Mason made his speech.
It was brilliant. People clapped. They praised.
I haven't talked to him in an hour. Ever since I was left in the care of Rosemary, who had run off somewhere and left me alone, I have never felt more open and vulnerable. And ever since that woman made that slight comment, I seek peace and found none.
Now, I'm just trying to get by. I roamed around the ballroom, trying to locate Mason, but I couldn't find him. I picked up my third glass tonight as I moved along the line of sight, hoping all the while I would catch a glimpse of him. Out of the corner of my eyes, I noticed a familiar face heading towards me.
Max Wynward, Mason's lawyer looked sharp in his tux, all bright and cheery. He was really contagious. I couldn't help myself from smiling when he stopped in front of me. Finally, someone I knew. Someone I could call an ally.
"Lauren," he greeted, as he took his place beside me. "Are you enjoying yourself?" His flashing smile told me he knew that I wasn't, that I felt so out of place and he was here to save me.
"I'm on my third drink, what do you think?" I uttered, staring at the man in front of me and I wasn't mistaken by his low, throaty laugh. "Glad that's funny to you." His presence didn't stop me from trying to look out for a dark-haired and grey-eyed man in a tux.
"Mason is having a private meeting with someone now."
"Oh..right." I found myself embarrassed, annoyed at myself for my inability to control my facial expressions or my movements. "I wasn't really looking for him." Lying about it made my insides twist, simply because it was so obvious who I was looking for, and there was the fact that I didn't know anyone here but two people. And of them was standing in front of me.
He looked like he wanted to laugh at me and I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me whole, just so I could avoid the hole of embarrassment I had gotten myself stuck in. But like the gentleman he was, Max didn't call me out on my shit. I think he just became my favorite person on earth.
He waited, and when I said nothing more, just giving him an embarrassed shake of my head, I broke the silence. "It's a good party," My voice cajoled and simpered. "Definitely not my kind of party, though. The clothes, the music...definitely the music is awful and will put anyone to sleep. I'm struggling with these heels too."
"And what kind of party do you prefer?"
"The good kind. I'm not sure you've been to one. It's loud. Aggressive. The kind of party where I can come in my sweatpants and no one would care. Imagine if I come in it to this party. The ladies will collapse dramatically, and my face and sweatpants will be plastered on the front cover."
A rueful smile crossed his face. "There's no rule that says you can't come in sweatpants."
"Did you hear what I said? The ladies will collapse. I could go to jail for causing heart attacks.." I stopped when I saw his cocked brow. "Don't look so surprised. You don't know how obsessive rich women are when it comes to what they wear or what people wear. You'd think it's a religion everyone has to follow, and I'd bet you on anything that some of these women have a shrine of their favorite designers in their homes."
An arrested expression on his face, Max didn't hide his worries, softly inquiring, "Are you sure you're not drunk, Lauren?"
I blinked several times before I could think, but a small smile touched my lips. "It's just three glasses, Max. My alcohol tolerance is high." If I was really drunk, he would know. A drunk me was a mess. A drunk me would make anyone run the other way.
He grinned at me. "You've been doing good tonight."
I nodded my head and grinned back at him. "Yeah, well, can't have Mason brooding all night, and you know he likes to brood. Thankfully, he hasn't had an episode lately, but there's been an occasional glaring and scowling. Think those are going to be hard to erase."
Max laughed. "Believe me, Lauren, I thought you'd not survive a week together."
"So did I! Do you know how many times I've had to sleep with one eye open? Because I thought he was going to murder me in my sleep?"
His eyes gleaming with laughter, he teased, "And now look at you, two peas in one pod."
"Please, you offend me," I half cried and half laughed, astounded at how he could say that and mean it. Two peas in one pod? But when he looked at me in just that fashion, with that uneven smile curving his mouth and his eyes warm and gentle, I felt exposed. Like he could see something I wasn't seeing and he basked in the knowledge.
"Can I ask you a question?"
That alarmed me. Not because the smile had slipped off his face, but because he looked so serious. And I was scared to hear the question, just as I was scared to answer him. However, I nodded my head weakly, like all the energy I had possessed in my body had vanished.
"Would you give him up?" I started to protest to such a question, but Max held up his hand, silencing me. "When one year is over, do you think you can walk away from him?"
My heart pounded in my chest, the sound roaring in my ears. "I..I don't think I have a choice. We made a deal. I signed it. You were there, Max," I returned almost absently. Max' words made a great deal of scaring me, and I wondered why he considered asking me that if he knew how uncomfortable that would make me feel. Scaring me might not be what he was going for, but I was officially scared out of my mind.
I stopped thinking about the future a while ago. I stopped thinking about the what ifs. And my future with Mason was a dangerous thought I never allowed myself to delve into.
Max wasn't satisfied with my answer, and I had to stop myself from frowning or bolting out of the room. He was staring at me curiously, trying to figure me out. Trying to see what was in my head.
"When the time comes, I'm still going to leave."
"I wonder if you mean that," he mused aloud.
I shot him a fierce look. "It is a deal I intend to uphold, and I would like it if you see it as that. Mason and I are just friends, and eventually, we would have to go our separate ways. Nothing will change that." Nothing can change that.
He watched me for another, very long seconds and then smiled. "The future is full of mysteries, Lauren."
My teeth clenched but I kept my smile firmly in place. "Couldn't agree more." I turned to look away when my eyes caught Mason in the crowd once more, glad that he was back where I could see him, and annoyed that he didn't come to me immediately.
A wave of nagging anger rose within me and went from my stomach to my chest and finally to my eyes, which began to see the world in red. The thing that sent me most into a rage was the feeling of being discarded, and every time I glanced around the ballroom, I would see someone in the arms of their date, and when I look at my own arm, it was empty. But why do I care? If Mason didn't care enough to stay by my side tonight, why should I feel hurt over it?
I should just ignore him. I should look away.
But he wasn't far away, speaking pleasantly with two men and a woman. My eyes were drawn to him like a magnet, and I kept staring with a hidden smile, forgetting that I was mad, that if he walked up to me, I would talk to him. Forget about throwing me into a room full of strangers and forget about being abandoned. Let me forget about everything else with the exception of this smug, rude, arrogant—
Take a deep breath and calm down, Lauren.
And then, he was smiling brightly. His face looked as if it were chiseled from solid granite. It halted my breath and made my heart race. It awakened the butterflies.
"Go to him."
I glared darkly at Max, whom I had totally forgotten was standing next to me. Not that he seemed to care that I was ignoring him when he looked like he had just won a lottery. If only I could slap away the smug smile he was wearing on his face.
"You want to go to him," he pressed, giving me a knowing look. "I won't judge, Lauren. He's your husband, after all."
That bloody smug smile....
I couldn't keep the annoyance from showing on my face. "Have you always been this annoying?"
"You sound like him."
"Who sounds like whom?" a voice drawled from behind. My head snapped around and I breathe inaudibly. There he was, looking as good as ever, maybe even more so than before. His head was slightly tipped back and he was fixing me with his eyes, no trace of humor on his face. He shifted his gaze, now looking at Max. "Care to share your little conversation?"
I knew he was trying to throw his power over Max and it was so subtly done that no one could barely detect it, no doubt knew it wouldn't work on me and decided to seek the answers he needed from his lawyer. To save myself from embarrassment and awkwardness, I was quick to jump in, "Nothing worth mentioning. Just some boring talk that has nothing to do with you."
He regarded me with hooded eyes, licking his bottom lip into his mouth and letting his teeth graze over it. Thinking. My entire body tensed, proving to him that there was indeed something else by not letting Max speak.
His eyes were soft and dark, head tilted a little as he watched me and I hoped to God this wasn't one of those moments where he could read my mind. To distract him, or maybe myself, I squeaked out: "To what do we owe the pleasure, Mr. Campbell? I'm grateful that you've spared enough of your time to speak to us. I thought from the way you've been going back and forth, talking to people that you would not grace us with your presence. We are really honored that you did." I was being extremely petty right now, but I didn't care. He had to know I was annoyed by the actions he had displayed tonight.
Max coughed, trying to hide his laughter.
He acknowledged the statement with a subtle nod of his head and a lazy sweep of his eyes over my face. He was thinking about something, maybe considering what he wanted to say or how much he wanted to tell me.
And the words were short, sharp, pissed off, and I could see it, in the way that he rocked his jaw back and forth, the way he just seemed to bristle with an energy that I wished didn't turn me on. I huffed out a breath, looking away from him, still annoyed. And his next words surprised me enough to have my head whirled around to stare at him, to make sure I wasn't hallucinating it, that those words had really come out of his mouth. It did, and his reaction to his unanswered question was proof enough. He had to repeat it again.
"Would you like to dance?"
I glanced at Max briefly to make sure I wasn't the only one who heard it, who raised both his brows and it was enough for me to breathe out, "sure" and a slight nod of my head. Then he smiled, just a tiny, little, lift on the corner of his mouth but enough to disconcert me.
He guided us to the dance floor with a hand on my lower back, not sure how my feet went along with him. A few other couples were dancing intimately, and some were just enjoying each other's company, whispering to each other and smiling. I wasn't going to say I didn't know how to dance, or I had never done it before. I just wasn't very good at it, and it had been years since I had danced and something told me I had probably forgotten the steps.
When we reached an open spot near the edge of the floor, Mason gracefully turned me into his arms, sliding both hands around my lower back, firmly but gently. Instinctively, I slid my hands over his shoulders. Our bodies fit like two pieces of a complicated puzzle.
I welcomed the familiar blast of heat, the internal jolt that accompanied his touch. I wasn't surprised he moved so well to the music. There was nothing Mason Campbell didn't excel at. And being so close to me, dancing like we were two secret lovers made me outrageously aware that only a thin layer of silk separated me from his touch.
"I should kill you right now," I stated, remembering that I was mad at him, but surprised to learn that I wasn't really mad at him. It had completely vanished the moment he had looked into my eyes.
"Is that so?"
The lack of proper reaction that I wasn't being given annoyed me to no end. But Mason was like that. Even though he easily got angry, he easily could just show you how unbothered he was, and I couldn't even begin to tell you which one annoyed me the most.
"I should take your body and dump it in the ocean where it can't be found."
He twirled me around with ease and pressed me back into his body, swaying us. "That sounds like hard work," he noted, as he remained without emotion; in fact, he unexpectedly gave me a small, completely innocent smile.
Much to my disappointment—no, disappointment wasn't quite the right word—I discovered instead that the plan to annoy him just as he annoyed me didn't work. Wouldn't even work, because he wouldn't allow me to win. "But not impossible." So, I decided to turn it around and be playful.
And you know, satisfaction was something impalpable, but it brought a shine to people's eyes and even people's appearance. Or at least, that's what I believed, because I was seeing that in Mason.
He smiled bemusedly. "You'd do it all on your own? How much do you weigh? Forget that, do you think you can carry my dead body? And whose care will you use? Mine? No, that's like asking to be the prime suspect." He had a calm look on his face, as mundane as if he were having a perfectly pleasant conversation. "Maybe you'd hire someone to do it, but judging from your bank account, you wouldn't be able to pay them. Unless you promise to pay after the job is done."
"You're doing a fine job at convincing me you're not a murderer." His eye bore into mine. The darkness of it reached out and almost consumed me.
"You're unhappy with me?" he finally realized.
"Unhappy?" I repeated with a snort. "More like mad. You left me all by myself with people I don't know!"
When he splayed his hands open across my back and pulled me even closer, the press of his fingertips made my heart jolt. "I apologize. I'd have to remember to bring the handcuffs next time, so you would go wherever I go. Quite a good solution, don't you think?" His question was like a warm whisper against my head.
"You know what they would call that?" I wore the smug look of one who was feasting at another's expense. "Hell on earth."
I was well aware that I hadn't been paying attention to the dance, which shocked me to learn that I was matching Mason's pace. I wasn't as gracefully or swift as him, but I was good enough not to step on his feet, or get a bad review from him.
"So, you're still not going to tell me the reason you ditched me? Very well then, shove it."
"Careful, Love," he replied. And suddenly his face became serious. Almost displeased. "We're supposed to be in love, but you look like you're about to set me on fire. People are watching."
"I thought you said you didn't care about what people think."
"I don't. I care about what I think."
I hummed in return.
After a moment of silence, he added, "But I see you've made a friend in Max. You two had looked cozy. I apologize for interrupting."
"Mr. Campbell, is that jealousy I hear in your voice? Quite the scandal," I imitated, shaking my head and clicking my tongue.
He smirked. "Jealousy," he stated, no hesitation or wavering in his voice. Followed by a chuckle that was more insulting than his tone. "Do you know how often the word is being confused with curiosity?"
My hand traced across his shoulders as we swayed. "There is no confusion here. It's clear you're jealous that I've established some closeness to your lawyer." Mason made a noise of displeasure that put a grin on my face, and I used a thumb to swipe across his cheek. "You look a little green." I laughed and he glared a little at the sound, the atmosphere softening our conversation to the point where it felt dangerous.
His annoyance was evident on his face. "I think I prefer when you're mad at me."
An amused smile tugged at the end of my mouth.
"Aw, don't worry, you're still my favorite man." Because I really enjoyed teasing him, and he, like me, also found it amusing.
"Don't think I don't know what you've been saying behind my back about me. I'm simply choosing to ignore it," he said, his voice a rough whisper, settling into my skin and digging between my veins.
"This is not ignoring if you're bringing it up to me."
"Don't you dare sass me."
"Wouldn't even dream on it, Mr. Campbell," I assured him with a cheeky smile.
Then, the music ended and my hands dropped from his shoulders at the same time he released me from his hold. We gave each other an intense look before I was turning around from him, and next thing I knew, a drink was spilled on me by a woman who was striding briskly across the room and bumped into me suddenly.
I looked at the spot getting bigger and bigger on my dress as if I couldn't believe my eyes, but it was definitely there. I looked up at the culprit and she wore a mortified look, or what I would say a fake one.
"Oh my god, I'm so sorry," she rushed out in panic. Again, there was no hint that she was sorry at all. But why she would spill a drink on me, was something I would never know.
Mason ignored the woman, gently grabbing my arm and turning me around to face him, his face masking what he was feeling.
"Are you good?"
I nodded, still looking at my dress. "I think I'd go to the restroom and clean up." There was no way I would be able to get the stain out of the dress, no way I would stay another minute listening to people whisper about me.
"I'm truly so sorry. I wasn't looking at where I was going."
"Shut up and leave," Mason's sharp words to the woman was so mean, so chilling and he did it without looking at her, and the woman flinched, taken aback by the strength of his voice, her eyes widening as she darted out of there without so much as another glance.
"Language," he snapped at my vulgar language.
"That's better." He smirked at me and I rolled my eyes, letting him guide me away from the dance floor. He dodged people that tried to talk to him and kept his hand placed on my back, ushering me through the mass of people and into a glass door, finding ourselves in a hallway.
"Wait." I stopped walking and turned slightly, watching him watch him. "I'd take it from here. You can't come with me to the restroom."
"Wasn't planning on it, love."
I nodded, tugging my hand from his hand but he kept it tightly held, and I tilted my head a little bit and frowned. He scanned my face as if he was memorizing my features. As if he planned to dream of me tonight. How could one wordless gaze have such a drastic effect on me? It made my insides tumbled. And he noticed that.
He noticed the heaving chest. He also noticed the moment my lips had parted slightly, just like how it was easy to notice the step I had taken closer to him, and it was like we were both suspended in the moment.
Somehow, he let go of me and I found the courage to look away, turning to head forward when something held me back. It was warm and soft. It silently latched onto my arm like a bloodsucking leach. I rotated my head and looked down at my hand, where Mason's hand was wrapped around my wrist again.
I let him.
I let him hold me. I let him memorize my face, let him soak on it. But the effect he had on me was too much. All I wanted to do was slip to the ground because I didn't have enough energy to stay on my feet. Not while he was touching me. Not while he was looking at me like I was his most prized possession, like all he wanted to do was devour me.
"What do you want from me?" I rasped in a low voice, eyes fluttering open and close every few seconds as if I was slowly falling into slumber.
Those words were the most dangerous words to ever be spoken. It was the same way my lips and my tongue molded around the words and gave it life. The kind of life that was dangerous. The kind that lit you up on fire and watches you burn in it. And my skin was flushed and riddled with goosebumps.
The question seemed to make his face clenched tight. His anger was personified with his ticking jaw and gritted teeth. But he didn't say anything. He simply left me standing on my own again, and this time around, his absence left me cold.
It didn't take me long before I found the restroom with wobbly feet, pushing open the door before I walked in. I was looking down at my dress, and when I heard the clicking of heels, I realized that I wasn't alone and I slowly lifted my head up.
And the minute I did, I froze.
I stood there, convinced this was not really happening to me, this was a dream, I thought wildly, or else I had gone mad. There was a total silence–a taut, tensed quiet, but the silence was exploded by a voice I had thought I would never hear again.
There was no denying the reality of that familiar soft voice, and shock waves roared up and down my spine, buffeting my entire body as I was left to stare in shock, paralyzed from head to toe.
"Mum," The word slipped out of my lips before I could stop it.