Family Feudalism

Chapter 10

Rory and Lorelai, along with Luke, were in their usual location on Friday evening, but it was not for dinner. The fake birthday party was in its early stages, and some guests already were mingling about the Gilmore mansion. While the event was a supposed effort of Francine’s to get to know her estranged granddaughter, she kept her distance. Emily, not having to worry about party logistics, was free to criticize. She kept a discriminating eye on the wait staff as they made the rounds.

“There’s never going to be enough horde oeuvres if she doesn’t stagger better,” she said, as she approached the three from their place in the foyer, where they could see everyone who came in.

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Lorelai said.

“Do you want something to drink?” Luke asked her. “I think I’m going to go to the bar.”

After Lorelai told him she wanted a martini, Emily added, “I don’t think Francine had the bartenders stock beer.”

Luke nodded curtly. “That’s okay,” he said before excusing himself.

Rory asked, “Is Dad here yet?”

“No, but I imagine he’ll be here soon,” Emily answered. Pointedly, she said, “How nice. He finally makes it to one of your birthday parties and it isn’t even your birthday.”

“Grandma,” Rory said with a cringe. “We’ll get through the night and move on. It’s just a party. It’s no big deal.”

Emily averted her gaze to the other guests, clearly put out. The doorbell rang and more guests filed into the house. Rory anxiously watched the well-dressed men and women walk in. She recognized a few here and there as members of the DAR. They greeted Rory before moving into the other rooms of the first floor.

Rory felt her cell phone vibrate from her pocket and pulled it out to check the screen. She’d been communicating with an editor all day about a developing story. She distractedly typed a response and shoved the phone back in her pocket. She gave her grandmother an apologetic look.

“Where do you even find dresses with pockets?” Emily asked.

“Different places. I like them,” Rory said defensively. “I can keep my phone close without carrying a purse.”

Emily frowned at the positive spin. “I wish you’d wear one of my diamond necklaces.”

“I’m her best friend,” Lorelai said. “So she doesn’t need diamonds.”

The bell chimed again, and Rory’s heart thumped with anticipation when Cecilia Dugray entered with Janlen. Both smiled and said hello to the Gilmore women before proceeding into the living room. Rory watched Cecilia approach a very pretty blond woman sitting on one of the couches. She looked young, possibly recently out of college, and had on an elegant teal gown that showed off her slender legs. Cecilia inclined her head to listen to whatever the woman was saying. They clearly knew each other.

Rory commented to her grandmother, “I don’t know very many people. Are these your guests?”

“Many of them are,” Emily said, looking around at the growing crowd. “I was sure to invite more girls this time, since I sometimes invite a disproportionate number of young men to other parties I’ve thrown.”

Lorelai elbowed Rory and quietly said, “She’s good.”

“Why?” Rory asked.

“The party’s already about you, so she doesn’t have to lie about the premise,” Lorelai whispered. “And she’s covering her bases, there’re plenty of choices for you and Tristan. You probably won’t even run into each other in this jungle of eligible mates.”

Rory’s brows knit slightly. She glanced into the living room again to watch to two blond women happily chat. “Uh, Grandma,” she started. She nodded into the living room. “Who is that talking to Cecilia Dugray?”
Emily peeked in and turned back to Rory. “That’s Quinn. She’s on the Historical Society and the DAR with me.”

“Oh.”

“Tristan finally came to dinner this week,” Emily said—unnecessarily. Eagerly, she continued, “They were quite agreeable. Tristan even took her to a charity event the next evening. I knew they were a good match.”

Rory chewed on the inside of her cheek as her eyes darted into the living room. The doorbell announced more guests and her anxiety level fluctuated again. It was only more unfamiliar faces.

Someone from the wait staff approached Emily to ask about something in the kitchen, to which she impatiently tried to explain. Not trusting things to be done right, she went off to supervise, muttering, “Really, this should be Francine’s responsibility.”

“I hope there’s a rose ceremony at the end of the night,” Lorelai cheerfully said to Rory. “You can give a flower to all the guys you want to see again. Did you bring your bathing suit?”

“Why?”

“For when you take turns making out with all the guys in the hot tub. How else will you know who should get a rose?”

Rory shook her head. Her grandmother probably didn’t have any roses hidden away. But at this point, it was more of a hope than a sure thing. “Keep an eye on Grandma,” she told Lorelai.

“Why do I have to be the baby-sitter?”

“She’s your mother.”

“And it’s your party.”

“Exactly. I have to mingle with the guests.”

“Yeah, well, tell me when the one you’re waiting for gets here, so I know when you’re too occupied to help with the loose cannon.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Emily walked out of the kitchen through the dining room, smiling at party goers as she went. She saw Francine near the patio doors, talking with some old family friends of the Hayden’s. She was keeping a timid eye on the other guests. She didn’t have nearly the amount of experience in hosting parties as Emily had.

She found her granddaughter right where she left her, near the entrance of the house. How she expected to meet anyone new while hovering by the door, Emily didn’t know. She went over and took Rory by the arm. She dragged her feet as they moved away from the foyer. “Come with me,” Emily said. “There’s someone I want you to meet. You remember Hanlen Charleston, don’t you?”

Rory frowned at Emily. “Headmaster Charleston?”

“Yes, he and Biddy have a grandson who’s a CEO at a Fortune 500 company.”

“Oh, good for him.”

“Yes, he lives here in Hartford, not too far from his parents,” Emily explained as they walked through the living room.

She found the man she was looking for and touched him on the arm to get his attention. She made the introduction, including Rory’s status as valedictorian at Chilton, before turning to see who else would like to meet her granddaughter. She wanted Rory to stop glancing toward Cecilia Dugray, who was still talking with Quinn.

The scene was similar to the one that transpired at the children’s hospital fundraiser earlier that week. Emily wished Tristan would have talked with Quinn as much as his mother had. He was just there occupying space. He’d shown up Monday night and sulked nearly half the dinner—barely moving any conversation forward, only making polite responses when he had to.

It wasn’t until Quinn mentioned the symphony that Tristan deemed the conversation worthy of his participation. She was very interested when he told her about his mother’s active board membership for the symphony.

Speak of the devil, Emily thought, spotting Tristan. Arriving casually late, he walked by the front staircase. Emily quickly looked in the living room at Rory, who was still with the Charleston man. Even better, another man had joined them—a stock broker who lived in a nice suburb of New York City. Satisfied Rory was busy, Emily advanced on the blond man.

“Tristan, how nice to see you again,” she said, smile in place.

He affixed his as well. “The pleasure’s mine, Emily.”

She took his arm and led him through the house. If he thought he was discreet as he glanced around the rooms, he was wrong. “Your mother and grandfather arrived earlier,” she told him. “Your father couldn’t make it?”

“No, he’s out of town,” Tristan said. “Otherwise he’d be here. He didn’t get good at the business of law by missing parties.”

“I’ve never liked shop talk at parties,” Emily said, weaving through the crowd, as though she knew or cared where she was leading him. As long as it was away from the living room, it didn’t matter. “A party is for celebrating, not for business.”

“Then we have something in common,” he said, to her surprise. “Where is my mom?”

“In the living room,” Emily answered. “She’s quite engrossed talking with Quinn. I think we should let them chat, they seem to be having a nice time.”

Tristan stopped scanning the room. “Sounds like an excellent idea.” She eyed him with distaste. He still hadn’t shaved. Weren’t there rules for men like him? Surely he wasn’t allowed to look like that when he was working in the military.

Emily stopped when they reached a few young women conversing in a back room of the house—they were all very pretty, with long hair and designer dresses. As Emily introduced Tristan, and they gave him approving once overs. They were all obliging to let him join their group. Thank goodness she had the forethought to invite more women—just in case things didn’t work out with Quinn. Emily wasn’t giving up on that just yet, though.

She turned back to look for her daughter. She found her at the bar, where Luke had slunk off to earlier.

“If we’re only judging the drinks,” he told Lorelai, “this is already better than her twenty-first birthday party. Remember ‘the Rory’? That was awful.”

Emily glared at him as she approached.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

“I’m opening an office in New York City later this year,” the man talking to Rory said. He had a perfectly tailored suit and a silver tie. His eyes were as black as his hair. He was good looking in a tall, dark, and handsome sort of way. She couldn’t remember his name, it blurred with the other three men she’d met that evening. It was Brian, or Ryan, or something.

“Wow, New York City,” she said, trying to sound impressed. “That’s exciting.”

“I’d really like to expand all over the eastern seaboard,” the man explained.

Rory nodded and smiled as she tried to remember what he said what he did for a living. It was definitely something in business or finance, but she couldn’t recall the specifics. And he occasionally referred to his glory days in Boston. Rory almost mocked him for it, but caught herself.

Someone walking into the room caught her attention. Her body had the customary—instant and uncontrollable—response. She quickly shifted her focus back to the man in front of her, but continued to watch Tristan out the corner of her eye.

He headed over to his mother, who hadn’t moved since arriving. Before Rory could feel the stab of discontent at his beeline to the young woman he’d recently met, he sat in one of the chairs next to the couch, nodding slightly at the two women, and started looking around the room. His eyes roamed methodically from one group of people to the next, quickly scrutinizing the faces before moving on.

As his hunt advanced toward her, Rory could only manage short, shallow breaths. When he reached the group where she was standing, she turned her full attention—or face—toward the man in front of her. She was practically vibrating, aware Tristan had found her.

Against her better judgment, she chanced another glance at him. His chin was resting on his hand as he slowly scanned her body, bottom to top. She felt naked. Her heart worked overtime as she deliberated whether or not to look away before he got to her face. Too late. Their eyes met and blush warmed her skin all over.

His facial expression remained unmoved as they held their gazes for a moment. She saw his Adam’s apple move up and down before he blinked and casually turned to his mother, dropping his hand to the arm of the chair. Light headed, Rory excused herself and left the room. She took a cleansing breath, thankful for the lower temperature due to fewer guests in the foyer. She wiggled her fingers, cooling her clammy palms.

She looked around and found her father talking with a few men she’d never seen in her life. She went over and smiled when he turned to greet her.

“Rory, hi,” he said with a hug. He pulled her to the side to discreetly say, “Hey, sorry.”

“About what?”

“All this,” he said, gesturing toward all the people. “And for Mom getting your birthday wrong.”

Rory cringed. “You know it’s a birthday party?”

“It came up,” he said. “She seemed really determined to make up for that awful set up though. I’ll break the news to her later. Maybe after the memory fades.”

“I’m sorry, Grandma was hell bent on not telling her,” Rory said. “But nothing earthshattering has happened so far. It’s just a party. What could go wrong?”

Wearily, Christopher said, “You never know.”

“It’s fine, really,” she said again. “Did Gigi come with you?”

“Yeah, she’s around somewhere. She’s excited to see you.”

“I’ll be sure to talk to her,” Rory said. “Have you seen Mom?”

“Uh, yeah,” he said, looking around. “She was at the bar last I saw.” He pointed when he found her. “There she is—talking to that guy actually.”

“What guy?” Rory asked, turning where her father indicated. Tristan was with Lorelai and Luke. He’d just handed over a small present to Lorelai.

Christopher musingly said, “Is Mom still hoping something will happen with you two? His being here kind of deflects from the party’s purpose, when you think about it.”

Rory turned back to him. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not a problem.”

“Are you sure?” Christopher asked, focusing back on her. “I could take care of him.”

She turned back to give him an amused look. “As interesting as that would be to see, he isn’t bothering anyone. And I barely even noticed he was here.”

She stood up a little straighter and made her way over to the bar in time to see Lorelai open her gift. Rory stopped, less than a foot away from Tristan, where she got a view of her mother.

“A U2 CD,” Lorelai said with a smile. “Thanks Tristan, I love them.”

Rory spoke up, “You already have that album.”

At the sound of her voice, Tristan tensed. He took a drink of whatever was in his tumbler. If they’d been playing poker, Rory would know every time he had a good hand. She added, “And it’s not in plastic. Is it a used gift?”

Without so much as a sidelong glance at her, Tristan told Lorelai, “Open it.”

Lorelai did so and two strips of paper almost escape before she caught them. “Oh my God, it’s concert tickets.” She held them to her chest and looked at Tristan. “I’m going to breathe the same air as Bono.”

Tristan said, “I heard you have a thing for him.”

“It’s going to be so much easier to stalk him when we’re in the same room.” She read the tickets and frowned. “This concert is in the motherland.”

“Yeah, that was the inconvenient part. Luckily, I have a plane. You can borrow it.”

Lorelai looked at her daughter brightly. “I get to use the jet.”

“That’s for business,” Rory argued.

“It’s my plane. I can do whatever I with it,” Tristan said.

“Yeah,” Lorelai said quickly. “He can do whatever he wants with it. Thank you, Tristan.” She gave him a hug, which caught him by surprise.

“Happy birthday,” he told her before walking away.

Lorelai watched him go and smiled back at Rory. In a German accent, she dreamily said, “What a nice guy.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

A short time later, Tristan was with a group of people near the study. His mother was still in the living room, gossiping with that girl he’d met a few days prior. They were well on their way to becoming bosom buddies. It made sense, Quinn was a younger version of Cecilia, she just happened to have a few interests outside the arts. Cecilia could probably beat that out of her though, if she put her mind to it.

Emily would probably look down on his talking with the male guests. They were here for Rory, and it didn’t take a genius to know. There were several young women he was probably supposed to be tempted by. An older woman introduced herself to him earlier, telling him all about her niece. The woman would ‘simply love’ for him and the niece to meet. Tristan wondered if Emily had put the woman up to it. With all the young blue bloods around this place, it was a regular meat market.

He scanned the other party goers. Men in power suits filled the house. Important men. Business men. They were huddled together, boasting about how wonderful their lives were, talking of their success. It reminded Tristan of his own childhood birthday parties. They blurred together for the most part, but one did stand out as being more of a letdown than the others.

It was his ninth birthday, and all of his school friends were there. More than that actually, it was his whole class. He’d made a game of staying away from Paris—she’d been trying to talk to him as always, but all she ever talked about was school. What third grader wanted to talk about math and science in their spare time? Tristan didn’t.

He was busy running around the house with his friends, when his mother caught him. “That’s enough horseplay,” she’d told him. “You’re father just got here.”

“Dad made it back?” he’d asked, his spirits lifting.

“Yes, he just got in, he’s in the den.”

Tristan ran off, but not to the den. Instead he went up to his bedroom to get a paper from school. It was the first big assignment for the year, and it was for geography. It was one of his best subjects, probably because of all the time he spent looking at maps. He’d chosen Indonesia for his paper, and his dad was going to love it—it was one of the places he spent a lot of time. His report had a drawing of the archipelago and he hadn’t even traced it from a book.

He grabbed the paper from his desk and ran back downstairs to the den. He found his dad talking with some men. Tristan didn’t know who they were, but he also didn’t care. He almost yanked on his dad’s arm, but stopped himself. Mason wouldn’t like it. So Tristan just waited. Whatever the men were talking about must have been important, because they didn’t seem to notice the little boy standing nearby.

After a few minutes, he said, “Dad.”

Mason finally looked down at his son. “What is it, Tristan?”
“Look, I got an A on a report,” Tristan told him quickly. He held it up for his father to see. “It’s about Indonesia.”

The dark haired man glanced from the paper back to Tristan. He nodded curtly. “Good.” And then he went back to his conversation.

Tristan’s shoulders dropped and his brows furrowed. That was it? He didn’t understand. He’d spent so much time on it. He was sure his dad was going to be proud of his hard work. He was going to smile and pat him on the back—maybe even tell everyone else how smart his son was. Tristan wasn’t going to cry about it though. He wasn’t a baby. Or a girl.

“It’s time to open your presents,” his mother had told him, seeking him out.

Tristan glanced once more up at his father, fully engrossed in discussion again, before letting his mother lead him out of the room. The paper slid from his hand onto the floor.

He eventually figured out it wasn’t geography his father cared about. It was business. Mason might listen to anyone who wanted to talk shop, but he depended on Tristan to get him what he wanted. He was the one at Straub Hayden’s firm.

“So I’d really like to move forward with this ASAP,” the man in front of Tristan said, pronouncing the acronym as one word. “Could I have your card?”

“Sorry, I’m fresh out,” Tristan answered without checking his pockets.

“Here’s mine then,” the man said. “Just call my office Monday morning and we can set up a meeting.”

“Sure,” Tristan said.

He sighed and glanced around. He should sneak into the study to slip Rory’s articles back in the box without anyone noticing. But Emily led her granddaughter over just then. He shifted enough to be hidden from view so she wouldn’t march Rory off somewhere else.

He examined the men Emily had left Rory with. They were all like him—well off, well educated, and well connected. When his gaze reached Rory, she was frowning at him, arms crossed as she watched him size up the competition. One of the yahoos said something to her, so she had to go back to listening. But she was going to have to work on her phony smile if she wanted it to be convincing.

Tristan spent ten more minutes with his group before stepping away to approach the one Rory was a part of. They’d gained and lost a couple members, so her back was to him. Her silky brown hair was swept in an up-do, leaving her neck bare.

He silently sidled up behind her and inclined his head to whisper in her ear, “How old is that guy?” He nodded in the direction of the man who was speaking to the whole group. Tristan was standing close enough to catch a hint of lavender, though it was never what he expected her to smell like.

Her head jolted an inch toward his, though she only looked at him out the corner of her eye. She took a sip of her wine and answered quietly, “Just a little older than us.”

“We’re not forty-five.”

She turned enough to narrow her eyes. “He isn’t forty-five. Late thirties, maybe.”

“I hope I age better.”

She shifted her feet to face him a little more. “Yeah, you don’t want to look too old next to that blond. People would talk. I wonder if she gets to sit at the grown ups’ table.” Her group closed the gap she left, leaving her with just Tristan. “Your Aryan children will be beautiful though.”

“Your imagination is better than mine,” he said. “But that’s okay, those kids sound a little creepy.”

They heard a raised voice coming from the living room, and both recognized who it belonged to. Rory lifted her head and frowned. “Uh-oh.” She quickly walked away, leaving Tristan to follow.

When she met her mother, she said, “You were supposed to be watching her.”

“She got away from me,” Lorelai said.

“That’s because she wasn’t going to hide at the bar all night like you.”

Christopher also joined them, and the three of them went in to do what they could to alleviate the situation. Emily was glaring daggers at Francine. The two were finally facing off, rather than pretending everyone was friends. Tristan stayed near the edge of the room. His mother was no longer sitting on the couch. She’d probably regret that when she found out she was missing the spectacle. The guests who were in other parts of the house started to gather to find out what the commotion was about.

There was a table with a large cake a few feet from Tristan. It must have had every combination of cake and icing flavor. The two younger Gilmore girls surely appreciated it, what with their terrible eating habits. A young girl he recognized from the pictures on Francine’s mantle was helping herself to a piece.

“It’s not even her birthday,” Emily said, deep frown lines at her forehead. “How can you call yourself her grandmother without even knowing when she was born?”

Francine froze, face falling slightly. She glanced at Christopher, who shot her an apologetic look. Mustering up a bit of confidence, she said, “I can still throw a party in her honor.”

“Yeah Mom,” Lorelai said. “Everyone likes a party.”

“You and Straub were never there for Rory, in her whole life,” Emily said, not caring about dates of birth anymore. She had bigger fish to fry. “Richard and I were the ones to help get her through school. We never turned our backs on her.” She plowed on, “You had no right to involve her in your problems. You have your own granddaughter you can pawn off.”

Tristan glanced over to the young girl at the cake table. “Hey, how old are you?”

She looked up at him to answer, “Twelve.”

He looked back to the older women and said, “I’m not okay with that.” No one heard.

“How dare you use Rory like that? She’s a Gilmore.”

“She’s a Hayden too,” Francine said. “Blood is thicker than water. I wouldn’t have had to introduce her to Tristan if he hadn’t taken Christopher’s place in Straub’s office.”

Francine continued, “If Lorelai hadn’t—”

“Mom,” Christopher interrupted.

“If Lorelai hadn’t what?” Emily asked. “They were sixteen, are you honestly still deluded enough to think it was all her fault? After all these years, you’ve taken up Straub’s battle?”

Dismally, Rory shook her head at the blame shift. She turned and headed up the stairs near the drink cart.

Tristan continued to watch the scene.

“Do you really think you’d get away with setting Rory up like that? Just because of an office?” Emily demanded. “If you’d taken the time to get to know her, you’d have known you’re dealing with the last person she ever wanted to see again.”

Lorelai cringed. “Mom.”

The truth was the truth, Tristan thought. But now was a good a time as any to find out if that was still the case. He turned and walked away, giving the cake a sidelong glance as he went. A plain white piece with chocolate icing sounded good to him.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Rory was lying on her bed and staring at the ceiling. The lamp on the table next to the bed provided a soft light. Her phone buzzed and she checked the message, and then returned it to her pocket. For being a hesitant participant in this party, some sort of gravitational pull made her uneasy at the idea of leaving.

She remembered her first party in this house—and her escape. This made for a familiar scene. So when she heard her mother knock on the door, she said, “Come in.” Upon seeing she was wrong, she said, “I thought you were someone else.”

“Lorelai is busy at the moment,” Tristan said, closing the door softly behind him. He loosened his tie and tossed his jacket on the arm chair in the corner. He crossed the room to open the window. “It’s stifling in here.” He stood up straight and looked over at Rory.

She fought the urge to sit up and wrap her arms around her legs protectively. She felt exposed, but she didn’t move.

Tristan went back to the chair and had a seat. Seeing her bare feet, he made himself at home by kicking off his own shoes and propping his feet up on the ottoman. “Obi Wan and Darth Vader are battling for your soul down there.”

“More like arguing about things that can’t be changed.” Having not understood something her mother said, Rory asked, “What does ‘no room to swing a cat’ mean?”

“Someone on the ship’s getting beat and everyone else is there to watch,” Tristan said. “So there isn’t room to swing the whip with the crowd all around.”

“Oh,” she said. A crowd had gathered downstairs. “At least Grandma defended Mom. That’s something.”

“There you go, silver lining,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to miss someone arguing like that over me.” He added, “I went looking for popcorn.”

“Upstairs?” she asked, brow arched.

He looked dead at her. It’d have made her weak in the knees if she wasn’t already lying down. “I got lost.”

Rory lifted her eyes to the ceiling again, but she could still see Tristan looking around. “This is my room,” she told him. “And it really is stifling to stay in it for an extended period of time.”

“The pool house was probably more spacious.”

“Mm-hmm,” she agreed. “It was just like being independent.” She scoffed and shook her head. “Grandma moved me in here to stop the boy girl sleepovers I was having.”

Tristan snorted. “Well, judging by the skirmish downstairs, she probably felt justified.”

“I guess.” Then she added, “I had to sneak out the way Mom used to. But I lied about where I was going. She climbed down the balcony trellis. ”

“She’s a crafty one, that Lorelai.”

Silence fell between them. A breeze rustled the long curtains and danced across Rory’s bare arms. She sighed. “You know, this isn’t the first party like this.”

“I know, I was there. You’re good at the disappearing act.”

She shook her head. “No, I mean a mating ritual. Grandpa and Grandma did it before, when I was in college. I was seeing someone they never really liked.”

“Your kissing cousin?”

“No,” she deadpanned. “They said it was a Yale alumni party. All their friends had sons, but suspiciously, no daughters.” She frowned and looked over at Tristan. “I wonder if your grandfather was invited.”

He shook his head. “Doubtful. It wasn’t really about the alumni and I never joined the club.”

She relaxed back on the pillow. “True.” She smiled a little. “Hey, did you ever run into Paris at Harvard? She was in medical school the same time you were there.”

“Oh sure, at the annual med school-law school mixer,” he said dryly.

“So no.”

“No,” he said. “It’s a big school. Apparently there was enough room on campus for both of us.”

“Too bad Yale campus housing didn’t have that philosophy.”

Tristan smiled.

Neither said anything for a couple more minutes. Another breeze swept the curtains up before they fell back to the window.

“So did it work?” he asked.

“Did what work?”

“The other party. Did you trade what you had for what they thought was better?”

She thought back to what happened after the party. During, even. It had worked, hadn’t it? Richard and Emily wanted her with someone who met their narrow standards, rather than accept whoever made her happy. She looked down at her clasped hands, and in a small voice answered, “Yes.”

Tristan nodded once.

Her stomach turned slightly, knowing she’d played right into their hands. The party wasn’t responsible for everything, but it got the ball rolling in the direction they wanted. She didn’t even put up a fight. She called her mother and let her do it. A decade later, Emily was up to her old tricks. She was even pulling double duty tonight, inviting all those girls for Tristan. She must be exhausted.

Rory was older and wiser now. She was mindful of her grandmother’s ‘good intentions’. Emily would not be making decisions Rory was able to make on her own.

Tristan’s sudden movement distracted her from her thoughts. He was digging in his jacket pocket. He produced an envelope and stood. Though she’d willed herself to remain calm in his presence, she was having less success as he closed the distance between them. She swung her feet over the bed so she could sit up. He handed over the light purple envelope and sat down next to her.

“It’s not my birthday,” she said, turning it in her hands, seeing her name written on one side.

“I know. But it’s bad form to show up to a party without a gift, even if it’s fake.”

She glanced at him and he gestured for her to open it. She tore the seal and pulled out the card. She opened it and small paper rectangle fell onto her lap. She picked it up and read the information. “Your business card?”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s half present, half apology. I’m, uh, sorry for the other day. I overreacted.” He continued, “You are the only one who can keep yourself . . . safe—when you’re out—reporting the news. But if you ever find yourself in a Turkish prison, I’ll do what I can to get you out.” He rambled some more, “Just try not to get kidnapped by Somali pirates. They play by their own rules.”

Rory smiled little. “Okay.”

“And if you wander into North Korea, I’ll have to ask the Clinton’s for help, and I don’t have their number.”

She sat the card on the lamp table and looked back to him. “Thank you. I’ll put your card next to Christiane Amanpour’s.”

“A place in your wallet, highest honors,” Tristan said. “Hopefully you’ll use mine as often as you’ve used hers.”

They smiled softly at each other. It was another moment where words failed her. And his proximity was unnerving. She’d been overly aware of him when they were in the same room earlier, but now she was struggling to keep her bearings.

“We should get back,” he said without moving. “You’re supposed to find someone better.”

She glanced from his lips to his eyes. “Not better, just not you.”

He tilted his head. “Isn’t it the same?”

“No.”

He continued to watch her, and glanced at her loose bangs. He started to reach for them, but she beat him to it. He caught her hand and stroked his thumb across her open palm. She looked from their hands back to his face and reached out to touch his cheek. “What’s going on here? Have you just gotten lazy?”

He shook his head slightly, hoarsely saying, “Other things on my mind.” He pressed her wrist to his lips and kissed the sensitive skin at her pulse—which was erratic at best. She closed her eyes for a moment, and she was openly trembling now.

Tristan grasped her outstretched arm and leaned in. She closed her eyes as their lips met at last. Her hand slid down his neck and continued to his chest, pulling away his tie in the process. They broke contact in a very brief attempt to catch their breath. Tristan pressed his mouth back to hers, and she pushed herself against him, kissing him with more pressure and parting her lips.

His hands circled her rib cage and he leaned further into her, so she reclined back on the bed, taking him with her. At a light touch to her thighs, Rory separated her legs for him to settle between. He kissed her neck, his rough face leaving a hot trail in its wake.

She vaguely wondered if the door was locked, and squirmed a little under him. He drew in a breath and retaliated by shifting his hips against hers. Her head fell back on the pillow, not caring about the door—or the party. She lifted his face up to meet hers, so she could kiss him, biting his bottom lip as her hands slid down his front, not stopping until they reached his belt buckle.

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