Damn it. I rub my face, exhaling roughly. She can make me feel like scum so effortlessly.
I order two glasses with four fingers of vodka at the bar and take them up to the second level. Elizabeth is easy to spot. She looks like a queen in that white dress. She doesn’t look upset now, but she’s always had great composure. If it cracked, even momentarily, whatever shook her must be bad.
I sit down and hand her a drink.
“Where’s Belle?” she asks.
“Bathroom.” From up here, it’s easy to scan the people on the first floor. I take a sip of the alcohol. Vodka isn’t my choice of poison, but I can drink it if it’ll get her to talk. “So what happened?”
She starts to gulp it down, then catches herself and takes a couple of dainty swallows instead. “What do you mean?”
“Belle told me you didn’t look so good.”
She shrugs delicately. “It’s nothing. All of a sudden, I just felt faint. I’ve been working really hard on the event, and I think it just caught up to me. And the whole thing with Grandpa’s paintings and all… I haven’t been sleeping well, and…” She smiles brightly. “I’m just tired. Nothing a good night’s sleep won’t cure.”
I squint at her. I believe about half of what’s coming out of her mouth. She might be saintly, but she is also excellent at glossing over things, especially when they’re distressing.
“Stop looking at me like that. I’m telling you the truth. Besides, if you have the time and energy to worry about me, you should worry about your wife.”
“What do you mean?” Did Belle say something?
“She looked lonely…and a little bit miserable up here. Kind of unusual for a woman who just came back from her honeymoon.”
The soft words put me on the defensive. “Don’t.”
“Are you upset about the articles saying she was a stripper?”
Elizabeth’s making me feel like I kicked a puppy. I take another drink of the vodka.
“You’re such a hypocrite. You released a sex tape, and you’re the one who wanted to marry a stripper in the first place.”
“It’s not like that,” I bite out. Elizabeth has no idea what’s going on between us, and I’m not telling her.
Elizabeth nurses her vodka. “Sometimes we get blinded by emotion and push too far, say and do things we shouldn’t.” Her voice is low, but her words are perfectly clear. “By the time you realize you’ve crossed the line, it’s too late. And you’re never able to take it back and fix the damage you’ve done to the relationship. So consider if it’s worth destroying what you have with Belle before you step over that line.”
The vision of my wife walking away from me flashes through my mind…then her standing alone in the penthouse we share, looking so tired and alone. Suddenly I’ve had enough. “It’s not about the articles. I knew what I was getting into, and I’m not a hypocrite.”
“Her secrets.” I clamp my mouth shut.
Elizabeth regards me. “That bad?”
“Yes, and I’m pissed she didn’t tell me. I’ve given her chances.”
She finishes her drink. “Maybe she couldn’t. People think our family has everything because we have money and connections…but we can’t just do whatever we want, and we certainly don’t have everything. Imagine how much harder it is for someone with so little. And the stress… If she messes up, she isn’t just risking herself but a younger sister who depends on her.”
I look away, not wanting to hear her tell me what I already know but don’t want to admit.
Elizabeth continues, undeterred, “She might’ve had good reason to keep things to herself. As shocking as it may sound to a man of your ego, it might not be about you at all. I think she genuinely cares about you.”
My wife has told me she loves me. Repeatedly. And she tried to over the last six nights, even though I covered her mouth so I didn’t have to hear it and have it lance through me again.
“Did she try to talk to you about…whatever it is?” Elizabeth asks.
“Yeah. After I found out.” I try to soften my tone for my sister’s sake, and fail.
“So you didn’t let her explain.”
“What’s the point?”
“Unless you honestly don’t care, you should give her a chance to share her side of the story before it’s too late.”
“What do you mean, ‘too late’?”
“If you wait too long, she may not want to anymore. Who wants a love so shallow that it doesn’t come with a bit of trust?” With a long sigh, she stares into the empty glass in her fragile hands. “I have to go downstairs and mingle. Make people feel good about helping those less fortunate than we are.”
I nod, relieved that this conversation is going to be over.
She squeezes my shoulder. “Just…don’t be too stubborn and turn her tender feelings for you into pain. Because the next stage will be indifference.”
My knuckles turn white around the glass. It’s a wonder it hasn’t shattered.
“Don’t give me some bullshit relationship advice you read from Cosmo, sis,” I say, trying to dismiss the panic her words have brought on. Of all the outcomes I’ve considered, Belle’s indifference isn’t one of them.
She tilts her chin. “It’s not.”
The thinly veiled pain in her words makes me snap my head her way. For a second I think I see something shattered and bleeding in her gaze, but she blinks and it’s gone. I look harder, but her face is composed, serene and calm, and the alcohol has given her cheeks a light glow.
“See you downstairs.” She kisses me gently on the cheek and walks away.
I watch her make her way through the crowd. People stop her to say hello, and she responds, her face lit up with a sweet, welcoming smile. She’s at ease and relaxed as Nate Sterling comes over and puts an arm around her waist. Her hand rests on his shoulder, and when he dips his head, she whispers something in his ear, which makes him grin fondly. It is as though she didn’t say any of the things she just told me.
The idea of my saintly sister having any kind of strong emotion for stuff other than saving the world is preposterous. I have to be projecting my own feelings onto her.