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"Let's hear it for the Debs!" Abby Baldwin Talbot said, lifting her champagne glass in a toast to the five women who were her best friends.
"Way to go, us!" Felicity chimed in and the others lifted their glasses, as well.
Abby looked from one to the other of them and smiled at each in turn. There were the original members of the Debs Club...girls who'd gone through Eastwick Academy together and survived their "coming-out" society debut arm in arm. Emma, Mary, Felicity and Abby had known each other forever and their bond was unbreakable. But if it couldn't break, it did bend, at least far enough to welcome two new members into their circle. Lily and Vanessa had slipped into the group seamlessly and now Abby couldn't imagine her life without all of these women in it.
Especially now, she thought, but didn't say. With everything else in her world crumbling around her, she needed the familiarity, the love she found with her friends more than ever.
"Okay, hate to break up the moment," Mary said with a quick grin. "But as much as I love you guys, I want to claim a dance with Kane." Then her grin faded a little as she asked, "You all right, Abby?"
"I'm terrific," she lied, smile wide. She took another sip of champagne to ease the dryness in her throat. "Go. Boogie the night away."
"Sounds like a plan," Felicity agreed.
"Right behind you," Vanessa said, then glanced at the three remaining women standing at the back of the country club ballroom. "You guys coming?"
"I am," Lily said, smoothing the front of her gown unnecessarily.
"I'll be along in a few minutes," Abby told her friends. "I just want to stand back here and watch the party for a while."
"Okay," Vanessa told her, pointing her index finger at her. "But if you're not out on the dance floor in fifteen minutes, I'm coming to find you."
Abby nodded. "Consider me warned."
Vanessa and Lily dissolved into the crowd and Abby took a long, deep breath. It was agonizing trying to keep up a cheerful front for the people she loved best. But damned if she would ruin this party they'd all worked so hard on. With that thought firmly in mind, she glanced up at her much taller friend.
"You did an amazing job on this place, Emma."
"You mean we did an amazing job," Emma countered, as her gaze drifted around the crowded, noisy ballroom.
It seemed as though everyone in Eastwick had turned out for this year's Autumn Ball. Diamonds winked at throats and ears, and hands glittered with enough jewelry to give a security company a collective heart attack. Women wore bright colored gowns as if trying to enliven the fall and stave off the coming winter. They greeted each other with hugs and air kisses, then whispered with their friends about everyone else in the room. Men in tuxedos gathered in tight knots to talk about whatever it was men found so fascinating. Football? The stock market?
Didn't matter, Abby told herself. All that mattered was, that the Debs Club had managed to make the old country club shine for the night. Soft lights, a live band playing old standards with a few classic rock-and-roll songs tossed in for flavor. A champagne fountain—tacky, but fun—stood proudly in the middle of the room and sharply dressed waiters moved through the crowds, balancing trays of artfully arranged canapés.
The Debs Club.
Abby smiled and thought about that. She and her friends had nicknamed themselves the Debs in honor of the night they'd been society debutantes. It had all seemed so silly, so old-fashioned back then. But the friendships forged in high school and at that cotillion had stood the test of time. Now here they were, years later, still a force to be reckoned with.
So much had changed, though, Abby thought, glancing around the room and picking out the faces of her friends. So many things had happened over the past several months, that she could sense a strained atmosphere in the room, as if everyone present were holding their breath, waiting for the next bombshell to hit.
And who could blame them? Murder and extortion were just not the norm in Eastwick. Or at least, they never used to be.
Abby's eyes filled with tears and she wasn't sure if her blurry vision was from the attempt not to cry or the champagne she'd been drinking steadily since she arrived. She probably should have had something to eat, but she simply hadn't been able to even consider choking down food. Not with her stomach in knots and her nerves jangling.
This was all Luke's fault, she told herself grimly, as her husband's face rose up in her mind. He should have been here. Had promised to be here. But, like most of Luke Talbot's promises, they weren't worth the breath he used to make them.
"Ab?" Emma asked, staring into her eyes, "Are you okay?"
Oh, she hadn't been okay for a long time. And she was getting less okay with every passing day. Less okay? That sounded stupid. She met Emma's violet gaze and did what she'd been doing for months now. She lied to one of her best friends.
"I'm fine, Emma." She plastered her practiced smile on her face and inhaled sharply. "Really. I'm good. Better than good," she said and stepped closer, stumbling just a bit on the hem of her cranberry-colored, floor-length gown.
"Hey, careful," Emma urged.
"Oh, I'm always careful," Abby said. "That's me. Careful Abby. Always looking before she leaps. Always doing the right thing. Always— What were we talking about?"
Emma frowned at her, then shifted a look around the room, as if searching for backup. Giving up, she said, "I think you should come and sit down for a while. I'll get you something to eat."
"Not hungry. I'm just enjoying myself, Em. No worries." Abby took another sip of her champagne, slipped her arm through the crook of Emma's and whispered, "We all worked really hard to pull this ball off— you more than anyone. So let's just party tonight."
"I think you've had enough party."
"Emma." Waving with her champagne glass, Abby said "Oops," as some of the bubbling wine sloshed over the crystal rim to drip down the back of her hand. "I'm fine, fine," she insisted as Emma stopped a passing waiter to snag a couple of cocktail napkins. "Everything's good."
"Abby, how much of that champagne have you had?"
"Not nearly enough," Abby answered, the fake smile she'd been wearing all night slipping just a little.
Her world was crashing down around her and nobody knew it but she and the man she'd once thought she knew so well. What would the Debs have to say if they knew she'd seen a lawyer? If they knew that she was having Luke served with divorce papers? If they knew whatAbby had only discovered the week before—that she'd married a liar, a cheat, a bastard.
She took another gulp of air, straightened and blinked the blurries out of her vision. Facing Emma, she lifted her chin and said, "I'm really fine, Em. Go find that new husband of yours and have some fun, okay? I'm just going to go sit down on the patio."
"It's freezing out there," Emma countered.
"I have a wrap. I'll be fine." To prove it, Abby tossed her black cashmere stole across her left shoulder, then set her nearly empty glass of champagne down on a passing waiter's tray. "See? I'm good. Go. Play. Dance."
"Okay..." Emma bent down to plant a kiss on Abby's cheek. "But I'll catch up with you again later."
"I'll be here," Abby quipped, making her smile brighter, her voice lighter. Alone, she added silently.
She watched as Emma moved through the crowd, stopping to say hello, smiling at friends, then finally, being swooped into her new husband Garrett's welcoming embrace. As the two deliriously happy people began to dance, an awful sense of envy crawled through Abby.
God, she was a terrible human being. How could she begrudge Emma her hard-won happiness? Answer? Abby didn't. Not really. But oh, how she wanted to feel that way again. She could remember so clearly how she'd felt when she and Luke had first gotten together. She remembered that quickening of her pulse, the jumping in the pit of her stomach.
But it had been so long since she'd felt anything but alone, she wanted to weep for the loss of what she and her husband had once had.
Now, she was standing in a crowded ballroom, surrounded by people and she felt lonelier than she could ever remember feeling. The music washed over her. A soft, cool breeze drifted in through the open French doors leading onto the patio. Laughter, snatches of conversation rose in the air and settled over her like an uncomfortable blanket.
"Shouldn't have come," she whispered, low enough that no one around her could overhear.
Of course, she'd had to show up. The Debs were responsible for the success of the ball and she had owed it to her friends to be here. But God, she wished she were anywhere else. She could hardly stand being at the club anymore. Nothing was the same. Nothing felt...safe anymore.
A chill that had nothing to do with the late-October air swept along her spine. Staring at the faces in the crowd, she didn't see familiarity. She saw suspicion. She saw guilt. Fear. Ever since discovering that the death of her mother, Bunny Baldwin, hadn't been an accident, but murder, Abby had been forced to admit that perhaps everyone she knew and trusted weren't what they seemed.
Starting with her husband.
And God help her, in spite of everything, she wished that he were there with her right now. Not as he was now, though. But as he had been when they'd first met. First fell in love. Wistfully, she blanked out the ball she cared nothing about and let memories swarm through her mind.
The day after her graduation from college, Abby struck out on her first adventure. Two weeks in Paris. Alone. She had plans to explore the city, sit at sidewalk cafés and look properly bored. She wanted to drink wine in a park, see the Eiffel Tower and wander through Notre Dame.
She had planned every minute of the trip she'd been looking forward to for years. There wasn't a single impulsive bone in her body. She believed in organization. Clarity. Plans. She even had an itinerary, which went right out the window the minute Luke Talbot took the seat beside her on the flight to France.
She watched him enter the plane and look around and she held her breath until he came to her row of seats and smiled down at her.
"Well, this long flight suddenly looks a lot more interesting," he said, and stowed his carry-on above the first-class seats. Then he dropped into the aisle seat beside hers and held out his right hand. "Luke Talbot."
As soon as she touched him, Abby knew this moment was...special. Different. Something hot and exciting and totally unexpected zinged from her palm up the length of her arm and then rattled around in her chest like a BB in the bottom of an empty can.
She looked into his eyes and couldn't look away. "Abby Baldwin."
He released her hand reluctantly and Abby folded her fingers into her palm as if trying to hold on to that jolt of electrical energy.
"First trip to Paris?" he asked.
"How can you tell?" Abby wondered.
"There's excitement in your eyes."
"Really?" she asked, just a little disappointed.
"And here I was trying to look like an experienced world traveler."