A small throng of people has gathered around him—can’t be helped, since he’s the biggest thing in Hollywood right now. The moment he spots me, he extricates himself and walks over. “Didn’t know you were planning to attend,” he says.
“Me? What about you? You hate these things.”
“I’m trying to make a few appearances with Paige.”
I nod. He doesn’t have to explain further. He’s trying to put on a good show for Paige’s sake. There are still those who think she “stole” Ryder from more deserving women. What they don’t know is that nobody “steals” Ryder unless he wants to be stolen. His relationship with Paige started out much like mine—a simple contract. But he is crazy about his wife now, and they’re expecting a baby together. He would’ve never impregnated her if he wasn’t thinking forever.
“So where is she?” I ask.
Ryder gives a mock long-suffering sigh. “Another potty break.”
“Pregnancy, bro. Get used to it. Any morning sickness?”
“Nah, she’s fine. Just needs to go to the bathroom a lot.”
“Wait’ll the baby pops out. You’re gonna wish she was still just pregnant.”
“How would you know?”
“Some of the managers have newborns. You would not believe the complaining.”
“Can’t be that bad,” he mutters.
“Sounds like it is. And it’s going to be extra bad for you. Your genes, remember?” One of our father’s pet complaints is what a fussy baby Ryder was.
An inscrutable expression crosses my brother’s face for a brief moment, and it pulls me up short. What the hell? He hesitated when I asked him whether or not he wanted the baby a few weeks back, and now this? Is he still feeling ambivalent? If so, it’s too freakin’ late now. Paige is having the baby.
I take a step closer to quietly ask what his deal is, but I never get the chance; Paige walks out of the ladies’ room.
Even before pregnancy, she was never a small woman, unlike a lot of the Hollywood crowd. Her voluptuous body is full of generous curves. And she’s pretty. Her loose golden hair tumbles behind her back, and her brown eyes are warm and friendly. She’s in a bright purple dress with an asymmetrical hem and an empire waist. The baby bump is obvious now, and she glows like only a woman in love can.
It reminds me of the way Belle used to glow. Now she doesn’t. And the fact sits in my gut like a knotted lump of cold noodles.
Ryder wraps his arm around Paige’s waist and pulls her to his side. “Missed you.”
“I was only gone for a few minutes,” she reminds him.
“My heart doesn’t care.” He kisses her on the forehead. “It misses you even when the absence is measured in seconds,” he says, in a faux-Cary Grant accent.
“Silly,” she says fondly, beaming up at him and putting her hand on his. “Elliot, it’s good to see you.”
“Likewise. You look amazing.” I smile easily, as always. “By the way, is Belle in the bathroom?”
“Um, no.” She hesitates for a moment, stealing a quick glance at Ryder. “We should catch up soon.”
That makes me raise an eyebrow. Paige and I have known each other for four years, but we don’t exactly have the kind of relationship that requires catching up. Still, I nod. “Sure. Call anytime.”
The firm tone of her voice indicates she’s not saying it to be polite or friendly. Huh.
Ryder frowns at me over the crown of her head, and I give him a small “I have no idea” look. After a brisk nod my way, he escorts her off.
Not in the bathroom. I wonder where the hell Belle is, worry beginning to gnaw. She’s been so pale. Did she feel bad and have to lie down somewhere? That wouldn’t surprise me a bit.
I pull out my phone, about to call her, but stop when I spot Annabelle Underhill. Her jewelry is expensive enough to scream, “I’m a trophy wife.” But then, she doesn’t marry men with less than a billion dollars in assets. And her skintight outfit leaves nothing to the imagination. If she thought she could get away with it, she might’ve shown up nude. Annabelle is a woman who instinctively understands how to use her body for maximum effect and to get what she wants. What wouldn’t I give to see her in her forties and see if she’ll still strut around like she’s some hot shit. But she will be completely out of my life by then.
Her gaze zeroes in on me, and she starts walking in my direction, her pelvis swaying in an exaggerated motion designed to draw my eyes to her narrow waist and hips. She shouldn’t bother. I have nothing to say to the bitch. Actually…I take that back. I have plenty to say, except none of it is appropriate for a venue as public and high-class as Elizabeth’s charity dinner.
“Elliot! Fancy running into you here!” She starts to put a hand on my arm, but my cold stare freezes her.
“How the hell did you get in?” I ask tersely, not giving a damn who overhears me.
“Stanton donates regularly to Elizabeth’s foundation, and we just happened to buy tickets.” Annabelle tosses her hair over a shoulder, then shrugs carelessly. “And thank you for the information. I knew you’d come through for me.”
“I didn’t do it for you,” I say. “I did it for your uncle.” I owed the man a favor, now paid in full.
“Does it matter?” She hesitates, then inhales as though she’s firming her resolve, but I know why she’s doing it—to make her tits rise. Resting a hand on my chest, she moves closer until she’s almost flush against me. “What’s important is that you want to free me from Stanton.”
I remove her hand from my torso, my grip painfully tight on her. The only thing stopping me from shoving her away is that we have an audience and I care about my sister. “If I’d known you’d be such a conniving bitch, I wouldn’t have given you the referral.”
She gasps. “But you saw the bruises.”
And I found them horrifying, but I’ll be damned if I let her know that. Annabelle Underhill is crazy enough to twist any gesture of kindness from me into a sign of certain romance. “Like I should care about them.”
“Elliot!” she says under her breath.
“You didn’t think I’d find out you’re the one leaking that shit about my wife?”