Brant stood at the bottom of the stairs feeling anticipation flood over
him as the evening’s festivities were only moments from taking place.
While he’d hoped to spend some quality time with Avery, he’d known that
the planning for tonight would clearly keep him tied up for hours, yet
he’d never anticipated it being as long as it was as he hadn’t seen Avery
all day long, though rumors about her return to the mansion had captured
his attention with their near misses here and there. As he stood
at the bottom of the long, winding staircase thinking about the time they
hadn’t been able to connect with one another lately, he hoped that this
wouldn’t be a prelude to their romance with one another as he’d hoped that
their married life would be a fairy tale dream come true for her.
A smile tickled over Brant’s lips as he thought to the impending notions he’d had of matrimony with Avery. Sure, Brant Ashford was never the settling down type who’d hoped for the wife, the children and the whole domestic portrait, but after he’d indulged his fantasy of Avery, he realized that he’d settle for nothing less. Sure, he hadn’t bedded her just yet as he’d never had to work quite so hard to capture a woman’s attention, but that was alright as everything would come in time and that old adage of things being well worth the wait would apply. She’s certainly been well worth the time and energy he’d focused on putting into tonight and by the end of this gala, he would find a way to convince her of where her place in this world was--with him and no one would sever that beautiful fantasy Brant had as tonight was about new beginnings.
“You look about a million miles away,” a voice interrupted his thoughts as Brant’s gaze drifted up the staircase and a breath caught in his throat as he saw Avery up on the top of the steps, her sparkling satiny black gown with it’s crimson colored sequin caressed her every contour, accentuating ever luscious curve as the very sight of her rendered him speechless.
“You might want to pick your jaw up,” Avery teased carefully maneuvering her gown as she stepped down the staircase, taking her time as the movement in itself held an air of grace and sophistication that was simply Avery and yet as her long, slender leg teased out through the sexy slit, he realized that she was nothing short of sensational.
“Brant, you’re gawking,” Avery felt a laugh spill over her lips as his eyes remained over her, taking in her every movement until she finally stood before him, a nervousness tightening in her stomach as he extended a single, red rose up towards her.
“For you,” he urged her to take the bud as he inched in towards her, teasing his fingers over hers before lifting her hand to his lips, “you’re beautiful.”
“Brant,” she spoke his name feeling a heat rise over her features as his lips tickled over her skin, “stop that…”
“It’s the truth,” he vowed his dark eyes turning up towards hers as the sensual warmth of seduction filled their mysterious recesses, “as I’ve never seen a woman look as miraculous as you are in this moment.”
“Brant please,” she pulled her hand away from his touch, unable to maintain the contact between them as a heat filled her up inside and she looked around the foyer, “Don’t.”
“Avery, you need to learn to relax,” he reached for her hand urging her down the steps closer to him, “as tonight you and I are lost in love--ready to embrace the future we have ahead of us,” his arm slinked around her waist drawing her fully into his arms as a gasp fell from her lips.
“Brant,” she pressed her palm into his chest placing a distance between them as his lips hovered over hers offering up the promise of passion to come as in his mind tonight was to be one step closer to winning her over and sweeping her off her feet as Avery was now more certain than ever that he’d believed they had a future with one another. That in itself caused a shudder of guilt to sweep over her, coursing over her spine as she slowly backed away from him, “Please don’t.”
“Avery, what’s wrong,” he reached out to her touching her cheek gently, “I thought we agreed that tonight was going to be something wonderful--something that…”
“Brant, we need to set a few ground rules before this party starts,” she inhaled a nervous breath thinking to the promises she and Russell had made to one another hours before, “There are things you need to know before I can go through with this party tonight as I won’t allow myself to keep the truth hidden under a veil of deception…”
“Avery, you’re scaring me,” Brant reached for her once again, “Is this not what you wanted? Did I do something wrong in this attempt to put together this party for you?”
“No,” she shook her head poignantly, “Brant, it’s not you. You’ve been so amazing and with you doing all this, well it just reminds me of how unworthy I am of all your attentions…”
“You’re worth all this and more and after tonight, I promise you I’m going to show you just how much more we can have together once you open your heart to the possibilities between us,” he reached out for her once again, his hand brushing up against her shoulder gently, “I’ve waited a long time for this to happen for us--for tonight to bring you one step closer into my arms.”
“Brant, that’s just it, I’m not…” Avery began uneasily as she shrugged out of his reach wanting so desperately to end the charade without hurting this man before her as she was seeing a side of him that she’d feared she’d encounter. He’d had a vulnerability and sense of hope behind his eyes, much like Bruce had time and time again, and now as she stood here ready to tear his heart in two, her own guilt consumed her.
“Not what,” Brant questioned in confusion as he reached out to her once again, “Avery?”
“Brant, I…” she started as a voice rose from the shadows.
“Mr. Ashford, there’s a problem with the champagne,” one of the waiters called out to him interrupting the moment of honesty between Brant and Avery, “it seems that half of the shipment isn’t here and…”
“What do you mean it isn’t here,” Brant’s pleasant features transformed as a spark of anger flickered behind his eyes.
“I tried calling, but it seems no one can get a hold of the delivery man and…” the man explained.
“Say no more,” Brant waved his hand in the air before he turned to Avery, “I’ll be back in a second.”
“Of course,” she nodded taking in a slow breath as she placed her hand over her stomach feeling the butterflies building inside of her as her every instinct told her to run, to get as far away from the situation as possible as she couldn’t go through with this night--she couldn’t bring herself to pretend and potentially destroy one of the kindest men she’d ever known.
There was irony in that thought as Avery hadn’t anticipated every feeling that way about Brant, but as she saw the eagerness he’d held about tonight, she knew that she couldn’t go through with this. She couldn’t play the part of his fiancée when in her heart, she was doing something that would hurt him in so many ways that she couldn’t even bear to comprehend.
“I have to get out of here,” Avery sucked in a sharp breath feeling her pulse racing out of control as she bunched up the fabric of her dress once again and she headed for the front door not knowing exactly where she would run to, but knowing that she couldn’t possibly stay in this place a minute more. Hurriedly she raced through the foyer, throwing open the front door much to the protest of a worker who’d been keeping tabs on the door.
It didn’t matter. None of it mattered as the night’s breeze swept over her. Avery realized she couldn’t stay--she couldn’t pretend and she couldn’t bring herself to hurt Brant in the same ways that she’d hurt Bruce--that she’d hurt Russ and everyone else who’d taken the time to care about her. Leaving was the only way out and she needed that now more than ever as she couldn’t go through with this party--not now, not ever.
“Avery,” a voice called to her as she made her way out towards the gardens. Feeling a chill sweep over her, she spun in the direction of the sound, the winds whipping up over her, threatening to carry her away, to the whispering freedom beyond the Ashford walls, but in that instant, the sound of serenity reached her and her eyes fell upon the man that had captured her heart completely from day one.
Russell saw the fear in her eyes as he rushed towards her, gently pulling her out of sight as the cars were arriving and guests were slowly making their way up the circular drive. He lead her into the garden, the night surrounding them as the winds blew the shrubbery and lavish garden blossoms around them to provide a shelter from the guests making their way up the steps to the mansion.
“Hey, where are you going,” he asked touching her cheek gently as he noticed the tears building behind her eyes.
“I can’t do this,” Avery sucked in a sharp breath feeling the world closing in upon her as she threw her arms around him, “Russ, I can’t go through with this party tonight. I can’t pretend when I know in my heart that this is the last place I need to be…”
“Shh…” he held her in his arms feeling her tremble beneath his touch as he kissed the top of her head, “It’s going to be okay.”
“No, it’s not going to be okay,” she argued with him burying her head in his chest, “It’s never going to be okay when I’m sitting here pretending to be Brant’s fiancée when you and I both know it’s nothing more than a fabricated story.”
“That’s right,” he urged her to look up at him, to see his eyes as he felt her slipping away from the situation as her fears engulfed her, “It’s nothing more than that and we know the truth and that’s what matters.”
“Then let’s end it now,” Avery pleaded with him desperately, “Let’s just find a way out of here. We can run away tonight and no one will ever be able to find us again. We can go and live our lives together without any of them having a say in the matter--without having to do this…”
“Avery, you don’t want that,” he touched her cheek capturing a tear that pooled at the corner of her eye, “You don’t want to walk away from everything you’ve worked so hard for.”
“I don’t want to go back in there and pretend,” she explained solemnly, “and most of all I can’t bear the thought of breaking Brant.”
“Brant?” Russell gave her a strange look, “What does this have to do with him?”
“He cares about me,” Avery explained thinking to the exchange she’d had with Brant, “He thinks that I’m something special and he’s got these notions about the two of us…”
“Well he can take those notions and take a flying leap for all I care because nothing is coming of them,” Russell frowned deeply thinking about Brant Ashford’s attempts at winning Avery over, “You’re my fiancée and soon you’ll be my wife and there’s nothing Ashford can do to change that.”
“Even so, I hate the idea of hurting him--of breaking his heart like I did with Bruce,” Avery turned her eyes away from him, “which is why I can’t go back in there.”
“Yes, you can,” he squeezed her in his arms, “We can. We can do this and then when this party is over we’ll tell Brant the truth together.”
“Russ, I can’t ask you to…” Avery turned her eyes up towards him as her heart thudded in her chest.
“You didn’t have to ask,” he explained tipping down to kiss her tenderly, “I love you Avery and you’re going to be my wife. That in itself is plenty of reason why I won’t let you go through this alone. We’ll face the music together and take whatever comes our way.”
“I just don’t want anyone else to suffer because of my actions,” Avery hugged him tighter wanting nothing more than to lose herself in him forever.
“No one is going to suffer,” he promised kissing the top of her head as he held her securely beneath the moonlight praying that somehow this night would turn out for the best as they’d had enough disaster in their lives, “We’re going to go through this party together and then when it’s over, you and I will tell Brant and Brooke that they can’t control you any longer--that you’ve made your mind up and we’re going to be together and there isn’t anything they can say or do to change that.”
“It’s not going to change,” Avery tilted her eyes up towards him once again, “I love you.”
“I love you too, sweetheart,” Russell whispered over her lips savoring this calm before the storm as he knew in his heart that breaking the truth to Brant Ashford would be no easy feat, but together he and Avery would pull through and do just that as there was no way Russell was going to sit back and have his happily ever after ripped away from him again. This time was forever and he’d find a way to make it happen for him and Avery.
Blake looked at herself in the mirror one last time. She smiled as she watched her diamond earrings glimmer in the light. She had always enjoyed dressing in her finest, especially in red, and it had always been a way to cheer her up. It hadn’t failed to do the same for her in this instance as she felt ready to conquer the world.
A knock at the door brought her back to the present. She swirled gently, feeling her sexy red dress swish about her legs in a gentle whisper. She felt a smile burst upon her features before she opened the door. Her smile exploded as soon as she spotted the man before her.
Zack leaned against the door frame. His strong build filled every aspect of his tuxedo to perfection. He smiled as he extended a rose towards her, “You look absolutely gorgeous.”
“You are such a flatterer,” Blake said as she accepted the flower and smelled of the tender bud, “Come in for a second. It’ll get hectic down there, and I just want a second to tell you how much I appreciate you.”
“I know I’m wonderful, Blake,” He teased as he stepped into her room. He looked about at the fine furnishings as he slipped his hands into his pockets, “I don’t need to be reminded.”
“Well you just hush up, Mister,” She ordered with a wink before she slipped the stem of the rose into a vase, “I can lavish attention on you if I want to.”
“I don’t know about that. Your attention usually gets me into trouble.”
“You get yourself into trouble.”
“Oh, and I suppose you flashing me back during my internship was my fault, huh?”
Blake blushed as she turned to face him, “Well, as a matter of fact, yes it was. If you weren’t so damn sexy, I wouldn’t have made such a fool of myself in trying to get your attention.”
Zack grinned, “I am a sexy guy, aren’t I?”
She rolled her eyes, “Could your ego be any bigger?”
“Why don’t you try me and see,” He dared with a wink.
“Are you going to behave tonight?” She asked with a smile.
“I’ll try, but you know, behaving doesn’t exactly come easily for me,” He said as he offered her his arm.
“Well then tonight maybe you can help me misbehave because I seriously want to have a good time, and I don’t want anything to stand in the way of that,” Blake declared as she slipped her arm in his and left her room for the party, ready to have the time of her life.
Ken held Caitlin’s hand as they stepped into Ashford mansion. Photographers snapped photos as he squeezed her hand in support before he led her through the crowd to as yet unoccupied corner of the room. He gently turned her towards him and met her eyes, “Are you okay?”
“Nervous doesn’t even begin to describe what I’m feeling here, Ken. I had no idea there would be so many people here,” Caitlin said as she glanced around the room nervously.
“It’s a big moment, and it’s also a pretty big media event. When the Ashfords throw a party, you can pretty much guarantee that the entire world is going to know all about it,” He said with a sigh before he took two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter. He extended one of the glasses to her before meeting her eyes, “We’ll just put in our appearance here, and then we’ll get away from all of this and find ourselves some peace and quiet.”
She smiled, “Something tells me you have something planned that I’m really going to enjoy.”
“That was the idea,” He said as he raised his glass slightly, “Here’s to peace and quiet.”
“And here’s to actually finding it beyond this mess,” She said before she took a sip of champagne.
“I know I’ve already told you this, but you look absolutely stunning,” He said as he took a moment to caress her with his eyes, “You take my breath away.”
“You are too sweet to me, Ken. I feel like I’m a little girl playing dress up,” She said as she glanced down at her shimmering pink dress, “This all just seems larger than life.”
“It’s the life I’m cursed with,” He said tentatively before he paused for a moment, observing his champagne, “Is it a life you could get used to or is all of this a bit much?”
She looked up to meet his concerned eyes, “Ken, I didn’t mean…”
“It’s just that a lot of people are intimidated and even upset by our lifestyle. It isn’t a lifestyle I would choose, but it’s what I’ve been born into. This is the life that, whether I like it or not, I was meant for.”
“Shhh,” She urged him as she reached up to press her forefinger over his lips, “This isn’t the kind of lifestyle that I would want to find myself in the midst of every single day, and it’s not the kind of life that you lead. Just promise me one thing?”
“Anything,” He agreed as he searched her eyes.
“Promise me that any kind of parties we ever have won’t have to be quite this grandiose,” She said with a smile curling her lips.
“Done,” Ken agreed with a smile before he lowered his lips to hers in a tender kiss.
Russell dropped his arm around Avery’s waist as they stood out back
watching the scene unfold from inside the mansion. He turned his
eyes down towards her as she’d finally stopped shaking in his arms.
Her breathing had finally evened out as her panic attack seemed to have
passed her by for the time being. Lovingly he dropped a kiss over
her temple as he turned her in his arms.
“I never had a chance to tell you how beautiful you looked tonight,” Russell whispered warmly over her soft, glistening flesh, “especially in the moonlight. You take my breath away and make me feel like the luckiest man alive to be this close to you.”
“Being here in your arms is one of the safest places for me and I can’t imagine not being with you once we go back inside,” Avery bit on her lip nervously, “I’m not sure if I’m ready for this.”
“Yes you are,” his thumbs eased over her the hollow of her cheekbones as he guided her lips up towards his in slow, subtle kiss filled with lingering emotion as his breath filled a warmth inside of her, offering up a confidence she was certain she’d lost before his arrival. As they slowly parted he rest his head against hers as a sigh escaped his lips, “Feeling better now?”
“I always feel better when I’m this close to you,” she confessed closing her eyes as her heart maintained a steady rhythm and she inhaled his sexy scent snuggling in closer to him as she hated to break away from the moment.
“You’re going to show them all just how incredible you are and how strong you can be in a moment like this,” he urged further as he tried to keep her fears from getting the best of her, “Tonight you’re going to show everyone in there that Avery Morrison has only grown stronger with time and that nothing will break her.”
“It’s not me that I’m worried about,” she placed her hand over his heart tenderly, “I just want to know that when this is over that somehow I haven’t found a way to destroy those who care about me.”
“Avery, honey last night you gave me the greatest gift in the world and I promise you that tonight will only bring us one step closer to achieving the goal we’ve set for ourselves,” Russell promised with a soft smile, “After all it would take nothing short of an act of God to keep me from my beautiful bride to be.”
“You’d better believe it as nothing’s going to keep me from you,” Avery threw her arms around him eagerly kissing him with an air of unrestrained passion, allowing her feelings to flow through the surface as Russell squeezed her in his arms lifting her off the ground as he crushed her up against him.
“I love you baby,” he murmured against her mouth reluctantly setting her down on her toes once again as she grudgingly took a step back.
“Okay, I can do this,” she took in a slow breath bracing herself for what was waiting inside as her hand once again returned to her twisted abdomen.
“Hey,” he reached out to her massaging her stomach gently in a surprising gesture as his voice softened a bit, “Behave in there as I don’t need my Avery feeling sick tonight.”
“Russ, my stomach isn’t going to listen to you,” Avery threw out a teasing laugh, “It never did before, so it won’t now.”
“I’m sure it will,” he smiled sexily as his fingers eased over the center of her gown, “because it knows that tonight I’m going to spoil you rotten with those chocolates you left me earlier.”
“Loving you is bound to make me fat,” Avery teased back feeling a lightness in the air between them.
“Well it’s all your fault for bringing chocolate into the equation because I can’t live without my daily dose of chocolate and Avery,” he winked at her hearing a sound from inside the mansion as his green eyes drifted towards the back porch again, “Maybe we should think about getting in there before Brant comes looking for you as it might be exponentially more difficult for us as the media will certainly have some kind of spin that might take more than the Courier to set right.”
“Well let’s just avoid that disaster altogether,” Avery drew in a nervous breath before looking to him again, “How do I look?”
“Magnificent,” Russ offered his arm out to her, “shall we?”
“If we must,” she accepted his arm thinking to her brother’s make over on her as surely had she gone with her own beauty regime, Russell would no doubt be wearing the same shade of lipstick as her and then some and there would be major explaining to do. That thought in itself made her feel a little less uneasy about stepping into the mansion with him as no one really seemed take note of their entrance.
Avery’s eyes skimmed around the room seeking out Brant as she wondered if he’d even realized she’d slipped away. Surely by now someone had to be asking questions about the Ashford ‘bride to be’ and the photographers would no doubt be hounding he soon enough and that gave her another knot in her stomach.
“Hey, you’re going to do fine,” Russell whispered keeping a safe distance between them even though his hand touched over the small of her back in a tender, secretive movement. His eyes scanned the room as he looked to the new arrivals and his jaw nearly dropped, “Well I’ll be damned.”
“What?” Avery questioned following his line of vision as she realized Grady and Jade were standing together in the doorway with a few other random guests. “Oh my…”
“I didn’t think he’d show up,” Russell admitted thinking to the exchange between him and Grady earlier.
“Maybe you found a way to reach him,” Avery suggested hoping for the best between Russell and Grady.
“I seriously doubt that,” Russell blurted out his thoughts as Brant approached the two of them.
“Now why am I not surprised,” Brant frowned glaring at Russell as he reached for Avery’s hand pulling her towards him, “The photographers have been asking where you drifted off to.”
“I needed some air,” Avery explained simply as she looked between Brant and Russell.
“And he just happened to be there, huh,” Brant’s frown expanded before he shook his head at Russell sourly, “Just don’t take her away again because we have guests to mingle with.”
“Then mingle away,” Russell mocked Brant’s tone, “but don’t think you can have her all night because she owes me a dance,” Russell winked at Avery before heading towards Grady ready to make some kind of headway with his brother in the hopes of distracting himself from the time Avery would be clearly spending with Brant for the evening.
“Jade,” Russell smiled at her, “You look beautiful.”
“Russell, it‘s good to see you,” Jade’s beautiful features lit up as she looked up to him. She was a vision before him as happiness seemed to suit her well and though Grady’s expression didn’t hold half the voltage of vibrant spark that Jade’s did, he could see that this night suited the both of them.
“Likewise,” Russell reached for her hand offering a polite kiss upon it before motioning towards Grady, “I’m glad you could talk him into coming tonight.”
“I still don’t know why I bothered,” Grady muttered breaking his silence as his skeptical gaze lingered in Avery and Brant’s direction, “as I don’t welcome the idea of watching her toy with you tonight.”
“Grady,” Jade began touching his shoulder gently.
“Well it’s the truth,” Grady turned his attention to his brother, “I really wish you’d stop this nonsense with her.”
“Grady, I’m not going to argue this with you,” Russell sighed realizing that Grady was still holding on to the same emotions he’d had in their earlier visit much to his dismay. He opened his mouth to speak again before shaking his head in defeat, “Never mind. I’m going to go get myself a drink,” he decided throwing out one last smile in Jade’s direction, “It’s great to see you tonight. I appreciate your being here.”
“I appreciate the invite,” Jade offered up watching Russell cut through the crowd towards the bar as she looked up to Grady with heavy disapproval, “You could have at least supported him a little bit tonight.”
“What good would that do,” Grady shrugged his shoulders, “He’s in heavy denial anyways.”
“Still, it would’ve been nice to see you two getting along tonight considering how hard this must be on him,” Jade reminded him sharply, “and besides that I was hoping that our big night on the town would consist of you at least pretending that you were having a good time with me.”
“I always have a good time with you,” Grady focused on her once again, marveling in her beauty as in picking her up this evening he’d been pleasantly surprised with the surprise he’d had waiting for him as Jade was a beauty far beyond any he‘d ever known. While she‘d always been astonishing, tonight she‘d managed to find yet another way to capture his attention and reach into his heart as he‘d realized that there wasn‘t another woman in this world that compared to her. She was truly one in a million and to have her on his arm tonight, well, it did offer up a sense of pride and enthusiasm as his touch tapered off over the small of her waist holding her close to him.
“Then start acting like it,” Jade ordered urging him to focus on her instead of his fury for Avery as she pressed her palm over the center of his chest, “and dance with me before I find myself offended by your lack of appreciation.”
“That won’t be a problem tonight beautiful,” he promised leading her out onto the dance floor as he pushed aside his worries about his brother’s love life long enough to indulge the beautiful woman in his arms as she was the one reminder of the second chance he’d been given at happiness long after he‘d resigned himself to misery. Jade was his new beginning and as he held her in his arms, he refused to lose sight of that as nothing was more important than this moment with her beside him.
Heather stepped inside the familiar Ashford mansion. She glanced around as she adjusted her wrap while Kipp slipped his arm around her waist.
“I really don’t understand why we’re here. We’re not friends with either party,” Kipp said as he glanced around at the partygoers.
“Actually, Brooke Downing invited me here tonight. She wants me to work on a new campaign for her, and she thought tonight would be great for media coverage,” She explained quickly, “And I think that a party is always the place to be,” She plucked two glasses of champagne from a passing tray. She placed a glass in Kipp’s hand and smiled, “Tell me that you’re not having fun.”
“I’m not at the moment,” He replied before he squeezed her to him and met her eyes, “But I’m sure after a dance or two that could be changed.”
“See, a party is just what the doctor ordered for us,” Heather smiled brilliantly, knowing that before the night was over she’d be just where she wanted to be, back in Brant’s arms for the rest of her life.
Shannon stepped around the dance floor, watching various members of Coral Valley society dance and drink to their heart’s desire. She remembered just how an Ashford party went. There would plenty of food, liquor, and carnal pleasures behind the scenes that no one ever had to know about.
Dave joined her with a glass of champagne, “I thought you might want to imbibe a little. Lord knows before the night is over, we’ll probably both wish we had something a little stronger than this champagne.”
“Don’t tempt me to go ask the bartender now,” She spoke as she looked around the room, “Have you seen the happy couple yet?”
“Don’t go looking for trouble, Shannon. That isn’t why we’re here.”
“I didn’t say anything of the sort. I’m just wondering where the guests of honor are.”
“Yeah, right,” He said as he sipped his champagne, “Just do me a favor and avoid Brant. The last thing I need tonight is to be prying you two apart from another knock down drag out.”
“That wouldn’t happen. Besides, I know how to handle Brant.”
“This is the man’s engagement party for pete’s sakes. The last thing he needs is for you to handle him.”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” She huffed, “Oh just forget it.”
“I’m just looking out for your best interests.”
“The Ashfords’ best interests you mean.”
“Don’t accuse me of favoritism. You’re the one who was about to…well…go hand to hand with Brant the other night.”
“Spare me. It wasn’t what you thought, and besides that part of my life is none of your business.”
“It is when it affects my investigation.”
“The only reason you’re involved in this investigation is because I decided to be nice and let you in on it.”
Dave frowned before he plucked another glass of champagne from a passing waiter and exchanged it for Shannon’s half empty glass, “Here, drink this. You’re much more agreeable when you’re drunk.”
“Don’t think I’m going to be agreeable with you,” She declared.
“Believe me, last time was way too close for my preferences. So you go your way and look for anything suspicious, and I’ll go my way and do the same. Do you think you can handle that without getting in over your head?”
“I’ll be just fine. I don’t need you to be my babysitter,” Shannon held her head high as she walked away from him.
Dave took a deep breath as he sipped his champagne, wondering if bringing Shannon to this party was a good idea after all.
“Wow,” Jenna’s eyes widened in response to the sight before her as the
Ashford mansion lit up with the colorful promise of the party blossoming
inside as she stepped out of Douglas’ limousine accepting his hand, “I
was here earlier and it was nothing like this.”
“It does have a certain striking presence, doesn’t it,” Douglas noted his eyes remaining on the beauty beside him as her face brought back so many wonderful memories for him of another time, in another place with yet another breathtaking beauty that had captured his heart. Still as he found himself back in the present, he vowed to enjoy the night at hand as Jenna had been a refreshing change of pace in his humdrum life. “Though if you like this, I can find a way to give you all this and more if you’re interested…”
“Believe it or not, I didn’t accept your offer because of what I thought you could give me,” Jenna explained matter of fact as a smile expanded over her soft features, “at least not in the ways you might be imagining.”
“Oh really?” Douglas lifted a curious brow, “Then what did you have in mind?”
“I’d thought that our meetings might’ve held some intriguing sense of promise, so I suppose that in itself lead me towards accepting your proposal for this evening,” Jenna offered up encouragingly as a tiny laugh filled her, “and well the fact that you didn’t think I was a complete lunatic for the way dinner went last night.”
“I found you quite charming,” Douglas explained offering up his arm to her, “a notion that is growing with each moment I spend with you, so with that in mind, I’m hoping we’ll find a way to explore this connection between us before this night is over.”
“If you play your cards right, you might get your wish,” Jenna replied batting her eyelashes at him as she accepted his arm allowing her to guide him up the steps to the Ashford mansion unaware of the eyes that had been upon them since their arrival.
“That’s not going to happen, Jenna,” Hart vowed to himself thinking of the bozo that had moved in on Jenna. He didn’t care who he was or what he wanted as one thing was for certain. Hart wasn’t going to let any man come in and take advantage of Jenna as clearly she was looking for something more rewarding--something with more promise. In short she was waiting for someone like him and Hart vowed to prove to her how right they were together before the night was through.
“Are you almost ready,” his companion for the night questioned abrasively, “because it’s getting cold out here.”
“Of course Cathy,” Hart replied focusing on the woman beside him as he realized he’d been good to do some quick thinking in inviting Cathy Ashley to escort him. Sure, they’d gone out a couple of times and had a few memorable moments, but other than that Hart hadn’t anticipated calling her again--that is until he caught wind of Jenna having a date for tonight. Now as he entered the mansion with the blonde on his arm, he vowed a way to keep himself busy with Cathy long enough for Jenna to see exactly what she was missing as one way or another, he’d help the good doctor see that what she was needing in her life more than anything right about now was a healthy dose of him.
Annette remained in the shadows watching as Brant, Kenneth and Blake
all seemed to melt into the night of splendor before them. Despite
the chaos that had been surrounding the mansion as of the recent weeks,
she could see the Ashford spark in all of the children as each one possessed
their own sense of poise and character for the photographers eager to invade
upon Brant’s moment and use whatever they caught on film to paint another
tale of the Ashford family legacy. While Annette had lived through
a great many years of that legacy, she found that it never got any easier
for the children as they just learned to adjust. Though tonight as
Ken had Caitlin on his arm and Blake was with her companion, they both
seemed carefree and at ease with their surroundings. Brant ate up
the media as offering them what they craved with Avery on his arm as the
limelight fell upon him. It seemed as though all was running in order
for the Ashford children even in their father’s absence--though back then
things had been different, strained and Annette was grateful that this
particular event didn’t have the same air about it.
“Now this can’t be right,” a voice beckoned her as she turned to look over her shoulder at the smiling eyes before her belonging to Joseph Hastings, “a beautiful woman tucked away in the corner of the room seems to be a great injustice.
“Joseph,” Annette smiled at the handsome gentleman before her as she realized it had been far too long since they’d come into passing, “I had no idea you’d be here tonight.”
“Kenneth offered an invite and knowing how Brant’s parties can be, I contemplated accepting, but then when he’d mentioned you’d be here, I couldn’t help but be tempted to make an appearance,” his eyes sparkled with enthusiasm as he moved in closer to her, “So how have you been Annie?”
“Busy,” she confessed openly, “but then again that does come with the territory as I’m sure it’s nothing like retirement these days…”
“Ah yes, the joys of having all the time in the world to take pleasure in the quieter things,” Joseph nodded in response, “While it does sound like he holds a certain sense of appeal, the truth to the matter is that it’s quite uneventful and dull at times.”
“And here I would’ve thought you’d left Coral Valley to take yourself on that fishing expedition you’ve always been fantasizing about,” she remarked brightly.
“Considering that you were the company I’d planned on keeping on that particular journey, I must say that I haven’t been so bold enough as to take the trip without you, though if you’d reconsider accepting…” he threw out a teasing wink.
“And indulge an old fool like you,” she shook her head laughing lightly, “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Hmm, well since I can’t whisk you away for a weekend of paradise, then how does a dance sound as a consolation prize,” he suggested offering his arm out to her, “As I’m sure that they’re playing our song,” he finished motioning to the Frank Sinatra tune that filled the air.
“You never could take no for an answer, could you,” she tossed back at him.
“And you never could accept a good thing when it came to you,” he reached for her hand, “Come on. Just one dance…”
“Well I really must,” she began to object thinking of something that she certainly had to be doing behind the scenes at the party for the children.
“They’re doing just fine, Annie,” Joseph explained as if reading her thoughts as he took her hand in his, “They’ll be fine tonight.”
“This time I think you might be right,” she agreed allowing him to lead her out onto the dance floor as she decided that tonight she’d try living life a little bit and enjoying herself because, hey, she’d more than earned it. The children were fine and she was with good company. That in itself was an invitation to have a little fun and only a fool would refuse such a tempting offer.
Richard descended the stairs, adjusting his tie once more as he thought of how tonight would unwind. He could only hope that Avery knew what she was doing and wouldn’t let herself get in over her head. He hoped that she wouldn’t make the same mistake he’d made and allow herself to enter into a loveless marriage due to outstanding circumstances. He glanced across the room and saw Russell mingling with a few people. Richard hoped that Russell knew just how good he had it with Avery and not let her get swept up in her mother’s dreams.
As he scanned the room for some sign of his daughter, his eyes instead landed upon another outstanding beauty. He found a smile etching his features as he held his head high and made his way through the room. He shook hands with several people in his quest to cross the room before he came face to face with his goal.
“You look gorgeous,” He whispered in Judy’s ear.
She quickly turned and smiled as she recognized the voice, “Well, you certainly are handsome yourself.”
“I am flattered that you think so,” He said with a slight bow of his head, “I’m glad you came. You made what could have been a dreadful boring affair into a night with endless possibilities.”
“Don’t get your hopes up too far there, Counselor. Your wife might have something to say about those possibilities,” She said as she nodded across the room.
He turned and saw Brooke already fuming from seeing him with Judy. He grinned as he looked back to her, “Haven’t you heard? I’m working very hard on getting a divorce from that…well…thing.”
Judy chuckled as she shook her head, “You’re so bad, Rick. I don’t understand how you two were able to have two kids over the years and still be married.”
“Lots of space and booze,” He assured her, “If we had to spend any time actually together, one of us would be dead already.”
“Well thank goodness for the time apart,” She said as she placed her hand upon his arm, “I’m glad you’re still alive.”
“So am I,” He said with a grin, “Can I tempt you into a dance?”
“Are you sure that would be safe? The way your wife is eyeballing us, there’s a scene waiting to happen,” She replied honestly.
“Brooke thrives on being the wounded party. So let’s give her something to whine about,” He teased as he took her hand and began leading her to the dance floor.
“Rick,” Judy chuckled as she found herself wrapped in his arms upon the dance floor, “You are something else. You act like all these years haven’t even passed by. You make me feel like we’re kids again.”
“We should feel that way. We have our children raised, and it’s time we got to have some fun. We all had to grow up too soon, and now it’s time we got the chance to enjoy a second childhood,” He advised as he led her around the dance floor, “What do you say? Will you be my playmate?”
“You are crazy,” She burst into laughter as she followed him about the room, enjoying the chance to spend some time with him out in public.
Avery stood across the room, observing her father’s dance with the intriguing woman. She knew in her heart that this had to be her father’s secret love. The smile on his face was something she had longed to see for years, and it was nice to finally see him enjoying himself with a woman. She knew she had to introduce herself to this woman and get to know more about her as she wanted nothing more than her father’s happiness and to hell with her mother.
Brooke’s eyes narrowed with anger as her gaze fixed upon Richard and
Judy. Damn him for bring that whore to the party tonight of all nights
when this was to be about Avery. How dare he make a mockery of her,
she cursed him over and over again in her mind wanting nothing more than
to make him suffer for his latest indiscretion, but as she thought to the
task at hand, she vowed that Richard would get his coming to him sooner
or later. That much she was certain of. Now as her eyes wandered
in the general direction of her daughter, she noted that Avery was seemingly
without Brant as she too seemed to have made note of Richard’s uninvited
“Damn him,” Brooke cursed thinking of how Richard had gone out of his way to shame her tonight of all nights when she’d worked so hard to make things as they should be for their daughter.
“Mum,” Guy broke through her dwindling thoughts as he touched her arm gently, “are you alright?”
“Your father just had to bring his whore here,” Brooke sneered as she spun around to face her son, “He just couldn’t bear the thought of letting us be a happy family for just one night--especially on a night that’s so very important to your sister.”
“That’s her?” Guy questioned as his eyes fell upon the petite woman beside his father.
Brooke nodded, “She’s tried again and again to break our family and it would seem that she’s succeeded as he’s made a mockery of our family by having her here.”
“He won’t get away with this,” Guy vowed behind a clenched jaw as he strained to keep his rage inside. His fist curled with the tension rushing over him as he had it in him to beat the life out of his father then and there.
Brooke touched his shoulder as if sensing her son’s thoughts and she shook her head somberly, “Not tonight. Tonight is about your sister and we can’t let the press turn this into something more.”
“But if he’s trying to hurt you,” Guy began to protest as his eyes darted towards his father once again, but this time he’d spotted something out of the corner of his eye that took his breath away.
“Guy,” Brooke must’ve been saying something as judging by the look on her face, she seemed to have expected some answer to something he hadn’t registered until this moment.
“What did you say,” Guy questioned on edge as Brooke gave him a sideways glance.
“I said please don’t let your father ruin tonight for us,” she urged further reaching for his hand, “because I want your sister to have the kind of party that dreams are made of and who knows? Maybe one day in the near future we’ll do the same with you when you find the right woman.”
“Mum,” Guy shifted uneasily on his feet as a sigh spilled from his lips, “how many times do I have to tell you that right now that’s of no concern to me. I’m focused on what we’re doing at Beholder and the new promotions…”
“Still that’s no excuse for a young man like yourself not to spend your off hours in the arms of some raging beauty who can treat you the way you deserve to be treated,” she adjusted his tie gently, “Even tonight, this party is full of prospective ladies who are no doubt for the most part of the desired caliber for someone as wonderful as you are. A great many of these young ladies would love to be on your arm…”
“And as you said tonight is about Avery,” Guy offered politely as another voice joined the conversation.
“Of course I hear the mastermind behind all of this is none other than the lovely woman before me,” the thick accent hung over the air as Brooke looked up into the dashing, mysterious eyes of Gabriel Teague.
“That I am,” Brooke nodded throwing out her best flirty smile as she reached out to him, feeling the brush of his fingers against hers before he leaned down to kiss her hand politely, “though I must confess I had no idea that you’d be attending such an affair this evening.”
“BBK has done some work with one of my subsidiaries,” he explained smoothly, his words caressing the air surrounding them as each syllable sounded like the soft purr of seduction, “and I thought it would be best to stop by and offer my congratulations to the happy couple.”
“What an excellent idea,” Brooke beamed with enthusiasm, “as you’ve heard by now that the bride to be is my lovely daughter,” she poked at him teasingly, “which I’m sure comes as a painful reminder that you’ve missed your chance now that Brant has one her hand.”
“Avery is truly a vision,” Gabriel nodded in response offering a polite smile, “and Brant is a lucky man.”
“Yes he is,” Brooke offered in response, “although I’m almost disappointed that I won’t be having you as a son-in-law as you’ve always been someone I’ve held in the highest regard.”
“What can I say,” Gabriel’s grinned increased in wattage as he slowly released her hand, “I’m destined to live the life of the bachelor it seems as the right person hasn’t come into my life just yet…”
“A pity,” Brooke shook her head, “as any woman would be lucky to have you.”
“There hasn’t been a woman that’s captured my attention in the ways I’ve been seeking out,” Gabriel threw out with a teasing air, “and since Avery’s getting married and you’re taken, well I suppose I’ll have to make due with what’s out there, although I’m certain that the others suffer in comparison.”
“You were always amazing with flattery,” Brooke swatted at him batting her eyelashes at him, “Though I will confess it’s a trait that I have found rather endearing about you.”
“I’m honored,” Gabriel’s voice echoed as Guy cleared his throat impatiently.
“I think I’m going to mingle now, Mum,” Guy announced agitation in his tone as Brooke tugged on his arm.
“Not yet,” Brooke insisted, “Guy, I don’t suppose you’ve taken the liberties of meeting Gabriel just yet, have you?”
“Actually,” Guy began hesitantly.
“We may have crossed paths once or twice in Europe,” Gabriel extended his hand out towards Guy, “though you can call me Gabe.”
“Gabe,” Guy accepted his hand offering a brief shake, “I’m sure you and my mother can entertain one another for a while.”
“Actually I was hoping to have a word with you as there were some rumors about your wanting to go to bed with my company so to speak with the new Beholder campaign,” Gabe’s rich tone explained as his eyes swept over Guy for a long moment.
“I don’t know if now’s really the time to speak of business arrangements as this is a time for pleasure,” Guy answered shifting on his feet as Brooke waved her hand in the air wildly.
“Nonsense, you two should talk as I‘m about to mingle,” Brooke patted her son’s shoulder gently, “and Gabe, I can assure you that you’re in good hands with Guy here.”
“I don’t doubt that,” Gabriel nodded as Brooke stepped away and Guy’s eyes returned to the man before him in his mother’s absence.
“What are you really doing here,” Guy demanded, his tone considerably less polite than it had been with Brooke beside him.
“There were some things I felt we needed to discuss after your abrupt departure and I wasn’t about to let the Ashfords or your mother keep us from continuing where we left off with one another,” Gabe’s voice dropped in pitch, “You knew that I wouldn’t let you walk away like that…”
“Tonight is about my sister,” Guy reminded him harshly, “and while I’m certain you haven’t lost sight of that given the way you were charming my mother, I’d really rather we didn’t do this now.”
“Guy, you can’t keep her in the dark forever,” Gabe motioned toward Brooke, who was now sweet talking a few other party goers, “She deserves to know the truth.”
“My father’s here with his mistress,” Guy answered tightly, “and I won’t be the one to make things harder for her than they already are.”
“You’re only making them harder for yourself in living this lie,” Gabe sighed reaching out to touch his arm gently.
“Even so, I just can’t bring myself to make tonight a night for revelations as it would destroy my mother,” Guy answered as a young, blonde woman stepped in towards them.
“Excuse me,” she smiled politely, “Rumor has it that you’re Avery’s brother, is that true?”
“Yes, I am,” Guy nodded simply, “Is there something I can do for you?”
“I was hoping I could tempt you into a dance as your mother,” she motioned over towards Brooke, “informed me that you were dateless and well, my date is seemingly absent. She said she felt you might like me,” she extended her hand out towards Guy as her soft lips curled into a smile, “the name’s Cathy.”
“Cathy,” Guy repeated her name wanting to choke his mother on the spot for her interference, “I appreciate the offer, but I was in the middle of a conversation here and…”
“Dance with the beautiful woman,” Gabe piped in encouragingly, “as tonight is all about appearances and you want Brooke to see that you’re indulging her ideas about having a good time with a beautiful woman on your arm.”
“Gabe,” Guy began seeing the hint of darkness behind Gabriel’s otherwise sparkling eyes.
“We can continue this later,” Gabe explained with a sigh, “I was wrong to think that now was the time to discuss business.”
“I find it much more rewarding to lose yourself to pleasure on a night like this,” Cathy offered seduction in her tone as she reached for Guy’s hand, “and I do believe they’re playing our song.”
“So it would seem,” Guy nodded in acceptance giving Gabriel one last look as Cathy lead him out onto the dance floor and he wondered if perhaps this night would be about more the course his life had taken as he realized that after this night, there would be no more pretending, no more standing still as he was on the threshold of the truth with his mother. The question was how would he find a way to share with her the one thing he was certain would tear her apart?
Seth escorted Ria onto the dance floor and eased his arms around her as he began leading her to the music. He led her in the dance as he looked around the room for any sign of Blake.
“Any sign of your lady, yet?” Ria asked as she followed him in the dance.
“No,” He said with a sigh, “But I want to thank you for this. If it weren’t for you…”
“You’d still be at home pining away for her. Yeah, I know the story,” She rolled her eyes, “I don’t understand why you wanted to come here, Seth. If she doesn’t want to be with you, then chasing after her is only going to make you seem desperate.”
“You don’t understand,” He said as he shook his head, “I have to find something here.”
“Something of yours?”
“Something I need,” He replied as he looked around the room once again, “Where could Blake be? I know she’d be here to support her brother.”
“If this is about finding something, why are you so intent on knowing Blake’s whereabouts?”
“I just…” He paused, “I was kind of hoping I’d get the chance to talk to her. We have a few things we need to talk about.”
“I’ve got that over the last twenty four hours, Seth, but really,” Ria took a deep breath, “I think you need to reevaluate your approach to pursuing her.”
“Don’t start lecturing me, Ria. It’s really the last thing I need right now,” Seth led her in another turn around the dance floor.
Across the room, Blake stepped out of the crowd and onto a dais near French doors leading out to a balcony. She glanced about the room and gasped as she spotted Seth dancing with Ria on the dance floor, “I’ll be damned.”
“What?” Zack asked as he placed a glass of champagne in her hand, “What is it?”
“Seth is here,” She said as she pointed to them.
“What?” He asked in shock as he turned towards the dance floor. He spotted Seth and Ria before he started off the dais.
“No, Zack, wait!” Blake called out as she pulled him back to her, “I don’t want a scene. Let’s just go out on the balcony for a while. I just…I just really don’t even want to see him. Please?”
Zack saw the panic in her eyes. He nodded and slipped his arms around her, leading her out onto the balcony, helping her escape for just a little while.
Ben passed by the bar thinking about how the last place he’d wanted
to be was at a party like this--especially now when the pressure was hanging
over his head and he was certain that somehow he’d run into Diane.
After she’d blown him off at work the other day, he couldn’t quite bring
himself to remain focused on what was at hand and required of him.
It seemed without Diane none of that was really of relevance as the world
was closing in upon him. Sure, Brant and Avery might be celebrating
the love that they’d found, but Diane’s harsh words were the one thing
that reminded him that romance wasn’t in the cards for a man like him.
“Oh Patrick,” Diane’s voice rose from the party as Ben found himself paralyzed in the moment. Her laughter captured his full attention and suddenly he was on edge, wanting nothing more than to seek her out and pull her into his arms, kissing her with a sheer intensity that showed her just how deep in his system she’d gotten, but now as he spun around to see her on the arm of a man he hadn’t recognized before. His anger flared inside of him and he marched towards him as the irrationality of the emotion took over him.
“Well you’re moving on awfully fast, aren’t you,” Ben spoke callously as he glared at the man, who had his arm nestled around Diane’s slender waist in a gesture that was far too intimate for Ben’s liking, “Care to introduce me to the man that’s taken my place already?”
“Ben,” Diane gasped her eyes widening with a mixture of shock and surprise as she stood taller, still remaining in Patrick’s arms as she tried to force the element of being caught off guard from her features and her face drained of all emotion, “how are you tonight?”
“Diane, what are you doing,” Ben demanded harshly feeling his anger overtake him as he reached for her arm. “We need to talk.”
“Like hell we do,” she pulled away from him as Patrick stepped in placing himself between the two of them.
“Do we have a problem here,” Patrick growled down at Ben as Ben’s eyes flared with rage.
“You’re damn right we do,” Ben answered sharply, “I’d like a word with Diane and you’re not taking a hint and backing off.”
“From the hints I’ve been reading the lady isn’t interested in going anywhere with you,” Patrick remarked sourly jabbing Ben in the chest, “So back off buddy.”
“You know what,” Ben stepped up, ready to pound Patrick into an oblivion as he took in a slow breath struggling with his growing rage. Finally he took a step back as he nodded in response, “Fine, I’m sorry about this.”
“As you should be,” Patrick noted with a low growl as he slinked his arm around Diane’s shoulders, “Now how about that dance we talked about?”
“Of course,” Diane’s eyes traveled over towards Ben for a long, lingering moment before she focused on Patrick struggling to keep from losing herself to the pain that followed whenever she was this close to Ben.
Ben watched Patrick hold Diane protectively turning her away from him and in that moment without reason or logic overtaking him, Ben snapped. He stepped forward tapping on Patrick’s shoulder impatiently as the large man spun around his dark eyes glaring down at Ben.
“What?” Patrick’s voice roared as he released Diane.
“I forgot one thing,” Ben explained seriously as he stood taller finding himself well aware of the height difference between him and Diane’s date.
“What’s that?” Patrick muttered seemingly unimpressed.
“This,” Ben threw his fist into Patrick’s jaw connecting almost immediately as Patrick stumbled back nearly falling to the ground in the process.
“Ben!” Diane squealed in surprise as her date fell backward.
“You son of a bitch. You’re going to pay for that,” Patrick began to steady himself as a thin line of blood trickled from his lip and he marched forward towards Ben.
“Bring it on because unless I get five minutes with Diane, I’ll have no problems beating the hell out of you until you’re out of my way for good,” Ben declared his voice impassioned as he turned to Diane, “Just give me five minutes.”
“Not when you’re behaving like this,” Diane glared at him sourly. “You had no right.”
“You have no idea who you’re messing with, buddy,” Patrick lunged at Ben once again launching his own attack as Diane squealed in response.
“Stop it,” she placed herself between them, fearing what might happen as she looked to Ben, “Please, just leave me alone.”
“Diane,” he started with a sigh as he watched her turn to her date.
“Patrick, just give me a minute with him,” she pleaded as Patrick opened his mouth in protest, but finally nodded accordingly.
“I’ll go get us a couple of drinks,” he decided stalking off as he left Ben and Diane alone for a moment.
“What’s wrong with you,” Diane demanded placing her hands on her hips as she glared at Ben.
“What’s wrong with me? Diane, I’ve been trying to talk to you since you ran out of my apartment the other day and you keep blowing me off…” he began.
“With good reason obviously,” she muttered impatiently, “Ben, I already told you that I’m finished with you. I want nothing to do with you especially now after this…”
“I’m sorry,” he sighed rubbing his hands together, “it’s just when I saw you with him, it did something to me.”
“Yeah, it made you a lunatic,” Diane nodded with a huff.
“Even so that in itself should tell you how I feel about you if the thought of you on another man’s arm pains me this way,” he placed his hand over his heart, “Diane, I care about you. Truly feel something for you that I can’t shake.”
“You should’ve thought about that before you lied to me,” she answered coldly, “and beyond that you say you hate the idea of seeing me on another man’s arm, but how do you think I felt when your girlfriend walked in on us and said those things about me? Don’t you think that killed me after I’d given myself to you completely? Do you have any idea how foolish I felt seeing that you only had me around as your side dish?”
“Diane, it wasn’t like that,” he took in a breath struggling to find the right words, “She’s not my girlfriend.”
“Your wife then? Is that the tie up you had all those nights since your family clearly doesn’t live in Coral Valley?” she tossed back at him, “Did you really think that I’d be so stupid not to put the pieces together?”
“No, Ben, you’re a jerk and I don’t need another loser in my life because I can beat myself up without you adding to it,” Diane hissed seeing Patrick returning to the two of them, “and if you truly care about me the way you do, then I would strongly suggest that you leave me the hell alone as that’s the best thing you could do for me,” she finished marching off in Patrick’s direction as Ben watched her, his heart breaking with every step she took away from him.
“I think she’s making a horrible mistake,” a woman spoke out to him as Ben turned to find Cathy standing in the doorway leaning up against the frame as she shook her head poignantly, “Then again Diane was never smart enough to see a good thing when it was right before her.”
“Cathy,” Ben tried to shake the feelings inside of him upon Diane’s departure as he stood taller, “what are you doing here?”
“I do work for BBK, remember?” she flashed him a flirty smile before approaching him--each sauntering step towards him emphasizing her curves as a blonde curl tapered off over her face, adding accent to her big, blue eyes, “And besides I’ll have you know that I’m here with a very distinguished lawyer.”
“I see,” Ben looked behind her, “and where is your date exactly?”
“Who knows,” she shrugged simply, “who cares?”
“Sounds like a promising date,” Ben slumped his shoulders as his gaze drifted towards the direction Diane had taken off in.
“Forget about her Ben,” Cathy touched the side of his face forcing him to look down into her teasing, blue eyes, “She’s not worth the energy you’re spending on being miserable over her.”
“Spoken like a true friend,” Ben muttered sarcastically as he looked to her.
“I never enjoy seeing someone so wonderful, lost in such anguish,” Cathy pointed out with a tiny frown, “Tonight is about celebrating and from the looks of things, you aren’t in much of a celebrating mood and I feel compelled to change that.”
“Cathy, don’t you have a date waiting for you,” Ben threw back at her not in the mood for games as he scanned the crowd for Diane once more.
“He’s off doing his thing and I’m rather enjoying doing mine,” her finger tips teased over his tie, “So what do you say? Care to dance with me?”
“Cathy, I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Ben began knowing that Cathy Ashley was nothing but trouble waiting to happen for anyone who even thought of getting wrapped up with her.
“Come on,” she tugged on his tie gently, “You know you want to.”
“You’re not going to let me find a way to get out of this, are you,” he tilted his head to watch her as she shook her head in response.
“Not a chance,” she grinned wildly, “and besides maybe when my date sees us together, he might remember what he’s missing out on tonight.”
“Cathy, I don’t know if that’s such a good idea considering…” Ben argued with her.
“It’s just a dance,” she promised guiding him out onto the dance floor as Ben wondered if this time he’d managed to get himself in over his head as his life was falling apart at the seams. Still as he forced himself to share a dance with Cathy, he wondered if he’d ever truly find a way to make things right in his life again. Chances were the odds were stacked against him as this was a losing battle for him either way he looked at it.
Dorothy entered the Ashford mansion taking in a slow breath as she thought
to another time in her life when she’d found herself swept up in a world
of glamour and glitter that mirrored the magic that a night like this held.
She closed her eyes finding herself haunted by the demons of the past as
she thought to the promise and naiveté she’d carried with her in
those early years. If only she’d known then, what she knew now…
A breath spilled over her lips as she tried to remind herself that there
was no looking back. Life had been what it was and there would be
no way to keep things from taking her down a different road, though as
she thought to her daughter, she realized that she was glad she’d taken
the road she had as it had lead her to some happiness despite the misery
when it all began.
“Where are you,” she whispered to herself skimming her eyes over the crowd as she hoped to catch a glimpse of her daughter as the knowledge of Jenna being with Douglas Mahoney of all people brought a fear rushing over her. There would be no way that she’d allow Jenna to continue this night with him knowing full well that the results could be disastrous should Douglas take an interest in her.
“Well, well, well,” Hart grumbled as he stepped in beside her, “what are you doing here?”
“Certainly not looking to meet up with a man like you,” Dorothy remarked icily.
“Funny because encountering you was the last thing on my mind,” he flashed her an arrogant smile, “and the way I see it tonight you have no power over me as you can’t kick me out of this party like you did at the restaurant last night.”
“Oh would you just quit already,” Dorothy looked to him, an idea sparking behind her dark eyes as she stood taller, “Tell me, why is it you keep chasing my daughter around?”
“I’m not chasing Jenna,” he argued with her, “I’m merely trying to thank her for a favor she did for me.”
“Uh huh,” Dorothy nodded disbelieving, “and how many women do you follow around in your quest to repay them for a favor they’ve done for you?”
“I’m not following her around. We merely agreed on dinner last night which would’ve gone smoothly if you hadn’t intervened,” Hart frowned back at her, “I really didn’t have to leave last night.”
“But you did because you knew I wasn’t going to let you near my daughter,” Dorothy reminded him sharply, “She doesn’t need your kind harassing her.”
“And she doesn’t need you dictating her life,” Hart frowned in response, “In fact, I think this conversation is over…”
“Why don’t you just admit that you’re interested in my daughter? That somehow you’ve got it in your twisted mind that you and she could have some kind of romance together,” Dorothy offered up a haughty laugh, “I mean do you really believe she’d even think you would size up for her when she’s already found a charming, moral man that suits her needs.”
“I highly doubt that one,” Hart scoffed in response, “Jenna isn’t seeing anyone.”
“No?” Dorothy motioned over towards Douglas and Jenna, “then what would you call that?”
“Huh?” he looked in the direction Dorothy pointed out and his confident air seemed to fade with the moment. Already the spark of jealousy was evident in his expression as Dorothy goaded him further.
“That man over there is a Hollywood producer that is offering her the moon and the stars as he believes she’s something special,” Dorothy explained smoothly, “and Jenna knows he has so much more to offer than someone of your reputation does.”
“We’ll just see about that,” Hart remarked bitterly marching off in Jenna’s direction as Dorothy said a silent prayer of victory hoping that her urging Hart on to break up the evening between Jenna and Douglas would be the solution she was seeking out.
“Hey there pretty lady,” Russell’s voice beckoned Jade as he stepped
in behind her catching her off guard.
“Russell,” she smiled up at him seeing the cheerfulness behind his features as she faced him, “hi.”
“So where’s my brother,” he scanned the room, “Sulking in the corner because he doesn’t really want to be here?”
“He’s actually taking a break from dancing after I gave him a run for his money,” Jade confessed, her face flushed as she thought of the magical time she’d spent in Grady’s arms.
“Hmm, well you don’t look like you’re ready to stop going just yet,” he offered up his hand to her, “Care to dance with me?”
“Well only if you say please,” she pretended to be thinking it over as she accepted his hand and allowed him to lead her out onto the dance floor.
“I’ll even say thank you before the dance is over,” he threw out a teasing wink as Jade noticed how easy going Russell seemed to be. While and Grady had similar striking features as they were both devastatingly handsome, Russell’s face held an air of softness and openness to the things that Jade had worked so hard to achieve with Grady and tonight despite the stories Grady had shared with her on the way over about Russell’s chaos, he seemed, well glowing with happiness.
“So what’s on your mind,” Russell questioned breaking through her thoughts, “Thinking about romancing my brother into leaving before the atmosphere bores you to death?”
“Or Grady finds a way to get into a sparring match with Avery,” she threw back with a soft smile as he lead her in a dance and she nodded in confession, “The thought had crossed my mind.”
Russell frowned upon her words, “He’s still harping on that huh?”
“He’s just concerned about you,” Jade defended the man she loved, “He’s worried about what this could do to you…”
“About what being in love could do,” he sighed as his thoughts lingered to his brother’s stubborn streak, “What’s so wrong about giving your heart to someone you care about?”
“Nothing as far as I’m concerned,” Jade offered up thinking about her own situation with Grady, “but I also know that when an older brother is involved it makes falling in love increasingly difficult.”
“Why do I have a feeling that you’re speaking from experience here,” Russell lifted a curious brow.
“My brother Seth doesn’t exactly approve of my relationship with Grady,” she divulged to him with a sigh, “and while Seth doesn’t know everything about who Grady is and how wonderful Grady makes me feel, he’s still bent on being in his own little altered reality refusing to open his eyes to what it is that’s going on with me.”
“I can understand that one,” he nodded in response, “So how’s that going?”
“About as good as things are going with you and Grady,” she admitted painfully, “though I’m still trying with him.”
“I’m really still trying with Grady,” Russell offered up dipping her in his arms before circling around the dance floor, “He just refuses to see that Avery’s something I can’t live without.”
“You really feel that way,” Jade asked thinking of Grady’s passionate feelings about keeping Russell far away from Avery.
“She’s as vital to me as the air that I breathe,” Russell confessed dreamily, “With every beat of my heart, my love for her grows and I know that in holding her in my arms and sharing my love with her, I’m free at long last. I’ve found my heart and I know that she’s my destiny. I was born to love Avery.”
“And she feels the same way,” she lifted a curious brow thinking about the reasoning behind the party tonight.
Russell nodded spinning her once again, “She does and this, well it’s not what everyone thinks it is. It’s nothing more than an illusion--one that will come to an end tonight at long last.”
“Oh?” she questioned as they moved around the dance floor again and he pulled her in closer to him, his eyes sparkling with happiness.
“That’s right,” he nodded eagerly dipping her as the music built with each rhythmic pulse, “can you keep a secret?”
“I don’t know,” Jade teased back at him, “As long as Grady won’t kill me for it, then I might be able to.”
“If he lays a hand on you, then he’ll have to answer to me,” he promised spinning her eagerly.
“Fine, since you can promise my safety,” she laughed lightly, “then go for it. Tell me your secret.”
“I’ve been dying to tell someone all night and you’re by far the one person in this room that understands the meaning of love,” he informed her, “as it’s quite obvious if you’ve been willing to tolerate my brother’s stubbornness all this time.”
“He’s worth it in his own way,” Jade smiled thinking of the joy she’d found in being around Grady.
“He can be I suppose,” Russell conceded as he spun her out before pulling her back to him again, “though I have to wonder at times.”
“I’m working on offering a remedy for his brooding side,” she promised with a flood of laughter.
“Then you are a keeper as it would take a miracle to make it happen,” he teased back, “but for the moment, enough about Grady as I want to share my good news with someone.”
“Then share away,” Jade prompted him further, “I could use something really wonderful right about now.”
“Alright,” he squeezed her closer to him as his eyes lit up with enthusiasm, “I’ll tell you then,” his voice dropped to a mere whisper as he leaned in closer to her, “I’m getting married.”
“You are,” her eyes widened in surprise as she looked up at him.
He nodded eagerly, “Last night Avery proposed and after this party is over, I’m going to whisk her away and make her my bride.”
“Tonight?” she felt the surprise go unmasked in her tone as he nodded again.
“She doesn’t know yet, but tonight after this façade is over, I’m going to take her away from here and make her my wife at long last,” Russell explained proudly.
“Which is why you wanted Grady here so badly,” she reasoned thinking it over, “You wanted him to share that with you when you pledged your life to the woman you love.”
Russell nodded again, “I guess it was wishful thinking on my part considering hell would freeze over before Grady sat back and watched it happen, let alone took part in the happiest thing that’s ever come my way.”
“I think he’d find a way to move beyond his anger long enough to share that with you as you are his brother,” Jade offered hopefully as she saw the look of disbelief in Russell’s eyes.
“Jade, I know you love my brother, but we both know he’s not going to accept that,” he sighed as the music began to fade, “As much as I’d want him there by my side sharing this with me, the realist in me knows that Grady will never let me be happy with Avery.”
“Oh Russ,” she frowned feeling a sense of sadness wash over her, “I just wish you didn’t have to go through this without Grady’s support.”
“Maybe eventually he’ll understand,” Russell shrugged simply as he took a step away from her, “Then again I suppose he’ll have time to adjust to the idea as Avery’s the one thing I’m never letting go of as she’s going to be my beautiful bride very soon,” his eyes traveled lovingly over in Avery’s direction as Jade wondered if somehow there would be a way to repair the situation between Russell and Grady before Grady missed out on one of the most important events in his brother’s life. Somehow before this night was over, she vowed to find a way to bring peace to the both of them as she hoped that Grady would push his own anger aside to share the joy that Russell was feeling in his heart as she was certain if Grady missed out on something so special, it would always be a wedge between them and that was the last thing she wanted for the two of them.
Avery mingled through the crowd as she approached her father. She’d been intent on speaking with him and having the chance to meet his lady love, but since she was the star of the hour, she had to smile and greet everyone who garnered her attention.
Finally she converged on her father and tapped him upon the shoulder, “Hey handsome.”
“Avery,” Richard smiled brightly as he parted from Judy and kissed his daughter’s cheek, “You look amazing.”
“Thank you,” Avery smiled as she glanced to Judy, “And this must be Judy,” She said as she extended her hand to her father’s lady.
“It’s nice to finally meet you, Avery. Your father’s very proud of you,” Judy smiled as she shook Avery’s hand.
“And I of him,” Avery smiled, “But I must say that you are someone of interest here. I really want to know more about you.”
“Then why don’t I get you each a drink? You two can chat for a few minutes,” Richard said as he left the two women alone.
“Well, this is kind of awkward,” Judy said as she watched Avery anxiously.
“Not at all,” Avery assured her, “Tonight is the first time I’ve ever seen my father happy with a woman in his arms. He always just put on with others, but he’s really happy with you. And I couldn’t be happier for him.”
“You are so sweet. If it was my father and mother, I might not be so forgiving.”
“Brooke is not really the kind of mother who would garner my loyalty. She’s made Daddy miserable more often than she’s made him happy. I think that alone means he was never meant to be with her. I’ve heard him speak of you though. He thinks the world of you.”
Judy smiled slightly, “I’m glad to hear that. I don’t know how I could have earned such a high place in his world considering it’s been years since we’ve even seen each other.”
“Love has a way of staying with you regardless of the years between,” Richard informed them as he placed a glass of champagne into each lady’s hand. He raised a glass of his own, “Here’s to finding some happiness in love.”
“Here, here,” Judy agreed as she met Richard’s eyes with a smile dancing upon her lips.
Avery smiled as she watched the silent interaction between her father and Judy. If two people could ever be in love without a spoken word, she could see it in her father and Judy. She could only hope that things would work out for she and Russell in a way it hadn’t for her father and Judy.
Ken held Caitlin at his side as they stepped off the dance floor. He had enjoyed the night so far which was a bit on the unusual side for him. An Ashford party usually meant chaos, and he hated to be in the midst of a chaotic mess mostly because he had to spend his time cleaning up the mess. This time, however, was different. This time, he had Caitlin at his side, and she had made the entire night enjoyable for him.
Caitlin looked up to him with a smile as they moved towards the front of the room, “Penny for your thoughts?”
“Actually, I was just thinking about you,” He smiled, lifting her hand to his lips for a soft kiss upon her skin, “You’ve really changed my life, Caitlin.”
“Oh, I don’t know if I’d go that far,” She said as she stopped him and met his eyes, “I haven’t done anything.”
“Yes, you have. You might not even realize you’ve done it, but you have,” He assured her as he lightly caressed her cheek, “You brought beauty and peace into my life, and that’s amazing.”
“Ken,” She flushed as she looked towards the floor.
“Hey,” He said as he lifted her chin so he could meet her eyes, “Don’t shy away from this. It’s something I want you to be proud of because I’ve been looking for this kind of peace all my life.”
She smiled as tears slipped into her eyes. She rose upon her tip toes and kissed him gently, “You’re the sweetest man I’ve ever met.”
“Ah, romance is in the air,” Brant smiled as he joined his brother and Caitlin, “You two look like a matched set.”
“Thank you,” Ken smiled as he pulled Caitlin to his side with a tender hug, “You look happy, Brant.”
“I am. For the first time in a very long time, I’m on the road to happiness. It’s truly a beautiful thing,” Brant smiled as he took Caitlin’s hand and gently pressed a kiss upon her skin, “And you are very beautiful yourself. I’m glad you could make it tonight. You’re a very strong woman to be able to attend tonight after the events of the last week.”
“I don’t know so much about my strength,” She said with a polite smile before she cast her eyes back to Ken, “Ken’s really the one who’s given me enough strength to pull through anything.”
Brant smiled, “You two certainly look happy together. I’m glad. It’s about time happiness found this family.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Ken smiled as he patted his brother’s arm with his free hand, “I hope you find your happiness too, Brant.”
“I have,” Brant replied as he turned slightly to see Avery enjoying some time with her father, “I truly believe that Avery is everything I ever could have wanted. She’s beautiful, intelligent, and she always keeps me on my toes. No one has ever touched me the way she does.”
“Sounds like love,” Caitlin offered with a soft smile.
Brant smiled before he looked back to his brother’s girlfriend, “I believe that it is.”
“Congratulations, Brant,” She smiled at him, “I hope everything works out for you just the way you want.”
“I have a feeling that it will, Caitlin, and I have a feeling that you and Ken here will be following in my footsteps some day,” Brant teased his brother as he nudged him.
“Oh..well..” Caitlin blushed as she looked away from Brant.
“How about not scaring Caitlin away, Brant? I don’t think she’s ready to jump into the Ashford chaos quite yet,” Ken said as he hugged Caitlin to him, “But maybe we can ease her into it a little at a time.”
Caitlin smiled as she leaned against Ken. Brant smiled as he nodded, feeling love in the air and that all of his family would one day be one step closer to their dreams.
Brooke’s eyes narrowed with anger as she watched Richard flaunting off
his tramp to Avery. How dare he find a way to make a mockery of their
marriage to the world when tonight should’ve been a time for them to solidify
their marriage in the public eye. Damn him for trying to destroy
her, but even more so for thinking that this little escapade would drive
her to divorce. After all the time she’d invested in this family,
she’d be damned if she’d give in to that one thing to benefit him.
She’d fought hard in the first place to make him hers and this time would
be no different as she refused to let Judy stand in the way of things.
Judy would be dealt with soon enough, but now as she looked to the glass
of champagne in her hand, she reminded herself that it was one crisis at
Tonight Avery was going to learn the error of her ways, Brooke vowed to herself as she reached into her pocket withdrawing the small vial she’d carried for such an occasion. A slow smile crept over her features as she twisted off the cap, spilling a few drops of the colorless, odorless liquid into the glass of champagne she’d held in her hand. Swirling the glass as the liquid mixed with the bubbling champagne, she flagged down a waiter ready to make good on her plans for the night.
“Excuse me,” she reached for the handsome, young waiter, “I need you to do me a favor.”
“Yes, Mrs. Morrison,” the overeager waited questioned.
“See that woman over there,” she pointed towards Heather, “this is her glass of champagne as she seemingly forgot it when we were having a conversation before. If you could just take it over to her…”
“Of course,” he nodded in agreement accepting the glass as Brooke felt her enthusiasm about the course of destiny growing with each passing second. It would seem she had one down and one more to go before Avery’s eyes would be opened forever.
Brooke turned towards the direction Heather was in once more and her thoughts of impending victory were put to an abrupt halt as she watched the inept waiter standing before Heather, apologizing as his tray crashed to the ground dousing some nearby guests with the bubbling champagne. A scowl laced over Brooke’s features as she realized that the old adage was true about if you needed something done right, you had to do it yourself and considering all that was riding on this night, she realized that nothing less than precision and perfection would do as she plotted out her next course of action.
Dave found Shannon standing near the bar as she watched the party guests dance and drink to their hearts content. He approached her slowly, noting she seemed on edge.
“What’s up?” He asked as he tried to follow her line of vision.
“Nothing,” She replied as she watched the guests, “Just a feeling.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” She answered with a sigh, “I’ve just got a feeling that something’s happening here that we’re just not seeing.”
“If I knew that, we’d be seeing it,” She explained before she glanced at him, “Have you noticed anything peculiar?”
“It’s a party with the rich and famous. What exactly would you consider peculiar?” He asked dryly.
“Good point,” She bit her lip as she found herself watching a man across the room, “Avery and Brant look happy together.”
“I told you not to push your luck with them,” He warned.
“I’m not. I was just making a comment,” She shrugged, “Besides, there are other people I’m more interested in.”
“Such as?” He asked.
“It’s probably nothing, but I really need to check into something,” Shannon said as she made her way back into the crowd.
Dave followed her for as long as possible before his view became obstructed. He exhaled in frustration as he contemplated Shannon’s words, wondering just what it was she was up to.
Russell watched from the bar as Brant guided Avery along urging her
to play the role of the doted fiancée and the longer that Russell
kicked back seeing the scene unfold, the harder he fought with himself
to remain calm and keep from breaking Brant’s face in two. He tried
to stay focused, to remember what was at stake, but thinking about Avery
on Brant’s arm drove him mad with jealousy as there was no reason why Brant
should have to paw at her so much considering that Brant knew that Avery
wasn’t really his to begin with. Sinking down the last of his glass
of champagne, Russell turned to the bar once again getting another glass
as Guy stepped in beside him.
“Long time no see,” Guy piped in as Russell looked up to see Avery’s little brother hovering over him.
“Guy,” Russell flashed him a simple smile, “How are you?”
“I’m doing decent,” Guy motioned for the bartender to bring him a glass of champagne as well, “though rumor has it that you and I are well on the road to becoming family again.”
“I take it you spoke to Avery since you came back to town,” Russell lowered his voice to just above a whisper as a few guests approached the bar to get their own drink refills.
Guy nodded, “Of course I have and I must confess I never saw this one coming.”
“Your sister’s very important to me,” Russell threw out at him wondering if Guy shared Brooke’s same skewed view of him.
“Avery’s extremely important to me and the last thing I want to see is her hurt again,” Guy admitted plainly, “The last time you two tried this, it damn near killed her and I don’t want to see a repeat of what took place before with her. Seeing my sister in that much pain was something I never thought I’d have to live through.”
“I love her and despite the things Brooke might’ve told you about me, that’s never changed,” Russell answered firmly standing taller as he prepared to stand his ground.
“I could care less what my mother thinks,” Guy explained matter of fact, “Sure, I may feel inclined to take her side on things, but in matters of the heart, I want nothing but the best for my sister as her happiness is a subject of great interest to me.”
“Then I take it you’re not blown away by Ashford’s empty promises either, huh?” Russell lifted a curious brow.
“I haven’t formed an opinion on him just yet, but I know all about you,” Guy stated simply, “My sister gave herself completely in loving you before and when things ended as they did, it damn near killed her and I couldn’t bear the thought of that happening again.”
“Avery walked out on me,” Russell pointed out with a frown, “I wasn’t the one who didn’t want to follow through as I loved her with my everything. I’ve always loved her.”
“Apparently not enough to ask the right questions,” Guy muttered under his breath taking a swig of his drink.
“What’s that supposed to mean,” Russell scowled back at him, “Guy, what are you getting at?”
“What I’m getting at is that I want to see my sister happy, and I expect nothing less than the best for her,” Guy explained with a simple shrug of his shoulders, “Right now she wants her happily ever after and I’m just warning you that if you hurt her in any way…”
“Guy, this time I’m in it for keeps,” Russell promised solemnly, “Despite the stories Brooke might be spinning about me, Avery’s everything to me and loving her is the most important thing in my life.”
“See to it that it stays that way because she’s got her whole heart invested in this again and if you were to break it,” Guy paused contemplating his words as the truth to the situation hung over him, “It would kill her Russ and that’s the last thing I’d want to happen to her.”
“Guy, when she left me before you know that I wanted nothing more than to be with her--to have her in my life and love her forever…”
“Avery’s insecure about things and sometimes she’s afraid to let someone see that,” Guy offered sipping his champagne, “There are times when she closes herself off and when you two didn’t tie the knot before she fell apart. I saw her go from complete happiness, to a state of sheer misery and I don’t want my sister to experience that ever again. I love her far too much to watch her suffer.”
“Avery’s not going to suffer with me,” Russell answered as his eyes drifted in Avery’s general direction, “I love her and I would do anything to keep her happy as she’s the only happiness I’ve ever really known.”
“Be sure you keep it that way,” Guy warned watching his sister along side of Brant as he prayed that this time Avery knew what she was doing as the last thing he’d wanted for her was to have her in a state of misery again over something that went horribly wrong in the blink of an eye.
Ria and Seth stood at the bar waiting for flutes of champagne to be filled as another dance began on the dance floor. Ria watched as Seth continued to scan the room for any sign of his lady. While she wasn’t quite sure what it was he was after, she already knew it could get them both into trouble. He would never willingly involve her in anything that was seriously dangerous, but she had a feeling that despite his calm about the situation, he was on edge to the point she knew there were dangerous waters ahead.
“Seth, are you okay?” Ria asked as she placed her hand upon his arm, “You’re really kind of skittish tonight.”
“I can’t help it. I’m sorry, Ria. You deserved a better time than this, but I’m really distracted,” He apologized, “I have a lot on my plate right now.”
“You know you could talk to me about it, Seth. We’ve always been friends, and it’s like you said. I’m one of the guys. So talk to me,” She urged him.
“I don’t want to get you involved in this,” He said honestly as he met her eyes, “Too many people are involved already.”
“Let me help you.”
“To be honest, I don’t know how anyone can anymore,” He sighed as the bartender placed a glass of champagne into his hand.
Caitlin turned from speaking with Ken and Brant and frowned as she spotted Seth across the room. She excused herself from Ken for a moment and weaved a path through the room. She arrived at the bar and tapped Seth on the arm, “What are you doing here?”
“Caitlin, how are you?” Seth asked as he met her eyes.
“Why are you here, Seth? You know, I don’t care why you’re here. You should leave,” Caitlin said softly.
“He’s not going anywhere,” Ria piped in, “He’s my escort for this evening, and I intend to have some more fun before the night is through.”
“Seth, I don’t know what it is you think you’re doing, but this is only going to make matters worse. Please, just leave now before things get ugly,” Caitlin urged in an even tone of voice.
“I just want a chance to speak with Blake,” Seth sighed.
“That’s too bad. She’s very upset about your breakup, and she doesn’t want to speak with you. You had no right coming here tonight, and I really think you should leave,” Caitlin touched his arm, “Seth, if you ever cared about Blake at all, leave before there’s a scene.”
“There’s not going to be a scene,” He assured her, “I just want to speak with Blake, then I’ll leave. I won’t even put up a protest as long as I can speak with her for a few minutes.”
“Seth, don’t push your luck. Just leave before Ken or Brant see you,” Caitlin urged.
“Too late,” Ken spoke as he joined them and glared at Seth, “You need to leave.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Seth stood firm, “I just want five minutes with Blake.”
“You had your chance with Blake, and you blew it. It’s over, Seth, and you need to leave now,” Ken demanded, “This can work one of two ways. You can leave of your own accord, or I can have you drug off the premises. While I’d enjoy watching the latter, I think you’d prefer the former. So just turn and leave while you still have your dignity intact.”
Seth turned from Ken, hoping to persuade Caitlin of his position, but as soon as he saw her protective glare bearing down on him, he shook his head, “Fine. I’ll go.”
Ria’s jaw dropped as she watched her long time friend turn and begin making his way towards the door. She skirted her way through the crowd and grabbed his arm, “Seth, you can’t be serious. You’re going to let them bully you into leaving?”
“Ria,” Seth stopped long enough to meet her eyes, “I don’t have a choice,” He looked around the room, “Come on. Let’s go back to my place, and I’ll explain this whole nightmarish situation,” He said before turning and making his way to the exit.
Ken frowned as Caitlin met his eyes, “What the hell was he thinking?”
“Maybe he was thinking he could somehow weasel a second chance out of Blake,” Caitlin shrugged, “It doesn’t matter. It’s over now, and he’s gone. Hopefully, for good.”
“Somehow, I get the feeling it won’t be that easy with Seth,” Ken’s frown deepened as he considered his sister’s broken heart, hoping that someway he could protect her from ever dealing with Seth again.
Jade plucked two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter as she made her way towards Grady. She paused as she watched him glare across the room at Avery. She knew that once he found out about Russell he would hit the roof, and she would probably have to spend the rest of the night calming him down. Still, it was nice to be out on the town in Grady’s arms.
She closed the distance between them and placed a glass of champagne in his hand, “You need to relax.”
“Relax? Jade, how many times have we been over this?” He asked as he glared at Avery, “Look at her. She’s making a fool of him, and he just lets her.”
“Grady, Russell’s life is his own to live, and who knows? Maybe he knows something we don’t,” She said simply.
“What he thinks he knows is beside the point. He thinks she cares about him, but she doesn’t.”
“I didn’t really come here to listen to you rant and rave about Russell all night,” She said as she turned her back on him as if to walk away.
“Okay, hold it there little lady,” Grady said as he lassoed her in his arms and pulled her back against him as she broke into laughter, “I don’t know if I like this form of blackmail you’ve got going.”
“And what would that be?” She asked as she glanced over her shoulder at him.
“I don’t know how you’ve done it, but you’ve got me trained to expect your attention and when it’s diverted,” He shook his head, “It just really gets next to me.”
“Well, we certainly can’t have that,” She giggled as she turned to press a kiss to his lips, “I’d hate for you to feel neglected.”
He smiled, “You realize it’ll take a lot of attention to fix this, don’t you?” He teased.
“Hmm, well, I do love showing you all my attention,” She said as she kissed him once more and wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug. She squeezed him in her arms, smiling brightly as she looked around the room wondering how many other people felt as happy as she did in this moment. She gasped in shock as she saw a familiar and unwelcome face.
“What?” Grady asked as he urged her away from him so he could meet her eyes, “Jade, what’s wrong?”
“Cameron,” She said his name with disgust, “He’s here,” She said as Grady turned to look for the man in question.
“Where? I don’t see him.”
“He was just over by the ice sculpture,” She said as she held onto Grady, “I know I saw him.”
“I don’t doubt you, Jade. He’d love the chance to drive both us and the Ashfords nuts,” He squeezed her close, “Let’s just try our best to avoid him, shall we?”
“Okay,” Jade hugged him tightly, hoping she wouldn’t have to come face to face with the man who was now who she feared most in the world.
“Don’t think you’re slipping away from me again,” Brant stepped in behind
Avery slinking his arm around her waist, “as our company has taken you
away from me far too long already.”
“Brant, I was just about to get some air,” Avery confessed her eyes darting over towards the bar as she saw Russell watching her intently, “I thought it would be a nice time to take a pause from all the pleasantries.”
“On the contrary,” he turned her in his arms as his gaze cascaded over her appreciatively, “I was thinking that right now was the perfect time for something else.”
“Why does that suddenly sound like a cue for me to be afraid,” Avery bit on her lower lip seeing the spark of something burning behind his dark eyes as he reached for her hand and he lifted it to his lips in a tender kiss.
“You don’t have to fear me,” he promised gently as his lips touched over her skin tenderly, “You’ll never have to worry about that as I promise to give you everything you’ve ever dreamt of and more in our time together.”
“Brant, this just feels so foreign, so out of place considering our relationship,” Avery glanced over towards Russell once again, feeling her pulse racing as she could sense the discontent behind his handsome face, “I don’t really think that now is a time for any more surprises.”
“I promise you’ll enjoy this one,” he looked to her hand, a frown spreading over his features as his jaw dropped, “Avery, what’s this?”
“What’s what?” she questioned as she followed his line of vision seeing the ring Russell had given her on her finger. A gasp fell from her lips as she started to explain.
“Brant,” a voice piped in eagerly, “can I have a word with you?”
Avery looked to the reporter standing before them and Brant slinked his arm around her squeezing her in against him as he puffed his chest out in an exaggerated motion. He crushed her in closer to him staking his claim on her as he grinned possessively before tipping down to whisper in her ear.
“It’s time,” he breathed behind Avery’s ear before turning the charm on to the reporter before him as her photographer was creeping in behind her, “Of course you can,” he answered her question as curiosity loomed over her.
“Brant, all night we’ve been hoping to get a glimpse of that fabulous ring you’ve given Avery,” the reporter’s eyes perked up with interest as she looked to Avery, “however it seems to be conspicuously absent from the festivities tonight. Why is that?”
“Well, you see,” Brant began teasing his fingers over Avery’s hip as he held her possessively, “we had it put aside for insurance purposes as given the nature of this party we’re having, we wouldn’t want anyone tempted to run off with something so precious as there’s only one place in this world where it belong and that’s with my beautiful bride to be,” he turned towards her leaning down to rub noses with her much to Avery’s surprise as her eyes widened and he winked at her, “However you can be assured that the rumors you’ve been hearing about it’s beauty are in fact truths as the ring is sensational and when Avery and I are ready to brave having it out in the public eye, you can rest assure you’ll have the first glimpse at it, now if you’ll excuse us we’d like to offer up a few words to our friends and family,” Brant guided her towards the front of the ballroom, each stride he made full of confidence and grace as he lead her to the center stage the band had been playing on.
“Brant, what are you doing,” Avery questioned tugging on his arm impatiently.
“I think it’s time we address our audience,” he answered cryptically pulling her up with him as he stepped into the spotlight using his presence to capture the attention of those in attendance, “Excuse me everyone,” Brant waved the room to silence as he flashed everyone a bright smile, “Avery and I just wanted to share a few words with all of you and thank you for being here tonight to share this special night with us. As many of you know Avery and I were overjoyed that we’ve been able to share our happiness with a great many of you--even if you had to find out about it through the Inside Track,” he cracked a grin as that elicited a few chuckles through the room, “although it is nice to see that they’ve finally gotten a headline right for once. That in itself seems like a miracle in the making…” more laughter erupted as Brant waved is hand at the room again, “Although the real miracle of the night is the one by my side as this beautiful woman with me is the one thing in my life that’s turned me around completely. As many of you are well aware of, Avery and I were a long time in the making and after she’d kicked my ass a few times,” he paused to let the laughter fill the moment, “she finally saw that I was worth taking a chance on and now, well now there’s nothing that I could want more than to spend the rest of my days with this beautiful woman beside me as she’s captured my heart completely.”
Avery felt a heat rising over her features as she spotlight blinded her to those in the room. She could hear the sounds of their amusement, but as she turned towards the direction of the bar, she could almost feel Russell’s anger reaching out to her, striking at Brant’s words as she hoped she could find a way to sooth what must be going through his head. She closed her eyes for a moment trying to send her love through the room as she was unable to touch him, to reach out and assure him that everything would be alright after this as she had every intention of killing Brant for the bravado as he was well aware it was nothing more than lies. Lies that would be harder to untangle as he kept going on and on painting a fairy tale of their supposed romance with one another.
“…and that’s why, we want to thank you for your support and your generosity as tonight is a night for celebrations, new beginnings, and happily ever afters,” he finished pulling her into his arms, dipping her down before his mouth pressed over hers in an impromptu passionate display catching her off guard as the flashing lights took over capturing Brant Ashford’s latest romance in vivid color as his mouth beckoned Avery’s to surrender, daring her to deny him as the room wailed with delight.
“That’s my girl,” Brooke smiled as she clapped her hands wildly watching Brant coax Avery into a sweet surrender. Slowly her eyes drifted in the direction she’d seen Russell Denton in earlier talking to Guy and the expression on his face was priceless as the color drained from his features.
“Oh hell no,” Russell muttered his fists clenching with anger as he took a step forward despite the applause that carried over the room.
“Russ, don’t,” Guy reached out to him hoping to stop disaster from taking place as he did his best to keep the man his sister loved from tearing the man she was pretending to love apart, but as the kiss continued Guy realized that he might not have the strength to take on such a task as the wild expression on Russell’s face clearly indicated that soon Brant Ashford was about to be a dead man.