Dang, dumping Martyr Maddie for a while was fun.
Amber winced. “I can see how that’d be awkward. I mean, Black & Co. and Croquis are sister companies. I wonder if people think you slept your way to the top.”
“Oh, I’ve had this job since long before I met Chase. Marrying into money is not an Olympic sport for me.” I smiled back. Chase pretended to cough to stifle a laugh. Lori polished off her glass of wine.
“Clementine, excuse yourself,” Amber barked, still staring at me. Ronan snapped his fingers, and a waiter appeared, ushering Clementine to the kitchen to sample the dessert. The dining room was now a full-blown war zone. The gloves were off.
“Interesting.” Julian tapped his chin.
“The things you find interesting amaze me. Is that what happens when you live a sexless, loveless life?” Chase asked dryly. Lori gasped. Ethan and Katie looked among all of us like we were crazy.
“Redirect that conversation,” Ronan groaned. He looked exhausted, and suddenly, I understood why Chase hadn’t been fighting back against Julian. It wasn’t because he didn’t want to. He knew it’d drain his father. Chase had been trying not to upset Ronan all throughout our fake engagement. He’d tried to pretend he was taking Julian’s undermining behavior and petty comments in stride. But he wasn’t. Julian got under Chase’s skin, and today, Chase had finally snapped.
“You’re right, Ronan. We should be talking about other things. Ethan, you’re such a catch.” Amber reached to him, rubbing his arm. Subtle as a tank. “Young, handsome, a pediatrician. I have so many single friends who would love an introduction. Are you seeing anyone?”
Ethan rubbed the back of his neck, his gaze darting to mine. “Actually . . .”
What is he doing?
The horror in my face must’ve been visible, because Ethan backpedaled on whatever point he was trying to make. “Not exclusively, no.”
Martyr Maddie, always doing the right thing. Even if it’s dating a guy just to make him feel better, Layla’s voice singsonged in my head. But it wasn’t just that. I was desperate to fall in love with Ethan so I wouldn’t get hurt, and I’d ended up hurting him in the process.
There was silence, punctuated by good old Lori. “Ethan told me he ran the half marathon too, Katie.”
Katie lifted her head from her plate, her eyes zeroing in on Ethan. “Really? Who sponsored you?”
“Doctors for Africa. What number were you?” Ethan’s face opened up. So much light poured into his expression. I didn’t think I’d ever seen him so . . . present.
“Nine two two three. Yellow shirt. You?”
“Three five two seven. Pink.”
“Phew, good thing we didn’t run together. We’d look like an ice cream cone next to each other.” Katie wiped invisible sweat from her forehead. They held each other’s gaze, a thread of something flirtatious entwining them into the same moment. Ethan was the first to look back at his plate, stabbing a piece of glazed potato with his fork.
“Maybe next time we won’t get so lucky,” Ethan said.
Or maybe you will, I thought. Ethan and Katie looked so easy talking to each other.
“So. Just to make sure we’re all on the same page. Ethan and Maddie are just friends?” Julian filled my wineglass to the brim. Was he trying to get me drunk? Probably, based on my disastrous visit to his family’s Hamptons home.
“Is that concept foreign to you?” Chase sat back, spearing his cousin with a dark glare. My hand was still in his under the table. “Or are you simply obsessed with my fiancée in general?”
“Fiancée. That’s a bold statement,” Amber muttered into her wineglass.
“Are we going to open the subject of bold here, at the table, Lady Macbeth?” Chase inquired dryly. Amber nearly spat her wine out. I put a hand to Chase’s arm. His muscles flexed under my fingertips. He was a beast restrained.
“I can hold my own,” I whispered.
“Don’t I know it. I’m still hoping to get my balls back for Christmas.” Chase sighed, kissing my temple. “Sorry.”
It was a lie, of course, but one I appreciated, even if it was a part of an elaborate Chase act.
“I just want you boys to get along.” Lori sighed, looking between Chase and Julian. “I know emotions have been running high, but nothing is worth your friendship. Blood is thicker than water.”
“We don’t have the same blood running through our veins,” Julian spat bitterly. “Maybe that’s my problem.”
“Julian,” Ronan scolded. “Stop that.”
“Chase is obviously the favorite child,” Julian persisted. He sounded like a five-year-old.
“No, you’re obviously still a child,” Chase bit back. “Crucifying my fiancée and trying to unveil imaginary mishaps on my behalf. It is real, and it is happening, and you can’t do anything to stop it, no matter how fucking hard you try. No matter what you do. I will marry her.” Chase stopped, his eyes gliding from Julian to Ethan, and finished off, “Julian.”
But it didn’t seem like his words were directed at Julian anymore. Not at all.
A chair scraped, and I turned my attention from Chase’s thunderous face. Ethan galloped outside after throwing his napkin over his plate.
I followed him. I didn’t know why. Maybe because Chase’s behavior was uncalled for. Because he’d directed his anger at Ethan, when really, Julian was the person he was supposed to attack here.
He got into the bathroom, about to slam the door in my face. I pushed my foot through the crack just as the door flew shut. I let out a yelp, feeling my skin bruising.
“Oh crap.” Ethan opened the door, wincing as he looked down at my sandaled foot. “Are you all right?”
“Please.” I stood on the other side of the door, foot still stuck between us to prevent him from shutting the door in my face. “Let me in.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to do here for weeks,” he said quietly. “And you hurt me.”
“I know,” I whispered, feeling sick to my stomach with guilt. Martyr Maddie kicked in again. True, we’d both agreed it was casual, but he’d catered to me. To my situation. In a lot of ways, we were too much alike. Nonconfrontational at all costs. “I’m so sorry,” I croaked. “I never meant to hurt you.”