By: Sarah Mayberry

Beneath his arm, her shoulders were stiff with tension. She’d been tense a lot lately. A little distant, too. It had been nearly three weeks since she’d stayed a night at his place—not an ice-age, but a sign, if a person was looking for it, that all was not as it should be. Especially with a wedding on the horizon.

“Everything is going okay? There’s nothing more I can do?” he asked.

It wasn’t what he wanted to ask, but Elizabeth was hard to pin down sometimes. She tended to keep things to herself and puzzle them out on her own. Since it was something he did himself, he could hardly criticize her for it—but that didn’t stop him from being frustrated when she kept him at arm’s length.

“Everything is pretty much taken care of. Violet has been a rock. I don’t know what I would have done if she hadn’t kept pointing me in the right direction.”

He was aware that Violet had put herself at Elizabeth’s disposal in the lead up to the wedding. He couldn’t fault Violet for that—she’d been incredibly generous with her time and energy.

One point in her favor.

“It looks a little crowded,” Elizabeth said as they approached the bar.

She shot him a doubtful look. She knew he wasn’t overly fond of noisy bars and clubs. On the other hand, this had been Elizabeth’s suggestion, and Violet’s words were still ringing in his ears.

You should sneak out of here, too, and take E somewhere fun. Reward her for being such a stoic.

He didn’t like the idea that Elizabeth had simply been enduring the fundraiser and not enjoying herself. True, he hadn’t been having a ball himself, but that was beside the point.

“I’m sure we can negotiate ourselves a corner somewhere,” he said.

Elizabeth smiled and he knew he’d said the right thing. He held the door open and they walked into a dim space with a low ceiling. As luck would have it, two women were vacating stools at the bar as he and Elizabeth wove their way through the crowd and they were able to secure seats immediately.

“Perfect,” Elizabeth said, glancing around with bright, interested eyes.

“Champagne? Brandy?” he asked.

“I’ll have a Frangelico on the rocks, please.” She swiveled in her seat and stood. “I won’t be a moment.”

She headed for the restrooms. Martin caught the bartender’s eye and ordered a Scotch for himself and Elizabeth’s Frangelico. He settled into his seat, glancing around the bar with the mildest of curiosity. He knew without asking that he had nothing in common with these people. Almost to a person they were under thirty, fashionably dressed and out for a good time. They’d probably never gone hungry in their lives. Certainly they’d never had to work two jobs to put themselves through University. Like Violet, they probably took all of life’s gifts for granted.

He frowned, irritated with himself for thinking about her again. He was fully aware that she enjoyed provoking him—hence the strip routine in the back of his car. He refused to spare her another moment’s thought, since it seemed to him that that was what she wanted—any and all attention she could garner for herself. Everyone’s eyes on her. Why else would she wear such short skirts and such high heels? Why else would she have gone to a party tonight in a tiny black top made of silk so sheer that anyone could see at a glance that her small, rounded breasts were unhindered by a bra, her nipples clearly outlined by the soft fabric?

He reached for his drink and glanced over his shoulder toward the restrooms, willing Elizabeth to return. His shoulders dropped with relief as she exited the door marked with a silhouette of a woman. She met his eyes across the bar and the tight, irritated feeling in his gut and chest eased. He could tolerate a million Violets if it meant having Elizabeth in his life.

She was the important thing. Nothing else.

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