Finally. A topic I could talk about. “Yeah. Well. It’s in its early stages. It’s just a beta one right now.”
“It was helpful. You are a very impressive young woman.”
Damn it. The lump. It tripled.
“And you are very loved.”
God. No tears. Hayes women didn’t cry. I wasn’t starting now, and I was ignoring the last time a few tears slipped out. They’d been manipulated out of me. I was going with that lie. I cleared my throat, pushing that boulder back down. “The itinerary?”
“Oh, yes.” We were back to business. She pulled her clipboard up. “Food for breakfast will be put out in an hour, for family and close loved ones who have already arrived. It’s a buffet-style meal, so go when you’d like, but everything will be taken down by ten. Eleven thirty is when the brunch will be put out and it will be refilled throughout the day. That’s when the next wave of guests are due to arrive. Business colleagues. Extended family members. Matthew’s friends. Seraphina’s. That group. Brunch will be dismantled around two. The drinks will be maintained all day, but we have extra bartending staff coming in around five, and then dinner will be served at six thirty. This will be when everyone will be in attendance. Your father wanted to officially make a statement about you. A slideshow will be played.”
“And then, after that, it’ll be dancing, drinks, and hors d’oeuvres for the rest of the night. You are to be seen, mingling and smiling. Your father will take you among the groups after the announcement to personally meet some of the guests.” She tucked her clipboard under her arm, focusing on her phone. “You cannot skip any of the events. This one day. One day that you have to be ‘on.’ Everyone invited is important, either locally, nationally, or globally. We have CEOs of billion-dollar companies, celebrities who make million-dollar donations, top government officials. In some ways, this is the first day of your new life. You will officially be in the public eye now. People are going to expect you to change your last name to Francis. They’ll expect you to wear the latest fashion trends. They’ll expect greatness from you—”
I’d been tensing the more she talked. Every word, the less air I had in my chest. My lungs were fully depleted. Hearing Kash’s growl gave me a reprieve. I bent over, gasping for oxygen.
Martha gave me a distracted frown before focusing on Kash. “What?”
“Get the fuck out of my villa.”
She turned to square off against him, lifting her chin. “Kash.”
Even her tone sounded condescending.
She was in trou-uh-ble.
“Get out.” He growled again. “Now.”
She just shook her head. “There will be expectations of her now. No one’s informed her. She has to know before she goes out there—”
“She’s not going out there alone. She’ll be with me. Her father is making the announcement. That’s it. She can be there if she wants, she can be gone if she wants. She doesn’t have to do a damn thing, and you’re going to back the fuck off if you think you’re going to start ordering her around.”
Now she got it.
Now her eyes widened.
Now she stepped back.
Now she was wary.
Now was too late. Kash was almost in her face. He was restraining himself, but still closing in.
I whispered, “If I were you, I’d make a run for it.”
She gave me an incredulous look, those eyebrows shooting up, but heeded my warning. She was gone within a second.
“You okay?” He drew me to him, folding me into his arms, one hand coming to cup the side of my face.
It felt better, feeling him, and I tipped my head up to smile at him. “I am now.”
His eyes darkened. “You are always.”
We shared a grin before he groaned, stiffened, and dipped his head into the crook of my shoulder and neck. “She’s not totally wrong. We have to make appearances tonight.”
I smoothed a hand down his back. “If you stick with me, we’ll be fine.”
And the funny thing was that I believed that. I really did. Everything would be fine. I wouldn’t enjoy the night. I never did, with big parties, but I understood why my father was doing this. It was time. And with that reassurance in my head, I trusted that all would be fine as long as Kash was next to me.
I was wrong.
I broke the “Be with Kash at all times” rule within the first hour.
He got called away for a security briefing, and my stomach growled. And me being the super smart one, I went for brunch. But—score again!—I snuck in. Grabbed a fancy-looking doughnut, a coffee, an apple for the nutrition gods, and got back to the villa with nothing happening.
I could hear the energy outside, the conversations, laughter.
It got louder and louder as the day went on.
Chrissy texted to check in. I was fine, and that appeased her. She was getting fitted for a dress for the whole day. Matt checked in too. He was at the main house, his friends had just arrived, and he wanted to know if I wanted to come join. I declined, stating I was getting ready in Kash’s villa.
To an extent, I was. Sorta.
I’d had all my fittings the week prior, and one of Martha’s team members brought over a few different options for me to wear for the day. Actually, they brought more than a few options. I had a whole rack. Three different outfits to choose from for breakfast. Three more for brunch, and four different dresses for the evening.
Hair was scheduled in the morning, in Quinn’s bedroom, but they should have known I wouldn’t go there. I could do my own hair. How bad could it be? Pin it up. Put in a fancy brooch, and voilà. Fashion-magazine ready.
Wrong. So wrong.
I was panicking by around two o’clock. Kash was still doing his thing, whatever that was, and my hair was flat as a pancake. I needed help, stat.
My options were limited. My mother, but I didn’t want to endure any griping she might do about the party in general. Matt, who … was probably wasted and balls deep in some girl. Let’s be honest here. So I called Torie.
“What’s up, superstar?”
Music sounded from where she was. I frowned. “Are you working?”
She laughed. “Hardly. But kind of. Your man wanted me at your shindig in case you needed any help.”