Cassandra Welsh usually loves Christmas, if only because people tend to mind their tempers and set aside their quarrels for a few weeks. Families are reunited after so long apart. Children make their grand debuts as young adults. Charities rake in the most money of the year. Christmas photos are exchanged, champagne consumed, and jokes told with holiday vigor.

Yet this is her first Christmas filled with hardly any spirit.


She sits in front of her mirror, minding her golden makeup in the hopes it properly matches her Dolce & Gabbana gown specifically purchased for this gala. Black lace as tragic as her soul hugs her slender frame, covers her arms, and plunges down her neckline – not that she has a lot of cleavage to show off. A large, elegant keyhole in the back puts to rest any ideas that she’s dressed for a funeral. No, Cassandra is still the devilishly beautiful enchantress that so many men have fallen for. There’s no sense in being jealous of her when she has all the proper breeding and know-how to make men of her standing fall to their knees and beg to bed her for a night. Or many nights.

Her dark hair is pulled back into a bun, a display of gold and ebony entwined within. Her shoes are flat, but sophisticated. The only jewelry she wears is a ring with her family crest, a gold bracelet, and a gold locket containing a photo of her child.

She gets up once she is satisfied with her appearance. In the other room of her family’s city manor, a nanny plays with a small child who can barely do anything on its own. But Cassandra’s son is full of personality.

Personality that reminds her so much of his father.

Only Cassandra was able to narrow down the father to two or three candidates by the time her son was born. Within days of the event, she looked into the child’s pinkened face and knew, without the aid of a paternity test, who had the terrible honor of being this boy’s father.

“Everything is in order, ma’am,” the nanny says. Cassandra nods, kisses her son on his head, and leaves the house with her head held high. She is taking a private car to the gala, the driver the same man who has been driving her since her schooldays. Her parents have already gone ahead. Both of them discouraged their daughter from attending, but could not stop her once she let slip to the papers that she was making her grand return to the east coast. She has been hiding in the Pacific Northwest for much too long.

Her decisions have not been easy to make. As the car enters the bustling downtown hub of the city, she ruminates on the paths her life has taken in the past two years. She had fled this place when she realized she could not have a child out of wedlock and save face. Had she considered telling the possible fathers? Of course she had! Without a doubt Seth Christens and Henry Warren would have offered to marry her. The third man, however, would have seen his life turned completely upside down.

No, she couldn’t go through that. Her family arranged for her to have absolute privacy during her pregnancy and childbirth. The baby has managed to stay a secret thanks to the tight ship the Welshes run at home. The plan is to eventually announce Cassandra’s son as the progeny of a distant relative that the Welshes have decided to raise as their own. The thought has broken the mother’s heart.

Her parents didn’t know it, but tonight she would tell the father the truth. Preferably in private, but once the Welshes realize what she might be up to, she may have to take drastic measures. A woman could not live with such secrets bursting from her heart.

She entertains no fantasies that the man would marry her. She’s not even sure that he would want anything to do with their son’s life once the paternity tests confirm everything.

But she deserves to have the world acknowledge her as Patrick Welsh’s mother. She doesn’t care what it does to her reputation. What is it worth, anyway? She doesn’t work. She holds no great artistic ambitions like some of her former lovers. The worst that can happen is marrying for love instead of money one day. That is assuming Cassandra even cares anymore. Since fleeing the east coast, she has long abandoned her dreams of love and romance. She often thinks back on her past as embarrassing and a sign of her former immaturity.

Tonight she turns over a new leaf. For her own conscience, and for her son’s future.

***

The gala is comprised of elite people either trying to act too cool for socializing or letting it be an excuse to squeal and yell at people they haven’t seen all year.

“Look who finally came home!” Judith stands from her seat, her curve-hugging pink dress attracting every eye in the vicinity. She pulls Sylvia into an embrace that the other woman can hardly say is welcomed. Since when are she and Judith friends? (Since when is she friends with anyone but her boyfriend in this room?) “Holy shit, you look good!” Was that unexpected? Sylvia purposely wore one of her most classic little black dresses for the sole purpose of turning heads. “That lack of sun in Portland has done wonders for your skin.”

She insists that Sylvia and her boyfriend sit with them, but Sylvia in turn insists that they must sit with their other friends. So happens that other friends Vincent and Nala are saving them seats at a table that hosts none other than Monica Warren, a woman Sylvia hasn’t seen since she was last employed by her. (And before Monica got married and had a baby.) Much better to sit with them than deal with Judith and the man calling himself her boyfriend.

In truth, Judith only cares about ogling Joseph, a man she has heard a lot about. She deduces that Sylvia has bagged herself a veritable hottie, but still not as hot as her Miguel. But Judith always prefers her men to be bigger than life whenever possible.

“Any sign of Cassandra yet?” Sylvia mutters so only Judith can hear her. “I’m dying.”

“No. Nobody’s seen her, but we all know she’s coming. Fashionably late.”

“Really?” Seth says. “You two haven’t seen each other in over a year, and that’s all you can talk about?”

“Don’t mind him.” Judith pats him on the head and encourages him to have more bubbly champagne. “He’s bitter because he might be a baby-daddy.”

“And how do you feel about that?”

“What’s it to me?” Judith shrugs. “Not like I’m raising the kid. Can you imagine? Me with a kid?”

“Don’t put that out into the universe, please.”

Sylvia takes her boyfriend’s hand and pushes through the surge of bespoke tuxedos and designer winter dresses. Perfume she hasn’t had to inhale for months acts as a cloud welcoming her home to a world she has long thought left behind. It is also a world that the likes of Nala Nazarov will never get used to, let alone fit in with, and that always makes Sylvia’s day. (What? The two will have a friendly rivalry for the rest of their lives, and this is their playing field.)

“I’m so itchy.” Nala attacks the part of her glittery red halter dress wrapping behind her neck. Someone has not thought through what kind of material she’s pressing against her skin. “Don’t think I’m going to last the rest of the night.” She decides to stop complaining and act like the most unbothered woman in the universe once Sylvia sits next to her. Sylvia would never complain about such trifling things, and Nala is not about to let it become fodder for their petty arguments. The fact that their boyfriends always chummily greet one another with those stupid bro-hugs and hand slaps will forever irk them.

“It’s so nice to be back here for a visit.” Sylvia’s smile can’t get any faker. “Especially since I haven’t seen you in forever.”

Monica Warren, who has just sat down on the other side of the rectangular table bedecked with silk tablecloths, solid gold candlesticks, and freshly picked poinsettia bouquets, cannot mask her surprise at seeing her former employee. “I had heard you were coming back, Sylvia, but didn’t think we would see you so soon. Let alone at the same table.”

“Nala and I are practically best friends.” They side-hug each other with tenuous smiles. Someone’s fingers dig into the other’s thigh with a warning, and it cannot be guessed who has done such a thing.

“I’m glad to hear that you’re thriving like a bird freshly flown from the cage.”

“And I hear that you haven’t done too badly for yourself this past year. Sorry I couldn’t make it to your wedding. You and Henry were always such a handsome couple.”

“Speaking of handsome…” Monica, who always makes it a point to know every gorgeous man of means, cannot help herself once she gets a good look at Joseph’s tanned skin and the way his lean yet muscular runner’s body fits into his tuxedo. “Who is this dashing gentleman you bring around these parts?”

Introductions make the rounds, since the likes of the Warrens and the Coles – who occupied the final two seats at the table – have never met Joseph before. He makes sure to shake everyone’s hands with the firm grip his father taught him to use. His mother may have reinforced that idea a few times in his adult life. While Monica is always polite to a fault, Jasmine Cole makes the rookie mistake of smiling like a loon in love as soon as she touches Joseph’s hand and finds out he’s a detective. Like a police officer!

“Really?” Ethan mumbles. The rule of alpha manhood now dictates that Ethan, who has nothing else to go by regarding Joseph Montoya’s personality and ethics, regard Joseph with trepidation for the rest of their lives. He doesn’t feel bad about this because he does not doubt that Joseph would feel the same way about his girlfriend giggling over Ethan’s presence.

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