She begins to lose her nerve. No, no, her mother will catch on as soon as she sees her daughter going in a certain direction. Now is the time. Now, before Madam Welsh causes the electricity to go out at the biggest party of the year.

Cassandra approaches one of the last tables that hold any interest for her. She wishes she could completely avoid the faces of Ian Mathers and Kathryn Alison. Ian was such a mistake, wasn’t he? The man hadn’t cared for her at all. Clearly, though, he has changed, if he has managed to keep a woman like Kathryn for so long. Speaking of her… God, isn’t it embarrassing? Kathryn and Cassandra used to hang out in the same social circles, but they were never friends. They were more likely to trade bored glances than to have conversations. Now here they all are, pretending to care about each other’s lives. Isn’t that how it goes?

She can’t even bring herself to look at Eva Warren and whoever she is touting to be her girlfriend. They are inconsequential.

“Good evening, everyone,” Cassandra says, attempting to hide the tremble in her voice. “Thank you for coming to my parents’ party tonight. I know that they’re grateful you could attend when you all have such busy lives outside of this ballroom.”

Nobody is buying her shit. They have been watching her move around the room, never stopping longer than five seconds at any table. She has already spent half a minute at theirs. Nobody is saying hi.

Nobody except James, the man who claimed to be one of her best friends before she up and left without a trace.

“Cassie.” His knees bump into the bottom of the table as he attempts to get up and reach out to her. “How are you? Where have you been all this time?”

She takes a deep breath. “Hello, James. Hello, Gwendolyn.” How could she ever forget Gwen, the woman James has been with for what… six… seven years? Have they finally gotten married? Or is James still too irresponsible?

Cassandra seriously hopes he isn’t.

“Could I speak with you private, James?”

The whole table is dead silent.

The whole ballroom is dead silent.

James throat is dry. But why? He would be the first to testify that he has never been intimate with Cassandra. He is one of the few men in the room who had nothing to fear when he walked in. In fact, wasn’t he one of the ones enjoying the show erupting around them? What could Cassandra possibly have to say to him in private?

Exactly what everyone is thinking.

Scene 12

The Mitchell-Meranges

Gwen has dealt with a lot of bullshit during her seven year relationship with the richest prankster in the region. Usually she comes around to finding said bullshit funny, charming, or at least a fun memory to share at parties.

This is definitely, most certainly, absolutely not one of those times.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” she hisses at James, now in the privacy of a sitting room in the back of the venue. “You’re a father?”

“I swear to God, Gwenny…”

“Don’t call me that. I’m too pissed off to let you call me that.”

Gwen stalks around the small room like an enraged tiger trapped in a cage. The walls are closing in on her. Because it would be one thing if James had become a father before they met.

But by every bit of math she does, one thing is for sure: she was in a relationship with this man when this child was supposedly conceived.

What a fucking Christmas.

“Obviously there will be a paternity test.” When James decides to be serious, he can be as formidable as his contemporaries. Gwen used to love that he wasn’t as serious as those men. He took his privilege and turned it into hilarity. The only son of his family’s hefty fortune, James has spent his whole life trying to find more meaning than money and work.

Apparently, an affair was one of those things.

“I never had sex with her. I can’t believe you’d even consider that.”

“How the fuck do I not consider it when she’s saying you fathered her child that nobody even knew about?” Gwen certainly hadn’t known. As for James? He had an inkling from the moment Cassandra left in the dead of night. After all, alongside Seth Christens, he was her closest male friend. James was as betrayed as Gwen right now.

And humiliated.

Good God were they humiliated.

Nobody bothered to hide their gossip the moment the three retreated into a private room. Even the table from whence they ran was murmuring over the scandal. James! Cheating on Gwen! With Cassandra! Fathering an illicit child! Gwen burning in humiliation. James? Same.

Because, dear reader, before you think the worst of James Merange, know this: he did not, in fact, ever sleep with Cassandra.

But at the same time? Cassandra has not lied. From the moment her son was born, she saw the face one of her former friends. Your humble narrator can confirm that Mr. Merange is the biological father of Patrick Welsh. A secret that, until now, was going to be taken to the grave by both Madam and Mr. Welsh, the pair that had conspired to make this happen.

You don’t need me to explain this right now, because poor Gwen could really use someone who is just as confused as she is.

And Cassandra can explain everything perfectly fine on her own.

She has been standing next to the doorway while watching this established couple go down in heretical flames. They may not have married after several years together, but they are – were – in love, content to keep things as they are until life decides otherwise. Wasn’t this life making that decision now? Was it punishing James for never formally asking Gwen to marry him? Punishing Gwen for never putting out hints that she wanted marriage? Punishing them both for continuing to live a life of sin and frivolity? What had they done to deserve this breech in love and trust?

Sometimes life can’t explain how it’s gone the way it has. No answers exist. Not the kind Gwen is searching for, and definitely not the kind that can assure James that this is some terrible mistake. All they know is that someone has most definitely been betrayed.

“I can explain,” Cassandra says. “You won’t like my explanation, but I can at least explain what has happened.”

“I don’t want to hear your fucking explanations.” Gwen attempts to leave. The only reason James blocks her is because he knows he is innocent, and he must believe that Gwen will come to know it as well.

“Please,” he says. “We better hear what she has to say. I know I’m curious to find out how I fathered this child when you’re the only woman I’ve been with for seven damn years.”

Gwen struggles against him, although her tears cloud her ability to put her athlete’s strength to proper use. One would never guess that Gwen Mitchell spends many of her days playing tennis and lifting weights with training buddies. How many times has she playfully pushed James with too much force? Now she can’t even shove him out of the way so she can escape from this hell.

“James and I have never done that.” Cassandra motions to the loveseat in a futile bid to get the couple to sit down. James places his hands on Gwen’s shoulders and escorts her to the chair. Not that he wants to sit next to Cassandra on the loveseat, but it’s probably for the best that Gwen sits by herself. “I can assure you that he has never betrayed your trust, or at least not to my knowledge.”

Is that supposed to make Gwen feel better? Is she supposed to automatically believe Cassandra because she said that? She would be a fool! “Go ahead, then. Explain to me how my partner has a child without touching another woman.”

“Yes, Cassie, it’s about time you tell me what’s going on.” James goes to stand up again, but Cassandra’s face flashes in mild surprise. No, no, she’s too flighty to spring sudden movements on. “If you think this is a joke, then it’s not funny at all.”

“I’m not joking.” Cassandra has foreseen this reaction, but seeing it happen before her almost frightens the once unshakable parts of her heart. She wishes to be back home in Seattle, lying in the warmth of her bedroom with her son near her heart. But even though she has given birth to the boy and claims the responsibility of loving and caring for him, she remains firm to the truth that it would be wrong to keep his existence from James. “I have an infant son who was biologically fathered by you, James. I thought you had a right to know. If it were up to my family, you would never known that Patrick is yours.”

“You’re telling me I have a son named Patrick?” James shakes his head.

“His name is Patrick James.”

“Oh, of course it is.” Gwen can’t contain the laugh bubbling from within. “Next you’ll tell me it was immaculately conceived just in time for Christmas!”

“No. That would be silly.”

“Just tell us the truth, Cassie.”

She hurts to hear her old friend use that tone of voice with her. This was the man she once trusted more than any other. One of the first boys she crushed on, even before she found out that her mother and his father had a forbidden affair. Yet Cassandra had spent too much time waiting for James to make the first move. Had she made the mistake of attaching the title of “friend” to her name? Was it impossible for James to see her as anything more than the girl he grew up with? They came from the same world yet lived different lives. Even so, James was so easy-going that he would speak with Cassandra no matter how much time had passed. As he grew older, handsomer, and bolder with his personality, Cassandra became more insecure when he still showed no signs of wanting her.