I study the way my wife lets her mouth smile. Her eyes are watchful and dark. Never once do they brighten with good humor.
Is this how people slowly retreat? Is this what happens when they start to become indifferent?
Even as I wonder, resentment stirs inside me. Why should she be upset when I’m the one who was wronged? I’ve given her chances. If she’d come clean at any of those times, I would have never held it against her—
“Great fish,” a man who’s been sitting to my right says, looking at me expectantly. He’s at least in his late fifties, his hair more gray than black.
I look down at my plate. Sure enough, it’s some kind of white fish with some kind of white sauce, and I’ve already had a few bites. The problem is I don’t remember how it tasted. “Yes…succulent,” I manage.
“Your sister always knows how to put these things together.”
“That she does.”
I signal for more wine, and drink while pretending to enjoy the meal. Gavin and Amandine didn’t come—she isn’t feeling well—and now I wish I’d canceled, too. Elizabeth wouldn’t have minded as long as she got my donation.
“Your brother and his wife seem to be quite the happy couple,” the man continues.
“Ryder would’ve never married a woman he didn’t love, and I can say the same about Paige,” I answer, taking a quick glance in their direction.
Ryder whispers something in her ear; she flushes and giggles, slapping his shoulder affectionately. Even if I had no clue how they really felt, watching them would dispel any doubts. My brother can pull off the lovesick routine. He’s a brilliant actor, after all. But Paige? She couldn’t act for shit, even if her life depended on it. Her reaction to him is one hundred percent genuine.
“Surprising, isn’t it? Didn’t really seem like she’d be his type.” The man looks at me expectantly, like he honestly thinks I’ll pursue this brain-cell-killing line of conversation. When I ignore him, he says, “Don’t you think?”
“Think what? Who says she’s not his type?” I ask tersely.
“Um. I’m saying…she’s a little on the heavy side. Not”—he clears his throat—“your usual Hollywood beauty.”
Shallow asshole. “Ryder prefers inner beauty. At least it doesn’t decline with age or need periodic plastic surgery to maintain.”
“Ah. You’re probably right.” He leans forward and looks at my wife. “Inner beauty. That is indeed important.”
Doing my best to rein in my temper, I put down my utensils. I turn to face the annoying bastard fully, my tight fists on the table. “You have a point you’d like to make?” My nerves are frayed, and if the other man weren’t so damn old, I would’ve knocked his teeth out by now, Elizabeth’s function or not.
“Nothing, really.” He eyes my fists uneasily. “It just seems odd…you and your brother marrying so quickly, back to back.”
“Maybe true love found us back to back.” I give him a hard stare. “What’s odd is people being ungracious about others’ good fortune.”
The man flushes and turns away. He starts chatting with the woman seated on his other side, but I can sense he’s talking about what I said about Ryder and Paige. Just what the hell gives him the right to question what Ryder and I do?
My wife excuses herself and leaves the table, her face pale and strained.
I watch her go. That expression probably isn’t convincing anybody that we’re happily married.
That she’s gone for the rest of the dinner and the following dance and social mingling doesn’t help either. Other women come over with pointless smiles, and I pretend to be happy dancing with them, but I’m not. I want to leave, and to hell with everyone. This is why I hate coming to events for my sister. I have to behave for her sake. After a fourth dance with a simpering socialite who makes my teeth grind, I’ve had enough. I go to the bar. “Scotch. Neat. To the brim.”
The crisply dressed bartender raises both his eyebrows, but gives me what I want. I hand him a twenty and chug it down rapidly.
“Goodness, is that scotch?”
I sigh at the rotten timing. “Yes, Mommy,” I say, turning to face Elizabeth.
She eyes my drink with disapproval, then raises her gaze. “Come on.” She takes my hand.
I resist when she tugs. “Can’t. Waiting for Belle.”
She takes a quick look around, then leans upward and whispers into my ear. “She’s not coming. There’s been an accident.”
It takes an hour to reach the Sterling-Wilson Medical Research Center. And during the entire trip, my heart stays in my throat. I don’t know what the hell happened. There aren’t any security cameras inside the mansion, and the staircase is very well lit.
Why would my wife fall down the stairs?
I don’t believe it was the heels, even though she isn’t used to wearing them. Besides, people who aren’t used to them tend to be more careful. The steps have been specially sandblasted to prevent slipping. In addition, there’s a very sturdy railing.
Nonny’s late night comments slither over my mind. Apparently Belle tried to hurt herself the same way when she was younger. But surely her life with me isn’t so miserable that she would do this.
You haven’t been exactly open and understanding. She never got a chance to really talk to you. For all you know, she might have an ongoing propensity to hurt herself when she’s under stress. If my conscience had a hand, it’d be wagging a finger at me.
I grit my teeth. I refuse to believe my wife would harm herself that way, no matter what. She’s too strong, too responsible.
It was probably an accident, I tell myself, since that’s the least objectionable scenario. It doesn’t matter I don’t quite believe it, either; the other possibilities are intolerable.
Thanks to Elizabeth’s quick thinking and discretion, the people at the dinner have no idea what happened to my wife. It doesn’t hurt that the hospital was built with the Sterling fortune or that my sister helped raise millions for the hospital’s pediatric hematology-oncology department. By the time I arrive at the nurses’ station, there’s an admin waiting to whisk me away to the private room where my wife’s been stashed.