“Yes, we plan to attend.” Alice held out her hands to receive the hot mug of red tea the barista brought to her. Unfortunately, it was hot, so it was placed directly on the coffee table in front of her with a friendly reminder that it was, uh, hot. Alice thanked the man before scowling at the back of his head when he turned around. She wanted that tea now. “I don’t know why we haven’t formally RSVP’d yet.”
The answer soon came walking through the door. Awkwardly.
Damon Monroe was the type of alpha male who absolutely dominated every room he was in. The smaller the room? The more his aura penetrated the walls and upturned tables. Not only was he a tall, broad-shouldered man, but he had a confident gait that made men like the barista lose two of his own inches out of intimidation.
However, Damon was out of his element the moment he stepped inside and searched for his wife. He barked an order for coffee at the barista before tripping his way to the couch his wife occupied. Yes, the man tripped. He was too tall and too off-balanced after huffing up the creaking stairs to handle being in a cramped café that had dozens of fragile items on cute display. His briefcase alone almost knocked a vintage vase off its pedestal. The barista hurried to the back of his kitchen before he could witness anything he’d have to charge Mr. Monroe for.
“Alice,” Damon greeted with candid annoyance. “Everything is well, I take it?”
She dangled the manila envelope in front of him. “Never going to forgive you for missing it, sexy stud.”
Damon plopped next to her. His weight shifted the couch in his direction. Beside him, Dee grunted about her shaking coffee cup. Alisha continued to pretend that nothing was happening. Not even when another person stepped through the door, speaking on the phone.
“Well tell Mrs. Conroy that on behalf of the Monroes, a crib is not necessary. They have plenty already.” The other assistant, Sarah Clayborn, turned off her phone and shoved it into her back pocket. She briefly regarded the small gathering with interest before pulling out another phone and replying to texts. Like Alisha, she was paid to be on standby and follow orders. Not eavesdrop and watch with even minute interest. (That was Dee’s job.)
Alice leaned her head against her husband’s shoulder and showed him the first ultrasound photo. “See? Told you it was a girl.”
Damon plucked it from her hand and held it up to the nearest light. “How can you tell?”
“Well, for one, Damon, she doesn’t have a little dingaling.”
He put the photo in his lap. “It’s the end of 2016. She could still be a he even without the dingaling, dearest.”
“How progressive of you.” Alice sipped her hot tea and subsequently salivated over the coffee heading in her husband’s direction. “But a mother knows, okay? Still a girl.”
Damon wrapped his arm around her, completely disregarding his coffee. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it. I had the…”
“I know. It’s fine.” No, not really, it wasn’t fine, but Alice understood why her husband couldn’t make it to the appointment that determined what kind of clothes Alice wanted to buy her baby. Business. Big business meeting he simply could not reschedule no matter what he and Ms. Clayborn tried to make happen. Alice had known going into her appointment that her husband wouldn’t be there. Deep inside, she understood. That didn’t mean it was fine.
“I’ll make it up to you somehow. Promise.”
Alice wanted to kiss him to let him know that there were no real hard feelings, but she always felt weird doing it when they were in such company. None of the women around them would say anything, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t still weird. Damon had no problems making out with his wife in front of an audience. For him, it meant showing off how much he loved her. But Alice was raised to not do those things in public, and she wasn’t inclined even after she became Mrs. Monroe earlier that year.
The phone Ms. Clayborn held rang. “Hello? This is the phone of Mrs. Alice Monroe.” When did she get a hold of Alice’s business phone? Wasn’t that Alisha’s jurisdiction? Damnit, Alice could never keep straight who was really whose assistant. She and Damon traded assistants like some sisters traded handbags on a day to day basis.
Sarah Clayborn handed it to Alice. “It is Mrs. Andrews, ma’am.”
Alice took the phone with a bit of reluctance. Getting a call from Lana Andrews was always a crapshoot. “Hello?” she greeted, her husband finally drinking his coffee with a bitter look on his face. Alice draped her hand across Damon’s thigh, the raw power of his body surging through her – and he barely moved. Her husband spent his downtime running, weightlifting, and sparring with his bodyguards. There was nothing but muscle beneath her touch. Something she needed if she was going to deal with someone as volatile as Lana. “What has you calling me on this fine, rainy day, Ms. Lana?”
A fervent chuckle answered her greeting. “Now why is your darling little assistant answering your phone calls instead of you, Alice? Did I call you at a bad time? Are you… busy?”
Everything Lana Andrews said was constantly laced in flirtation. Maybe not directly at Alice, but at… the world. Or something. If Lana could make a situation about sex, she would, as coyly as possible if they weren’t already talking about sex. As it so happened, Alice’s hormones made her particularly randy as of late. The last thing she needed was to be reminded of the sex she wasn’t going to immediately have with her husband. They had power, prestige, and privilege, sure, but not so much that they could start fucking in front of the help in the middle of a cozy café. Nope. Not that much.
“Simply enjoying a rainy afternoon before Christmas gets underway. What can I do for you, Mrs. Andrews?”
Her husband tensed beneath her touch. Someone did not like being reminded of whom he slept with before meeting Alice. Too bad for Damon, because he was about to get more of his sexual past coming to smack him upside the head.
“Well! I was calling to check in with how you’re doing, of course!”
Alice hadn’t known Lana for that long, but she knew the other woman well enough to hear bullshit in her voice. “I’m doing fine, thank you. Now for the real reason you’re calling me?”
Lana had not been expecting that kind of punchback from Alice, and she should have, because Alice was getting very, very good at knowing who wanted to chat simply to shoot the breeze and who wanted to be a busybody. Lana Andrews always wanted to be a busybody.
“Fine. I’ll cut to the chase. You know the Christmas Gala we were gabbing about going to the other day?”
“Yes. I just fired off our RSVP finally.”
“Excellent! I will be sure to see you there. Now, for the juicy bit: the Welshes putting it on have a little strumpet coming home to rejoin the flock. I don’t expect you to know who Cassandra Welsh is, dear, but you should ask your husband about her. Particularly before you give birth to his legitimate heirs.”
Alice didn’t stay on the phone for much longer. She hung up when polite to do so, handed the phone back to Ms. Clayborn, and turned to her husband. “Who is Cassandra and why should I be asking you about her?”
Two of the women around them sucked in their breaths before walking away from the couch. Dee, the only other one left, finished her coffee and leaned back in her chair. Her break would be over soon, but until then, she would look on with only mild interest. (Even so, she was still looking on, and enjoying every moment of this.)
Damon put down his coffee cup and cleared his throat. “I have no idea who you are talking about.”
“Apparently she is one of the Welshes. I know I’m not the most up to date on some of the older, more reclusive families around here, but I have a feeling I should know who that is and what she has to do with you. So, spill it.”
Her husband gestured to her mug. “Finish your tea and I’ll finish my coffee. I’ll tell you in the car.”
“Oh, so it’s that juicy?”
“I said I’ll tell you later.”
Alice didn’t challenge him. For now. She figured – and she would be right – that her husband didn’t want to air whatever dirty laundry he had concerning Cassandra out in the open air for everyone to smell. Apparently Alisha and Ms. Clayborn knew enough to immediately keep their distance. Ex-girlfriend, Alice surmised. She was close to the truth, but quickly stopped thinking about it when she looked over and found her husband going through the ultrasound photos of their daughter.
“She’s got hands already, huh?”
Anyone else would have heard that tone in his voice and assumed he was being sarcastic, but Damon was not the king of sarcasm like some of his contemporaries were. Besides, the intense gaze in his eyes and the folding of his fingers around the delicate photos rightly implied that he was, in fact, amazed at what was occurring in his wife’s body. Damon could never a remember a time he was around a pregnant woman as much as he was around his wife. All of this was completely new to him, a man who never had to worry about getting pregnant and often slept with women who were too concerned with not having kids at the moment that purposely getting knocked up almost never crossed their minds. Just like he had been Alice’s first sexual partner, she had been his first in many things as well.