fortunately, thinking on her feet was a strength. She dialed quickly then winced when the phone was answered groggily. It wasn’t even seven a.m.

“Hey, I need a favor.”

“Whatever you need.” Britt Jones, who had started out as her pal Pete’s girlfriend but was now her friend too, didn’t even hesitate.

“That fast?” Tracy was overwhelmed with emotion.

“I just got a check from the profit sharing.” Britt laughed huskily. “Who knew digital dating was so profitable.”

Tracy had built a multimillion dollar dating empire, but she hadn’t gone on a third date in years. Too afraid of the consequences of falling in love with someone and too much longing for a partner who she could never be truly honest with.

“Well, enjoy, because apparently it’s out that Fairy Tale Beginnings is mine.” Tracy fiddled with her Tiffany charm bracelet, fingering the princess crown. A gift from her mother. “New Wins may be getting some media calls.”

She wouldn’t think that the information that she was the owner would be bad. After all, she had a kickass CEO, and the programming behind the app was top-notch.

“We didn’t have anything to do with a breach.”

“I know that.” Pete had had an employee theft issue last summer, but he’d been quick to fix the problem without too much fanfare and as far as she knew there hadn’t been any recent issues.

There was a pause on the other end. “You didn’t think it could stay private forever, did you?”

She’d actually hoped she could keep it a secret forever. “No, but I would have preferred to control the rollout and the message.” She should have had a plan in place for when the information got out. That was on her. She had a few talking points available but that was it. Instead of being proactive, she had hidden her head in the sand and pretended that it wouldn’t get out, and if it did it wouldn’t be a big deal.

“What happened?”

“Still not sure. But I’ve been ordered to get out of town for a few days.”

“Get out of town?” Britt paused. Tracy could practically hear her shaking her head. “Rich people.”

Tracy laughed. “Political people.”

“What do you need?”

“Can you rent a car and drive it to my building? I’ll meet you in the parking garage on the second floor.”

When she’d bought her condo, she’d picked a unit that had a back access to the service elevators. That would certainly come in handy today.

“Done. See you in a few minutes.”

“You’re a lifesaver!”

Britt showed up half an hour later with Pete. Peter Nguyen was one of her close-knit group of friends who’d met when they were in their late teens and formed an oddball group of people with nothing in common except the ambition to become billionaires.

What started out as an incongruous group of diversely different people had developed into a friendship bond that grew stronger every year.

Pete and Britt were old high school friends who had reconnected last summer. They’d fallen in love while doing the software development of Tracy’s app. Maybe she, and Fairy Tale Beginnings, had had a slight hand in getting them together. Unless Pete had cheated and programmed the app to match him with Britt. Tracy was never sure if that was the case.

They had just gotten engaged and were deliriously happy, as evidenced by the fact that he’d come with Britt this morning.

Pete said, “Do you need anything else from us?”

“I’m going to hole up somewhere and figure out where the leak came from.”

“You’ve got me on speed dial.” Pete was clearly lost in details as he rattled off his next moves. “I’ll run a diagnostic and make sure we didn’t have a security breach. Although if we did, my threat detection program should have caught someone trying to hack the system.”

“My guess is that someone somewhere figured it out.”

She needed to call her CEO, Yolanda Sanchez, and get a statement crafted. She’d wait until Bernie released his, so that there weren’t any contradictions between the two. But they should at the very least have a draft ready to go.

Yolanda had been with Tracy since the beginning. She was one of the few people who knew that Tracy was the owner and creator of Fairy Tale Beginnings. They’d become friends over the past year.

Tracy had set up a shell company, legally, that owned Fairy Tale Beginnings. So someone would have had to find the filing documents for her shell company. She’d used a different lawyer, not her family attorney, to set it up and the ownership filings were secret. The laws had just changed so the information was going to come out sooner or later.

She just wished it had been later.

Up until now she’d been able to keep her identity private. She was just about ready to file paperwork for two new businesses, offshoots spawned by the original company. The largest was an engagement-planning business that helped clients design spectacular announcements and over-the-top proposals worthy of Instagram and TikTok. They helped their clients plan amazing events.

Something weird that she’d never really anticipated. She’d always thought that such an intimate moment should be just that, intimate. But plenty of people craved the spotlight, wanting their fifteen minutes of fame and the possibility of going viral. And she and her company knew how to deliver.

Now she had an Instagram feed just for proposals from people who were matched using her app. And another Instagram account strictly for wedding photos of Fairy Tale marriages.

She needed to check in with Yolanda and see if there was any backlash from the users of the app. She could also do a search online. But all that would have to wait until she got away from the reporters congregated outside her building.

“Thanks for your help.” Tracy squeezed Pete and then Britt in tight hugs. “Can you tell the BBC?” Yes, she was a chickenshit.

Her friends from the Billionaire Breakfast Club—that silly name they had coined all those years ago—were going to be annoyed with her.

She’d kept things from them. Kind of big things. But she’d had reasons. Namely protecting her family. And they’d think the app was silly.

Even her brother, who’d used the app to find Esme, his ex-fiancée, thought it was dumb. But he’d been tired of women who’d been attracted to him strictly because of his family name. He’d been searching for a woman of a certain background who was ready to be in the spotlight. Tracy had been the one to suggest he try it. He was going to be doubly pissed since Esme had broken it off yesterday.

She wore sunglasses and her floppy beach hat. Her hands gripped the steering wheel hard. Tracy drove out of the garage past the small circle of reporters waiting outside. Fortunately, they were so intent on the front door, that they missed her leaving.

So cray. Hopefully this would all blow over in a day or two and she’d be back in the city. But where to escape for a few days? She hopped on the Mass Pike and headed inland. Away from the city. Away from her life. Away from her problems.

She stopped in a large suburban town with a plethora of strip malls and picked up a new smart phone. She’d set it up later. Her go bag would hold her over for the next few days but she needed access to the internet.

Hours later, after wandering the backroads, she’d traveled into Vermont.

She was a city girl. She must have been to Vermont at some point in her twenty-nine years, but she couldn’t recall when.

Which meant no one would think to look for her here.

An hour later, she pulled off the road and went in search of some lunch. After a bit, she happened upon a sign for the Speakeasy Taproom.

The name conjured up visions of an illicit underground bar.

She loved the symbolism—hiding out in a den of ill repute where no one would think to look for Boston heiress Tracy Thayer.

She’d stop here.

The old mill building had been restored. Giant, leaded glass windows broke up the brick exterior giving her a glimpse inside. Tracy paused near the door and changed course, heading to the little area to the left of the entrance. Around the back was an outdoor patio that bordered the rushing river. The birds twittering and the swishing of wind through the trees were unfamiliar pastoral sounds. She was more used to honking horns and the chatter of thousands of people hurrying to get on with their day.

Even with the sounds of nature, there was a hushed quality to the air, an expectant energy but without that crisp intensity of the city, more blurred like a watercolor scene. She paced the grassy area as her brain went over the events of this morning. She’d had nothing but time to think on her drive, and she was no closer to grasping what had happened and what was going on than when she’d been abruptly awoken this morning.

Tracy couldn’t stand it any longer. She pulled out her burner flip phone and dialed her brother, Thomas. He didn’t answer. Ugh. He wouldn’t recognize the number. She left a message anyway. “Hey, what’s going on? Call me back at this number.”

She tried Bernie. But he didn’t answer either.

She called her father. His personal assistant, Ashley, answered. “Congressman Thayer has no comment at this time.”

“Wait, Ashley. It’s Tracy.”

“Oh my God. You were behind the Fairy Tale Beginnings? I used that app! I had to put the ten grand registration fee on a new credit card.”

She wondered randomly why Ashley didn’t pay cash for her registration fee. But she didn’t have the time to ask. “Can you put me through to my father?” She needed information and she hated feeling out of the loop.

“Uh, he’s in a strategy meeting right now. Can I take a message? Where are you?”

“Not important.” Bernie’s lessons followed her. “What about my brother? Is he around?”

“Also in the meeting since it involves him.”

It involved her brother? Now she was totally confused.

“Pretty much everyone who needs damage control is in your father’s office.” Ashley sighed. “But it’s closed-door so I have no idea what’s going on.”

“Give me the Cliff’s Note version of the problem.”

“Your brother’s fiancée just left him – via tabloid – and said that the app lied about him and his values. And then she outed you.”

How in the world had Esme, short for Esmerelda, found out Tracy was behind Fairy Tale Beginnings? Even her family didn’t know. And what was her end game with outing her? Was she strictly a disgruntled ex or was there more going on here?

Esme had attacked her brother’s values. Had Thomas told her about their family secret?

She had so many questions.

She hadn’t like Esme from the get-go. There had been a calculated hardness in her gaze when they’d first met. But Tracy had let her reservations slide—she was naturally suspicious—because Fairy Tale Beginnings had matched them. And she had complete faith in her app.

She paced the uneven dirt area, her Tiffany bracelet sliding over her arm, charms tinkling against each other as she fought the urge to run her fingers through her hair.

“Can I have them call you back at this number?” A note in Ashley’s voice set Tracy’s alarm sensors blaring. Leaks weren’t unheard of and while this was only the beginnings of a scandal, a dumb one at that, Ashley wouldn’t be the first aide to try to cash in with the tabloids. Her father vetted his staff very carefully but sometimes his employees couldn’t resist the lure of making money by selling Thayer family details.

Her family had been a subject of media interest for years. It was tiring—but an inexorable fact of her life.

A Help Wanted sign in fancy script rested in the front window. Waitressing in rural Vermont. She sighed. That would certainly be an easier life than her complicated tangle right now.

“I’ll call back later.”

She jabbed the button on her phone to hang up and then swore creatively. “Dammit. You should have known this would happen. You big dummy.”

She mentally took it back. That wasn’t her. She was always positive and upbeat, even when the world was on fire.

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