“Are you seriously telling me you care about that…that crass little girl you married?”
“First of all, she’s not crass. Second, yes, I do care.” As I speak, I know I’m telling the truth. I care damn too much about her.
Annabelle tilts her head and looks up at me. Her eyes glitter with malice and something that’s equally disturbing. She reminds me of a starving snake ready to strike at anything to satisfy its hunger. I can’t believe I found her attractive at one point in my life. Proves I’m not as smart as people think.
“Big, strong Elliot, trying to protect his poor little wife,” she taunts me. “I didn’t say anything that isn’t true.”
“No, you didn’t. But understand me. You have your share of dirty laundry, too. Don’t think I won’t air it for shits and giggles if you keep hurting my wife.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“Oh, but I would”—I give her my most beatific smile—“with immense pleasure.”
“You think you’re immune to dirt?”
“Nope. The difference is, I don’t give a shit if people know about my dirt. Sugar daddies, on the other hand, don’t like girls with too many skeletons. And if they knew what I know about you…well, you might find it hard to replace Stanton.”
She jerks away from me with a glare. “You’re despicable.”
“Coming from you, that’s a compliment.”
“I’m going to win you back, Elliot. We’re destined to be together. And no small-town tramp is going to stop me.”
I shake my head pityingly. “Your problem is, you’re too stupid to realize you never had a chance.”
Her eyes narrow until they look like venomous incisions on her face, and she storms away. The smug expression on my face slips.
As enemies go, she isn’t particularly formidable. What she is is persistent, which, unfortunately, is just as difficult to deal with. Both types of enemies require drastic measures. I’m going to have to cut her off at the knees and make sure she never gets back up.
Remembering why I came to the restroom area in the first place, I pull out my phone and text my wife.
Where are you?
If I could convey emotions with text, it would be irritation. It annoys the hell out of me that she wanted to attend this farce in the first place, and now she isn’t around and I have to deal with Annabelle Underhill.
Somebody taps my shoulder. I let a low growl vibrate through my throat. I don’t have time for more bullshit chitchat.
I spin around, a curt dismissal on my tongue, then stop. Belle.
Her pale face is pinched. Not even the expert makeup can hide the strain. Pain has turned her emerald eyes glassy, and I take her hand. It feels like ice. My irritation instantly vanishes, replaced by concern. I wrap an arm around her shoulders and she sags against me for an instant, as though she’s absorbing my warmth and strength. But a moment later she straightens and gathers herself. I feel the loss keenly.
“Are you all right?” I ask, keeping my voice low and soothing.
“I’m fine. Just a little tired. Where’s the dining hall? I couldn’t find it.”
She doesn’t meet my gaze, and I know she isn’t telling me the entire truth. There is no way she couldn’t find the dining area, since the most of the guests went that way. And she is not at all fine. From the listless way she’s talking, I know she’s autocorrecting her real answer with what she wants me to hear.
Hating the awkward tension, I offer her an arm. She hesitates, starts to slip her hand in the crook of my elbow, then slowly lowers both hands to hang by her sides instead. “Let’s go.”
I don’t want to go. I want to talk to her, make sure she’s all right, but what choice do I have for now? I escort her slowly, all the while knowing that I have to do something soon. My problem: I don’t know what that something is.
The dinner commences without any drama, but then, people behave themselves at events like this. I’m annoyed that Annabelle Underhill has been seated in my line of sight, which means she’s also in Belle’s. What I wouldn’t give to have the earth open up and swallow her whole…and then spit her out in the middle of the Mongolian desert.
Interestingly, she isn’t with her husband. A man in his late twenties or early thirties is with her, and I recognize him the moment he turns his head and looks straight at me. He has hair entirely too long, the black locks brushing the top of his collarbones. He isn’t classically handsome the way Ryder is, but he’s striking in his own way, and women check him out with appreciation in their gaze. His icy blue eyes assess me clinically and thoroughly, and I return the favor. He’s a self-made billionaire himself, most of his money made in real estate and online media, if I remember correctly. What the hell is he doing with Stanton’s wife?
And if she has him as her friend, why the hell did she try to feed me that line of bullshit earlier about us being fated to be together? Her date is a much better target than I am. He’s plenty rich, and—unlike me—probably doesn’t know what kind of a viper she is.
But I dismiss the two of them. I have other things to worry about—mainly my wife.
Belle is seated next to me. She is stunning, absolutely gorgeous in that ice-blue dress. It brings out the fire in her hair and deepens the color of her eyes to forest green. More than a few men look at her admiringly, and I give them a warning glance. Most get the hint; for the ones who don’t, a second long, cold stare while fondling my steak knife gets the point across.
This isn’t like me. I don’t usually go all caveman over a woman, but I don’t give a fuck. Belle is my wife, and I’ll be damned if some loser is going to drool all over her. Even the huge Asscher-cut diamond and wedding band on her finger seem inadequate to show our union, and it doesn’t help that she’s careful to not touch me…which, perversely, makes me want to touch her. And I do—my elbow brushes hers and I let my fingers caress hers when I hand her the salt. Each time, she gives me a reserved smile. She gives the same smile to the other people around us, but it becomes strained every time she happens to glimpse Annabelle Underhill.
Belle’s mood affects mine.
No, that isn’t entirely a fair assessment. It is her mood plus Elizabeth’s vodka-infused comments earlier.