“Don’t worry, Rina! You’re going to love Rémy’s family. His brothers and sister totally can’t wait to meet you! Also, you look amazing in that dress.” Annelise turned her head halfway to look behind them and Marina wondered what had caught her best friend’s attention in the quiet valet area of the sparkling-clean parking garage.
“In fact,” Annelise continued in a lower voice, “the back looks pretty freaking fantastic. Are you wearing those butt-boosting underwear things? Or have you been hitting the gym harder than usual?” A spark of mischief lit her eyes before she went on. “I don’t mean to be crass…” Annelise waggled her eyebrows.
“Oh, I know I’ve got really nice ass!” Marina had to stifle an undignified snort-laugh as she finished one of their favorite sayings, trying to keep her voice down. “Annelise! Such language so close to the hallowed halls of the Mount Valder Club! I would expect that kind of comment from me, but from you?” Marina mock-chided, but Annelise’s light comment had cut the tension and her anxiety in half.
Annelise flushed pink. “Rémy says it isn’t as stuffy as its reputation would suggest.” She waved her hand dismissively, making the subtle mauve polish that Marina had painted onto her nails a couple of days earlier during a rare girls’ night flash in the soft lighting. “And anyway, it’s not like anyone is going to dare complain about us. Pierre fast-tracked membership for the whole family as soon as they decided to open a Gaspard Industries branch here in Boston, and we have the entire ballroom reserved just for our soiree tonight. All that must have cost, like, a squillion dollars.”
They fell into step together, linking arms by unspoken mutual consent as they headed toward the elevators.
Marina arched one eyebrow. “Look at you, huh? Engaged to a member of one of Canada’s most preeminent families—oh, and wealthiest and best-looking, too—for a little over a month and suddenly even the Mount Valder is small potatoes,” she teased, and Annelise’s cheeks flushed a deeper shade of rose.
“Well, we have been going to a lot of parties—all kinds of parties. The lifestyle Rémy has—really, that they all have—to maintain is kind of crazy. And the events are all so fancy and exclusive and luxurious… I’m getting”—she paused thoughtfully as they stepped into the elevator—“not jaded, but definitely a little less impressed by everything than I used to be.”
Marina showed surprise. “Really? That’s saying something, Anna, for someone who literally plans fancy events for a living.”
Annelise shrugged a little sheepishly, the movement making her shimmery golden dress sparkle all around her. “It’s crazy, right? But I can see why Rémy avoided a lot of this for so long. I don’t know how Pierre does it. He’s in the spotlight the most of all of them, since he’s the CEO and everything.” Annelise leaned closer and Marina smelled the warm vanilla scent her best friend had always favored. “Honestly, I think all of Rémy’s siblings would prefer to be at home most nights, but there are such expectations… They don’t always have a choice.”
Annelise had hinted before at the fact that everything might not be as picture-perfect and easy as it seemed for Rémy’s fabulously wealthy and powerful family. Case in point, just a few months earlier, the Gaspard siblings had had a crazy ex-friend—also the ex-fiancé of Rémy’s sister—who’d ended up trying, repeatedly, to murder them. He was still awaiting trial.
“That does make sense,” Marina agreed, nodding slowly. She thought of how she and Annelise had been struggling over the past months to make time to get together even once every couple of weeks. Marina totally understood that Anna had been caught up in not only the intensity of a new romance but also in being introduced as a member of ‘the Gaspard family’. Marina wasn’t offended—of course I’m not—but she missed Annelise. Plus, not meeting her best friend for lunch or drinks as often anymore had made her own small studio apartment seem so much emptier.
That was part of what had made Annelise’s invitation to tonight’s party so important—so much so that Marina had gotten a little uncharacteristically nervous. It was a small, exclusive event only for close friends and contacts of the Gaspards and also an unofficial celebration of Rémy’s oldest brother, Pierre’s, expected reentry into society. Marina wasn’t sure what had been going on, and Annelise had been maddeningly vague, but Pierre had been letting everyone else shoulder the lion’s share of the family obligations for months while he mysteriously wasn’t around. Personally, her guess was that he had been hanging out on the family yacht off the coast of St. Tropez with a revolving door of supermodels. Whatever the reason, he was finally deigning to come back at tonight’s event.
At that thought, Marina’s previous anxiety started to ramp up again, but she took a deep breath and straightened her spine. I am smart, fun, beautiful and Annelise’s best friend, she reminded herself. This is for Anna, and if they don’t like me or think I’m good enough, it won’t be because I haven’t given it my damnedest. As though feeling her tension, Annelise squeezed her hand reassuringly as they walked toward the brightly lit ballroom with unmistakable party sounds coming from it, and Marina raised her chin with a confidence that she wasn’t sure she totally felt. It was showtime.
Two hours later, Marina was shocked to find that she was actually having fun. Clothilde, Annelise’s future sister-in-law, was kind, down-to-earth and had a wickedly sharp wit that made her feel like an instant friend, in spite of the fact that she looked like she should be on the cover of a high-fashion magazine. Actually, Marina seemed to recall that Clothilde had been on the cover of several women’s magazines in the past. Luc, who was Rémy’s younger brother, had flown in from Paris just for the event and he was absolutely charming, but in a genuine way. He was handsome, funny and his light flirtation had made her giggle and blush.
Still, so much dancing and socializing had worn her down a little bit, so when Rémy had asked Annelise to dance again for the umpteenth time that evening, leaving Marina alone for a moment, she had seized her chance to sneak away and rest her feet. Not that she was ungrateful—no, it gave her warm fuzzies to think of how attentive Rémy and his family had been to her all evening, obviously determined not to let her feel awkward or nervous for a second—but she was just a little overwhelmed. This was Annelise’s scene, not hers, and her cheeks were starting to hurt from smiling as much as her feet were beginning to ache from spending too long in high heels.
She ducked into the dark hallway behind the ballroom and noticed that the rooms were labeled with the names of prominent Bostonians from the past. They looked like conference rooms, and she nearly sighed with relief. No one was likely to be having a conference at this time of the evening, so she could take a little break in peace to pull herself together again. She opened the first heavy, dark-wood door, which was surprisingly well-oiled and silent. Even with the lights out, she could make out the outlines of several chairs surrounding an enormous table. Definitely a conference room. Perfect.
She pulled the door closed behind her and let out a long sigh, stepping out of her shoes immediately and relishing the feel of the cool hardwood floor underneath her stockinged feet. If she were honest with herself, it wasn’t just the physical strain of the party she’d wanted to escape. It was also the brilliant, effervescent happiness and love that she had felt radiating from Annelise and Rémy. She was overjoyed for her best friend—absolutely, I am—but here in the darkness, alone, she could admit that she was envious, too. The hole that remained in her soul, the slash of pain whenever she remembered the beautiful, wonderful man she’d loved and with whom she’d planned an entire lifetime of happiness, ached and throbbed more than any physical wound ever could. Oh, Jaime.
She could picture his face vividly, although now, after so much time, she hated that he was starting to look more and more like the pictures she had of him and less like the man in her memories. He had been young—so incredibly young. She’d been cheated by a stray bullet, friendly fire during a skirmish, out of knowing what he would look like any older than twenty-one. What would he have looked like if he were as old as the woman she saw in her own reflection these days? Would he even recognize her, dancing in a ballroom with multiple men in tailored suits, sipping champagne and eating foie-gras and caviar canapes from silver platters, offered by tastefully dressed and silent waitstaff? Joking and flirting with Annelise’s future brother-in-law as well as several of the other charming older men who were friends of Rémy’s family?
That was the crux of her tiredness…the reason she’d needed to escape. What the hell was she doing, enjoying herself like this when Jaime was cold and buried in the Virginia ground, still wearing his dress blues? And when she’d sent him away the way she had… But she refused to even start to think about that tonight. She tried not to cry anymore, and most days, she succeeded. But this evening, watching Annelise with her fiancé, wrapped up in his love at every moment, had made Marina feel fragile all over again. As if Jaime’s loss were closer tonight, somehow.
She felt for and made contact with the closest chair, planning to sink down onto it.
“Unless you want to find yourself on my lap—which I’m not opposed to, mind you—you’d better choose another seat, chérie.”
Marina yelped and leapt away, her heart pounding up into her throat. The man’s voice had been deep, raspy and amused, and she might have found it sexy under other circumstances. However, alone in a dark conference room behind doors that had looked extremely thick was not the right circumstance for anything but terror.
“Why didn’t you say anything when I came in?” she finally managed to ask, wincing at the accusation in her tone. She heard a rustle and could almost feel his shrug.
“I hoped that you would leave quickly, and I didn’t want to startle you,” he answered simply.
His answer made sense, but Marina was irrationally annoyed. “What are you doing in here, anyway? Who would leave a party to come sit in the dark?”
His chuckle was dry, and goosebumps raised on her arms. “Who indeed?”
She pursed her lips. “Touché,” she acknowledged.
“I’ll reveal some of my demons if you show me yours.” His tone was mocking as he echoed the childish dare. She couldn’t help the way her pulse quickened, as though he were offering to show her something illicit.
“No thank you.” She winced at how prim her tone was, but the stranger’s amused chuckle rolled through the small room.
“I didn’t think you would, but I hoped…” He trailed off meaningfully.
“I’m going to sit down in, uh, another chair,” she announced, trying to change the subject. “My feet are killing me from so much dancing.”
“Be my guest, chérie. Seat yourself anywhere you desire.” Again, his rough voice made his words sound like innuendo. She sank down onto the chair one over from his. “I can imagine your lovely feet must throb from those beautiful yet completely impractical shoes you wore earlier. I could rub them, if you’d like?”
“What? Of course not!” Marina gasped, actually shocked at his audacity. “You can’t just…offer to massage a complete stranger!”
“Good point,” he answered in a reasonable tone. “Tell me a few things about yourself so I can offer again.”
She laughed in spite of herself.
His chair creaked as he leaned forward. She could make out his silhouette now that her eyes had adjusted, and from his frame, he looked to be very tall and muscular. A dark, spicy scent teased her nose, masculine and exotic.
“Here’s an easy question. Why did you leave the party? The Gaspards always throw the best… It’s expected.”
It might have been the shroud of darkness that caused her to pay such close attention to his voice, or maybe she was just attuned to him, but there was a curious tension in his tone.
“Apart from my feet starting to ache? I…had to get away from all the happiness for a bit. My best friend is engaged to one of the Gaspards—Rémy—and they’re blissfully in love.” As soon as the words left her mouth, Marina couldn’t believe she’d actually said them out loud—and to a near-stranger no less.
The man made a sound of understanding. “Ah, of course. And you love him, too?” There was a resigned sadness in his voice.
“What? No!” Marina denied instantly. “I mean, he’s great, and wonderful for Annelise, wonderful to her, but…no. I just—” She trailed off, not wanting to tell him about Jaime, not wanting to sound like the totally bitchy, selfish friend she knew she was being.
“You don’t like the Gaspards, then? It is common. They are notorious as well as famous.”
Marina noticed the stranger’s accent more on those words. He was obviously one of the French-Canadian guests, which wasn’t surprising, since they made up the majority of the party.
“I like the Gaspards. Or, at least, I think Rémy is awesome, and even though I just met his brother and sister, Luc and Clothilde, tonight, they seem great too. I’m not sure about the older brother, Pierre. I hear he can be a cold bastard.” She gasped again as she realized she’d been bashing one of the Gaspards to someone who was probably friends with all of them. “I mean, that’s the rumor, but…like I said, I’ve never met him, so I don’t really know,” she finished lamely.
Luckily, her companion didn’t seem offended. “The rumors are correct. Pierre Gaspard can be utterly ruthless when it comes to his siblings and their associates.”
Marina was so relieved that she didn’t pick up on a subtle warning in his tone.
“What matters is that your friend is happy, though, is it not? She must love the lifestyle her fiancé can provide for her.”
“Yes, she does. It’s like a fairy tale, isn’t it? And Annelise is the princess. She always loved pretending we were in a fairy tale when we were kids. I mean, nothing is perfect.” Marina thought of how Annelise had admitted that the lifestyle of being a Gaspard was filled with obligations. “But I’m sure they won’t be so busy handling so many public appearances and duties once Pierre gets back from wherever he’s been. Annelise and Rémy just want a little more time to enjoy each other.” She broke off suddenly, embarrassed again at how much she’d revealed. God, Annelise was going to kill her. She’d been babbling away into the darkness, and she knew part of it was nervousness, but also…the stranger just felt so easy to talk to.
“Ah, yes, the roaming Pierre. Tell me… What do Annelise and Rémy have to say about his whereabouts?” The question was probing. Marina ignored her growing sense of unease, which was buried by her curiosity. Maybe this stranger, who must be close to the Gaspard family, could finally give her more information about where the hell the oldest Gaspard brother had been.
“That’s the weird part. They don’t really have anything to say, but…I think they’re covering for something.”
“Oh yes?” her companion prompted gently.
Marina nodded, even though she knew her mysterious fellow guest would barely be able to see the gesture. “I suppose it could be something like he’s been sick—or maybe he’s an alcoholic or drug addict in rehab,” she speculated, really warming to the topic. “But my best guess is that he’s been living it up on one of their yachts, hooking up with supermodels and too busy partying to take care of his responsibilities.”
There was a long silence that stretched uncomfortably in the darkened room.
“Ms. Lopez,” he began, and Marina felt herself go cold at his use of her name, “I realize that you are new to this world and this level of society, and I am willing to make concessions to your ignorance. However, even you should be aware that as someone closely connected to my future sister-in-law, what you say might very well reflect back on my family.”
Marina felt like she was back in her family’s cozy little home, eight years old again, and being lectured by her nana, who’d just told her that she was disappointed and had expected better of her young granddaughter. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
“You should know better,” the stranger continued, “than to speculate on where I have been and what I have been doing. If you can’t control your tongue and prevent it from gossiping, I will be forced to take countermeasures. Do you think you can manage never to gossip about my family again, especially to a stranger who very well could have been a reporter who’d be only too happy to print your comments as truth?”
Marina felt sick as the realization of who the stranger was dawned on her. The flighty, rich playboy she’d been talking about didn’t seem to be very flighty at all, and he was sitting right next to her.
“I apologize for my comments,” she said, feeling the heat of a blush creep up into her cheeks and continuing all the way out to her chest and even her arms. “I don’t normally speculate so much or say things like that to strangers, but… There’s no excuse. I didn’t think of the implications. I will be more careful in the future.”
Pierre rose, even taller and more imposing than she’d realized.
“I hope that you will.” His voice grew colder as he leaned over her chair. “I will do anything…anything at all…to protect my family’s reputation.” Marina thought he was finished, but he continued, surprising her. “Not because it is so precious to me, personally, but because it affects the welfare of thousands of employees who depend on us—on me—and who could be harmed by negative rumors.”
“I understand,” Marina answered, and she realized that she did. While she had focused on how much fun it must be to have so much wealth and power, their company and influence must also be a burden to manage.
“Good.” The word was clipped, and he sounded…disappointed? “Now, will you allow me to escort you to your vehicle?”
Dios, Marina thought. I’m being kicked out politely but firmly. If I don’t leave, is he going to call a bouncer? Does a social club even have bouncers, or does he bring his own? She stiffened her spine and rose with as much pride as she could muster while barefoot in a dark room.
“No, thank you. I can find my own way, Monsieur Gaspard.” She slipped her shoes back on at the door and made an intensely dignified exit.
As the door closed behind her, she thought she heard him whisper, “Too bad.”