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It was one of the Waldorf’s smaller banquet rooms, but every bit as elegant as all the rest. Each circular table had a thin, tall vase with balls of white hydrangeas erupting from the top. He’d have to find a vase like that for his home in the Hamptons. Cream-colored tablecloths stood out against the light blue carpeting. A chattering crowd surrounded a bar to their left. More subdued groups of 2 or 3 sipped cocktails and talked quietly over the sounds of jazz from a performer on a baby grand piano to their right. A long table with a microphone stood opposite the entrance, and the ship’s crew and their dates were already seated there, laughing together and ignoring everyone else.
Conor noticed that Marie was engrossed in what the captain was saying to her, in a way she hadn’t been on her date with Conor. But it wasn’t Marie that had him rattled. What made him wish he’d stayed home in bed with Charisse was a familiar half-cackle half-laugh that pierced his ears, causing pain to flare behind his right eye.
Becca stood five feet away with her hand on an older man’s arm. “God, I’ve missed the ruthlessness of New York. Chicago is so nice.” She said the word nice as if it might make her puke. Her empire waist blue gown hid her pregnancy well, but Conor could see she was rounder than he’d remembered. Her blonde hair was pulled tightly to the back of her head with bangs cut straight across her forehead. She turned to him as he walked through the door.
Elise’s blue eyes stopped him in his tracks. Elise had been dead for three years. He was looking into the eyes of her sister, not Elise.
He gripped Charisse’s hand hard and felt her other hand come up to the crook of his elbow.
“Is everything all right?” she asked.
He didn’t want Charisse to meet Becca tonight. He’d wanted to explain Elise’s death on his own terms. He was sure Becca wouldn’t accuse him of murder for all of the room to hear, or he’d cancel her party. Still, she might say crazy shit to Charisse if they were left alone.
“Don’t talk to Becca without me around,” he whispered. “That’s an order.”
Charisse gave a small gasp but had no time to protest.
“There you are,” said Becca, dropping the man’s arm and walking towards them. “Roy said you were coming, but I’m about to eat the freaking tablecloths I’m so hungry. You’d better not be this late to my party.”
“You came all the way out from Chicago for this? I didn’t even think you were a major shareholder.”
“I bought a ton when it bottomed out. Between you and Roy, I figured it’d get back on its feet. You’ve always been brilliant at business if nothing else. And I wanted to make sure everything is set for my party. Who’s the whore?” She grabbed an hors d’oeuvre off a tray that a waiter was carrying by.
Charisse dug her nails into the crook of his elbow. If he hadn’t had his tux on, he was sure she’d have ripped his skin.
“Apologize right now,” he said.
Becca rolled her eyes. “I’m sorry. It’s not personal. I’ve just decided to hate anyone dating my brother-in-law.”
“You’ll play nice, or I’ll cancel the party.”
“Fine. I’m Becca. My sister was married to him before she died.” She held out her hand.
Charisse dropped his hand and shook Becca’s. “I’m Charisse LaRouche.”
“LaRouche, huh? I saw Marie’s Instagram pictures of her and Conor. I guess some sisters really do share everything. I always refused Elise’s sloppy seconds.”
Charisse withdrew her hand and grabbed Conor’s again. He wanted to step out of the room and on outside to his car. He shouldn’t have dragged Charisse to this.
“And where’s your fiance?” said Conor, trying to steer the conversation away from Charisse.
“He’s busy wrapping up business in Chicago. He’ll be here for the party though. Is Raul on top of it?”
“Charisse, Conor,” said Roy, crossing the room to them. “What took you so long? Never mind. I don’t want to know. Charisse, you look beautiful like I knew you would. I don’t know why you never want to come to these things. I need you two up at the head table. Becca, so glad you could make it. Thanks for having the faith to invest so much in us.”
Conor never thought he’d be glad to see Roy, but relief flooded his muscles. He allowed Roy to pull them away from Becca without even questioning how happy Roy seemed.
Charisse stopped to give Marie a hug, but they’d barely gotten through a “where have you been” conversation before Roy broke them up to start the dinner.
They sat near the podium. Conor leaned in and said, “I’m really sorry about Becca. I didn’t realize she’d be here. Are you okay?”
“At least I know where I stand with her. It’s the backstabbing that I hate the most.” She stared back at him with defiance in her brown eyes.
He placed his hand on her cheek, leaned in and kissed her perfect lips. “I’ll make it up to you. We’ll have dinner. I need to say a few words, and then we’re gone.”
“I just wish we were sitting out in the crowd. People are staring.”
“Because you’re the most beautiful woman in the room.” He wanted to tell her how much he cared about her, but instead he kissed her again.
She wrapped her fingers around his hand on her lap and pressed her lips a little harder against his.
Someone’s hand landed on his shoulder. He pulled away to look up and see Roy.
Roy said, “That’s my daughter. Have some self-control, for her reputation if not yours.”
“Daddy!” whispered Charisse.