John let out a low, seductive whistle. “You look sooooo hot,” he said. He came up behind Katherine, slid his hands around her, coming to stop inches from her pelvic area. “Better not go there,” he teased, “or else we aren’t making it to this thing.”
She turned around, took John’s hands in hers, and looked him up and down. She grinned. “You look pretty good yourself.”
John dropped his hands and adjusted his tie. “I hate tuxedos. Maybe we should just get married tonight, so I don’t have to do this again.”
“Not on your life. I want the whole, big fancy thing.”
He raised his eyebrows. “White dress, too?”
She laughed. “According to tradition, I should run as fast as I can away from the white dress. Good thing I’m not a girl of convention. Yes, I want the white dress.”
“You’d better get started, then.” John said.
“Tomorrow. Tonight I want to feel like the naughty princess.”
She stepped back, turned slowly, swiveled her weight to her back leg, and dipped demurely. Her hair, piled on top of her head, long, abundant blonde curls cascading all around her head, looked gorgeous. Her red gown was sleek against her still trim form, flowing out at the hem. Soon she wouldn’t fit into this kind of dress, but tonight she looked ravishing.
“How do I look?” she asked.
She giggled. “Bad kitty.”
John bent his arm at the elbow as Katherine laced hers through it. “I’ve ordered a limo for the evening,” John said.
“You shouldn’t have,” she said. “It’s a fundraiser. I feel guilty.”
He scowled. “For what I paid for our table, you needn’t.”
“All right, then. Ready?” Katherine asked.
They headed downstairs. The limo was waiting beside the curb. Tony whistled at them. “Woo, wee!” he exclaimed. “Look at you. What a handsome couple.”
Katherine smiled. “Thanks, Tony.”
He held open the door for them. “You kids have fun now.” They waved and raced for the car.
The dinner was in the grand ballroom of the Ashcroft Hotel. The hotel’s owner, Pennington Craft, was a longtime friend of Peter Winters and had known Katherine all her life. He greeted her with a kiss on the cheek and a bear hug. “How’s the little mama tonight?”
Katherine reddened. “I’m just fine, Mr. Craft. I see my father has wasted no time in spreading the news.”
“He’s a proud grandpa. Who can blame him?” He looked past Katherine to John, giving him a sly smile. “And there’s the proud papa.” He elbowed him. “I knew this day would come. Anybody can see you two kids were made for each other. Let me see the ring.” Katherine held up her left hand, smiled guiltily at the extravagance of the diamond. Beth told her to shut up and enjoy it, but she was having a difficult time getting past the amount of money it surely had cost John. Mr. Craft turned her hand every which way as if he were a jewelry appraiser. He whistled and looked at John. “Very good, young man. I approve. You will have the wedding here.”
Katherine started to protest, knowing the price would be high. She and John had not even discussed details of the wedding. “We haven’t discussed that yet,” she said.
“What’s there to discuss. Who would not want to get married in my beautiful hotel? I will not take no for an answer. It is my gift to you. Inside or outside, you choose. It’s all on the house, of course.”
They both shook their heads. “We couldn’t think of that.” Katherine said.
He gave them a warning glance. “You would even think of refusing my generous gift? Katherine, you are like a daughter to me. It is my pleasure and honor.”
Katherine saw her father across the room and waved to him. He crossed the room and gave her a big hug. “How’s my kitten tonight?”
“Daddy, Mr. Craft wants us to have the wedding here.”
“On the house, my gift,” Mr. Craft quickly added.
“Wonderful!” Peter exclaimed. “It’s about time you paid me back for all those late-night whine sessions.” They both laughed ferociously and started to walk away.
Mr. Craft turned back to Katherine and pointed a finger at her. “I mean it, young lady. I’m having Wanda call you this week and work out the details. Everything, I mean everything, is on me.” He turned back around, draped an arm around Peter, leaned in close to his ear, and said something that made Peter roar with laughter.
John shrugged. “I guess we’re having the wedding here. Are you okay with that?”
“Okay! I’ve always wanted a wedding here. Do you have any idea what they charge for weddings?”
He gave her half a smile. “Do I look like a man who knows anything about wedding prices?”
“Three hundred per head,” Katherine said.
John whistled. “That is a generous gift.”
Her eyes sparkled. “He’s a wonderful man. He and Daddy have been friends for many years. Did you know he won a Humanitarian of the Year Award for his work in the projects three years ago?”
“With what he charges for weddings—well, never mind. Hey, isn’t that Bradley over there?”
Katherine turned, frowning. “Yeah.”
“You don’t like Brad?”
“Brad doesn’t like me,” Katherine corrected.
John grinned. “Oh, he likes you all right.” John waved, and Bradley started heading their way.
“What does that mean?”
John shook his head. “You are so naïve.”
Brad reached them, preventing Katherine from questioning any further. He shook John’s hand and gave Katherine a hug, which she endured.
“Who let you in here?” he teased and laughed.
“I have an invitation,” Katherine said.
“As do I,” Bradley said.
John nudged her with his elbow, and she suddenly got it. She grinned. “Yes, but whom did you have to sleep with to get it?” Beth asked.
“Ahhh…good one.” He heaved a huge sigh. “Hey, I heard congratulations are in order.” Katherine searched his eyes for a clue as to his sincerity. He was sincere, she guessed, but not happy about it. John was right. She really was naïve.
Not knowing if he was talking about the wedding or the baby, she said, “For…?”
“Aren’t you two tying the knot?”
“Oh, yes. Thank you.”
He looked down at her ring finger. She lifted her hand so he could see. He cupped her fingers in his hand. She felt his body stiffen, and then his eyes widened with shock and then filled with jealousy. “That’s a hell of a rock.” He dropped her hand so suddenly Katherine would swear it was on fire. “Say, John,” he said, changing the subject as quickly as possible. “I have a new client I wanted to send your way. Divorce case—the woman just won a huge settlement and didn’t know what to do with her money. I told her you were the best.”
“I’m corporate law, Bradley. You know that.”
He shrugged. “She’s thinking about starting a corporation.”
“She doesn’t know. I told her you might have some huge conglomerate she could take over.”
“She won that much?”
He nodded. “Pretty much.”
Katherine grew bored with the conversation and wandered away. She saw Beth enter and waved to her. Beth waved back and hurried over.
“How’d the visit go?”
“It was so hard. He and Timmy got along well enough, but I hated leaving him like that. I can’t wait for this hearing to be over.”
“You’re off probation next week. Then you can see him whenever you want, without the pretense of Timmy.”
Beth blushed. “Is it that evident?”
Katherine shrugged. “No, I just know you too well. Hey, guess what. I’m going to have my wedding here.”
Beth’s eyebrows shot up. “Here? My God, woman, do you know how much that is going to cost?”
Katherine smiled. “Nothing. It’s a gift from Mr. Craft.” She looked Beth up and down. “You look gorgeous!”
Beth twirled. “Thanks. I spent a fortune on this dress. I’m taking it back tomorrow.”
Katherine laughed. “That’s dishonest.”
“So is the price they charged for it.”
Katherine laughed again. “It’s beautiful. Keep it and wear it to my wedding. It’s going to be formal, black and white.”
Beth hesitated. “I wasn’t kidding when I said it cost a fortune.”
“I’ll pay for it.”
“It’s five hundred dollars.”
Katherine’s eyes grew wide. “I’m shocked you’d even consider wearing it out of the store. Keep it. I can afford it.”
A server came by carrying a tray filled with champagne flutes in one hand and a tray of appetizers in the other. Beth took a champagne glass. Katherine snatched three stuffed mushrooms and waved him on.
She took a bite of the mushroom and nearly choked.
“Are you okay?” Beth asked.
Katherine nodded and pointed toward the door.
Beth turned and looked. Chad was standing at the door, a young woman draping her arm across his. “What’s he doing here? I thought this was invitation only.” Just as she said this, he handed an invitation to the person at the door.
“Good God, how did he get that?” Katherine asked.
“Should I ask someone to throw him out?”
Katherine frowned. “Wish that were possible, but he has an invitation. Let’s just ignore him.” She guided Beth by the arm across the room. “Help me powder my nose.”
“Katherine,” Chad called.
The two women stopped, turned. “What do you want, Chad?” Katherine asked. “I was just leaving to use the ladies’ room.” She gave a nod to April. Her dress, light blue chiffon, was simple yet suitable. A single layer of fake, yet attractive diamonds surrounded the low cut, Egyptian style neckline, most likely cubic zirconia or moissanite Katherine guessed. “Hello, April. You look nice.”
“Hello, Ms. Winters,” she said, and then looked down at the ground, embarrassed.
Katherine smiled sympathetically. “Call me Katherine.”
“Do you want something to drink or eat? There’s someone walking around with trays. You just help yourself.”
She turned to walk away, tapping Beth to follow.
“Katherine,” Chad called.
She turned. She would not make a scene here, would not give Chad that satisfaction. “Yes, Chad?”
“Is everything all right at your place? I heard the police were there the other day.”
She glared at him. “Heard from whom?”
He shrugged. “Just gossip.”
“Everything’s fine,” she said, tight-lipped.
A server entered to announce dinner. Katherine and Beth made their way to the table. To Katherine’s chagrin, Chad took a seat three tables over.
“Maybe we should move,” Beth said.
“We couldn’t even if we wanted. The tables are assigned,” Katherine said. She turned to her father, turning her back to Chad. “Daddy, have you given any more thought to that vacation?”
Peter laughed. “I had been contemplating it, but now Mary has me remodeling your old nursery.”
“There’s plenty of time to do both,” Katherine protested.
“Have you two decided where you’ll live after the wedding?” Peter’s guest for the night, Florence Waters, asked this.
Katherine and John looked at each other, shook their heads, and laughed. “We didn’t even think about that,” Katherine said.
“My place is small,” John said.
“But it has that wonderful ocean view,” Katherine protested.
“You’re closer to the office.”
“True,” Katherine said. “But your place is closer to Daddy, and if Mary’s going to be looking after the baby, it will make sense to be closer.”
John nodded as if giving thought. “We could look for a larger place in my neighborhood.”
“That sounds like a great idea,” Beth said.
Peter cleared his throat. “You’re spoiling my surprise wedding gift,” he said.
They all turned to look at him. “What surprise?” Katherine asked.
“My wedding gift to you both. I want you to take over the house.”
There was a collective gasp around the table.
“Daddy, no,” Katherine protested. “That’s your home. I’ll not take it.”
Peter shook his head. “It’s a family home. I’m just an old man rambling around alone in that place. I need something smaller. The house needs kids running around—family dinners—pool parties, extravagant dinner parties. I want you to take it, Katherine, and I know your mother would want it, too. Believe me, nothing would give me more pleasure.”
“I don’t know what to say, Peter,” John said.
“Say you’ll take it.”
“Where will you live, Daddy?”
He pondered the question for a minute. Then he looked at John. “It seems your place is just the right size for a traveling bachelor.”
Katherine smiled. “You mean it! You’re finally going to retire and see the world?”
Peter smiled. “I’m going to see all the places your mother went when she was on the road performing. I’m going to visit all the ballet houses I can. I’ve been thinking a lot about her lately, and I know she would want me to move on.” He smiled at Florence, and Katherine realized she hadn’t even known her father was seeing someone. Florence looked at Katherine, her eyes seeking approval.
Katherine gave Florence an approving smile and placed her hand on Peter’s arm. “I’m proud of you and couldn’t be happier for you.” She reached over and hugged him.
“So, it’s a deal, then. You and John will move into the house, and I’ll take John’s place.”
John and Katherine looked at each other and nodded. “It’s a deal,” they said in unison.
Chad watched the group at Katherine’s table. Katherine, that stupid fiancé of hers, her father, some bimbo, some old man he didn’t recognize, but who must be of some importance because everyone stopped to greet him as they passed, and that dim-witted assistant who never put his phone calls through.
April squeezed his arm, begging him to rejoin the conversation. They were stuck at the table of some old biddy who thought they might be interested in her world travels. She had just come home from visiting Hong Kong and was marveling on and on about their clothing.
April leaned over, whispered in his ear, “Save me.”
Chad turned his attention to the old biddy. “I’m surprised you could find anything in your size to buy,” he said.
The woman sat back, touched her chest, and let out a gasp. Her friend, equally fat and just as annoying, said, “How rude.”
“No,” Chad said. “Making us suffer through your trip down memory lane is rude. What makes you think I would be interested in your opinion of Hong Kong hemlines? I don’t even know what a hemline is. And,” he continued, “I don’t give a shit how much you paid for some overpriced vase.”
Both women gasped, and April covered her mouth with her hand to hide her smile.
One of the women got up and left the table. Good, Chad thought. She could stand to skip a meal. The other woman flashed anger. “I don’t know who you know that got you an invitation to this dinner, but I’m going to make sure you’re black-balled.” She heaved herself away from the table.
The man to Chad’s right leaned over and whispered in his ear, “Bravo, young man. I’ve wanted to do that for years.” His wife gave him a reproving look, and he said, “Oh come, Martha. Are you going to tell me you haven’t wanted to tell off those two old bats?”
“What we want to do, and what we do are two different things,” she said.
“Bullshit,” Chad said. “That’s what’s wrong with the snub-nosed population. You all want to be proper and run around gossiping about each other, rather than saying it like it is. I just helped you out.”
She shook her head and turned to the woman on her right. “I did see her at Rosemary’s tea party last week telling that same story about the girl with the too short hemline. I mean really, who cares? Am I right?” She looked around the table, searching for confirmation.
“Damned right,” Chad said, and the woman smiled. “See, now doesn’t it feel good to tell the truth?”
The woman tittered. “I feel liberated.”
Chad smiled, letting his glance travel back to Katherine’s table. He watched her eating her salmon. Even while eating, she acted like a princess—taking the smallest, most delicate bites she could. He looked at April, watching her eat. Although she did not eat as daintily as Katherine did, she still had some class.
April smiled at him. “Is something wrong?”
“Just wondering why some people think they’re better than others.” Chad said.
April looked confused. “Did I do something wrong?”
Chad shook his head, looked back at Katherine, and then back to April. “Just forget it.”
John rose. “I’ll be right back,” he said.
“Where are you going?” Katherine asked.
“Business in the men’s room.”
Chad watched John rise from the table. He said something to Katherine and left. Chad rose. “I’ll be right back,” he said.
“Where are you going?” April asked.
Chad shot her a look that told her it was none of her business and left.
April turned back to the table. They were all staring at her. “He gets uptight sometimes.”
They all nodded, smiling sympathetically.
Chad followed behind John, watching as he went into the men’s room. He crept to the door, waited a moment, checked around to see if anyone was looking, and then entered.
John was standing at a urinal and did not turn when the door opened. Chad crept up behind him. “Fancy meeting you here.”
John glanced over his shoulder. “I heard you were here. What do you want?”
“To warn you.”
John zipped up his fly, washed his hands, and then turned to stare at Chad. “Are you for real?”
Chad shrugged. “I just thought it would be fair to warn you to stay away from her.”
John gave a half-hearted chuckle and got inches from his face. “You don’t scare me.” He turned to walk away but turned back. “You might be interested to know we’re getting married.” John laughed and strode to the door. His hand touched the handle. He turned to look back at him. “Oh, yeah, she’s having my baby, too.” He laughed, pulled open the door, and walked out.
Chad exploded as the heat seared through his body, he punched the wall so hard it left a hole. He threw open the door and heaved himself through it. He stomped his way to the bar. “Whiskey!” he demanded, “better make it straight up, no watering it down.” The bartender turned away, shaking his head. “And none of that cheap shit, either.”
He downed the whiskey in a single shot, set the glass down with a hard thump. He made his way back to the table. He was panting when he took his place next to April.
“What happened?” April asked. She followed his eyes to Katherine’s table.
“Son-of-a-bitch thinks he’s something special.”
Two of his dinner companions followed his gaze. “John Wheaton?” one of the women asked.
“Oh, he’s a wonderful man,” the other woman said. “He saved my husband’s business.”
“I heard they’re getting married,” the first woman said.
“Shut up,” Chad said.
April put her hand on Chad’s arm. His arm stiffened under her hand. “What does it matter?” April asked. He shook off April’s hand.
She turned back around and gave everyone a strained smile. They were all staring at Chad.
John’s cell phone went off. Chad saw him take it out of his pocket and say something. He leaned over to Katherine and said something that made her smile. She kissed John, and he walked away from the table.
He watched Katherine for a moment. Saw how gracefully she tipped her head, how her eyes danced with excitement when something someone said interested her, and how she tipped her head back when she laughed—how happy she looked.
All Chad’s life, all he ever wanted was to be happy, but because of her, he never knew that happiness. That should have been a given right. His father should have loved him, should have cared about him…should have carried his picture in his wallet, not some worn out newspaper photo. Because of her, he had not known a loving childhood.
He stood and followed John again.
“He seems a little high strung,” One of the men at the table said.
April gave a weak smile. “He’s not usually like this.”
The man cocked one eyebrow. His wife touched his arm, and he shook his head in her direction. He held up his hands with his palms up. “What? All I said was he’s high strung.”
The woman flashed him a condescending smile. “It’s rude.”
He gestured toward Chad’s empty chair with his hands. “What do you mean rude? He’s the one who made poor Harriet cry and leave the table. I’m not the rude one.”
“She had it coming,” the wife said.
The man shook his head emphatically. “No, she didn’t. She was boring as hell, but he could have asked her politely to be quiet.”
“That is true,” one of the other women said, nodding in agreement.
Suddenly they all were arguing. April leaned across the table. “Could you all just calm down. People are staring.”
They all looked around. Each of them sat back in his or her chair, and they all picked up their forks, pushing food around on their plates, afraid to look at each other for fear the arguing would start again.
Chad returned a few moments later, anxious with flushed skin, eyes spilling over with anger. His shirt was soaking wet, and when April asked why, he snapped, “Let’s go.”
“What?” April asked.
“I said let’s go.”
“Why? They haven’t even served dessert yet.” She had seen the servers delivering luscious plates of chocolate cake to each table. Her mouth had been watering for it ever since.
He pulled her from her chair, dragging her across the room. She pulled back her arm. “Let go of me.”
He looked directly into her eyes. She did not like the darkness she saw there, was even afraid of him. After a few seconds, he pushed her away from him. She stumbled backward, breaking her fall on a table. “All right then, you can find your own damned ride home.” He stormed out.
Katherine watched the confrontation between the two of them. It was hard to miss with all the yelling going on. She didn’t understand what was happening at that table, but she didn’t like the way the guests were arguing. She had never known the Carstairs to say an unkind word to each other, yet here they were raising their voices at least two octaves. When Chad left, leaving April alone, she stood and walked over. She touched her arm. April whirled to look at her. “Are you okay?” Katherine asked.
April sniffed and nodded. “I’m fine.”
“April, you don’t have to put up with that from him. I don’t understand why you’re with him after what he did to you.”
“I’m not with him!” April shouted. Then she lowered her head and softened her words. “Well, not like you think. I know he doesn’t care about me. He’s just using me.”
She shrugged. “Arm candy, I guess. He wants to make you jealous or something.”
“Why would he want to do that? Why would you put up with it?”
She lifted her shoulder and let them drop. “I just wanted to come here tonight. I don’t care about him. It just sounded like fun.” She looked at Katherine with pleading eyes. “I hate to ask, but could you give me a ride home?”
“Sure,” Katherine said, “but you have to promise me you aren’t going to see him anymore. I don’t think he’s good for you.”
April nodded and returned to her seat just as they were serving dessert. “Are you okay?” one of the women asked. April nodded, picked up her fork, and tore into her slice of cake. The woman sighed. “I’m Betty, by the way,” she said. “For what it’s worth, I’m glad he left. He’s creepy.”
April nodded, biting back tears. She glanced over at Katherine, who smiled and returned to eating. When the dancing started, April looked longingly at the dance floor. She was sitting there brooding, pretending to be interested in more of the travel woman’s stories when she felt a tap on the shoulder.
“I couldn’t help but notice you’re not dancing,” a young man said. “I was wondering if I could fix that.” He extended his hand in invitation.
Harriet, the traveling woman, grinned. “Go ahead, dear,” she leaned over and whispered, “I’m sure he’s much more interesting than my trip to Greece.”
April looked at him and smiled. She took the offered hand and followed him to the dance floor.
Katherine glanced at her watch for at least the twelfth time. “What’s wrong?” Peter asked.
Katherine sighed, a worried expression crossing her face. “John’s been gone a long time. I’m getting worried.”
Peter glanced at his watch, suddenly realizing at least a half hour or so had passed since dessert. He looked at John’s untouched dessert and locked gazes with his daughter. She pleaded with her eyes. “I’ll see what’s keeping him.” He rose and walked from the room, following the same path John had taken.
“It’s okay,” Beth said. “He’s probably just talking to a client.”
Katherine nodded but did not smile. She had an uneasy feeling deep within her.
Beth started talking about some woman in the PTA, but Katherine wasn’t listening. She kept stealing glances at where Chad had sat. “I see my distraction isn’t working.” Beth said.
Katherine shook her head and lowered her eyes to look down at her lap. “I have a bad feeling.”
“He’s fine,” Beth said, nudging Katherine, right before they heard the wail of sirens, and then her father rushed into the room, his face ashen.
Katherine rose, panic in her eyes. “What’s wrong, Daddy?”
Peter hurried to her side. “It’s John.” He steadied her, wrapping his arm around her shoulder. “Someone stabbed him.”
“God, no!” Katherine wailed. She charged from the room. Peter dashed after her. Grabbing her hand, he pulled her toward the back veranda where he had found John.
Paramedics knelt beside him. He had tubes inserted into his veins, an oxygen mask over his face. His white shirt was crimson from the blood. Katherine felt faint at the sight of John, her love, her best friend, her everything, stretched out, life slowly draining from his body. “Who did this?” she cried, but realized even as she asked the question, she knew damned well who it was.
“He’s lost a lot of blood,” one of the paramedics said. “Load and go?” he asked as he applied pressure to the wound. His partner concurred. “I can’t let go,” he said.
Katherine dropped beside him. “I’ll hold it.”
The paramedic looked at her in surprise. He looked down at her fancy gown, made up face, styled hair. “You sure you want to? It’s going to get messy.”
Katherine shot him a hard glare, clenching her jaw in determination. She stuck out her hand, allowing him to guide her hand to the dressing. When her hand was on the wound, he applied firm pressure, looked her in the eyes and said, “Don’t let go.”
While Katherine applied pressure, they counted to three, simultaneously lifted John, and hoisted him onto the stretcher. “I can get it now,” the paramedic said, but Katherine shook her head.
“I’m not letting him go,” Katherine said.
Rather than wasting time arguing with her, he said, “Then keep up.”
The three ran toward the parking lot and the waiting ambulance. Katherine lost her shoes a quarter of the way there, but she did not care about silly old shoes when life drained from the man she loved. She heaved herself into the ambulance. One of the paramedics followed her in while the other climbed in behind the wheel.
In a matter of a few minutes, they were screaming down the road, headed toward the hospital.