“She shouldn’t be here.” With the party at Braxton’s last night and now today’s benefit, diving back into the rush of her social life can’t be easy on her.
“What are you on about?” Grayson asks, handing me a scotch he knows I won’t drink. A second later, his eyes find Violetta, posing for a photographer in front of the Revson fountain. “Oh, of course. Do you ever think about anything else?”
“Frequently.” I back the lie up by turning toward him, leaving Violetta in my periphery. She laughs, her shoulders lifting for a moment before her head tips back.
“This is getting old,” Grayson comments, not for the first time. “Look around. Don’t you think it’s time to move on?”
Sunshine floods the plaza, glinting off sequins and jewelry and airborne droplets from the fountain. Swells of laughter and conversation surround us, punctuated by the clink of glasses marking private toasts. Discreet bar and appetizer stations edge the clusters of guests. Grayson drains his tumbler then trades it for my full one.
“Love doesn’t work like that,” I finally say.
He snorts, almost choking on his drink. His free hand lands on my shoulder. “Love isn’t real. And everybody”—he underscores the word by swinging his other hand around the crowd—“here knows it. Except for you.” He smiles, shaking his head as he often has at my faith in the face of his jadedness.
A family friend or business contact approaches, and Grayson relents, sliding into the casual formality of the fundraiser. Unimportant, unnoticed, and relieved, I step away, discarding the empty tumbler on a passing waiter’s tray. Since our days at Cornell, Grayson has tugged me into this world of exclusive events, grooming me, teaching me to navigate the social minefield on stray weekend visits to the city. Some once believed we were lovers; more still hardly noticed my existence. A few I have pursued in my bumbling attempts to network.
Only one have I never approached despite the aching desire to know her.
William Braxton stands at her side as they both engage the flurry of people around them. Her smile fades for a moment into fatigue, but of course he doesn’t notice.
Chiming sounds as ushers make the rounds ringing delicate bells, and the murmurs change as guests trickle into the open doors of the David H. Koch Theater. Braxton offers Violetta his arm, leading her inside. Will I be able to see her from my seat? I’m in no rush to be disappointed.
One flight up, I see the two of them again.
“I’ll be in in a minute.” Her voice is unmistakable, even among the echoing chatter of guests heading to their seats.
Braxton’s grim expression halts my progress up the stairs. I pull out my phone, stepping toward the window as an excuse to linger, as if what matters are the concentric circles of the emptying Robertson Plaza below.
“Really, it’s fine,” Violetta assures, gently shooing him away.
At his departure, her eyes drift shut, and her smile disappears. A heartbeat later she turns and strides away from the entrance to the first ring, then sinks onto a plush bench. A man I don’t recognize steps toward her, but she sends him off with a wan smile, a poor double for her usual brilliance.
Soon only we remain. She pulls a tissue from her purse and brings it to her mouth, burying the cough that shakes her. Pink crests her cheeks from the effort.
“Are you all right?” I ask idiotically, coming toward her.
Her gaze lands on me, and I forget everything else.
“I’m fine,” she lies, dismissing me like the others.
But I can’t leave her here to suffer alone. “Can I bring you something? Some water?”
“You’ll miss the ballet.” She pastes on another smile. “I’ll be all right.”
“I don’t mind waiting, if you’d like.”
Her eyes narrow, seeing through me. “You know,” she states.
Everyone knows, but I settle for a simple, “Yes.”
Tension seeps from her, gently crumpling her posture as her head tilts back. Her lips part to welcome in the air. The faint sound of the overture underscores the echo of her breath. “Do I know you?” she asks, unusually solemn.
A light chuckle replaces her exhale as the corners of her lips edge up. “Grayson’s friend?”
So this is Adrian, the friend Grayson adopted into this life out of idle curiosity then grew to like, and now the poor boy’s head over heels for the decadence of the elite.
Of course, I can’t blame him. I ran here at eighteen and never look back, embracing every pleasure I can find.
“Are you feeling better?” He doesn’t move closer, as though he’s scared to be near me.
I swipe under my lips with a tissue, catching any stray lipstick. “It doesn’t get better than me,” I tease, standing. William will be wondering where I am. He doesn’t even like the ballet.
“No,” Adrian says quietly, smiling. “It certainly doesn’t.”
There’s something so impossibly earnest about him. It’s almost charming, his naiveté. “That’s quite the line.”
His eyes don’t leave me. I fluff my hair and shrug my shoulders, posing for effect, but he doesn’t smile. “Stunning,” he calls me, still serious.
My chuckle transforms into another cough, pulling him closer. His hand hovers above my arm until I step away. “You’re sweet. You should go, have a good time. That’s why we’re here, after all.”
His hands find his pockets. “And here I thought we were here to raise money for the ballet.”
“They’re here to raise money. We’re here to enjoy it,” I add, spinning away to enter the theater.