I descend the stairs expecting the entire room to come to a standstill. After all, I am one of the guests of honor, and who doesn’t like attention? But, of course, my life never really goes as planned, so no one really looks up when I finally reach the bottom step and I’m the one who ends up searching the crowd for my mother. I sigh in relief when I spot her talking animatedly to one of the many strangers at this party that I’ve never met before and began to make my way through the crowd in her direction.
As always, Regina Fenwick is the picture of elegance, red wine in hand. She’s wearing a simple navy dress and minimal silver jewelry and the gray streaks in her dark hair look as though they’ve been strategically placed rather than as a result of being my mother.
She looks up when she sees me coming, her smile widening as she excuses herself from the presence of the woman to whom she was speaking and comes over to kiss my cheek. “Good of you to join us.”
“Hi, Mom,” I laugh, knowing she’s not actually upset. She, more than anyone, knows all about my propensity to be tardy. “Sorry, I had a few finishing touches to make.”
“Well, you look beautiful, darling,” she beams, reaching out to readjust one of the curls falling over my shoulder.
I sigh in relief, relaxing slightly in my mother’s presence, as I always do. “Thank you.”
“How much you wanna bet she’s going to be late to the wedding?”
The sound of my father’s voice over my shoulder fills me with warmth, and I’m grinning as I turn to face him, pressing a light kiss to his cheek, and, out of habit, scratch the back of his shaved head. “Hi, Dad. Having a good time?”
“Of course,” my father nods, taking another sip of his whiskey as he scans the crowd. “Harrison always did know how to throw a party.”
That’s for sure. No matter how absurdly extravagant I thought the lifestyle of Harrison and Colleen Knox was, I can’t deny that I’m always awestruck at their parties. The high ceilings and crystal chandeliers of the main ballroom pack a punch on their own, but Colleen has always had an eye for the spectacular, and manages to make every event absolutely stunning. The annual Holiday Ball, complete with thousands of twinkling lights and garlands as far as the eye can see, has always been my favorite. Colleen’s detailed planning combined with Harrison’s constant influx of great ideas makes every party at the Knox mansion a memorable one.
As I soak up the excitement in the air and take a deep breath to calm my restless nerves, I realize there’s one particular person I should be speaking to and ask, “Have you seen Brenton?”
“He’s at the bar,” my father replies immediately, nodding towards the counter set up in the corner of the room where Brenton is currently smiling an extremely wide and incredibly fake smile as he taps his fingers on the bar top and converses with an elderly couple.
“I think he’s got the right idea,” I laugh, deciding I should probably step in and help him out. Giving my parents one more kiss on the cheek each, I head towards my fake fiancé and call out over my shoulder, “You two, don’t get into too much trouble.”
“No promises,” I hear my father call back in response.
I’m grinning as I approach the bar, slightly relieved that I don’t have to actually step in, as it seems the couple Brenton was speaking to has since been pulled into a different conversation.
“Hey, future husband,” I greet him, reaching out to squeeze his arm gently and alert him of my presence.
“Hey, sweetheart,” he smiles softly as he replies, leaning down to kiss my cheek before accepting a glass of white wine and a glass of scotch from the bartender and handing me the wine. “I was just coming to find you, here.”
“Ooh, my favorite,” I sigh contently as I take a sip, thinking I’m definitely going to need to be at least partially inebriated if I’m going to make it through the next few hours.
He chuckles softly and takes a sip of his drink. “I know.”
“Thank you,” I smile up at him, taking a step closer so that we can speak without anyone else hearing while also giving the illusion that we’re having some sort of private lover’s conversation. “So, how do we want to this?”
“Yeah, I was just thinking strategy too,” he agrees, taking another, larger gulp of his drink.
I follow his example, scanning the crowd of about a hundred people milling about and realizing that I recognized about ten percent of them. Brenton, on the other hand, probably knows every single person by name. He is a Knox, after all, which means he was raised to socialize. Even as children, there would be about an hour at the start of every party where he was expected to mingle with every guest before he and I were given free reign to do as we liked.
“Do you know everyone here?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he nods, “a lot of them are Dad’s friends and people from work.”
That makes sense. Neither of my parents have much in the way of family and I’m an only child, which means the only representation on my side beside Mom and Dad comes in the form of a couple of their close friends.
“We’re never gonna get through greeting everyone at a reasonable hour if we try and do it together,” I say, trying to figure out the best way to get through the obligatory small talk portion of the evening as quickly as possible. As it is, most of these people are probably more interested in speaking to the heir to Knox Industries then to me.
Nodding, he finishes off his drink, setting his empty glass on the bar top and drying off his hands on his trousers. “Divide and conquer?”
“Works for me,” I agree, though I do feel nervous knots tightening in my stomach.
He doesn’t quite believe me, pausing and saying, “You sure? I don’t mind staying with you.”
“I’ll be fine, I promise,” I smile, reaching out with my free hand to squeeze his arm, ever grateful that he’s always been able to read me like a book. “Go be a good host.”
“Alright,” he replies, reaching out to squeeze my hip in a comforting gesture. “Meet you at the dessert table afterwards?”
“Sounds like a plan,” I grin. With one last quick kiss to my cheek, he disappears into the crowd.
After taking another long sip of my wine, I take a deep breath and plaster a smile on my face and approach the nearest person, ready to take on the evening.
What feels like a decade later, I’ve worked my way through about a quarter of the room. I have an inability to say no which results in me having twenty minute conversations with each person I greet, not wanting to be rude and saying that I need to move on. Currently, I’m sipping my third glass of the champagne that’s being carried around on trays by waiters and talking a very sweet old man who is apparently distantly related to Colleen. He’s been telling me all about the chicken farm he grew up on, which is honestly fascinating, but the trouble is that I’m pretty sure we’ve been speaking for an hour and I still have about twenty people that I haven’t said hello to.
I’m in the midst of figuring out the best way to excuse myself from the conversation without seeming like a complete jackass when I feel a hand on the small of my back and deep voice says, “Sorry to interrupt, but do you mind if I borrow the future Mrs. Knox for a moment? She owes me a dance.”
I know as soon as he touches me that it’s not Brenton. Because Brenton’s touch has never made me feel so warm and so full of light. Once I’ve been escorted away from the world’s sweetest grandpa, I turn to face Bodhi, a grateful smile stretching my lips. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“No worries,” he laughs, guiding me along the side of the room. “You looked a little overwhelmed.”
That’s the understatement of the century. I’ve never had any problem making small talk with people, but making small talk with people that I should know but don’t is rather difficult. “I don’t know half these people.”
“They’re not all family friends?” he asks, an eyebrow lifting in surprise.
“They might be,” I shrug, finishing off my champagne and placing the empty flute on the tray of a waiter that’s walking by. “It’s not like I paid much attention to them growing up. When we were kids, Brenton and I were more concerned with taking advantage of all the free food and chocolate fountain.”
There’s a pause as his eyes widen and the light that fills them is absolutely beautiful. “There’s a chocolate fountain?”
I’m not sure why, but seeing him so uninhibited and free and excited at the thought of a chocolate fountain brings me so much joy that I burst out laughing. When I stop, he’s got his head tilted to the side, a look in his eyes that I can’t quite read. All I know is that it has every nerve end in my body tingling. I gulp as I whisper, “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“I like your laugh,” he says simply. Reaching out, he grabs my hand and tugs me towards the dance floor.
“What are you doing?” I ask, a little alarmed when he slips one arm around my waist and pulls me against his chest, the other taking my hand and holding it close to his chest.
“Dancing,” he replies as though it’s the world’s most obvious answer. “This is a party, right?”
“Right,” I blink, caught between panicking at the thought that there were a hundred people here watching me dance with someone who isn’t Brenton and enjoying the way Bodhi’s arm felt around me, “but don’t you think that my first dance of the evening should be with my fiancé?”
“Brenton won’t mind,” Bodhi shrugs, completely unperturbed by the entire situation. “He told me to look after you.”
I lift one eyebrow in annoyance. “He did what?”
“Not that you need looking after,” he corrects himself immediately, having the good sense to look a little terrified.
“I’m glad you’re aware of that fact,” I laugh, feeling more comfortable in his arms with each passing second. The fact that he smells like sandalwood, which just reminds me of home, isn’t helping. “I do have a confession, though. I’m a really bad dancer.”
“Don’t worry, I got you,” he smirks, releasing me for a second to twirl me around before pulling me back into his chest, never once missing a beat.
I can’t help the grin stretching my lips. “Well, aren’t you full of surprises.”
“My mom forced me to learn,” he admits, guiding me along to the music. “She wanted to make sure that if I was ever dancing with a girl, I was a complete gentleman. How am I doing?”
“Fine as long as your hands don’t stray any lower,” I reply jokingly.
He’s intrigued by that response and I can tell he’s trying not to laugh. “You really think I would feel you up in front of your future in laws?”
I stare into his eyes as I pause and ponder all the intricacies of that question before deciding that he’s not crass enough to do such a thing and changing the subject. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Did it really take a lot of convincing on Brenton’s part for you to move here? Or did you do it because you wanted a fresh start?” It’s something I’ve been wondering since we first met. I knew Brenton’s retelling of the story that brought Bodhi here, but I’m not sure if Bodhi agrees. Sure, Brenton can be persuasive, but surely finding himself suddenly without parents was enough to make Bodhi contemplate making some major life changes.
“I guess the whole starting over thing was definitely appealing,” he says softly, a sadness slowly trickling into his eyes.
“I get it,” I assure him, though to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to say. I go with, “How’s it going so far?”
Hopefully being in a new city hasn’t been all bad, and I’m proved right in my thought process when he smirks and says, “Well, I definitely like where I am right now.”
As much as I agree with that statement and think that meeting him has definitely been a blessing for me too, I also know that at a party celebrating my engagement to someone else is quite possibly the worst place for us to be having this conversation.
“Don’t do that,” I mutter, glancing around because I’m suddenly very nervous that someone can overhear us.
He sighs, his hand squeezing mine a little tighter. “You can’t stay all bottled up forever, Raina. One day, you’re gonna explode.”
“I guess you’re just going to have to make sure you’re not part of the collateral damage,” I warn, partly because I know he’s right and partly because maybe that’s the push he needs to just walk away.
“And what if I want to be?”
I’m not expecting that answer. A part of me wishes he would just run, because that would be so much easier.
“That’s not really your decision,” I say firmly, glad the song has finally ended and I have a good excuse to push myself away from him. “Thanks for the dance.”
“Wait, I’m sorry,” he says, stopping me before I can turn to leave. “We can talk about this when you’re ready.”
“Don’t you get it, Bodhi?” I plead. “This isn’t about my emotional state. As long as the world thinks that Brenton and I are together, you and I are nothing more than acquaintances.”
And that’s the way I know it has to be. Because I can already feel the hold Bodhi is starting to have over my heart and the last thing I need right now is for my life to be any more complicated.
Thankfully, he doesn’t push the issue, though his voice and his eyes contain equal amounts of hurt as he says, “Understood.”
“Have a good night,” I whisper, turning away from him and weaving my way through the crowd to try and find Brenton, wondering how a heart that I’m pretty sure doesn’t actually exist could possibly feel as though it’s starting to break.