Marston

December 25th, before

There are moments where the divide between the relationship I have with my girlfriend and the one I want feels so vast that I wonder if we’re just fooling ourselves. This is never as apparent as on days like today, when I’m setting the table for her family’s Christmas dinner and pretending we’re not even friends.

“Marston,” Lori says softly from the opposite side of the table.

I pull my eyes off the double windows at the front of the dining room, ignoring the car that just pulled into the Knoxes’ circle drive so I can focus on the place setting in front of me. I don’t really want to see Roman sucking up to Brinley’s parents anyway. Not that he needs to. It seems like he’s earned their unconditional approval just for being born rich.

“You keep focused today,” Lori says quietly. “I know this isn’t easy.”

I meet her gaze. What exactly does she know? “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

She scoffs. “I’m in this house as often as you are,” she says with a purse of her lips. “You’re playing with fire like you’re the only one who’ll end up hurt.”

“I’m not . . .” I shake my head. I don’t want to lie, and I don’t want to get Brinley in trouble. So, like always, I choose secrets. “I’ll do fine today. I promise.”

Lori gives me a quick nod of approval and then goes back to filling water glasses.

“Brinley, Roman’s here,” Mr. Knox calls from the front door. “Roman, you should really stay for dinner.”

“Coming,” Brinley calls from the den. I can’t help but look as the sound of her steps come closer. She flashes me a smile as she passes the dining room with her sister, Brittany, hot on her heels. There’s so much in that smile—our secret little language—that for a second I almost forget how much I hate the guy waiting for her at the door.

Aunt Lori clears her throat, and I get back to work.

“I wanted to bring you a present,” Roman says from the foyer, and I stiffen.

“You didn’t need to do that,” Brinley says. I wonder if she sounds so uncomfortable because she really wishes he hadn’t or because she knows I can hear their conversation.

“Of course I did,” Roman said. “Christmas is about spoiling the people who matter to you.”

I clench my teeth so tightly my jaw aches. He’s really laying it on thick for her parents.

“Open it, Brin,” Brittany says.

I focus on lining up the knife with the opposite fork and try to ignore the sound of tearing wrapping paper.

“Oh my God, that’s so romantic!” Brittany croons. “Brinley, put it on! It’s perfect.”

“What a beautiful gift,” Mrs. Knox says. “Roman, this is so thoughtful. Brinley, this’ll look just stunning on you.”

I reach for another wine glass, trying to hide what a fucking mess I am, but I feel like I can’t breathe while I wait for the sound of Brinley’s voice. When it finally comes, it’s quiet, but not so quiet I can’t hear. “Thank you, Roman. You shouldn’t have.”

“Why don’t you two go to the study for some privacy?” Mrs. Knox says.

Glass shatters at my feet before I realize what’s happened.

I dropped it. I dropped a wine glass.

Mrs. Knox runs into the room, eyes wide as she stares at the shattered crystal at my feet. Roman and Brinley follow shortly behind, and Roman smirks at me. The message is clear in that one little expression. You’re the help. I’m the one they want to see their daughter with.

“Marston,” Lori says. “What happened?”

“I just . . . It slipped. I’m sorry.”

Roman puts a hand on Mrs. Knox’s shoulder. “It’s hard to find good help these days, isn’t it? My parents are struggling with this too. One second they’re careless with the china, and the next, the silver is missing.”

My face is so hot, and I hate Roman more than I’ve ever hated anyone—for making this moment worse, for being such a dick every time I see him, but mostly for being the kind of guy Brinley’s parents want for her.

“Roman,” Brinley says. “This was an accident.”

Mrs. Knox lifts her eyes, and her lip curls as she looks at me. Roman’s message is clear. I can’t be trusted. I’m not just beneath them—I’m so low I’m not even worthy to serve them.

“I was standing right here, ma’am,” Lori says, her gaze flicking to mine. “It slipped.”

“This is my good crystal,” Mrs. Knox says, “and I’ll be taking the funds to replace it from your wages.”

I bow my head. “I understand.”

Mrs. Knox gives Lori a cold stare. “I suggest you be more selective on who you bring in for seasonal help. Just because he can do the physical labor required in the gardens doesn’t mean he’s a good fit for in-home help.” With that, she stomps away.

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