I stare at the floor-length ice-blue gown. The color will contrast beautifully against my hair. There’s only one thin strap to hold the dress up, and the rich silk will flow over me, skimming every curve. It’s obvious I won’t be able to wear anything underneath, and I can see why Josephine thought it would look good on me because it will. I’m just not sure why I need it toni—
“I see you got Josephine’s package.”
My head snaps up at Elliot’s comment. His voice is devoid of emotion, and the indifference slices me. I push the pain aside; there’s not a lot I can do about it at the moment, especially with Nonny right downstairs. “Do you know what this is for?”
“Elizabeth’s charity dinner. It’s tonight.”
“What charity dinner?”
“The one Amandine mentioned.”
Now I remember. When we dined together at her home, Amandine asked if we were going to attend. “I thought we weren’t going.”
“Why wouldn’t we?”
“Things have…happened since then.”
“That doesn’t mean we get to back out. Elizabeth’s expecting us.”
Of course. Elliot would hate to disappoint his sister. He loves her, trusts her with everything.
And as petty as it is, I’m envious of Elizabeth for having that special place in his heart. I’m beginning to see how precious and rare his trust is. “Elliot—”
His heavy sigh cuts me off. “If you really don’t want to go, we can cancel. I can tell her I’m not feeling well.”
I almost want to. Being out in public and pretending that we’re fine is going to take a lot out of me, but I recall what Traci said. Maybe it’ll be good to be forced into acting like a loving, newly wedded couple. If nothing else, it’ll remind Elliot we had something amazing just a week ago. “Of course not.”
“Then you need to get ready,” he says. “You have a full spa treatment. I emailed you the confirmation, with directions.”
“I have all day.” I drop the dress back in the box, unable to bear it. “Can we talk? It’s been a week—”
“You need to hurry.” He’s looking right through me, and he might as well be filleting me with a fish knife. “We’re flying up to San Francisco. She’s hosting the dinner at the Sterlings’ Bay Area mansion.”
He turns around, and I tell his retreating back, “One day, Elliot, I’m the one who might not want to talk.”
He doesn’t acknowledge me, but I know he heard me from the way he hesitates for a fraction of a moment before shutting the door behind him.
Sighing roughly, I force myself to get up and go to the spa. It’s more or less unavoidable if I don’t want to embarrass myself at the event. The kind of people who drop tens of thousands of dollars without a thought spend a lot of money and time to be seen and admired.
By the time the spa people have worked on me for a few hours, I look like I’m a model about to strut down the runway. The only thing we disagreed on was the nail color. They wanted something more newlywed-like—dreamy and soft—and I wanted an assertive, bold color…maybe something like blood red. But the style coordinator insisted it would look too garish, especially with the blue dress. So we compromised on a glossy, dark coral. The staff keeps remarking how beautiful I am. But I feel woefully unprepared for what’s to come, a public event where I’m supposed to pretend I’m happy and not at all bothered by what the media is saying about me.
A pair of huge sapphire drop earrings and matching necklace and bracelet complete the look. To all appearances I’m the lucky Cinderella who got herself a rich prince. No one would ever guess that I’d trade all the trappings of wealth for a warm word or smile from Elliot.
When the spa people are finally finished, I climb into the waiting Bentley. The black car stops in front of the penthouse, and Elliot joins me. He’s in a tuxedo that fits him perfectly. It emphasizes his broad shoulders and trim waist and the power inherent in his body. It’s like tuxes were invented just to make him look fabulous.
Suddenly all I can feel is the vibrant energy of him—his dynamic personality and magnetism. My skin prickles as though I’m surrounded by electric current, and I’m left breathless.
And it hurts that I can’t just reach over and run my hand along his arm or link my hand with his the way I want to. A week ago I would have. And he would’ve given me one of his long sideways glances, appreciation glittering in his eyes.
Now he barely looks at me. I clasp my hands together and gaze out the window, blinking away sudden tears. It’s that or throw away every shred of pride. I don’t think I can do the latter when we have an audience.
Elliot and I fly in the private jet with the butler. Parker is as solicitous as before, but I can’t take any pleasure in our trip. My mind keeps churning, and I can’t decide what I feel anymore.
“It won’t kill you to smile,” Elliot says when we’re in the limo on our way to the mansion.
“Do you want me to rub myself all over you and coo about how handsome you are while I’m at it?” It’s out before I can stop myself.
“If it’ll help, why not?”
I clamp my mouth shut. I don’t want to add a pointless argument to our existing issues.
When our car stops, he takes my hand and guides my face toward him, his index finger under my chin. “Relax and fake it for the evening. I timed it so we’d arrive late anyway.” He presses a quick kiss on my mouth just as the door opens.
Thankfully there aren’t any photographers with flashing cameras surrounding us. The Sterlings—the family that owns the mansion in front of me—don’t take kindly to paparazzi of any type—or so I read when I looked them up while getting my hair done. And what the Sterlings want, the Sterlings get. Apparently Elizabeth is good friends with Nate Sterling, younger brother to the new head of the family.
“Why are they having the dinner here?” I whisper as Elliot leads me to the huge main entrance. The three-story mansion is beyond grand, with soaring columns and a giant portico. Every window on the first and second floors is ablaze with light, creating stark silhouettes of socialites, tycoons of industry and celebrities.
“It gives more oomph to the event because it comes with Justin Sterling’s stamp of approval. Without it, she wouldn’t have been able to use the venue.”