The moment he chose his destination was clear; he straightened his shoulders, adjusted his tie – and then paused uncharacteristically, looking back at her.

“Is everything all right, Deanna?”

Had she been that obvious? Perhaps he had noticed the sharpness in her voice as she fielded Perry’s criticisms before the guests arrived. Or maybe she hadn’t hidden her disdain for this formal affair as well as she’d hoped.

“Everything is fine, Christian.”

She offered him her best hostess smile but was unable to hold his gaze for fear her longing would tumble out of her mouth. I’m dying here. I want to have fun. I want to get dirty. I don’t always want to be a perfect corporate wife. I want to know why there is no barbeque sauce at this barbeque. Is it too much to ask for a little KC Masterpiece? Some Sweet Baby Ray’s, for the love of Christ?

Her eyes drifted past her husband and then snapped back to him. He leaned casually against an edge of the outdoor fireplace, wine glass in one hand, the other gesturing lazily. It wasn’t this that bothered her. It was that he was talking to Sheila Harding. Again. Always. At every damn function lately. Her cocktail dress was just short of scandalous, which contrarily seemed to draw to her in droves both the men and the rumor-sucking, snark-mongering women. Had Deanna worn such a dress, she’d be socially crucified.

“Everything is fine,” she repeated, her tone hard. A quick glance at him showed he had followed her line of vision – and wasn’t pleased himself. Perhaps he’d taken more notice of Sheila Harding than he’d let on.

And now she saw the moment he adjusted his priorities. She wished she could rewind the night just a few seconds, take the bite out of her reply, look anywhere but at Perry standing there with Sheila Harding – because she hated that Christian was revising his plans because of her, hated that he did so only because he was her children’s godfather. Hated that she was an obligation to anyone, especially this man who had made it so obviously clear over the years of their casual association that he couldn’t care less about her than he currently did. Hated most of all the feeling of failure that gave her, the empty hole inside her caused by his indifference. She’d known Perry for eight years, and in those years she had not cracked through Christian’s shell, had not been able to win even a modicum of warmth from her husband’s best friend.

But none of that would stop him. While these regrets had cycled through her mind, Christian had started across the patio to Perry and Sheila, and was now inserting himself into their conversation. Deanna didn’t miss the flash of irritation that came and went so quickly on Perry’s face, or the false ring of bonhomie as he laughed at something Christian said and thumped his friend on the shoulder.

A queasy dread coiled through her stomach, rioting with the kebab and bite of rice pilaf she had taken in the kitchen, where none of her guests would see their hostess actually being so crass as to eat at her own barbeque. The dread was nothing new; it had befriended her weeks ago, although she couldn’t say just what had invited it. Perhaps it had been all the extra client meetings that brought Perry home late or took him off to work on a weekend day. Or maybe it was that tie she’d never seen before that had suddenly appeared around his neck, or possibly his too-pat explanation for it. Rupert Benton gave it to me. His wife bought it for him, and he despises it. Couldn’t wait to get rid of it.

No, she was sure it was none of those things by itself, but all of them compiled. She might have been able to shrug it off but for that day six weeks ago when she’d run into Christian outside a downtown coffee shop – when he was supposed to be at a sales retreat with Perry. There had been nothing in his explanation to give her cause for suspicion, but a certain tension in his demeanor sounded a deafening Klaxon alarm in her head. He’d said he had left early because he hadn’t wanted or needed to stay. Yet Perry had said attendance for the full weekend was mandatory.

Without conscious decision, she found herself moving toward the trio on the patio. Christian turned as though sensing her approach, but other than a slight widening of his dark eyes, his careful expression of good humor never altered. He shifted his position slightly, and Perry jolted as though electrocuted. He draped an arm around her shoulders, drawing her into his little gathering, but Deanna still felt like an outsider, especially when she glanced up to find Perry sliding look at Sheila that seemed loaded with meaning.

She looked at Christian. He wasn’t smiling. In fact, he looked uncomfortable and troubled and a little angry. She held herself rigid under Perry’s arm, wishing the patio would open up and swallow her whole.

Because she was suddenly, incontrovertibly certain that her husband was sleeping with Sheila Harding.


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