I swivel my head, trying to identify what’s caused her distress. But there are too many people below, and I can’t figure out what she’s seen. I then spot someone I recognize in the sea of faces—Annabelle Underhill—and my gut goes cold. What’s she doing here? She isn’t with her husband—at least I don’t see Stanton anywhere around. She’s talking with a man, but he’s angled so I can’t see his face at all.
Then I realize that it can’t be Annabelle Underhill who upset Elizabeth. Elliot said he didn’t tell anybody about what happened between him and his ex. So…who?
“Elizabeth,” I say, this time laying my hand on her shoulder and shaking her slightly. “Are you all right?”
Finally, she blinks and turns to me, the movement more of an automatic response than something conscious. I sense a tiny tremor under my palm, and frown.
“Do you need to lie down?” I ask in a low voice.
“No,” comes her barely audible croak. She shakes her head. “No.” This time it’s stronger, but her voice remains hoarse. “Sorry. I think I’m just caught up in the excitement of the moment…” She gives me a smile designed to make me think she’s all right when she’s anything but. I recognize it because I often used the same smile with Nonny after our parents were gunned down. “I haven’t been sleeping well. Hosting an event of this size at the Sterling mansion has been a bit…taxing.”
“Maybe you should just sit here and rest for a few minutes.”
“Probably a good idea.” She lets out a shaky laugh. “Gosh, I’m so embarrassed. I’m the host, after all.”
“Can I get you anything?”
Hard liquor seems like an odd choice, but I don’t say anything, too unsettled by her reaction to probe. It’s like she’s a stranger.
I watch my wife climb the stairs. A small part of me wants to join her, wrap my arms around her and make sure she’s all right, but another part of me wants to stay away so I can stew over our last seven days.
She confounds me. She doesn’t run, she doesn’t hide and she doesn’t try to get sneaky reinforcement from Grayson or Keith or anyone else. She bears Nonny’s virtual ostracism with patience, far better than I’d be able to. She responds to me with honest passion. I know how girls play those games, and I can spot a fake ten feet away. And I know my wife isn’t that great of an actress when it comes to sex.
She stands tall, with her shoulders pulled back and her chin high, but when she thinks she’s alone her body seems to bend a little, like an old tree under the weight of its own branches. And every time, I want to reach over and hold her up so she can remain tall.
But I don’t, because I remind myself why I’m upset…why I can’t take everything she says and does at face value…then become furious at both of us. We could’ve had something special and wonderful. In spite of what she might think, I want to be the one to hold her up, share her burdens.
One of the women around me says something inane, and I return my attention to the group and laugh because everyone else is laughing. It’s either that or be rude, and I prefer not to create unpleasantness at Elizabeth’s events. Her causes are worthy and deserve my support, even if it costs me a few IQ points.
My eyes find my wife again and I see that she’s gotten herself a drink and a nice, empty bench. Elizabeth soon joins her, and I turn away, oddly relieved that she’s not alone up there.
“Is it true?” one of the women asks breathlessly.
Given that she’s looking at me expectantly, I guess she’s been talking to me. Too bad I wasn’t paying attention. “Is what true?” I say, not bothering to hide that I wasn’t listening to her.
She rolls her eyes. “About your wife having been a stripper.”
Imbecile. I snort. “I expected better of you. Does she look like a type to strip?”
“Not really,” another one says. “She’s hot though. If she played for my team, I’d go for her.”
“She doesn’t. Besides, she’s married, and only wants me.”
The couples around me smile, and a few of the women titter like sparrows, probably thinking I’m being overly possessive.
But I know it’s true. Of all the ways a woman can betray a man, Belle would never commit adultery.
Suddenly the tittering stops, and my skin prickles with awareness. I feel my wife’s presence before I see her. I turn and put an arm around her to show everyone they can shove their pointless speculations up their collective asses. I can sense the stiffness in her muscles, and it makes me tense. Still, I put on a big, affectionate grin. “There you are, beautiful. Feeling better?”
She smiles, but it doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “Yes, thank you.”
“You need a drink,” one of the women says.
“You know, you’re exactly right. I was looking to get some vodka.”
Vodka? I do a double take. Given her history with alcohol, she would never want something that strong. She didn’t even drink champagne on our wedding night.
Then I remember she was with Elizabeth, and vodka is my sister’s drink of choice when she’s stressed.
“Of course, Belle,” I say smoothly, leading her away from the avid gaze of the couples. I lower my head. “What happened?”
“Elizabeth wants some, and I couldn’t find any on the second floor. They only had wine and champagne.” Belle touches my arm lightly, then yanks her hand away as though she’s just realized what she’s done.
My chest tightens, and I swallow.
She looks away. “Um. I think she saw something that upset her, although she won’t say what. If you want, you can go find her.”
“Got it. I’ll take the vodka to her.”
“Great.” She hesitates, then gives me a quick glance. Before she looks away, I catch a glimpse of pain in her eyes, and I feel like I’m being flayed.
“I need to use the ladies’ room,” she says. “See you at dinner?”
I nod. “Don’t forget we’re in public. Smile and look happy.” Don’t let me see you in pain.
“Right. Happy.” She puts on a fake smile, tilting her head to make sure I see it, then walks away.