Sneak Peeks

Second chances are for suckers… read a sneak peek from Fool Me Once by Ashley Winstead


Second chances are for suckers… read a sneak peek from Fool Me Once by Ashley Winstead

In this fierce and funny battle of the exes, Ashley Winstead’s Fool Me Once explores the chaos of wanting something you used to have.

Lee Stone is a twenty-first-century woman: she kicks butt at her job as a communications director at a women-run electric car company (that’s better than Tesla, thank you), and after work she is ‘Stoner,’ drinking guys under the table and never letting any of them get too comfortable in her bed…

That’s because Lee’s learned one big lesson: never trust love. Four major heartbreaks set her straight, from her father cheating on her mom all the way to Ben Laderman in grad school ― who wasn’t actually cheating, but she could have sworn he was, so she reciprocated in kind.

Then Ben shows up five years later, working as a policy expert for the most liberal governor in Texas history, just as Lee is trying to get a clean energy bill rolling. Things get complicated ― and competitive ― as Lee and Ben are forced to work together. Tension builds just as old sparks reignite, fanning the flames for a romantic dustup the size of Texas.

Look, normally after a hookup, I am all about the graceful exit. Poll my friends, and four out of four will tell you that when it comes to guys, graceful is practically my defining characteristic—and if not that, definitely exit. What happened this morning I lay at the feet of the patriarchy. The moment I shut the hotel room door and tried to creep away, lest I wake the sleeping groomsman inside—thoughtful of me, yes, and nothing to do with the fact that I’d promised him my phone number when he woke—the frilly, traitorous sash on my yellow ball gown caught in the doorjamb and yanked me backward like a rubber band.

As I sailed butt-first toward the door I’d only just escaped from, I pictured my obituary: Lee Stone died as she lived, embodying the height of glamour and respectability—not wicked hungover, thoroughly dicked and dressed head to toe as the fifth-best Disney princess, how dare you besmirch her memory. Obviously, it would have to be written by a fellow PR professional, an expert in the art of spin.

The obituary image was quickly followed by the same thought that had haunted me over the course of the past eight months: Why, oh why, had I agreed to be a bridesmaid in a Disney-themed, Disney-located wedding? And for a college friend I was barely close to, no less. Did my shameless pursuit of open bars and men in tuxedos know no bounds?

Luckily, the layers of crinoline puffing up my ball gown finally proved valuable, muffling the sound of my body colliding with the door. I bent over, rubbed my stinging elbows and wrestled the sash away, cursing it for ruining my James Bond–worthy escape.

For the millionth time, I wondered what self-respecting woman actually got married at Disney World—and worse, forced her bridesmaids to dress up as Disney characters, knowing full well the odds were high we’d end up knocking boots with the groomsmen, themselves tragically outfitted as Cinderella’s footmen. What special brand of saccharine-flavored sadism convinced a person that walk of shame was worth risking?

I mean, I knew the answers to those questions, obviously. Because here I was, staggering away from said footman’s hotel room the morning after Daisy Taylor’s wedding—excuse me, Daisy David’s wedding, since there was no way in hell that girl wasn’t taking her husband’s last name. Dangerously late for the airport, and seeing double thanks to the buckets of wedding champagne I’d consumed. Despite my fervent hope last night, it turned out there was no such thing as magical, hangover-free alcohol—even if you were drinking it overlooking a life-size Cinderella’s castle. Duly and sadly noted.

I crept down the lush, brocade-curtained hallway of the royal-themed Disney resort—nothing but the best for the groomsmen—and scratched as quietly as I could on the next door down. Instantly, the door cracked open and a woman dressed as a giant white teapot squeezed through, wheezing. I yanked Mac clear a little too hard, suffering PTSD from my own escape, and we caught ourselves just before tipping backward, stiletto heels wobbling. Whoever said high heels were invented to make it harder for women to run away was clearly right on the money, and I was adding Disney costumes to the list.

“You okay?” I grunted.

Mac waved me off and shut the door whisper-quiet. “Don’t want to wake…um, what’s his face…” She gave me a guilty look for not remembering her groomsman’s name. Mac, unlike me, cared about such things.

“Come on,” I whispered back. “Our flight leaves in ninety minutes and we still have to sprint the entire length of the castle to our rooms, pack our shit and Uber to the airport.”

“Crap,” Mac said, scooping her giant teapot costume into her arms for better aerodynamics. “And we have to say goodbye to Daisy, too.”

She took off, and I scurried after her, hiding my eye roll so Mac couldn’t see. Screw Daisy. When she’d asked me to be a bridesmaid, I’d been shocked and instantly filled with guilt over the fact that I’d clearly meant more to her than she’d meant to me. I’d written her such a gushing email: Wow, Daisy, of course I accept! A thousand times, yes. Now, teetering across the hotel lobby while people turned to stare, I began to suspect I’d actually done something grievously wrong to Daisy in college, and she’d waited seven long years to exact her revenge.

A long con. I could almost admire it.

We burst out of the hotel’s ornate double doors into the appallingly bright Florida sunshine and froze, cowed by the sight before us. There were people everywhere. Worse than people—families. Of course there were. Because we were smack-dab in the middle of the Magic Kingdom on a perfectly clear Sunday morning in September, and it had been so long since I’d been thoroughly and publicly humiliated. So where else would they be?

As Mac and I stood there, dozens of small heads swung in our direction. A high voice yelled, “Mommy! It’s Beauty and the Beast!”

“Oh, Christ,” I muttered, shielding my face. As if it was that, and not the yellow ball gown, giving me away.

“This way!” Mac pointed in the direction of Cinderella Castle, a vast expanse of white stone and blue spires. Once again, I cursed Daisy, whose dedication to fairy-tale romance meant she’d insisted on getting married right in front of the damn thing.

I didn’t have time to list the reasons her obsession with fairy tales and true love was ridiculous, foolhardy and 100 percent going to lead to her eventual heartbreak. At the moment, the only thing I cared about was that Daisy’s absurd old-fashionedness meant the groomsmen and bridesmaids had been booked in separate hotels, divided by the longest gauntlet of child-filled castle grounds I’d ever witnessed in my admittedly castle-and child-lite life.

“Mommy, I want to hug Mrs. Potts,” came another child’s voice, disconcertingly close.

“Of course, honey,” someone answered pleasantly. “Let’s go ask her very nicely.”

Mac and I turned to find a mom tugging her tiny son toward us. The mom looked up, catching our eyes. I can only imagine the full picture of what she saw, since I’d been unable to examine myself in a mirror before sneaking out of the footman’s room.

But Mac—oh, God, Mac’s mascara had shifted downward to make little raccoon-rings around her eyes, her pink lipstick smeared from what I hoped was hours of high-quality making out. Her teapot costume, now that I really looked, was on ass-backward, Mrs. Potts’s face grinning creepily from her back.

I searched my own body with mounting dread. No, no, my dress was on the right way, at least. But I could feel my hair hanging in messy strands out of my elaborate Belle-bun, and I was sure, from what I remembered doing with the footman last night, that my face looked at least as bad as Mac’s.

“Oh, honey, actually, that’s not—that’s not the real Mrs. Potts,” said the mother quickly. She shook her head at us and covered her son’s eyes.

“We’re so sorry. We were forced to wear these costumes. I begged not to.” Mac wrung her hands with regret. Unfortunately, her confession reeked of some sort of Disney-themed S&M plot, and only made the mom twist her son around and hurry him away.

Mac deflated inside her bulky teapot. Now that innocent children were involved, she’d clearly reached her limit for personal debasement. Which, as someone who’d witnessed her dating life since college, was saying a lot.

Using precious seconds, I surveyed the scene. Even though the mom and her son had run away from us, their reaction didn’t seem to be stopping the rest of the families from believing Mac and I were Disney World employees, here to entertain them as Mrs. Potts and Belle. They were crowding in on us from every direction, drawing closer like a tightening noose.

I may live according to my own moral code—what traditionalists might refer to as morally gray or perhaps no code at all—but even I had to draw the line at scarring this many children in one fell swoop. I made a decision: since there was no way around, we’d have to go through.

“Run!” I hissed, smacking Mac on the bottom to motivate her, as one would a horse or a high school quarterback. Then I sprinted for all I was worth.

We scythed through the crowd, stunning families—me in front, Mac in back, shouting, “Sorry, so sorry!” over her shoulder. Incredibly, some of the families started jogging after us, as if this was a game, and they had only to catch us to win a Disney-themed prize.

But I had our home plate in front of me, the hotel I could see just over the turrets of the castle. I narrowed my eyes and ran faster, glad my own dating life since college had prepared me for making quick escapes in compromising clothing.

“Mac, move faster! I can’t have anyone recognize me walk-of-shaming.”

“Oh, get off it,” Mac huffed. “It’s not like you’re even remotely famous.”

“It’s the age of social media. That means anyone could take a picture of me, upload it to Twitter, and then everyone back home would see. My work is high-profile.”

“Honestly, the ego on you. It’s because she made you Belle, isn’t it?”

Thankfully, we were drawing near. The wind against my face billowed my loose hair behind me like a victory flag. We were going to make it, just had to sprint around this giant fountain, with its gushing geyser of crystal-blue water.

My phone rang, triggering an instant Pavlovian response. I dug into my purse and pulled it out, checking the caller. Wendy Kornbluth. Oh, no. Wendy was the chief of staff at the company I worked for—correction, the company I lived for—and on the very short list of people I had to drop everything to talk to.

I halted so fast I swayed on my feet. Mac ran into me and bounced off, her teapot costume saving us both a lot of pain.

“Wendy?” I answered.

“What are you doing?” Mac cried, looking and sounding like an extra in The Walking Dead. “They’re going to get us!”

“Lee?” Wendy sounded concerned. “Are you okay?”

I plugged my other ear and shot Mac a look. “Sorry, it’s just a horror movie playing in the background.” I took a deep breath and used my work voice—calm, collected and cool as ice. I was Lee Stone, director of communications for Lise Motors, the first female-led electric vehicle company in the world, and all-around boss. “What’s up?”

Beside me, Mac watched the encroaching families with terror.

“Game-changing news,” Wendy said. “You know how we’ve been waiting for the governor to fill his policy director spot?”

The governor in question was Grover Mane, the first moderate Republican governor Texas had elected in decades, and quite possibly—if all went according to my very ambitious plan—the first governor in the country to pass a bill embracing electric vehicles for government transportation statewide. We’d been in talks about the possibility for more than a year. It would be revolutionary if it happened—a climate game changer, an undeniable political victory, and a huge leap forward for Lise and our CEO, Dakota Young. Not to mention a giant boost for my career.

The governor had promised he’d get serious about marshaling the votes needed to pass the legislation once he’d filled his policy director position. We’d been waiting with bated breath for a long time as Governor Mane apparently searched for a human unicorn.

“Oh my God,” I breathed, ignoring Mac tugging on my arm. “He got someone?”

“Not just someone—someone from Silicon Valley,” Wendy said, voice dripping with satisfaction. “You know what that means.”

“They’ll want to go green.” The odds were sky-high someone from Silicon Valley would agree electric vehicles were the future. Even the reddest Republicans in California registered lilac in Texas.

My heart raced even harder. It was happening. My dream.

“His name is Ben Laderman,” Wendy continued. “He was senior legal counsel and policy adviser at Google. Apparently, he helped the governor land a new Google center in Houston and that’s how they got to know each other—”

But the rest of what Wendy said was drowned in the buzzing white noise that filled my ears. “Did you say…Ben…Laderman?”

It couldn’t be. The world wasn’t that small, or that cruel. There was no way.

“Yes, Laderman.” Wendy’s tone made it clear I’d interrupted her and she wasn’t pleased about it. “Hometown Austin guy, actually, went to law school at UT.”

Impossible. There was no way the Ben Laderman from my past, who’d kindly gotten the fuck out of Texas years ago, was not only back in Austin, but wedged between me and the thing I’d worked for my entire professional life.

Wendy stopped talking, trying to interpret my silence. “What, you know him or something? And are those children I hear in the background? I thought you said you were watching a horror movie.”

Sure enough, even through the white noise, I could hear high-pitched voices squealing about princesses and singing teapots. Mac had dropped my arm and was backing away slowly.

“No, I don’t know him,” I lied, the words coming out before I had a chance to think them through. In fact, I couldn’t think straight at all, with the kids and the costume and the dizzying amount of champagne still in my system. And, worst of all, with the conjured spirit of Ben Laderman circling overhead.

“I have to go,” I said, feeling ill.

“Okay.” Wendy was clearly confused. “He starts in the governor’s office Thursday, so prepare yourself to fill him in and win him over. We meet with him nine a.m. sharp his first day.”

“Yep,” I said dazedly, ending the call.

When I looked up, Mac was staring at me. “Did I just hear you say the name Ben Laderman? As in the Ben Laderman?”

“I’m fucked.” Why hadn’t I noticed how unbearably hot the Florida sun was? Beads of sweat rolled down my back, dampening my ball gown.

“Use your explaining words,” Mac said.

“You know that big plan Dakota and I have been working on for years to switch all the cop cars and buses and ambulances in Texas to electric vehicles?”

She blinked. “You mean your dream of dreams? Your professional Everest? What you’ve called your ‘gift to the future’ with a straight face?”

“Governor Mane finally hired the person who’s supposed to help me make it a reality. Help me push the bill through the House and Senate, with all the political maneuvering.”

Mac’s eyes widened. “Ben?”

“Ben.” I was in shock. That had to be what this strange faraway feeling was, like I was a little ghost, floating outside my body, looking down from a distance.

“The ex-boyfriend you drove out of the state?”

I glared. “You mean the one who tore out my heart and ran it over with a semitruck?”

“The one you tortured with every bad behavior you’re capable of, which, by the way, we both know is a long and sordid list?”

This was the problem with having friends who really knew you. “I mean, yes, but—”

“The one you said, and I quote, ‘I can’t believe what I did to my grad school boyfriend Ben, I literally lit his life on fire, I really need to evaluate my drinking habits and my deep-seated need to destroy people’s lives when they hurt me’?”

Yet another reason why it was inconvenient to have one of your best friends around when you received terrible news. “Yes, okay, that one. The last person in the world I want standing between me and the biggest environmental victory in American history, and not to mention, between me and my promotion. Ben hates me.”

I clutched my hair to ward off the memory of his face the last time I saw him, the way he’d looked at me, as if I was the Very Worst Person in the World. Which, to be fair, I might have deserved, after mistakenly assuming he was cheating on me and then cheating on him in revenge. In a truly flamboyant fashion. In front of everyone he knew.

Panic mounted. “Forget helping me pass the bill. He’s going to tell everyone at work I’m a horrible person. Do you know how hard I’ve worked to keep my personal life and my work life separate? What if he tries to kill the bill or get me fired out of revenge?”

“Belle!” yelled an excited little girl with long, dark hair, flinging herself toward us on stout legs.

I froze in front of the fountain. “Oh my God, I am Belle. But instead of a book-filled mansion, I’m going to be trapped in the Texas State Capitol with something worse than the Beast. An ex-boyfriend. A very wronged, very crafty ex-boyfriend. I know for a fact he’s read Machiavelli. I was there.” I bent over to catch my breath and slow my heart, which was beating like a bass drum in an EDM song.

“There, there,” Mac said, going full mother teapot, stroking my shoulder soothingly. “You’re having a tiny baby panic attack. I’ll call Claire and Annie. We’ll figure it out, I promise. It’s going to be okay. But first, I’m going to need you to take a deep breath and—Ah, crap.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the little girl with dark hair throw caution to the wind and careen toward us. She latched on to my legs. I looked up, desperate to find whom she belonged to—at the exact moment her father, grinning and giving me a thumbs-up, started snapping pictures.

Pop! Pop! The light from the professional-grade camera went off like fireworks, blinding me. I took a staggering step back, tripping the little girl, who lost her balance and tipped over, still clutching my ball gown, and I in turn clutched Mac.

I could hear Mac’s “Ohhhhhhh, nooooooo,” in slow motion, as if it was coming from the end of a long tunnel. And then all three of us were falling, falling, falling, and it dawned on me where we would land the second before we toppled backward into the ice-cold fountain. For a moment, the world was all flailing limbs and water that smelled suspiciously like pennies.

I surged for air, sitting up in the fountain, and immediately grabbed for the little girl. To my surprise, she was already up, laughing and clapping like we’d orchestrated all of this for her amusement. I tugged her wet little body up to the fountain ledge and then, child secured, fell backward with a splash. Next to me, Mac floated on her back. Her teapot costume was acting like a flotation device, buoying her on little eddies of water.

“I think we’re going to miss our flight,” she rasped.

I simply stared. A grown-ass woman dressed like a sopping wet Disney princess, sitting in the middle of a fountain as a crowd of tourists gathered and the little girl’s father continued snapping pictures. With my luck, we’d go viral.

But none of that mattered, because my life had hit rock bottom even before my ass had landed in this fountain.

The past I’d thought I closed was coming back to haunt me. Ben Laderman, my greatest mistake—the one person in the world who’d seen me at my worst, who’d seen the real me, whom I’d thought I’d really, truly loved—was coming back.

To ruin everything.

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