Chapter Twenty-One

Tristan followed his sister into the foyer of their home, hauling two of their suitcases. Carrie fairly skipped through the door, an eager smile on her face as she unwound the long, white scarf she had thrown around her neck haphazardly.

Home at last. The Harland mansion wasn't a particularly extravagant place, unlike the other McMansions that tend to spring up along the far vicinity of their neighborhood, but their home was big enough. A three-storied Queen Anne Victorian, it featured butter yellow walls and arched windows with simple dentil moldings along the roofline of the house. Around the back of the house laid their garden and the conservatory where lilies were kept in bloom year round. The flower had been their mother's favorite and their father liked to see it in the house whenever he came home.

"Rosie?" Carrie called out. "We're home!"

There was a loud bang from somewhere at the end of the house and then a high-pitched feminine squeal. The pitch vibrated as the sound drew closer and closer to them until their housekeeper burst into view at the end of the open doorway.

A stout, plump woman with a short crop of grey curls that framed her flushed face like a bonnet clasped her hands to her lips. Rosie was their longtime housekeeper and cook as well as their family friend. She'd watch both of them grow up and in many ways, she was very much like a grandmother to them. "My babies!"

Tristan smiled in amusement. "Hi, Rosie."

Quickly, she wiped her hands up and down the pink checkered apron she was wearing and then threw open her arms. "Give me a hug," she demanded.

Carrie laughed and ran into the woman's arms and Rosie's lips rained down on the girl's cheek in loud smacks. "You're all bones." She directed a glare at Tristan over his sister's shoulder. "Don't think I can't see you escaping. Come."

Tristan sheepishly shuffled away from the staircase and made his way to Rosie, obediently pressing a kiss to her cheek. "How have you been, Rosie?"

"Probably better than you two. With better food too, I might add." She looked him up and down and then pinched his cheek as if measuring. He winced in mock pain.

But she clucked her tongue. "Ah. Something's wrong. Those dark circles you have looks like someone stamped permanent ink pads underneath your eyes."

Tristan chuckled. "Oh, you know how it is with school and finals and college applications. I'm lucky if I got enough time to breathe these past weeks."

"Uh huh," she hummed skeptically. "And this wouldn't have anything to do with your girlfriend that upped and left you a while back?"

The humor vanished from his face and Tristan slipped his sister an arch look. Carrie flushed, looking down as she begun to rewrap the scarf around her neck.

"Oh, stop it." Rosie swatted his arm. "Someone's got to keep me informed about you since you don't seem to do the whole keeping in touch thing very well."

Tristan sighed. Barely ten minutes in the house and he already knew that vacation back at home was going to be worse than he thought.

"So what's the deal?" Rosie tipped her head up to narrow her eyes at him. She was at least a head and a half shorter than him, but he still had to resist the urge to shuffle his feet and duck his head.

"Nothing, Rosie," he answered evenly.

"Have you tried talking to your girlfriend lately?" The woman cocked her head to one side, watching him as she patted her hands against her apron again, meticulously drying each finger.

That didn't go down well with Tristan. Just recalling his attempts to track Adel down revived his bitterness. "She's not my girlfriend. She's just – she's someone's fiancée now. Nothing's going on at all." The gleam in the woman's eyes made him feel queasy. It generally meant Rosie was about to roll into one of her interrogation stance. Why did everybody feel the urge to bother him so thoroughly? It was like this year's theme had been declared "Let's Shove Tristan to his Limits and Cue Multiple Crime Scenes".

Didn't anyone realize that Tristan didn't even want to think about the girl, let alone talk about her? If this was any indication of how he was going to spend the rest of his time at home, then he might as well pack his bags and head to another state – maybe Alaska. They say the cruises there are nice.

"But Carrie's boyfriend will be around a lot. Jack's staying at Vincent's place across the street this break. You should go meet him," Tristan suggested. Carrie's eyes turned into slits.

Rosie squinted her eyes in consideration. "Haven't I already met him before? He always comes to our parties with Vincent and that Will kid, right?"

There was another loud bang and then footsteps skittered in their direction. "Rosie! Rosie! The cookies! The cookies are burnt –" A girl in a black blouse and white pants, the standard uniform the household help wore, skidded to a stop as soon as she came into the foyer.

Both of the Harland siblings stared at the girl curiously. Carrie offered a smile while Tristan nodded politely. The girl shoved her oval frames up her nose and looked down, flushing. She coughed, fumbling with her long braid nervously. Something about that gesture reminded Tristan of Adel and he glanced away, irritated.

Rosie shook her head at the girl. "Hannah, it's okay. How many times do I have to tell you? You don't have to make a fuss out of everything."

"Sorry, Rosie." Hannah ventured a glance up and Tristan met her eyes. Blushing hotly, the girl jerked her attention back to the ground.

Rosie made the introductions. "Tristan, Carrie, this is Hannah Abernathy, one of the new maids we hired to help out with the upcoming party. Hannah, this is Carrie and her brother, Tristan Harland."

Vacation started a few days before Christmas, but their schedules were already lined up with the mandated society balls and various parties that were being thrown by their parents' business friends and acquaintances.

The annual Christmas ball will be held at Vincent's place. The unspoken rule throughout high society was that the Christmas Eve time slot would always belong to Mrs. Grenford. No one dared to go against the Dragon Lady and who would possibly boycott the biggest holiday event of the season?

Tristan's family, in turn, threw the New Year's Eve party. Without their mother to help oversee the planning, Tristan's father generally liked to hire an event organizer who would coordinate things with the help of Rosie, their longtime housekeeper and close family friend. This meant that the holiday season generally required extra assistance around the house.

"Hi," Carrie greeted the girl.

"Hi," Hannah answered in a small voice. Then, as if a sudden realization struck her, she exclaimed, "Oh! I almost forgot, but there was a call earlier for –" Her eyes darted over to Tristan again and she continued shyly, "For Mr. Tristan. From a girl."

His throat tightened. "Was it a long distance call?"


He couldn't help himself as he barked, "Who was it?"

His tone startled the girl and she stammered, hands fidgeting. "Oh, um, it was – I believe it was, uh, a Miss Victoria Steele?"

Both Rosie and Carrie's features immediately darkened and the housekeeper actually rolled her eyes, but Tristan merely turned blank and expressionless. Busying himself with setting the suitcases down, he unbuttoned his coat and avoided their eyes.

"Thank you, Hannah. I'll give her a call back later," he said as he handed his coat over to the butler, Philip, who had suddenly materialized behind him. Other members of the help had already hurried outside to gather the remaining luggage from Tristan's car.

But the phone rang again and another maid appeared, holding a cordless phone. "Mister Tristan, there's a Miss Victoria Steele looking for you."

Rosie muttered, "Hang up." She knew all about his ex and the fiasco their relationship led up to.

With a heavy sigh, he brushed past them, patting Rosie's shoulder along the way. Taking the phone, he answered, "What do you want, Victoria?"

"Tristan, hey." Victoria's voice seemed oddly stilted. Clearing her throat, she continued in a softer voice. "How are you?"

He frowned, turning away from the others to head for the stairs. "I'm fine. What do you need?"

"I don't need anything, Tristan." Mild irritation clipped her tone. "I just wanted to ask if you're going to my party."

"You already know that we always go to your party, Victoria. Your parents and mine are business partners." Tristan headed down the hall to his bedroom, squinting against the sun that seeped through the large windows. "You come to my party. We go to yours."

"Well, do you have a date?"

"Did you receive the all important task of tallying up your guests' dates?"

"I'm asking if you want to be my date, Tristan."

He halted in front of his door. "You're joking."

"What's there to joke about?" she retorted.

"Victoria, we broke up years ago. You went out with my best friend." Tristan was beginning to feel the start of a migraine settling in. "What could have possibly given you the idea that I might be –"

"Cal's coming to the party," she cut him off. "He's bringing a date."

He stiffened, numbly reaching out to touch his doorknob, trailing his finger against the cool surface. "So?"

"It might be Adeline."

It hadn't even occurred to him that the bastard might be bringing another girl instead and the very idea made him grit his teeth. "So?" he hissed.

"So I thought it might be better if you had a date instead of, you know, escorting your sister or something," she said breezily.

His lips twisted in a sardonic smile. "I'm not interested in playing these games, Victoria."

"Fine, then I need a date."

"Then I'm sure there's some other guy out there who'd actually feel the proper enthusiasm for your offer."

She ignored him. "Tristan, I know I was really immature when we first went out, but we were practically children then. Don't you think it'd be nice to give things a second chance and maybe see where things go?" she coaxed.

"Not particularly," he said, voice deadened. "Is this all? I have to go."

"Tristan, wait!" she demanded. "Come on, what's the harm of being my date for the party? It's not even like we're going to be alone. You don't even have to pick me up since it's at my place."

"I'm really not in the mood to –"

"It's just this one time. Think of it as a favor to me, if you have to."

Tristan heaved a sigh, reaching up to rub his eyes. He felt like he'd been bludgeoned behind his head multiple times. "Whatever."

"Whatever?" she persisted.

He bit the inside of his cheek, resigned. All he kept thinking about was the idea of seeing Adel again. Adel on the arm of another guy. He rubbed the back of his neck tiredly. "Just this once."

Victoria's party was the first gathering of the season, a few days before Christmas. The Steeles' residence was one of those McMansions, a huge eclectic monstrosity of towering turrets, classical columns, balconies, and a dark stone veneer façade.

He pulled up to the front of the house and handed his keys to the valet, straggling up the steps to the entry. To his surprise, Victoria greeted him herself. He would have expected her to keep him loitering around downstairs for half an hour while the butler performed a complex relay of messages.

She let him into the foyer, throwing him a coy smile over her bare shoulder. The backless slinky black dress clung to her hips as she walked and her hair, teased in loose wavy curls that gleamed in the golden light, brushed against her skin with each step. Complete with dark smoky eyes and nude lipstick, the effects were meant to be glamorous.

He shouldn't have come.

A smile turned her lips as she turned around and she leaned forward, pressing a hand against his arm as she gave him a lingering peck on his cheek. He couldn't pinpoint her scent, but it wasn't something light and natural, chemically synthesized like bottled up citrus.

"Thanks for coming," she murmured in his ear.

He offered a tight smile and shrugged off his coat, handing it to the butler hovering in the background. He glanced around the place, all polished marble in warm beige and cool white. There was a wreath in the door that looked like it was made of dry twigs, entwined with creamy yellow silk. It appeared more artistic than welcoming.

"Nice place," he said politely.

"You've been here before," she chuckled. "Same old. Same old."

Tristan glanced at Victoria. The girl's cheeks were flushed, high with color. It was incredibly hot in the foyer, probably to affect a hospitable sense of warmth for the guests that would be stepping through the door from the cold. The butler waited by the door to the foyer, subtly getting a draft of cooler air.

A breathless giggle bubbled forth from Victoria as she swept her hair behind one shoulder, and suddenly, Tristan had the impression that Victoria wasn't exactly at ease. Fidgeting, she glanced away from him and lowered her eyes to the ground, confirming his suspicions.

His eyes narrowed. "Is something wrong?"

Startled, she shook her head. "No. No. Of course not. I'm just excited that you're here."

Still dubious, he nodded anyway. At a loss about what to say, he informed the girl, "Oh, Carrie's coming by later with Jack and everybody else."

She widened her eyes as if he'd just said the most interesting thing and bobbed her head as she slipped a hand around his elbow, pulling him in the direction of the grand hall. "Really? How nice. I'll get to see Vincent again."

"Yeah, with his girlfriend."

Her eyebrows climbed. "Girlfriend?"

"Samantha Westlane."

"Ah." Her smile didn't meet her eyes. "Her. I didn't know. How quaint. They must be so … adorable."

He made a noncommittal sound. "They're happy together."

The sounds of muted chatter and loud music grew louder as they drew closer to the room. "Just so you know," She stopped him right before they entered and she leaned up on her tiptoes to whisper in his ear. "They're not here yet."

There was no question about whom "they" was in reference to and he made no sign of acknowledge to her words. What he particularly despised was her knowing smile as if they were conspirators and she knew his dark secrets.

Irritated with both Victoria and himself, he made a curt gesture at the doorway. "Shall we?"

The crush of the crowd made the room unbearably hot. He stood by the faux fireplace, throwing back another glass of champagne. He caught sight of Victoria craning her neck as she searched the room and he immediately sidestepped behind one of the decorated pine trees at the corner of the room. He knew it was ungentlemanly of him, but she seemed to find extreme pleasure in tugging him around, stressing the word "friend" during her introductions in a way that suggested they were more than just that and he had no patience to face another random guest for the same act.

He definitely shouldn't have come.

Vincent and Sammy had arrived about half an hour ago with Will, Carrie and Jack in tow. Sammy looked stunning in a velvet navy gown decorated by a row of crystals encircling her waist, but the look in her eyes – a mix of inquiry and what seemed to be disappointment – had him avoiding her the rest of the night, which was a relatively easy task with the way Vincent kept her on the dance floor.

More vocal with her opinions, his sister's greeting had involved swatting his arm and muttering, "You'd have been better off taking the new maid. It's not like Hannah doesn't already have a huge crush on you."

Will was harder to lose, but as soon as Caine arrived, there was sufficient distraction for Tristan to escape. There was something scary about the way Will encouraged him to down more drinks. He'd even offer to concoct a Fuzzy Navel for him and Tristan knew then that that was the time to run.

There seemed to be couples everywhere he looked. Even Vincent's sister, Danielle, had come with a date, someone none of them had ever met. From the dark olive skin tone that offset the man's brilliant white smile and dark curls, Tristan surmised that she must have picked him up from her last trip to Italy or Greece. Danielle, herself, sported a tan and a new haircut, cropping her long black hair into a short, graduated bob.

With the way Caine alternated his attention between swatting away Will's drunken advances and slipping irritated looks in the direction of Danielle's new beau, Tristan had the feeling that his friend hadn't quite gotten over his surprisingly durable infatuation with Vincent's sister. Caine wrapped an arm around his date, a tall blonde in a red halter gown, and drew her closer to his side.

A weary smile touched Tristan's lips as he took a swig from his glass. How comfortable he was hiding in some corner like some sideline spectator. Or stalker.

He couldn't help himself. Every time someone walked through the doorway, his eyes would be drawn, searching. A full hour into the party and there was still no sign or her. Or Cal, for the matter.

He was starting to suspect that Victoria had lied to him and that only fueled his irritation and the amount of drinks he was going through. Thank goodness for the roaming waiters that threaded through the crowd. He didn't think he'd be able to make it to the open bar without Victoria tackling him.

The heat was getting to him and the loud music messed with his nerves, pounding in his ears and quickening his pulse. He needed fresh air. Keeping his eyes on Victoria, he carefully sidled behind the next tree, edging his way around it into the shadows as he inched his way toward the open balcony doors.

Except someone else seemed to have had the same idea as him and he found himself nearly tripping over someone. A soft gasp and he fumbled blindly, reaching out to right the person. "Sorry," the girl murmured, clutching his arm.

"No problem," he responded automatically, too fast.

He could feel the girl turn rigid and then, his heart began throbbing in an erratic beat. Slowly, his eyes moved up and by the dimmed orange lighting that filtered through the pine tree spindles in patterns of crisscrosses, he realized that apparently, his observational skills had been lacking tonight.

Somehow, he had managed to miss her entrance completely.

His grip tightened around her. "Adel."

She couldn't speak, mouth agape. And then she breathed, "Tristan."

Adel had been hiding behind a tree for the past hour. She'd always felt uncomfortable in these social situations, but tonight was an especially unbearable ordeal. To be back in America, so close to Tristan, had inspired a mixture of excitement and anxiety.

Then to attend Victoria's party with her supposed new fiancé, Calhoun Langdon, only served to exacerbate her worries.

As soon as they'd stepped through the doors, Cal had placed her in the corner and told her that he'd get them punch. But somehow, he'd gotten lost in the crowd and hadn't appeared again. Left to her own devices, she'd stood there awkwardly, wringing her hands and smiling at random strangers who'd breeze past her. She kept stumbling back, trying to stay out of the way of the waiters and she soon found herself backed up against the wall, nearly hidden in the shadows.

Then there he was. She'd known that there was a chance Tristan might attend the same party, but she supposed she'd been trying to not think about it too hard since she had absolutely zero idea what she might do if she actually came face to face with him.

But even though his back was to her, her heart nearly stopped when she caught a glimpse of his blonde hair. In a tailored black suit that clung neatly to his frame, he stood there with Victoria by his side, mingling in a circle of socialites. He looked completely at ease and as he turned his face in the direction of the entrance, his familiar profile brought a twist in her stomach.

He made a movement as if he was about to turn to face her and in her panic, she'd immediately dove behind one of those prickly trees that lined the room. The leaves had scratched her arm and she felt like an idiot, trying to catch her breath as she prayed that Tristan hadn't seen her ridiculous leap.

Now what? She kept her eyes down, fingering the flimsy silvery tinsel that draped the tree before her. She struggled to keep her emotions in check, suddenly feeling like she'd been abandoned by everyone. She wished that she could just phone Lee and ask him to pick her up, but it probably wouldn't go over too well with Cal if she just ran off like that. She grumbled, "Not like he didn't dump me here by myself first."

A few minutes later, she ventured a peek out to see if she could catch sight of Tristan again, but he wasn't there anymore. Either he'd stepped out of the room or he'd moved deeper into the throng. She did manage to see Sammy though, moving on the dance floor with her boyfriend, and then she found Will hanging around the open bar. Nostalgia swept over her. Had it been just a few months before, she'd be out there with them, hanging out.

Now? She didn't even know where she belonged anymore. If she was even welcomed anywhere anymore.

With a sigh, she ducked back behind the tree and stood there numbly like some ugly statue that spend its day, gathering dust and facing the wall. Her feet started to hurt from the three inch high heels she'd managed to strap on, but she leaned against the cool marble wall and stayed within the shadows.

She didn't know how long she stayed there and she knew that she should probably go in search of her date, but just thinking about bumping into Tristan had her slinking back. When had she turn into such a coward?

Stifling a forlorn sigh, she straightened her back and prepared herself to step out after just a teeny pep talk when someone suddenly staggered from the tree to her right, stumbling into her. Tears prickled her eyes as the idiot stepped on her toes, but since she was the bigger idiot who had been hiding behind a tree, she mumbled, "Sorry."

"No problem," a voice answered as hands came up to her arms to help her regain her balance.

Still grasping his arm, she stiffened instinctively. The voice was too familiar and as her brain slowly processed the idea of Tristan standing right in front of her, she realized then that the faint light through the tree sent a band of golden light right across his glittering blue eyes. Widened in shock, they focused on her with the same intensity that had always unnerved her and after a pause, he calmly acknowledged her, "Adel."

She couldn't breath, but somehow, she managed to choke out, "Tristan." She searched his features by the dim light, but his impassive expression didn't offer any clues about what he was thinking. "Wh – what are you doing here?"

His brow crinkled. Then he held up his index finger and pointed out. "Party."

She'd nearly forgotten what a stupid smartass he was. "I mean, what are you doing crawling behind trees?"

"I wasn't crawling. Crawling implies being on all four. I'm standing, aren't I?"

"You also stepped on me," she pointed out.

"My apologies for not seeing you behind a tree. I should have known you liked to hide."

"I wasn't hiding," she lied.

"Please," he scoffed. "You probably kicked all the other little kids' butts at Hide and Seek."

"And you probably bored the other kids to sleep when you were young."

His lips tightened into a quaint smile. "Oh yes, we call it naptime."

She had enough with their ridiculous conversation. "Why the hell would I hide?"

"To avoid me," he quipped.

"Why would I avoid you?"

"Because," his tone turned soft and even. "You've been avoiding me for the past few months. Why should this night be any different?"

She had no answer and to her dismay, she realized that his words had cut her deeper than she'd expected. Holding her breath, she checked her emotions and thanked heaven that they were grappling with each other behind trees.

Immediately, she realized that she was still clinging onto his arm and she tried to push away from him, but his grip tightened and his hands slipped around her arms, holding her to him. A shivering sensation of pleasure and panic slipped through her and for a minute there, she kept her head bowed and leaned against him.

"I'm sorry, Tristan," she finally said. Not now, not here. Her hands trembled.

"I don't need your apology." His voice was harsh. "I just want to know why you can't even –"

The room went black and cries of alarm rang out. Surprised, Tristan started, "What in the world –"

Not knowing what to do, Adel lurched back, extracting herself from Tristan's slackened arms and before he could grab hold of her again, she ran for it.

"Adel!" His call was quickly swallowed up by the loud shouts.

Pushing her way through the crowd blindly, she tripped several times, but managed to catch her balance. She didn't know how many feet she stepped on, but she guiltily thought that she must have done quite some damage with those high heels she had on.

A white spotlight suddenly broke out, focusing in at the center of the room, and a low voice announced through a microphone, "Adeline Bradbury, will you please come forward?"

She froze and slowly, she turned around. The people around her seemed to realize that she was the person in question and a wide space quickly expanded around her. A second light found her and she had to squint her eyes against the sudden illumination.

But in the middle of the center light, Cal stood with a bouquet of red roses and as she stared blankly at him, all she could do was watch as he slowly got down on one knee.

Buzzing sounds of excitement erupted from around them and her heart plummeted.

She couldn't seem to make her lungs work and she just stood there, immobile. Blood roared in her ears and everything sounded faint to her, even as Cal sent her a crooked smirk and said, "Let's make things proper." He paused, fishing out a small box from his chest pocket. As he flipped the cover open, the light seemed to ricochet off the diamond in a glinting flash.

She wanted to hurl. This was all wrong. Not here, not now. Not in front of him.

"Adeline, will you marry me?"

© Copyright 09/30/2008 Maeven (FictionPress ID:349779). All rights reserved. Distribution of any kind is prohibited without the written consent of Maeven.