Skin of the Night

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Chapter 92: For Some Time Now

A gasp arriving from my left assured me that she was not a stranger here, because the sound held the story of friends who had not seen each other in what they would deem ‘too long’. Although it required some willpower, I was able to take my eyes off the lady to register who it was that had gasped.

«Harper?» uttered Chloe the same moment my eyes paused on her familiar profile. A split second later, she charged up from her seat to welcome the woman who was yet a stranger to me. They were clearly good friends, and that reality only increased the intimidation I was experiencing. Here was a striking beauty, and she was already acquainted with William’s group. In fact, ‘acquainted’ wasn’t even the right word, because as I watched the two women embrace, they resembled sisters in their affection for one another, or close cousins – at the very least. What made the whole scene even worse was the face-splitting grin Andy was wearing on his way over, and right next to him walked Alex, mirroring his exact expression.

They all knew her, apart from Ivy, who watched them from where she remained seated while looking as puzzled as I did. That fact guided me to believe that Harper, as Chloe had called her, had to know them from before Ivy or I had entered their lives.

Once Chloe finally released Harper to allow Andy to embrace her, I felt my throat contract, so I swallowed to myself while daring a glance in William’s direction. Then, all at once, my mind launched the inevitable and countless questions.

Why on earth had he arrived with her, and why hadn’t he told – or rather warned – me? And perhaps most importantly, who was she to him? Had he done it purposely, in an attempt to make me jealous? After all, the man was rather cunning, and especially when he wanted to be. Or was I childish for even considering that possibility?

He had not yet noticed that I was staring at him, so meanwhile, I wondered if my expression conveyed the accusation that I simultaneously wanted to both veil and unveil.

I sighed. How quickly doubt crept in. Countless times he had told me loved me. Time and again he had assured and reminded me that I was the only one for him, and the only one he wanted. And yet, when our love faced the smallest of threats, doubt tried to kill it at the roots by whispering to me these irrational things that did not at all correlate with his character.

William would never court another woman behind my back; of that I was sure. And even if he had found the audacity to do such an outrageous thing, he certainly would not bring her to a party where I would be as well. He could be direct and even vile sometimes, but he wasn’t vengeful and he wasn’t evil. He never had been. And he surely wasn’t stupid.

What made my momentary concern seem even more absurd was the fact that he was currently seeing a therapist in order to find his way back to me. Surely this lady did not pose a threat to our relationship. She was only a friend, or something of the sort. She had to be.

But why hadn’t I ever heard of her?

It dawned on me that since he hadn’t mentioned her to me, it was probably because he hadn’t thought it necessary, and that further convinced me that she couldn’t be too important to him. Otherwise, he would’ve wanted to take precaution, because that was simply his nature. In all likelihood, he hadn’t thought this would trouble me at all.

But it had, no matter how briefly. Upon seeing him with her, I had experienced real intimidation. As though she posed a direct threat to me, I had thought she would steal him away from me, as if William was my possession. He was not. I did, however, hope to possess his undivided affection – preferably for a lifetime.

How small I had felt during the while it had taken me to return to my wits. Not only small, but insecure, too, and even inadequate. I’d immediately compared myself to her, as if we were in a competition. I’d even tried (albeit I failed) to discover flaws in her physique that I had already known did not exist. I had betrayed my own conviction that imperfection was perfection, and I had done so because her blinding beauty had made me feel invisible, so I had tried to destroy the light within her with my dark thoughts.

I felt awful for having done it, however briefly. I didn’t even know the woman, and yet I had actively searched for traits to dislike about her. She was an innocent victim and had done nothing wrong.

Had it been jealousy, that sickening feeling? That fear, and the misplaced resentment that came with it? Was it truly jealousy? Was that what it felt like?

I was still watching William when I concluded to myself that it must indeed have been jealousy that I’d experienced. When I wondered whether what I had just experienced was in any way similar to what he claimed that he constantly felt regarding Robby and myself, my stomach tied in knots. In the end, I was under the impression that his jealousy was far more extreme than the faint hint I’d just endured. At once, I realised that I truly could not imagine the weight of William’s burden; of his jealousy. To make it worse, he seemed to have greater difficulty with chasing the emotion away – by rationalising – than I did.

Thank God I’m a rational woman, I thought to myself, and then folded my arms. As if he’d heard me, William finally fixed his gaze on mine and offered me a small, but not entirely convincing, smile. It perplexed me, so in turn, I arched my brow at him, and he actually managed to make me laugh when he arched his own as a response, clearly trying to mirror, and thereby amuse, me. He looked ridiculous like that; exaggerating the curve of his brow to such a silly degree.

The sound of my laughter brought out a genuine smile of his, and he wore it the entire while he approached. When reaching my seat, he placed his hand on my naked shoulder and lowered himself to pay my temple a peck, and the electric sensation of it made me stiffen. I couldn’t remember when I’d last felt the gentle stroke of his mouth anywhere on my skin. He hovered there for a beat, right by my ear.

“You look fantastic, my love. As ever,” he whispered, and the alluring vibe of his voice left a faint blush in my cheeks, as I had not expected it. Our noses nearly touched when I turned my head to face him. Only a small gap remained between our mouths. If I leaned in, I could brush my lips across his, perhaps even steal a kiss, but I feared how he would respond, so I dared not do it. Instead, I stared deep into his hypnotic eyes and swam in the stormy seas of them for an infinity trapped in a second.

My love. At last.

“So do you, Will.”

“Sorry I’m late. I had to collect Jason’s surprise on my way here.” He cocked his head in Harper’s direction. “She landed from Mumbai just today, and her flight was delayed. Hence my delay.”

Mumbai? Was she Indian? She did look the part, if I were to make a guess. However, as far as I was aware, Harper wasn’t an Indian name. Perhaps it was only a nickname? Safe to say, my curiosity was piqued.

While he nodded his head at my company for a brief greeting, I glimpsed in her direction once more. Jason’s surprise? What had he meant by that?

“Jason’s surprise? What do you mean?” I inquired.

He flashed me a gorgeous grin and squatted next to my chair. When he gazed up at me now, past those long lashes, he looked so handsome that I blushed rather profusely. I didn’t think I’d ever forget how he looked just then, radiating of such childlike excitement. He was clearly hatching on something, ever the schemer.

“Well, Harper’s a childhood friend of mine. We were in the same class ever since I can remember.”

I continued to study Harper who was animatedly waving her arms about while she looked to share a story with Alex, Chloe and Andy. Was that how she knew them, then? All five of them had been classmates?

“I don’t see how the fact that she’s a childhood friend of yours has got anything to do with Jason?” I replied as I steered my gaze to his again.

He cocked his head from side to side and, surprising me, collected my left hand between his pair. “Well, it’s a long story, but to make it short, you remember Jason worked with charity in Mumbai for two years, before he started studying medicine?”

He had told me that quite some time ago, yes. “Yes?”

“Harper was already working there then, for the same organisation – Alexander’s, as it happens – so they became close friends.” He leaned close to my ear again, where he whispered, “There’s a lot more to that story, but I’ll leave it to Jason and Harper to fill you in on the details. She’s eager to meet you, by the way, so I don’t want to spoil too much when I know for a fact that she’d rather have the pleasure. Anyway, you’ll have to spare her a minute of your time after she’s made the rounds. For now,” he leaned slightly away to glance at my company, “would you do me the honour of introducing me to your sister?”

Following the direction of his attention, I found my sister stealing glimpses at us while she pretended to be entertained by her glass of champagne. Next to her, Olivia seemed to be rambling on and on, oblivious to the fact that Phoebe had signed out of their conversation long ago.

I hadn’t expected it, but my heart raced upon the thought of finally introducing William to one of my family members. Even though it had been in the cards for quite a while now, the novelty of it still took me off guard. What made it all the more peculiar to me was the fact that I would be introducing him under these strange circumstances; he wasn’t quite my boyfriend anymore, but he wasn’t exactly my ex either. We were still somewhere between a relationship and nothing at all, and yet here I was, about to introduce him to my sister.

Well, while labels certainly served their purpose every now and then, it wasn’t paramount that we had any clear idea of what we were for the time being. What I knew for certain was that he was my sole love interest and the only man I hoped to build a future with. For that reason alone, I did find it appropriate to make the introductions.

“Phoebe,” I called, and instantly, her entire focus shifted onto me. Her neatly plucked eyebrows climbed up her forehead with obvious excitement, and it laced onto her tone when she replied, “Yes?”

From the form of her mouth, I could tell she was struggling to keep her smile from transforming into a massive grin. She knew what was coming.

“This one would like to meet you,” I murmured and withdrew my hand from between William’s pair to gently pat the top of his head. Their eyes met, and while stretching up beside me, William passed her his characteristic crooked smile. Immediately, Phoebe excused herself from her seat and just about skipped round the table before she extended an eager hand to him.

“Hi! You must be William,” she greeted excitedly and beamed up at his tall figure. “You’re taller than I expected.” Sizing him up, she angled her head slightly to the side. “And broader.” Her eyes narrowed. “You lift, don’t you? Chase would love you. He’s an incurable gym rat, too. I can hear the fireworks already. Bromance in full bloom.” She smirked up at him. “That’s my boyfriend, by the way – Chase.”

A chuckle slipped out of his mouth while his gaze travelled to pause on mine for a brief moment. The message his eyes conveyed was loud and clear, ‘What a character your sister is.’ Then, after returning his attention to my younger replica, he said, “I’m William, yes, but please, call me Will. And yes, I do lift,” sincere laughter poured out of him, “so I’m happy to hear I’ve got that in common with your Yank.”

“Right?” She laughed and patted his arm. “You’ll have something to talk about should you ever happen to meet.”

“Oh, I’m sure we’ll have plenty to talk about. Doesn’t he study business like yourself? I happen to have an interest in that field, too. Anyway, I sincerely hope I’ll get to meet him someday. Pity he didn’t join you over.”

“Yeah. He’s joining me for Christmas, though, so it’s alright. You’ll probably get to meet him, then.”

“I’m happy to hear that. You know, now that we’re on the subject, I can imagine being in a relationship with a person from a different country entails certain challenges. For instance, do you think he’ll consider moving to England? Or are you reconciled with the idea of living the rest of your life in America, should you happen to end up together?”

“Um,” she frowned at him, “we’re still discussing it. I like the States, but I fancy it better here.”

“Suppose that’s only natural. This is your home, after all – where most of your memories are from. Felt nostalgic since you came back?”

“Happens every time.” She shrugged.

“I can imagine,” he chuckled. “Anyway, I’m very glad I finally got to meet you, Phoebe. I’ve been wanting to for some time now.”

I watched as she passed him a wry smile. “Yes, so I’ve been told. Lovely suit by the way,” she flattered him and sent a wink in my direction. “He’s gorgeous, Cara.”

“He is, isn’t he?” Nodding back at her, I tried to hide my smile by biting my lower lip, but my mouth spread apart nevertheless.

“Thank you, ladies,” William replied and gestured toward Phoebe, “but you look rather dashing yourself, Phoebe.” His eyes flickered between us, and the look on his face revealed evident amusement. “I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but it’s rather obvious that you’re sisters. The resemblance is remarkable. I’ve got to admit, when I first came in just now, I saw your profile,” he motioned toward my sister, “and I honestly thought you were Cara at first.”

“Oh, that’s a relief.” With her hand on her chest, she exhaled for dramatic emphasis. “At least I’m not alone in looking like a pig’s arse.”

Having heard my sister, Olivia’s loud laughter roared from across the table. In fact, the sound bordered cackling until there was no sound at all, only wheezing. While I hadn’t personally found Phoebe’s joke all that hilarious, I did find William’s reaction extremely amusing. I hadn’t foreseen this, but now that I thought about it, I should’ve expected that Phoebe’s sense of humour was going to bewilder him, and how I enjoyed seeing him struggle to find his tongue; a tongue that was usually dreadfully sharp, armoured in endless, ruthless wit.

Supposed I found it particularly amusing because had she been anyone else, this would pose no challenge to him at all. However, since he yearned so sincerely for her approval, it was evident that he was taking precaution and doing everything in his power to avoid stepping on any toes. I was positive Phoebe was conscious of as much, but she didn’t seem to be in the mood for showing mercy.

The silence between them was just about to turn awkward when I heard Jason shout across the room, audibly disbelieving, “Harper?!”

Immediately, my attention was stolen away from Will and Phoebe as I observed Jason with gross curiosity. I couldn’t quite grasp what William had tried to imply earlier. He’d said, ‘There’s a lot more to that story’. Had he tried to tell me that Jason and Harper had enjoyed a fling in the past? Or was my romantic mind only overthinking?

Jason had mentioned her every now and then, but usually only when she was relevant to something we were talking about. I hadn’t remembered her name, seeing as he seldom used it whenever he spoke about her. Typically, he would just refer to her as one of his ‘closest friends’ from his ‘time in India’.

“Surprise!” Harper exclaimed and threw her arms in the air.

“Oh, my God, is that really you?” Still overcome with disbelief, he shoved his glass of champagne into Jon’s hand before stalking toward the beauty with open arms. After closing them around her slender frame, he lifted her up and swung her around the once. The following joy that spread across Harper’s lovely features truly mesmerised me. She was an absolute stunner, and I could tell from miles away that she harboured sincere affection for him.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Jason queried in his glee. “I thought you wouldn’t be back till Christmas!”

Her childlike laughter echoed through the space while she pointed at William. “You’ve got your brother to thank. It was all his idea.”

Locating his brother amidst the crowd, he grinned broadly. “What the hell, Will? Another birthday present? You’re spoiling me.”

“Mum and Dad already managed that several years ago. I’m just ensuring that the damage remains permanent.”

“Such a charmer.”

“Cheers.” Focusing on my sister again, William enquired, “I was just about to get myself a drink. Would you care to join me?”

“I’d be delighted.”

While offering Phoebe his arm, he asked me, “Suppose you’ll want another gin and tonic, love?”

“Sure.” I blew him a kiss and, wearing a smile, watched them as they walked away together, arm in arm.

Perhaps Olivia had been right earlier, when she’d said my worry was unnecessary. Thus far, it didn’t look like tonight was going to be all that bad after all.

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