Webs of Power Chapter 1

Chapter 1
Hollywood Hills, California

Paige Toddman woke on the morning of January 25, 1988, drenched in sweat, the damp sheets plastered to her body. The nightmare she thought she’d put to rest was back. She feared closing her eyes. She feared Mark would awaken to find her, once again, thrashing about. Most of all, she feared talking in her sleep. Without thinking, Paige traced the thin scars that circled her wrists with her fingers. Faded now and barely visible, they reminded her of deeper scars that she had concealed through a lifetime of lies. They were raw and permanent.

She slowly turned her head and prayed she hadn’t awakened her husband. But he wasn’t beside her. She shook off the tangled sheet and climbed out of bed, her course of action clear.

She took a steadying breath, anxious about the new secret she kept. Her news had the power to tear her marriage apart, but she couldn’t let one more day slip by. She must tell Mark today.

Paige hurried through her morning routine then slipped into her leotard. “Mark?” she called out. She paused. Then, hearing his raised voice echoing through the open doorway, she sped down the tiled corridor and rounded the doorway into his study.

Clad in his usual Armani sweat suit, Mark gripped the phone receiver so tightly that his knuckles looked white. “An isolated case of poor judgment I might forgive, but never a bold-faced lie. There’s no place in my organization for lies or liars. You’re through . . .”

Paige stood paralyzed as Mark slammed down the receiver, whipped his body around, and filled her in on the seemingly minor transgression of the general manager he’d just fired. She listened without comment.

His words echoed in her head. As he had done so many times before, Mark turned into a whirlwind of rage when confronted by dishonesty.

“Lying bastard. Screws up his life, then tries to screw up mine. Thought he was the type of man I could count on …” Mark continued his diatribe as he followed Paige into the exercise room. He flipped on the TV, grabbed a glass of orange juice, and gulped it down.

She drank hers slowly. As he began his daily routine, she hit the record button on the VCR and gestured to the TV. “Mind if we listen to this later? I have something important to tell you.”

Mark pushed a sandy-colored strand of hair off his forehead, leaned forward, and tilted Paige’s chin up. “About time. When there’s no sparkle in your eyes and that quirky sense of humor fails to surface, I know something’s bugging you,” he teased. He glanced at the TV as CNN’s Lynne Russell came into focus. “Just give me a few minutes to get rid of these kinks.” He stretched his arms above his head and paused. Flashing that boyish grin she usually found hard to resist, he raised his right hand as if under oath. “Ten minutes, then I’m all ears.”

Paige set the remote control on the floor beside him and tried to ignore the churning in the pit of her stomach. As Mark launched into his first set of sit-ups, she theatrically raised her wristwatch to eye level.

She made no move to begin her own warm-ups. Instead, she jammed her arms into the vivid blue terry-cloth robe she found draped over the ballet barre.

Mark finished his last set of push-ups.

Paige nodded toward an exercise bench. “Sit down. I have to get this all out at once, so please, just listen. And don’t interrupt.”

“Sounds ominous.” Mark pointed the remote at the screen. He leaned forward, about to rise, but stopped short. She saw his body stiffen and followed his gaze. A familiar face appeared in the window above the newscaster’s head.

What now? Paige wondered.

Australian land developer Philip Sloane has made a hostile offer of $47 per share, or an approximate $4.2 billion, for the Consolidated retail empire . . .

Mark blinked at the screen. The nerve in his left eyelid flickered. Paige dropped down to the floor beside him, her eyes too now fixed on the TV, her hand gently squeezing his.

“Everything we’ve worked for is about to go straight down the toilet.” Mark punched out each word, his voice guttural—sounding nothing like his own.

There’ll be no good time for my news, Paige thought, as her hand moved slowly across her belly. Distracted by Mark’s pain, the urgency of her problem faded—but only for the moment.

 

Boston, Massachusetts

Alone in the home of her fiancé’s parents, Ashleigh McDowell roamed aimlessly from room to room, aware of each unfamiliar groan as the stately Victorian home settled into twilight.

She thumbed through the well-worn pages of her organizer as if she might regain a degree of control over her immediate future. But no amount of planning, no matter how meticulous or detailed, could alter it.

She had not heard from Conrad since he’d rushed his father to the hospital three hours earlier. She stared at the telephone, willing it to ring. Once again, she flipped through her organizer, dwelling on the worst-case scenario.

When she and Conrad had slipped into bed the night before, their world seemed full of promise. Now, Ashleigh felt it all coming unhinged.

Conrad’s parents, eager to meet her, had instantly made her feel a part of their family. She enjoyed the subdued elegance of their home—so like the one of her own childhood.

Memories of the previous night filled her thoughts. Conrad’s father, Bradford Taylor, had appeared to be in excellent health—a man in control of his destiny. If disappointed that his only son had chosen not to follow in his footsteps, he revealed no sign of it. His own commitment to the “hands-on” leadership of his empire, Taylor Commercial Investments, remained crystal clear.

The first blow had come early that morning as they sat around the breakfast table, listening to news of Philip Sloane’s hostile offer for the Consolidated department stores. Conrad’s expression had changed from astonishment to incredulity. But before anyone had fully taken it in or discussed the impact a takeover might have on their careers, Bradford Taylor had doubled over and gasped in pain.

An eternity passed before the color returned to his face. Yet, he waved off their concern. “Just a bout of indigestion,” he’d said, and shifted the focus back to Sloane’s attempted takeover. “But there must have been some foreshadowing.”

“Incredible as it seems, there wasn’t,” Conrad replied. “The stock is obviously undervalued. We were vulnerable. Unfortunately, the board dragged their feet in approving our plan to combat the downward trend.” He paused, about to switch to the impact Sloane’s unexpected bid might have on his and Ashleigh’s careers at Bentley’s, a prestigious West Coast division of Consolidated. But Conrad was cut short when his father began to rub the bridge of his nose, murmuring something about blurred vision.

Instantly taking charge, Conrad said, “Dad, I’m driving you to the hospital right now.”

The phone rang, jarring Ashleigh back to the present. She leaped to her feet and snapped up the receiver. “Yes?”

“On the way to the hospital, Dad’s speech became slurred …” Conrad’s voice broke, then he continued, “He’s had a stroke.”

An hour later, Conrad returned to the house. He dropped down on the sofa beside her, his dark hair disheveled, a light stubble shadowing his jaw. “Mom is staying at the hospital.”

Ashleigh nodded and reached for his hand.

“The doctor said Dad’s chances for recovery are excellent, but he could retain a slight weakness on his left side.”

Conrad sounded far from convinced. Glancing out the window, Ashleigh saw tree branches, covered with new-fallen snow, glistening in the sunlight. Their beauty the day before had delighted her. Now, she felt only the cold.

“Until Dad is on his feet, I’ll have to take over his company.”

“Of course you will.”

Conrad went on as if she hadn’t spoken. “Taylor Commercial Investments is more than Dad’s legacy—it’s his life.” He paused, his gaze unblinking. “It’s Dad’s life, not mine, but what else can I do?” Not waiting for Ashleigh to respond, he said, “And now with Sloane spinning Consolidated into play, there couldn’t be a worse time to bail out on Bentley’s.”

Ashleigh swallowed hard. With a voice she prayed would remain steady, she said, “You don’t have a choice, love. Besides, it won’t be forever.” As she spoke, her positive spirit kicked in. “I know how hard it is to put your career on hold, but your dad’s a young fifty-nine. He’ll want to return to the company as soon as he’s able.” Circling his neck with her arms, Ashleigh kissed her fiancé lightly on the lips.

After returning her kiss, Conrad said, “I can’t predict how long I’ll need to stay in Boston, but I can face anything as long as you’re by my side.”

Ashleigh gently pulled away. “I love you more than ever, Conrad.” Her voice faltered. “Somehow we’ll work things out,” she said softly, willing it to be true. Then thoughts of her own obligations in Southern California filled her head, and she felt their future begin to crumble.

 

Greenwich, Connecticut

In Philip Sloane’s spacious master bathroom, Viviana De Mornay stared at her reflection. She no longer looked as she had in her prime—she looked better. In her youth, she had lacked a keen sense of style and sensuality, precious assets that can be mastered only with maturity.

No one would believe she was pushing forty. She turned her head to study her profile. The skin at her jawline was a bit tighter than she would have liked, but that would ease with time. Leaning closer to the mirror, she confirmed that the swelling was gone and that her makeup concealed the bruising.

She swung her blunt-cut, dyed-auburn hair back and forth then smoothed it into place. Philip had been away on business while she had sequestered herself in his country estate to recuperate. She could hardly wait for him to see her. No doubt about it, Philip’s personal cosmetic surgeon was the best.

Viviana wore a simple, black cashmere, mid-calf gown that hugged her slim figure. Her only accessory was a pair of three-inch heels. At five-eight in stocking feet, she preferred not to add to her height, but without high heels, her ankles appeared too thick. Better to be a tad taller than Philip than to have unattractive legs. She took one last look at her silhouette in the full-length mirror. Satisfied, she headed for the living room.

Philip wouldn’t arrive for another half hour, giving her time to select a couple of their favorite Sinatra CDs to play soft and low.

Placing Philip’s glass in the freezer to chill, she poured herself some vintage cabernet sauvignon. She picked up the New York Times and arranged herself on the couch in front of the bay window to await his arrival.

Viviana reread the front-page article about Philip’s takeover bid for Consolidated and felt a glow of pride. She savored his power. Now her peers and other loyal coworkers of Bentleys Royale would see that power. They’d give her a bit of flak, perhaps, but when they discovered that she, their own fashion authority, would be the next Mrs. Philip Sloane, wife of Consolidated’s new owner, they’d change their tune.

Enjoying that image, Viviana refilled her wine glass. Midway through the article, however, she froze as her gaze fell on a photograph of Philip. He had attended Saturday night’s black-tie extravaganza at Carlingdon’s, the Consolidated store that had captured Philip’s heart and imagination. An unfamiliar woman, displaying a generous cleavage, hung on his arm.

The caption under the four-inch picture read: “Philip Sloane and his enchanting wife, Helga, take time out to celebrate before the corporate raider becomes fully immersed in an all-out battle for Consolidated.”

Red wine spilled down the arm of the white sofa. Struggling to catch her breath, Viviana tried to take in what she’d just read. Philip had not been away from New York this past weekend. He’d been less than fifty miles from her. He had not left Helga behind in Australia. Had he even begun divorce proceedings? Had everything been a lie?

Her emotions ranged from denial to hurt and then to anger. Viviana grabbed the Steuben bowl from the coffee table and raised it high above her head. Her hands shook. But before she hurled it into the fireplace, her mind snapped into focus. She lowered the bowl, carefully returning it to the table.

Thankfully, Philip had not walked in. His vanity equaled hers. If she attacked him, she would lose him. Venting her anger would shatter her future. It was definitely not worth the risk.

Viviana hastily gathered the pages of the newspaper and shoved them out of sight under the sofa. She dashed to the kitchen for a cloth to clean the wine stains from the sofa. Then she freshened up her makeup in the powder room and steadied her nerves by downing another Valium. Strolling back into the living room, she began to plan for the performance of her life.

Tonight would be one Philip would remember—a night free of conflict, a night for love. She would fill his head with words of admiration, the kind of validation that a wife of many years would surely fail to offer.

At the sound of gravel under tires, Viviana peered out the window. She saw Philip’s Jaguar round the circular drive. In less time than it took him to mount the front steps, she met him at the door with a seductive smile and a frosted tumbler of eighteen-year-old Chivas Regal on the rocks.