cruel sanctuary first chapter
Get a little taste of Damon & Aislinn
“We have a problem.”
“What kind of problem?” My voice is a whisper as I throw an apologetic wave to the instructor of my favorite Barre class.
She’s used to me rushing out of class to take a call. In my line of work, it comes with the territory.
“The kind that can’t be discussed over the phone. We need you to come back to the office.” Chad Lytton is my father’s chief of staff. I know exactly who he means by we.
Wedging the phone between my shoulder and my ear, I close the studio door behind me and grab my things from my locker. “Be there in ten.”
At eight o’clock on a Friday night, One Hogan Place, the seat of Manhattan’s District Attorney, is mostly empty. Not even my father’s assistant is at her desk. I enter his office with a single knock, dumping my gym bag, purse, and briefcase on the couch. “I’m here. What are we dealing with?”
As a political strategist, I’m accustomed to working odd hours, although I’m still getting used to working with my father. And with Chad.
For entirely different reasons, of course.
Tonight, my father’s face is blotchy, his lips so tense they’re white around the edges. He pins me with an infuriated stare. “Something that needs to go away.”
I was in this room just a couple of hours ago, reviewing polling data and potential fundraising opportunities. My father had been his typical self, impatient but unflappable. I cast a perplexed look at Chad, unable to imagine what would have him so riled up.
Tugging at the Gucci cufflinks I recently gave him, Chad avoids my eyes. “There’s a recording of—”
“For God’s sake,” my father breaks in, the flinty edge to his glare abrading my skin. “We were grabbing a bite at Forlini’s. Nothing new except that some fucker must have planted a bug at my booth.” He eats dinner at the classic Italian restaurant so regularly, often with Chad, that they keep his favorite table open for him on weekday evenings.
I take a deep breath, feeling like I’m back on steady ground. New York politics is a filthy business, and I’ve spent the past seven years deep in the mud, working for the top political consulting firm east of Washington, DC. I’ve dealt with enough scandals to know that no elected official makes it over the finish line without being dragged through the dirt. You need thick skin and a spin doctor on your payroll to survive. Propping a hip against the arm of the sofa, I keep my voice neutral. “Any idea who that might be?”
Chad clears his throat, running agitated hands through his hair, yanking at the ends in a way I’d never seen before—and we’ve known each other for the better part of a decade. “No. It could have been anyone.”
I look between the two of them, trying to determine the scope of the problem and what must be done to contain it. Is this a line item in the gossip pages … or a career-ending scandal? “I’m going to need the recording, but for now, just tell me what’s on it.”
“It’s just a short clip. Under two minutes.”
My father interrupts again. “We were discussing cracking down on the Los Muertos cartel.”
No one will ever accuse my father and me of being close, least of all me. But when he shared his plans to run for mayor in the next election, of course I agreed to leave my cushy political consulting firm to run his campaign.
After all, he is the reason I chose to work in politics. James Granville may not have been a particularly engaged father, but he is the most principled man I know. He’s done wonders for Manhattan as district attorney, and I know he will make a fantastic mayor.
But he didn’t raise a fool. If cracking down on a Mexican cartel was the extent of their discussion, I wouldn’t be here right now.
Eyebrows raised, I turn back to Chad who adds, “It was a little more than that.”
“Just audio—no video recording?”
“Audio is all I received. But you and I both know …”
An understanding look passes between us. In situations like these, rarely are we given all the information up front. An audio recording could be cast in doubt but video—it is practically unassailable. At least in the court of public opinion.
And in politics, that is the only court that matters.
I run my tongue over my front teeth. “Who sent it to you? Any demands?”
“The email came from an unknown address an hour ago. And no. Not yet.”
My father exhales a deep sigh. “Fuckers. They have no idea who they’re dealing with.”
“Frankly, neither do we. Is this extortion? Blackmail? A political opponent looking to get you out of the way?” I cross my arms. “Let me hear it.”
Throwing himself into his desk chair, my father spins to face the view of lower Manhattan from his window.
Chad shifts his weight from foot to foot, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “Now?”
My brows extend toward my hairline. “Is there a better time?”
My father: Hugo Cruz thinks I’m going to hand him the keys to New York. Well, Los Muertos drugs are no longer welcome here. Let the Colombians or the Albanians take their place. And while you’re at it—make sure everyone knows my rates have gone up. Distribution in New York is a goddamn privilege, and I expect to be paid for it.
Chad: Consider it done. But truthfully, this couldn’t come at a better time.
My father: I agree. Coordinate with all necessary agencies but make subpoenas and search warrants on Los Muertos affiliates a top priority. With any luck, I’ll ride Hugo Cruz’s back all the way to Gracie Mansion.
Chad: I’m on it. After the El Chapo trial, the public will vote for any candidate cracking down on Mexican cartels. Crush Los Muertos and the election is yours.
Chad shoves his phone back in his pocket. “So, that’s it. I emailed back, but the message bounced. For obvious reasons, I can’t hand this off to anyone associated with the DA’s office.”
I stare at him blankly. Who are these men? This recording changes everything I thought I knew about my father. Everything I thought I knew about Chad.
Everything I thought I knew about everything.
“I can’t—” I stop myself, struggling to hold a thought or take a deep breath. “I can’t … That conversation … this PR nightmare you’ve created … can’t be handled.” My arms flail as I add air quotes. “Not by me. Not by anyone.”
My father slams a hand down on his desk and I jump. “It can and it will.”
I try in vain for the aloof, nothing-fazes-me demeanor I use with my clients. “How?”
I’ve dealt with sex scandals and embezzlement accusations, drug addictions, and bribery claims. I know how to spin a story. Not only that, I’m damn good at it. But … this.
Our strained relationship notwithstanding, I’ve idolized my father for my entire life. Discovering that he’s the kind of crooked politician I despise has me reeling.
My father and Chad answer in unison. “Damon King.”
I blink, my eyes bouncing between them. “Damon King? Are you trying to make things go from bad to worse?”
Damon King is practically an urban legend. Rumor has it, he’s a fixer in the same way the devil is. He might offer to solve your problem, but only at the expense of your soul. Or worse.
I pivot, wishing I could erase the last five minutes of my life. “I need to go. I haven’t—I haven’t even showered.” And now I feel so, so dirty.
Chad catches my elbow. “Aislinn—”
Nausea swells as I pull my arm from his grasp, another thought occurring to me. “If you already knew how you wanted to handle this, why am I here?”
“Aislinn.” My father pastes a sober smile on his face, standing up and straightening his suit as if he’s standing before a judge. He comes around his desk. “I need you to run point on this.”
“Me?” I jab a finger at my chest, my voice rising several octaves.
“Yes. King requested to work with someone on my team.”
His tone reeks of familiarity. “You’ve dealt with him before, haven’t you?”
Neither denies it.
I gesture uneasily at Chad. “I heard two voices on that audio and one of them was yours. I don’t want to get involved.” Not with this. And definitely not with Damon King.
“That’s not a good idea. Clearly, there are people watching my every move. And Chad is my chief of staff.”
“I’m your daughter.”
For a moment, I am eight years old again, asking my father if he’ll come to my dance recital. I shouldn’t have bothered. Not then, and not now. The answer is no, just as it always has been.
He squeezes my shoulder. “Right now, I’m your boss.”
My skin flares with embarrassment. I am twenty-eight, not eight. And he’s right. In this situation, I am James Granville’s employee. This is my job.
“Then I quit.” The words are out of my mouth before I realize I’ve made the decision. But hearing them explode in the quiet room fills me with relief. This problem doesn’t have to be my problem.
“You can’t do that.” My father’s voice is strident, unaccustomed to not getting his way.
I swing my purse and gym bag over my shoulder, then grab my briefcase before turning around to face him. “I can’t fix this for you, Daddy.” I haven’t called my father Daddy in nearly twenty years. But it’s the hurt little girl inside of me that’s speaking right now. “I’m sorry.”
Pulling my eyes away from his furious glare, I step toward the door. Chad is now blocking it. “I promise, it’s not as bad as it looks.” He reaches for the knob at the same time as he plants a soft kiss on my cheek, murmuring. “Let me come over later. We can talk.”
Chad isn’t just my father’s chief of staff, he’s one of my oldest friends. The kind with benefits. We met ten years ago when I was a newly minted freshman at Columbia University and he was enrolled in their law school. Brilliant and attractive, with a surname as revered as my own, Chad was welcomed into our family immediately and began working for my father as soon as he passed the bar exam.
“I’ll think about it,” I concede, still trying to process what the hell just happened.
Miraculously, a cab is just turning onto the street as I walk out of the building. I flag it down and am inside my apartment twenty minutes later. I leave a trail of bags and clothes on my way to the shower, set the water temperature to scalding, and duck beneath the spray. Wishing I could wash the last hour of my life away.
But it’s not long before the cloying steam becomes too much for me. I need my coziest sweats, a gallon of ice cream, and a bottle of vodka. Not necessarily in that order.
I’m just towel drying my hair when the doorbell rings. “Goddamn it, Chad,” I mutter beneath my breath. I should have known he would just show up rather than check in with me first.
Although, there’s so much I want to know. I mean, how the hell did my father become one of the bad guys? Or has he always been shady, and I never knew it?
Of the two people I can ask, I have a better chance getting answers out of Chad.
“Hang on!” I yell, wrapping a towel around my chest and picking up my discarded clothes as I stride across the plush carpet of my two-bedroom apartment.
I open the door just an inch before spinning back around. My nose twitches at the brief waft of a peculiar combination of scents, burned wood and old whiskey. Chad must have picked up a new cologne I hadn’t noticed earlier. I like it. “Gimme a sec—just have to get dressed.”
“Not on my account.”
The deep voice hits my eardrums like liquor splashing over ice, the skin at the back of my neck prickling as I come to an abrupt halt halfway between my front door and bedroom.
The man I’ve let into my apartment … isn’t Chad.
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