Cinderella

DECEMBER 2005

“Tell me where she went.”

“Absolutely not, Kenard,” Sebastian drawled. “You just stood down a woman who was packing, and if she can’t handle you, I’m not going to give you another crack at her.”

“I want her,” Kenard growled.

“No shit.”

“Where—did—she—go.”

“My house,” Sebastian said, just to see what would happen. He figured he probably oughtn’t have said that when his head exploded with the power of one well-aimed fist in his face.

He would’ve laughed if he could’ve.

“Shall I call you a taxi, Nephew?” Fen drawled from above him, smug, Trudy smirking, and a whole host of people collecting behind him with varying degrees of horrified glee on their faces. Kenard was gone.

Suddenly, he did start laughing despite the pain. “Yes, Unk, that would be much appreciated.” He gripped his chin and waggled it a little to make sure nothing was broken.

Fen flipped his cell open and called, while Sebastian sat on the cold marble floor, his back against the cold marble wall. “Damn, he packs a helluva punch.” He looked at his aunt. “Would you get my mom’s coat from the check for me, please? The white mink bolero.”

Trudy rolled her eyes and walked off to do as he’d asked. Family, after all, war of murder and politics notwithstanding.

Fen was still chuckling as the crowd dispersed, disappointed, as it was obvious no battle between Taight and Hilliard would commence. Fen held out his hand to Sebastian and he took it.

“Damn,” Sebastian muttered as he brushed off his suit.

“Was it worth it?”

“To see the look on your face? Oh, absolutely.”

“She’s in over her head with him.”

Sebastian grinned at Fen. “Yeah. Now you can’t tell me that wasn’t hella entertaining.”

Fen smirked. “You are right about that. It definitely was. Are you sure he’s not going to hurt her?”

“Fen, what the hell do you care? You’ve tried to kill her twice.”

“Oh, you know how it is with family. I can say anything I want but an outsider says something and I’ll pummel him.”

“I see. Only you have the right to kill her because you’re family.”

“Precisely. And you know, I do have a soft spot for her in my heart.”

Sebastian chuckled. “You are so fucked up. And in answer to your question, yes. He will. The minute she lets him know just how rough she likes it.”

“She’s a virgin. She doesn’t know shit from shinola.”

“Two words: Hank Rearden.”

Fen started to laugh. “God, that’s rich.”

“Yes, he is.”

Trudy came back with the coat and Sebastian thanked her, then went to wait outside for the taxi.

That was the funnest evening he’d had in a long time.

• • •

But by the time Sebastian got home, the funny had worn off. His head was pounding and his jaw was aching. His face would be black and blue by tomorrow morning, if it weren’t already, and he needed painkillers. He hadn’t been ambushed like that since his mission. Sebastian gingerly descended the stairs from the garage to see Knox sitting at the dining room table, scribbling something. He looked up as Sebastian went into the kitchen, and said, “That’s … not quite what I expected.”

Sebastian grunted and bent over the sink, turning the cold water on to let it soothe his face a bit. “Shit,” he muttered, looking down at the blood on his tux shirt. “That’s never going to come out.” He said nothing more while he slowly divested himself of his tie, jacket, shirt, and undershirt. He took some ibuprofen and fixed himself a bag of ice to hold against his face. “Giz come home?”

“No.”

Since Knox didn’t ask him where she was or why she hadn’t come home with Sebastian, he had to assume Knox had a pretty good reason for not wanting Kenard and Giselle in the same room together—and a helluva lot bigger one than Sebastian had originally thought.

“Before I tell you what happened,” Sebastian said slowly as he sat at the head of the table and leaned back. He closed his eyes and held the ice to his face. “You are going to tell me all the juicy details of your falling-out with Kenard.”

Stony silence met his calmly-voiced demand, but that didn’t surprise him. “Bryce did that?” Knox finally muttered.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“You first.”

Knox sighed heavily. “I already told you everything. I hated that cunt he married, and the feeling was mutual. Trudy all over again. She told him the reason was because she and I were fucking on the sly, and we were putting up a front for him so he wouldn’t suspect.”

Sebastian sat silent, thinking, remembering the extent of Knox’s reaction to this little scheme. “Where,” he asked, “does Giselle fit in?”

“Fuck,” Knox whispered. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” Sebastian opened one eye to see Knox’s elbows on the table and his face in his hands. “Okay, look,” he said, “I didn’t know what to do, okay? I’ve been trying to figure out how to solve this problem for the last five years.”

Sebastian started. “Five years? Problem?

Knox chewed on the inside of his cheek. “Bryce took one look at Giselle and fell head over heels in love with her.”

Sebastian barked an unamused laugh. “I’d say. His fist had her name all over it.”

“Um, not … tonight. At BYU. Fifteen years ago.” Shock made Sebastian’s head explode in pain. Again. “He’d just married Meryl, maybe, I don’t know, two, three months before he saw Giselle. The look on his face when he saw her— I’ve never seen anything more painful in my life. I mean, he was already miserable, and I knew how he thought. He’d probably already damned himself to hell the instant it happened, lusting after another woman when he had a wife.”

Sebastian made a gesture to keep him talking.

“Giselle’s there in my house teaching my roommate karate, getting him ready for a belt test. High-level stuff, you know? Bryce walked in, clapped eyes on her first thing, and that was it.”

That made no sense. “Wait a minute. Fifteen years? She was twenty. Are you sure? Because Giselle was not attractive and Kenard was a stud before his fire.”

“Bryce is … ” Knox sighed. “She’s a warrior, right?”

Sebastian nodded.

“He likes that. Liked. She’s standing there, teaching a man half again her size, putting him on his knees. Bryce saw her for what she was. Wanted her, wanted what she had because he didn’t have it.”

“What do you mean, he didn’t have it?”

Knox’s mouth twitched in thought. “When Bryce was twenty-four,” he said slowly, “he could wipe the floor with anybody except his family and his wife.”

“Are you telling me,” Sebastian drawled, “that he was henpecked?”

“Yes. And you know, Giselle wasn’t quite the hard-ass at twenty that she is now, but it was more than he could’ve taken. And really, what difference did it make, right? He was married. He was too cowed by his dad and what everybody would think to divorce the bitch, even though he wanted to.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this last month?” Sebastian asked wearily, too tired and sore to work up a good mad.

“Would it have made any difference?”

“Might have. Let me tell you what happened to her this past April.” He began to explain. “ … So then she tells me about this guy she saw at your house—” Knox’s jaw dropped. “—noted how he looked at her, noted the ring on his finger, got her heart broken immediately, and she’s been carrying that ever since.”

“Holy shit,” Knox whispered, aghast.

“Now, I don’t know that the guy she kissed was Kenard, but now we know your study buddy was Kenard. She told me about that in August and she’d been acting funny since it happened. Then the minute I pointed him out to her— She was all black widow. This whole other woman I’ve never seen before kind of took over. She gave him this come-hither look, started walking, he followed her like she had him on a leash, and they disappeared for a good half hour. Next thing everybody knows, she’s running back through the gallery in her stocking feet, with him hard on her heels— Surprised she could outrun him, but for whatever reason, she was more motivated. He lost her, came back in, asked me where she went. I wouldn’t tell him.” Sebastian pointed to his face.

“I wonder if he remembers,” Knox mused.

“Couldn’t say, but she’s been carrying that guy around for fifteen years, wondering what if, practically waiting for him and she doesn’t seem to remember him—”

“Yeah, it’s been fifteen years and a house fire.”

Something in her recognizes him.”

“Or he’s just the personification of twenty-four-year-old Bryce. Only this one’s what she thought the other one was, but wasn’t. He would’ve disillusioned her in no time. He was bulky, but he was a real pussy with women.”

“I can’t visualize that,” Sebastian said flatly. “Not with what I just saw.”

“Well, I can’t visualize what you’re telling me. I mean, you said he followed her like she had him on a leash. That I can visualize. That’s the Bryce I know, being led around on a leash by his wife and his dad.”

Sebastian turned and grabbed his sketch pad, dropped the ice and rummaged around in the credenza’s drawer for a pencil.

“Giselle would’ve broken him and she would never tolerate a man she can break no matter how much she wanted to get married. That’s one reason I never set them up after he got back on his feet.”

After a few strokes of his pencil, he gave the sketch to Knox.

“Shit,” he whispered as he gaped.

“Yeah, fuck the leash. A rabid wolf with the rope in his teeth.”

“Huh,” Knox said as he handed the sketch pad back to Sebastian. “Well, keep it to yourself because we are not getting involved. If I can sit on this for fifteen years, you can sit on it for however many weeks it takes for them to get their shit together. Or until she comes to me for help, whichever comes first.”

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