“Does it really matter?”
“Yes, since Barron’s more or less retired and not interested in making his presence felt these days.” Elliot frowns. “It’s a good thing for Elizabeth’s foundation. A lot of people want to be on good terms with the Sterlings, and they’ll give more than asked for to support her cause.”
The security people at the door are in crisp tuxes, like the guests, but their body language is totally different, alert and watchful. Also, the earpieces are unmistakable. They nod as Elliot and I walk inside.
The place is unbelievably crowded, given how big the mansion is. Occasional loud laughter breaks the steady hum of conversation. Somewhere an orchestra is playing a classical tune. My guess is Mozart, because that seems to be everyone’s default composer for something like this—cheery and inoffensive, yet genius. When Mom hosted Lincoln City’s social gatherings, she always picked Mozart, declaring you could never go wrong with his music, and suddenly I miss her. I remember the way she would coax my dad out of a bad mood and make Nonny smile no matter what, and I can’t help but think that she would’ve known how to fix the problem I have with Elliot…and the cold, untenable situation with Nonny, too.
I stick close to Elliot, my cool hand in his. What seems like hordes of people come over to introduce themselves or say hello, and it’s all I can do to smile as faces and names blur and my head starts to spin. Most are courteous, but some stare outright, like I’m some kind of circus freak on display. And it’s not just the men. Some of the women give me a cool once-over, running their eyes up and down my body as if wondering what I looked like hanging off a stripper pole.
Elliot pulls me closer, and he says something I can’t quite make out over the ringing in my ears. Then he peers at me. “Are you all right?”
“A little overwhelmed.”
His gaze skims over my face, and something in his gaze shifts. A hopeful part of me wants to believe it’s concern. He starts to raise his hand, and I think he’s about to touch me…but then he drops it, and I hurt.
“If you don’t feel well, we can cut the dinner,” he says.
“Doesn’t care. She already got the money, and I can tell her we had to go.”
I shake my head. “No, don’t. I know you want to support her, and I just need some fresh air.”
“If you’re sure. There are benches and places to sit and rest in the back and on the second level.” Elliot dips his head. “Upstairs might be better. There are balconies.”
I glance upward and see a giant interior balcony connected to the stairs. “Okay.”
Reluctantly I let go of his hand and take the winding stairs. A few guests pass by, but they don’t give me a second look.
Once I make it to the second floor, I pluck a glass of ginger ale from a server and plunk myself down on an empty bench. There are fewer people up here, and being away from the crush lessens the claustrophobic feeling. I decide maybe I don’t need the outside air after all.
From here I can see everyone below. Elliot is chatting with a group of men and women—all couples. The women are a bit older than me, not by much, but they seem so much worldlier in exquisite designer dresses they pull off with aplomb, flutes of champagne in their bejeweled fingers. Their relaxed stances say this is their scene, their domain. They offer chirpy comments that make everyone laugh, including Elliot.
I feel like a piece of cubic zirconia among Cartier diamonds. What I wouldn’t give to have the wit and sophistication those women do. I’m certain none of them would let a problem fester as long as I have with Elliot, because they would know exactly how to cajole him out of his anger.
“Your first event?”
I start at the question, but manage a warm smile as Elizabeth sits down next to me. Always beautiful, today she’s positively radiant. Her golden hair is pulled into a sleek updo accented with a gorgeous leaf-shaped, diamond-and-sapphire pin. A few curls frame her model-perfect face, softening it. The makeup makes her brown eyes appear larger and brighter, and the lovely pink on her mouth emphasizes the fine lines of her lips. The white silk cape dress she’s in makes her look both regal and ethereal at the same time.
“You look amazing,” I say, slightly awed.
“And you look fabulous. I’m so glad you came! I haven’t been able to catch up or anything since you came back because I’ve been super busy with last-minute stuff for the event.” She makes a vague half-circle with her hand. “But I saw pictures from your honeymoon. You guys looked so cute and happy together.”
“Yes, it was a great honeymoon,” I say, forcing a smile. I don’t want to discuss the tabloid articles about my stripping. It’s easier to pretend that none of it happened, even though we both know better. Even though she said she’s been busy, I doubt she’s been completely isolated from news and social media sites.
Elizabeth leans closer. “Are you all right?”
She studies me, the angle of her head so similar to Elliot’s that it takes my breath away for a moment, then she nods. “Okay. If you’re sure.” She turns to the crowd below. “Just so you know, Elliot probably brought you here because he wanted you two to make a good show together. A united front, you know?”
“Um…I don’t, actually.”
“He hates charity events. Finds them boring, although he attends one or two a year for appearance’s sake. He says ‘money counts more than attendance.’” She leans toward me, lowering her voice conspiratorially. “The couples he’s talking to over there…”
I look at the women who made him laugh earlier.
“He finds them dreadfully dull, but he can playact. Sort of. I guess Ryder’s rubbed off on him.”
Right. Elliot apparently hangs out a lot with his actor brother Ryder Reed. Or at least he used to, before he married me.
“I generally don’t mind them. They always support my causes. I…”
I glance her way. She’s suddenly pale, and her lips are parted, but I know she’s holding her breath. If she hadn’t been sitting down, she might’ve fainted.
“Elizabeth, are you all right?”
I reach over and take her hand. It’s like ice. She doesn’t acknowledge me, her eyes focused somewhere on the first floor.