In this fierce and funny battle of the exes, Ashley Winstead’s FOOL ME ONCE explores the chaos of wanting what you already had.
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 men. 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.
ASHLEY WINSTEAD is an academic turned novelist with a Ph.D. in contemporary American literature. She lives in Houston with her husband, two cats, and beloved wine fridge.
Grace under Fire
The Texas State Capitol has always reminded me of Daedalus’s labyrinth, large and elaborate and winding. It could be because I was studying Greek myths the first time I toured it at the tender age of eight, and was also plagued by a truly unfortunate sense of direction. But in my defense, the capitol is made of red granite, an oddly exotic color for a government building—something you might be more likely to find on, say, the isle of Crete.
As I grew up, both a feminist and an environmentalist in the staunchly red state of Texas, the idea that the capitol building housed a flesh-eating man with a bull’s head struck me less and less as fictional, and more and more as an apt metaphor.
But today, there was no doubt Ben Laderman—at this very moment, holed up somewhere inside—was my Minotaur. And for all my wine-induced bravado last night, my hands trembled as we walked up the steps to the capitol.
The truth was, I’d imagined running into Ben a hundred times since we broke up, picturing exactly how I’d react. There was this one time I’d been sitting with my mom and Alexis in an airport parking shuttle, when a man Ben’s height and coloring lugged his suitcase up the steps. For one dizzying second, thinking it was him, my heart had tried to beat its way out of my chest. Even though the man quickly revealed himself to be a Ben imposter, the buzzing adrenaline hadn’t washed out of my veins until hours later, near the end of our flight.
How surreal that I was minutes away from actually facing him.
“The idea for today is to introduce Ben to the bill, since he probably hasn’t had time to review it yet, and secure his buy-in.” Wendy was walking beside me—actually, she was strutting beside me like the steps were a runway. Dakota’s chief of staff was long and lean; everywhere she walked, the world seemed to fold itself into a catwalk just for her. She wore an all-black suit, as sharp and quintessentially no-nonsense as she was.
“Remember, the most important thing we can walk away with is Ben’s enthusiasm.” She cut a glance at me. “I need charm from you. Is that feasible?”
“Psshh.” I gave her an affronted look.
If only Wendy knew the truth about what we were walking into. But there was no way in hell I was going to tell her the project we’d been working on for years, the one with the potential to catapult the company to stardom, could go up in flames thanks to my messy dating life. Somehow, I’d managed to convince everyone at work that I was a talented communications professional, concealing any hint of the Lee Stone that existed outside the hours of nine to five. If Wendy—uptight stickler Wendy—knew what I was really like, I’d be fired before I could count to three.
Within the monochromatic white walls of Lise, I was Lee, or Ms. Stone to junior employees: a take-no-prisoners messaging maven. Outside of Lise, I was Stoner. And never the twain should meet.
“Lee’s a pro,” said Dakota, winking from my other side. “She already won over the governor. Besides, this is a good bill. The only reason they wouldn’t go for it is politics.” Dakota said the last word with scorn, and I knew why: she’d been fighting politics her whole life.
Dakota Young was my hero. She was only ten years older than me, but she’d built Lise from the ground up, thanks to her genius inventor’s brain and business savvy. When I first started as Lise’s comms director, the newspapers had called Dakota “the female Elon Musk”—when they mentioned her at all. My first self-assigned task was to inform them that Dakota had designed and produced her electric vehicle five years before Tesla was a twinkle in Elon’s eye, and the only reason the journalists didn’t know was because our patriarchal society dismissed female inventors. Especially Mexican American female inventors.
The truth was, Dakota had beat Elon to it and designed a car battery pack with twice the capacity of Tesla’s, meaning our vehicles could go as far as a gas car before needing to recharge. And they took less time to do that, too. There was no reason our cars shouldn’t be the clear winner in the e-vehicle market, but we consistently underperformed. My hypothesis was that it came down to our small profile.
The disparity in attention between Dakota and Elon had inspired one of my best ideas: changing the name of the company from Unified Electric Vehicles—the yawn-worthy UEV for short—to Lise, pronounced “leez,” in honor of Lise Meitner, a nuclear physicist who’d helped discover nuclear fission, only to be excluded from winning the Nobel Prize for it. The award had gone solely to Otto Hahn, her partner. Her male partner, if I even need to say it.
I’d gambled on my instincts, telling Dakota we shouldn’t shy away from being known as a female-led tech and auto company, but rather call it out as a strength. She’d gambled on me and agreed; the rest was history. The name change had exploded like a bomb in the press. Dakota was featured in Science, the New York Times, Good Morning America—even Fox News, though that might have been because she’s not only a badass female inventor, but with her long, dark hair and hazel eyes, a gift of her Mexican heritage, she’s a beautiful, badass female inventor.
Since our rebranding, the whole country had been taken with her, as well they should be. Dakota was the smartest person I’d ever met, managing to toe the line of being a total boss while exuding kindness. She was, to put it mildly, my idol. And also, the older sister I’d never had. My feelings for her were totally healthy.
I had a good track record at Lise, but passing this bill would seal the deal, establishing that I was a leader. If I was successful, I could ask for a promotion to the position I really wanted: vice president of public affairs.
Ever since reading Silent Spring at the age of ten, I’d grown up obsessed with the fact that we were poisoning our planet, and I’d dreamed of going into politics to do something about it. Being Lise’s comms director was a good position at a great company—nothing a millennial could turn her nose up at—but being in charge of our policy work was what I was really interested in, the goal that got me out of bed each morning.
And now I was so close.
Assuming, of course, I didn’t dissolve into a fine mist the minute I set eyes on Ben.
I turned left toward the meeting room we always used when we came to talk to the governor. It was the biggest room, filled with highly questionable artifacts from Texas history. These artifacts were supposed to paint a picture of Texans as bold, valiant cowboys—framed letters from Mexican presidents pleading to end wars and old-timey weapons in glass cases from the years Texas was “settled” (translation: stolen from indigenous peoples). It was a room that showcased the state’s history without any sense of self-awareness, and being there always put me on edge. Made me question whether we should be working with these people at all, even on something as potentially transformative as the Green Machine bill.
But Wendy shook her head, tugging my arm. “No Alamo room today. We’re down the hall.” She pointed to the right and I followed her, wondering at the change.
The three of us halted outside a closed door. Dakota smiled. “Remember, this is bigger than us. We’ve got the health and well-being of the planet on our shoulders. Let’s do this for the people.”
“No pressure,” I muttered, as Wendy swung open the door.
And there he was, the very first thing I saw. Ben Laderman. Sitting at the right hand of the governor at the conference table.
Time seemed to freeze as the impact of seeing him in the flesh hit me like a punch to the chest. All the years we’d spent apart were obvious, because he looked different. He wasn’t the Ben from my memories.
But he was still the easiest person in the world to describe, at least in terms of the basics: Ben Laderman looked exactly like Clark Kent from old comic books. Not Superman, with his perfect, blue-black hair, little forehead curl and confident, square jawline—Clark.
Don’t get me wrong, Ben had the dark hair and strong jaw and ice-blue eyes, but when I’d known him, he’d kept his hair super short and worn thick-framed black glasses that mostly obscured his eyes. He was well over six feet, but he’d always hunched, like Clark slinking in late to the Daily Planet, trying to creep about unnoticed.
The Ben Laderman sitting at the table now was…well, there was no way to describe it other than California Ben. He’d grown out his hair and wore it tucked and curling behind his ears. He’d exchanged the thick-framed black glasses for a pair of thin, transparent frames that left no question his eyes were vivid blue.
And the suit he was sitting ramrod straight in—no more hunch—wasn’t a dark, boxy number like what he’d worn in law school for mock trial. This suit was the same blue as his eyes, a fashion risk that was both startlingly handsome and startlingly playful for someone starting work in the Texas governor’s office.
He was different. Still knee-wobblingly beautiful, but different.
And he was staring at me.
Excerpted from Fool Me Once by Ashley Winstead, Copyright © 2022 by Ashley Winstead. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.