The smell of sesame chicken made her mouth water. Elle Simpson thanked the guy behind the counter of her favorite take-out restaurant and took the bag of food. It would be another dinner alone after a long day at work. The thought of slipping off her heels and settling in for a night on the couch sounded perfect after the exhausting day.
Elle opened the brown bag and smiled when she saw the extra fortune cookies they threw in for her.
“Hey! Watch where you’re going.”
“Oh, sorry. I was . . .” Elle’s eyes narrowed and then widened in shock. Chord McAlister, the son of a bitch who had dated her only to steal inside info against her family’s business, stood in front of her with his arm around her old roommate and friend.
“Rebecca? What’s going on?” Elle stuttered as she looked between the two. Her heart pounded as she felt a stab of betrayal deep within her.
“What does it look like? I’m on a date,” her old friend snapped.
Elle looked back to Chord and took him in. She hadn’t seen him in eight years. Not since his failed attempt to take over her company and subsequent downfall. He was still Chord, though: expensive suit, smooth smile, perfect hair. And the smug look on his handsome face told her he hadn’t changed at all during his exile.
“I didn’t know you were back.”
“You don’t know a lot of things, babe.”
Eww. Elle might have loved that endearment when they were dating, but now it gave her the shivers. “Becca, I don’t understand. What are you doing with Chord?”
“Just because he wasn’t good enough for the almighty Elle doesn’t mean he isn’t good enough for us mere mortals,” Becca spat. Her beautiful brown hair was pulled up in a sleek ponytail that swayed with anger as she spoke.
Elle felt as if she had been punched in the stomach. Becca had been her sorority sister in college and then they’d been roommates after graduation. Becca had gone on to work at a television company while Elle went to get her master’s in business. “But, you know what this man did to me. You were there. You saw it all. How could you be with him?”
“Playing the victim again, Elle? You’re so good at that, aren’t you? Can you never take responsibility? He told me how you made up the whole story about him.”
“Becca, he tried to take over my company! He tried to destroy me and everything my family had worked for.”
Chord smiled and Elle wanted nothing more than to slam her fist into his perfect face. She should have known something wasn’t right when he had pushed her out of the bathroom so he could do his hair in the mornings.
“I told you she’d say that. After all the horrible things she told me about you. It’s just jealousy. She saw you and I had chemistry so she got between us, just like she’s trying to do now. If she can’t be happy, then no one can,” Becca said with a smirk. “Going home alone to eat dinner in your pajamas?”
The barb hit home. Elle felt the tears pushing on the back of her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. She pushed her shoulders back and raised her chin in defiance. “If you’re happy, Becca, then so am I. Have a good evening.”
Elle gave her old friend a weak smile and hurried to her car before she could no longer contain her tears.
“That son of a biscuit!” Mallory cursed in her own way as she took a bite of the sesame chicken and kept her eyes on the monitor in front of her.
“Thanks for the support. It was horrible. They made me feel like I was nothing, worse actually.” Elle had called her best friend as soon as she got into the car. Mallory was on a job, but like a true friend, she told her to come straight over. “Mal, am I really as pathetic as they made me sound? I never thought of myself that way before.”
Mallory reached out and squeezed her hand. “I’ve known you for what, twenty years? You’re one of the strongest women I know, and you have never once allowed yourself to wallow like you’re doing now. Chord McAlister is old news. You dumped his derriere seven years ago while destroying his reputation and the company he worked for. For crying out loud, he’s been in exile for years. I wouldn’t call that pathetic. I’d call that strong.”
Elle felt a smile tug at her face. She shouldn’t feel good about it, but she did. “I couldn’t have done it without your help.”
“Hey, what are friends for?” Mallory smiled. “Oh, there’s my guy. He’s been trespassing on this singer’s property and breaking into her house leaving her little gifts. I’ll be right back.”
Mallory pressed a button, setting off the silent alarm, and hopped out the back of the utility truck. She strode toward the nervous-looking man lurking in the shadows near the gate of a massive estate. Elle almost felt sorry for him as she watched on the monitor. Mallory’s long blond hair fell in perfect waves over her shoulders and her heels accented her slim legs encased in black skinny jeans as she walked toward the man, now trying to find a way over the brick wall. Poor sucker. Mallory was the epitome of the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
Elle slipped off her heels and put her feet up on the table. She hated heels almost as much as she hated Chord. Reaching for some lo mein, Elle shook her head in pity as the man failed to notice Mallory’s approach. Right before he wiggled his way over the top of the wall, Mal grabbed his feet and yanked him down. One perfect spiked heel rested on his chest as she talked down at him. Elle heard sirens in the distance and cleaned up the leftovers as she thought about what her best friend had said.
She wasn’t pathetic or weak. She had never folded or complained about her life. No, she had worked hard since she was a child. She didn’t begrudge her friend falling in love even though she’d never experienced it. And she certainly wasn’t going to let a prick like Chord make her feel bad about herself. Chord was just trying to tear her down but she refused to let him. And she had the charity ball tomorrow where she intended to be very unlike the Elle most people knew. She was going to mingle, flirt, and maybe, just maybe, find someone to have dinner with.
* * *
Elle tapped her bunny-slippered foot as she signed the final paper to purchase a controlling share in a Swiss bank. She put her pen down and closed the folder. The documents needed to be scanned and sent to the bank before their teleconference early the next morning.
When she closed the folder, she caught sight of a picture on the corner of her desk. It had been taken eight years ago at the lake her family visited for one week every year. Her father had his arm around Elle and her mother. Her older brother and two younger sisters stood arm in arm beside them. It was the last family picture they had taken before her father had died unexpectedly from a massive heart attack.
“Miss Simpson?” Elle looked away from her family picture to the tired face of her secretary.
“It’s nine o’clock and the last bus to my house leaves in thirty minutes. If you’re done with the papers, I can email them and be on my way.”
Elle looked at the clock and instantly felt like a grinch. She was keeping Jessica from her family at Christmas time. “I’m sorry to keep you so late. I can take care of the email. And I don’t want you having to take the bus home so late at night. Please, take the limo. He’ll pick you up downstairs.” Elle turned in her chair and buzzed her driver, Finn, on the intercom.
“But you need to get to the Drake Charles Foundation Ball,” Jessica protested.
“I don’t need to be there until ten and Finn will be back by then. Have a merry Christmas.” Elle stood up and walked around her desk. She hugged her secretary before handing her a card.
“Your Christmas present. Say hi to Dan and the boys for me.” Elle went over to the scanner in the corner of her downtown Atlanta office. She heard Jessica tear open the envelope and then gasp.
“But, you’ve already given us our bonuses,” Jessica stammered.
“I know. This is your Christmas present. Now, if you hurry, you may be able to stop and get those bikes your boys asked Santa for.” Elle turned from feeding the scanner and was enveloped in a tight hug.
“You’re the best. Thank you.” Jessica hugged her again and then hurried from the room only to return with an elaborate box. “The ball is a masquerade. I ordered this for you.”
Elle tried not to roll her eyes. Drake Charles was eccentric, so a masquerade ball seemed to be a perfect extension of his personality. She wondered if he would even be there. Charles had built a fortune through smartphone technology, but he wasn’t a front-page-of-Forbes-type guy. There were rumors he was a recluse—that he was deformed, or possibly on his deathbed. Nobody seemed to know much about him. All she knew was he gave millions of dollars every year to the same children’s hospital Elle’s family supported.
Elle opened the box and pulled out a beautiful gold mask with pale pink swirls. It was elegant in its simplicity. There were no feathers or elaborate designs—just simple swirls, a pink lining around the eyes, and a matching pink satin ribbon. “Thank you, Jessica. This will match my dress perfectly.”
“Remember, you have the call with the Swiss bank at two in the morning, eight their time, so they can conclude the deal and file the paperwork before they close their offices at noon. Then you need to be at your mother’s around eight. Good night, Miss Simpson. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas.” Elle waited for Jessica to leave before she finished sending the email to the bank’s board of directors and completed the necessary paperwork for the teleconference later that night.