Alicia Gray could still taste the acidic bile that had climbed up her throat during the cocktail party last night. The nausea tainted the beauty of the serene suburban morning outside the kitchen window.
If she didn’t immediately address what she saw last night, she would lose her nerve. Her emotions had been too raw to confront him on the ride home. Shock and confusion had swallowed her whole as she prepared for bed, so she’d decided to wait until morning, hoping that by then she would have gained some perspective and the answers she craved.
Eliot was finishing his breakfast and would leave for work soon. As he drained the last of his coffee, pushed back from the kitchen table and stood, the idea of dealing with this tension the entire day filled her with dread.
It was now or never. A chill snaked up and down her spine, however. Doubt circled her consciousness. Was she mistaken? Did her eyes deceive her? She closed her eyes and summoned a last-minute dose of courage.
“You got a minute, Eliot?” She turned around to face her husband while fidgeting with a button on her blouse.
Eliot cast an anxious glance at his watch and then back at her. “Can’t it wait until tonight?”
Her fingernails dug into her palms. She said, “No, it can’t. Have a seat. I’ll keep it short.”
He adjusted the pocket square in his suit jacket and sat. He blinked twice—his Am I in trouble? expression. “Is everything okay?”
Alicia took another deep breath. She couldn’t believe she was asking this. “Why did you let her touch you like that?”
He swallowed hard and leaned in, his hands clasped together. “What are you talking about?”
“You know. You and Kat. I saw you.”
His breath hitched a little. He reached for his coffee mug and put it back down upon realizing it was empty.
“What did you see?”
She bit her bottom lip. A sob gained momentum. She bit down harder—the inside of her cheeks this time. She wouldn’t cry. It would be silly, especially since she didn’t have his side of the story yet.
“Kat with her hands all over you. Your crotch, to be exact.”
Jealousy curdled in Alicia’s stomach once more as she conjured up the image. It happened a mere eight hours ago—Kat and Eliot in a dimly lit alcove of Arnie Tillerson’s lavish Beacon Hill townhouse to the tune of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, the perfect backdrop to the laughter and socializing of the wealthy and influential guests. Attentive servers had kept the champagne flowing and delectable appetizers replenished.
Eliot squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them, he wouldn’t meet her accusing gaze.
“Babe, I’m so sorry. It’s not what it looked like. I’d hoped nobody saw. Especially you.”
She said nothing, just stared at him. Her words snagged on something deep inside her chest. It was worse than she thought. Not only did he confirm what she’d seen, he’d hoped nobody had caught them.
After a moment of stunned silence, she asked, “You wanted to keep it a secret?”
“I didn’t want to upset you or draw attention to the situation. It was embarrassing. Katalina was drunk, out of control. I tried to handle it tactfully.”
“You still haven’t answered my question,” she pressed. “Were you going to tell me that my best friend brazenly felt you up at a cocktail party hosted by your boss, in his home?”
“She caught me off guard, too. I’d never seen her lose it like that.”
“I watched the two of you. I wanted to say something, but the shock made me speechless.” Alicia finally left the sink and joined him at the table. “Her behavior didn’t seem to bother you at all, though, Eliot. Did you enjoy the attention?” She spat the words at him.
“Don’t be ridiculous. What do you take me for? I was as shocked by her behavior as you were. It was surreal. Came out of nowhere.”
She should be used to it by now, but she wasn’t. Women constantly flirted with Eliot. She never thought, however, that her best friend would be counted among those who did. Eliot was long and lean, immaculately clean-shaven with sharp features and a magnetic personality that made it hard to say no to him. She should know; it was what drew her to him in the first place. At forty-six, he was in better shape than most men half his age, thanks to a disciplined exercise regimen and no smoking, drugs, or alcohol.
Alicia, on the other hand, was no great beauty. She was okay with that, though. The only distinguishing physical feature she possessed was a single dimple on her left cheek that went so deep Eliot joked he could crawl into it and hibernate for months. As a stay-at-home mom, she worked overtime to convince herself that it was enough that she kept an impeccable home, was an amazing mother to their two daughters—Eliot’s words, not hers—and the perfect corporate wife. That she was enough.
Apparently, she wasn’t enough. The image flashed before her eyes once more. Eliot hadn’t removed Kat’s hand right away. Why not? Why wasn’t he angry or offended? Maybe it was as he’d said, that he was in shock, just as Alicia had been.
“What if Arnie had rounded the corner and caught you and Kat?” she insisted. “What if Richard had stumbled onto your little display?”
He went slack-jawed, as if the idea of being busted by someone other than his wife never occurred to him. Four years ago, Eliot made partner at Tillerson Brenner, an elite law firm where he specialized in project finance, a highly lucrative sub-specialty of corporate law. He was the only Africa-American to attain that position in the firm’s seventy-five-year history. Tillerson Brenner advised some of the largest corporations in the world, and Eliot worked hard to make a name for himself within the firm and with clients in an industry where reputation was everything. He couldn’t afford to make careless mistakes. Yet he had.
Eliot stood. “I have to go,” he said. “I’m really sorry about last night. I’m sorry it upset you so much. There was no enjoyment or encouragement on my part. I would never disrespect you that way. You’re the only woman for me. Nothing and nobody will ever change that.”
He came over to her, planted a kiss on her forehead, and told her he loved her. As he grabbed his Bottega briefcase off the kitchen island, he added, “I hope we can put this ugly incident behind us. It was a strange encounter and will never happen again.”
After he left, Alicia poured herself another cup of coffee and returned to leaning against the kitchen sink. Her gaze wandered over the scenic backyard, with its expansive views, lush trees, and manicured grass—a stark contrast to the chaotic thoughts bouncing around in her head like rogue tennis balls. She had no reason to doubt Eliot’s version of the events from last night. Next week would mark their twentieth wedding anniversary. At no time during their marriage did he ever give her reason to doubt his commitment or fidelity. Not once. However, she couldn’t let Kat get away with what she had done. She owed Alicia an explanation.