Well, the other reason is because his darling (and too pregnant for him to ignore) wife Alice wanted to come. Her only exposure to the Welshes so far were when the patriarch and matriarch came to their home to congratulate them on their marriage and baby, as was customary whether they got along or not. (Damon swore that they had a friendly relationship with the Welshes, but that might change after tonight.)

If Judith is allergic to boredom, then Lana Andrews will simply die if she doesn’t get into everyone’s business. Who does Damon Monroe think he is, scaring away all the good conversation? Like that man has anything to contribute to the dinner table aside from comments about the stock market, his businesses, and the latest playroom he’s designed in his marital getaway pad. This is hardly the place to discuss sex – even Lana can see that. She and her husband exchange enough bored glances to make them fall asleep. Where the fuck is Cassandra? How soon can Lana get up and find someone to harass? The Coles are hurting for some teasing. It’s also been a while since she last goaded Ian and Kathryn. And who is that hauntingly handsome specimen of manhood that the sex worker Judith King is rubbing herself all over? Could Lana get a turn, while her husband watches, of course?


“More booze, please.” She shakes her empty glass in front of Ken’s face. “I need to get fucked up before I find out I’m a stepmother.”

Ken takes her glass and fills it from the fresh bottle of champagne they’ve been given. “You’re the hottest evil stepmother in this whole room.”

“I better be! That kid is going to boarding school until it’s 18, and then we’re shipping it off to college.”

“I don’t get any say in it? That’s my child we’re talking about.”

“Not when you’re married to me, Kenny. Remember? We decided that if any Kennethlings enter the picture, I get to make all the executive decisions about their fates.”

“That was assuming you’re the mother.”

“Mother… stepmother… in a perfect world they’re the same thing.” Lana knocks back the glass of champagne and burps into the back of her hand. “Not that I want any real parenting responsibilities, mind you.”

“So you want to make all the decisions without any of the responsibility?”

“Isn’t that how men have been doing it for hundreds of years?”

This is the kind of conversation Damon has been hoping to avoid, but thanks to his wife’s friendship with the Andrews, it is inevitable. He politely ignores Ken and Lana, keeping his hand on Alice’s lap or, even better, on her stomach as his eyes scour the room for anyone who wants to fuck with his family. Alice keeps returning to her phone, having discovered that the last name Monroe precludes her from fully enjoying this party. The Christmas season has her fretting over next Christmas, when her daughter will be a few months old and big enough, and, if Damon gets his impatient way, Alice will already be in the first trimester of her next pregnancy. Alice had underestimated the need for “an heir and a spare” around those parts until she overheard her husband and gyno talking after one appointment.

Even so, Alice looks over the party, wishing to join the animated conversation happening at one table or at least looking beautiful with a bevy of blondes at another. Yet another table holds some couples she doesn’t know, and both men are very attractive. Were they the ones from the west coast? Would it be uncouth to invite them to her office to discuss some kind of business? Or would Damon get jealous again? (When wasn’t he jealous lately? Alice was already waddling when she walked, yet her husband remained convinced that she was so stunning that half the male population around them were conspiring to get her into bed.)

Alice will soon feel better, however. For someone is about to make her grand entrance, and one of those tables she’s looking so fondly upon will have their worlds completely rocked to hell and back.

***

Cassandra knows that she’s the biggest topic of conversation in the room. She knows why, too. Her mother made sure she damn well knew when they met each other in one of the back rooms, Madam Welsh expressing her great disappointment that Cassandra is willing to risk the family’s reputation by even showing her face.

She has no idea just how far Cassandra is willing to go tonight.

One last look at her pictures of baby Patrick give her the strength necessary to walk out into the ballroom and act as the trained heiress she is.

Boarding school, finishing school, ladylike lessons from her childhood governess… as much as Cassandra resents these things as a child, she is grateful for them now. Her nerves shake within her, but she will persevere thanks to the training that lends her a reliable autopilot mode. People gasp at her appearance. They point, they whisper, they invite her to come over and say hello for the first time in years. Cassandra, however, is not here to mingle and make nice with the people she left behind when she fled to the Pacific Northwest in search of privacy. She’s got too much riding on her life – her son’s life – to take part in these frivolities.

Her eyes search the room for one man in particular. A dear old friend. A man she once thought she could love – and perhaps loved her. He is with someone else now. Any feelings he had for Cassandra are strictly platonic, regardless of what they might have once had.

Instead, she sees every other man she has shared her heart and bed with. Some of them make eye contact with her and instantly look away again. Others cough into their hands and pretend that whatever their wives and girlfriends say is so much more interesting than anything Cassandra offers.

She bypasses the table where the Monroes and Andrews perch. Both men look her right in the eyes, but only one moves. Ken Andrews looks open to a conversation, but Cassandra doesn’t dare, because Damon Monroe is glaring into her soul as if she is personally out to destroy his life.

“Hello,” she greets an old family friend. She shakes his hand long enough to be polite before continuing her trek past the other tables. Some of the people in attendance are ones she never thought she would see again. Like Joseph Montoya, a man of means from Portland who offered her a night of escape when she first moved back west. He had been hurting during their time together as well. So had Vincent Lane, the man sitting next to him. Cassandra barely remembers them. She is glad to bypass Vincent’s scowl of heartbreak and instead look upon other people she remembers with more fondness, like Henry Warren, who was always kind to her even when their relationship was nothing more than carnal. But he’s with his new wife and the mother of his child now, and while Cassandra does not doubt that the new Lady Warren would be nothing short of courteous to her, there is too much curiosity in that woman’s eyes. She wants to pick Cassandra apart and pick through everything that makes her… her.

If Cassandra wants to speak with a real friend, she will veer toward one of the more interesting tables occupied by a colorful cast of characters she never thought she would see in the same vicinity. Ironically, she has only slept with one of these men before, and it’s the one she considers one of her better friends.

“Cassandra.” Seth jerks against his chair when she appears before him. The rest of the table grows quiet. So, the rumors were true? Cassandra’s reserved and logical ex is in a hot relationship with one of the biggest courtesans in the nation? Well, she won’t begrudge him of his happiness. Goodness knows she could use some of her own right now. “How are you? Haven’t seen or heard from you in a long time.”

She nods in greeting. Seth is one of the few men in the room she’ll go out of her way to talk to for no other reason than he deserves at least that much from her. “I’m fine, thank you. I take it that you are doing well too?”

“Uh, yeah…”

The man is too gobsmacked to give her a proper answer. Judith the courtesan – and his girlfriend, lest Cassandra forgets – puts a protective hand on his leg. Cassandra can’t believe she has not only slept with this woman, but once confided one of her biggest secrets to her. Or was that Sylvia? Sitting at the other table? With Joseph? Really? What a small world. “I’ll be in town a few days. We should have lunch.”

His face pales to the point Cassandra knows she must clear up one thing.

“As friends and nothing more, of course. There are many things I’d like your advice on before I return to Seattle. If you’re available, of course.”

“Sure. You have my number.”

Cassandra turns and leaves before anyone can question her motives. Everyone at that table thought she was going to confront poor Seth about being the father of little Patrick, an infant nobody even knew existed until a few weeks ago.

She knows this is not the appropriate event for this discussion, but she’s afraid of her family. Not that they’ll hurt her or her son, but that they’ll somehow interfere with her dying need to get the truth out. Patrick has the right to know who his father is growing up. That father has the right to know that his son exists. Cassandra doesn’t want money. She wants the truth to be known. She only hopes that the father will be a willing participant in her son’s life, however that man wants to define it.

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