When I don’t reply, Henry goes on.
“I took a theology course in university—a discussion of the concept of heaven and hell. One theory is that heaven is being in the presence of God, having the light of his face shine down upon you. And hell is when he turns away and leaves you—and you know you’ll never feel the perfection of that warmth and love again.” His voice lowers. “That is what Nicholas is like. When he shines on you, the whole world is shining. But when he’s disappointed—and because his standards are higher than God’s, he will always, eventually, be disappointed…that is a fresh, cold hell.”
It’s hard to swallow. Nerves, I guess. Fear of the unknown.
So I cling to my truth.
“That’s not the Nicholas I know.”
“Yes, he is different with you. Happier. More…free.” Henry rests his hand on my knee. “But you must remember—whether you know it or not—that’s the man he is.”
After dinner, another stylist shows up to get me ready for the party. She blows my hair out into long, silky tresses and coils the ends into big, bouncy curls. But I do my makeup myself—I don’t like feeling too gooped up.
Nicholas doesn’t seem excited about going—“required to make an appearance,” he says. But he’s very excited about my dress—a shimmery, gray slip-dress that swoops in front, offering a peek of cleavage.
Around nine, we pull up to a mansion on a hill. No, not a mansion, an estate—with a historic-looking house about half the size of the palace, but still enormous. Security swarms—secret service–type men in tuxedos wearing little wire earpieces, but Nicholas still brings his own men, with James now leading the pack.
Nicholas holds my hand—I’m not sure if that qualifies as “PDA,” but he doesn’t seem concerned. He leads me through a cavernous foyer, down a hall, through the open doors of a ballroom. And into a casino! A fully stocked, even better-than-Vegas, wood-gaming-tables, giant-betting-wheel casino. The room is crowded, with groups of elegantly dressed people, every one young and beautiful, shouting and laughing and drinking.
I’m surprised I’m able to spot him so easily, but I see Henry by the bar, looking not quite as dashing as his brother, but handsome in a black tuxedo—surrounding by a group of men and women hanging on his every word.
“So, what do you think?” Nicholas whispers against my ear, giving me goose bumps.
“I think…I know how Alice felt when she fell into Wonderland.”
He winks. “We’re all mad here.”
A swirl of red silk flashes in front of my eyes—engulfing Nicholas in a boisterous hug. She has thick, honey-colored hair and is as tall as Nicholas—like an Amazon woman and every bit as stunning. It’s the girl from the “marriage watch” piece on television and the People magazine pictures—the “old friend” Nicholas mentioned.
“There you are, you bloody sod! I blink and you disappear to the States for two months. How are the hell are you?”
Nicholas smiles. “Hello, Ezzy. I’m very well.”
Brandy eyes, as sparkly as the dangling rubies in her earrings, fall to me. “I see that. Aren’t you a pretty little thing.”
Nicholas introduces us. “Lady Esmerelda, this is Olivia Hammond. Olivia, meet Ezzy.”
She shakes my hand in a friendly grip. “Lovely to meet you, sweets. Tell me, are you a virgin?”
Nicholas groans. “Ezzy.”
“What? I’m just making conversation.” She elbows him. “If you want a shot at this sorry sack, the V-card has to be in pristine condition. Is it, Olivia?”
I stand up tall. “Does anal count? If it does, I qualify.”
Esmerelda’s red lips open wide in a contagious laugh.
“I like this one, Nicky.”
Nicholas laughs too, and something like pride glows in his green eyes.
“So do I.”
He grabs two glasses of wine off a waiter’s tray and hands me one.
But then another woman approaches us—another blond in a royal-blue gown, with soft, pretty features and ice-blue eyes. A sedate, uncomfortable silence falls over Nicholas and Ezzy.
“Hello, Nicholas.” Her voice is delicate—like a wind chime.
Nicholas nods. “Lucy.”
Her eyes fix on me. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your new toy?”
His jaw tightens. “No, I’m not.”
She gives a tiny shrug. “No matter.” She holds out her hand. “I am Lady Deringer, and you are?”
“I heard about you. The coffee waitress.” Her mouth purses and her gaze flicks to Nicholas. “You always did enjoy slumming it, didn’t you, darling?”
It’s the “darling” that gets to me—that pokes at the flesh of my heart like a thorn.
“That’s enough, Lucy,” Nicholas says sternly, in that deep, authoritarian voice.
It has no effect on her, at all.
“No, I don’t think it is enough,” she hisses like a cornered cat. “Not even close.”
Her eyes slide back to me and she leans in.
“He’ll crush you, you know. It’s what he does. Breaks you, then crushes you into dust with the heel of his shiny shoe.”
It’s the way she says it that’s most disturbing. Gently. And smiling.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, Lucille, get over it,” Ezzy barks, waving her hand. “Be gone before somebody drops a house on you.”