Peyton craned her neck over the crowd, lifting her arms so she could pretend she was stretching. I am not looking for Liam Tyler, she told herself. He was out of the country for the rest of the week and had sent a card with his regrets. But she looked anyway. Some habits were hard to break.
But you will break it. Her childhood crush on him was over. She had been telling herself that for a couple of years now and someday she was going to believe it.
“Here!” Maggie, Liam’s sister and her best friend thrust and ornately garnished cocktail glass into her hand. They were in the Caislean’s exclusive Camelot bar, a hidden speakeasy within the hotel. It had been designed by Calen MacLachlan and was opened as a special joint venture between him and the Tylers, the owners of the exclusive hotel chain where she’d worked most of her adult life.
Maggie had commandeered the hotspot for a surprise graduation party, inviting everyone they knew—literally. Peyton was almost certain she had spotted their seventh grade English teacher dancing with one of the hotel’s concierge staff.
Her friend took a big sip of her own glass before standing on a chair lifting it in a toast. “To the hardest working woman in town and my very best friend in the world—congratulations on your Ph.D.!”
Peyton had delivered her magnum opus to the computer science department yesterday. After sleeping twelve hours she’d woken to the hotel’s masseuse waiting to give her the works. Once he’d finished, he’d told her Maggie had organized an intimate dinner for the two of them to celebrate. Instead, she found the party of the year.
Feeling loved, Peyton laughed, standing and holding her own glass high. “Thanks. And to all of you, I can’t tell you how much it means that you’re here—I’m done, bitches!”
There was laughter all around. Peyton chugged her drink then held out her empty glass for a refill. Patrick, Maggie’s other brother, laughed and replaced it with an equally artful glass—a gin-based drink this time. Peyton didn’t even bother to ask for one with her preferred rum instead.
Forget that Liam’s not here. After four very long years she’d finally completed her dissertation in computer science, a Ph.D. she’d earned while working full-time in the IT department of the hotel.
Calen and his wife Maia had set up an elaborate private part in the VIP room of the Camelot, one complete with a private bar and a mustachioed hipster mixologist. Some other girlfriends were here as well—Elynn and Sophia had flown in from the UK where they both lived with their doting husbands. Both of them were here at Maggie’s behest, with their men in tow, to help her celebrate.
“I can’t believe you guys came all this way!” she cried when she’d saw them. Elynn and Sophia both lived in the UK. Another friend of the Tylers Sergei Damov was also here, but he made his home in Manhattan, which was just a short helicopter ride away—a viable travel option for a billionaire.
The music was just loud enough, and the alcohol was flowing. Peyton was feeling great, dancing and drinking with her very best friends.
“I can’t believe I’m done,” she shouted in the middle of the dance floor, holding up her cocktail like a torch. Whoops and cheers came back in reply from all directions. Maggie threw her arms around her, almost sliding to the floor as her stilettos lost purchase on the tiles. Laughing their heads off she and Elynn caught her, helping her up so they could keep dancing their butts off.
Sometime after her third cocktail, she took a break from dancing, collapsing in her seat at the head table. A hush fell over the room as someone entered the room and the music was turned down. Peyton twisted her head to see Sabrina, the hotel’s pastry chef came in holding a cake lit by sparklers.
A chorus of “for she’s a jolly good fellow” broke out as Sabrina set the cake down in front of her.
“It’s chocolate and sweet cream—your favorite,” the chef said, before leaning over to give her a hug.
Peyton almost squealed. “I don’t care what flavor it is! Everything you bake is amazing.”
The Caislean only hired the crème de la creme. Everyone in the kitchen was the best at what they did, but Sabrina was exceptional. People from all over the east coast came to the Caislean just to eat her desserts and the Tyler brothers had fended off more than one attempt to poach her.
Peyton had just finished cutting the cake when she felt his presence. She looked up over Maggie’s head and saw Liam. He was walking up behind his sister, clapping with the rest of the crowd. Her heart stuttered and she flushed, beaming with joy. She should have been more circumspect, but she couldn’t help herself. He had come.
Liam spent most of his days out of the country, overseeing the build of a brand-new hotel in Australia. The local government had been giving him trouble and she’d resigned herself to the fact he wouldn’t be here for this—the most important day of her life.
“Congratulations!” he called over his sibling’s head as Alex patted him on the back. Calen came up on his left, greeting him as if he hadn’t seen him in years instead of days.
“Thank you,” she said, a bit too softly for him to hear. Her hungry eyes drank in the sight of him as he leaned over and dropped a small be-ribboned box in front of her.
Peyton took the box, but she didn’t open it. Every time he left town, she told herself she wouldn’t miss him, but her heart still dipped and soared whenever he returned.
The low light obscured the rich mahogany of his hair, which he wore just a bit longer than was fashionable. His broad shoulders filled out his navy Brioni blue suit to perfection, but it was a little rumpled. Peyton smiled to herself as she realized that mean he’d come straight from the plane instead of stopping to shower and change like he usually did when he arrived home.
Appearances were important to Liam. He always said presentation was everything in the hotel business, so she was pleased he was willing to forsake his all-important image to be here a little sooner.
Peyton’s smile turned brittle as Caroline Wentworth, Liam’s on and off girlfriend appeared at his arm. “Did you tell them?” she asked, tipping back her perfectly coiffed head at Liam.
Her stomach churned as Liam leaned down to say something in her ear in a low voice. Why did he have to bring her? No sooner did she have the thought than she regretted it. This was Liam’s hotel and he could bring whoever he wanted to her party.
She tried not to envy the socialite’s appearance. Caroline’s smooth platinum blonde hair was in a perfect French twist, a hairstyle Peyton never had the patience to try. She was also in a sharp white suit, a color she couldn’t wear without instantly getting it filthy in some freak accident. The suit was trimmed in sparkling yellow thread.
It’s probably real gold, she thought waspishly. Caroline’s father Gene owned a lucrative string of boutique hotels. The Caislean had a reciprocal loyalty program with the smaller chain. It was how Caroline and Liam had met a bit over two years ago. They dated for seven or eight months before breaking up the first time—a record for Liam. Over a year later they began seeing each other again, resuming an intermittent but distressingly lasting relationship.
Peyton almost missed the days of interchangeable blonde bimbos. Those were around for a few weeks at the most before Liam dropped them and found a new, nearly identical model.
But even she had to admit Caroline wasn’t part of that mold. Yes, she was blonde, but the similarity ended there. Like Liam and the other Tylers, she had grown up in the hotel business. Caroline helped her father manage the boutique chain and was partially responsible for its success.
Liam’s expression was darkening before her eyes. “I said not now. It’s not the time,” he growled.
“Oh, come on Liam—it’s a celebration! We’ll just be doing so more of it now.”
Caroline turned to the room at large, waving with an expansive gesture. Peyton blinked as she realized Caroline was calling attention to a massive diamond ring on her left hand.
“We’re engaged!” Caroline said, poking Liam when he tried to shush her.
The announcement was followed by a long silence. Peyton’s lungs began to burn as she felt all eyes on her.
“Congratulations,” she said in a loud overly-bright voice, trying desperately to sound jovial while her heart was silently being ripped to shreds.
“Thank you,” Caroline said, smiling up at Liam. He shook his head at her as if she was an incorrigible child.
“You should have waited,” he scolded. “Sorry. She should have waited,” he repeated apologetically, this time addressing her. “This is supposed to be your day.”
“No problem,” she said in a hoarse voice, grateful for the dim light. “More to celebrate.”
“That’s exactly what I’ve been saying,” Caroline chided, reaching up to touch the back Liam’s neck.
Peyton nearly gave herself whiplash looking away. She turned to the other girls. Next to her Maggie was bone white. Peyton turned away, unable to see her shattered expression reflected in her best friend’s eyes.
Elynn gave Maia a hard nudge. The other woman hurriedly stood and crossed the room to turn the music back up.
Everyone started talking at once. Peyton pushed her plate of cake away and she staggered to her feet. She couldn’t see through the haze of tears. Biting the inside of her cheek she inhaled deeply through her nose, refusing to let a single one fall as she headed for the restroom.
Someone called her name, but she didn’t stop. The party would have to go one without her.