Her Best Worst Mistake
How do I dislike thee, let me count the ways.
Violet Sutcliffe took a healthy swig from her champagne glass as she watched the tall, dark-haired man across the London Hilton’s ballroom. He was wearing a classic black tuxedo, but he somehow managed to look stuffy rather than suave. But that was his gift - taking anything stylish, fun or frivolous and stifling the life out of it.
Martin St Clair glanced away from the elderly man he was talking to and caught her eye. Even from a distance she could see his upper lip curl ever so slightly. She arched an eyebrow in unspoken challenge.
The feeling is entirely mutual, my friend.
In fact, their antipathy had been entirely mutual from the moment her best friend Elizabeth began dating him six years ago, and familiarity hadn’t done a damned thing to ease or ameliorate it. Sometimes, when she was suffering a rare bout of introspection, Violet wondered if she and Martin didn’t both secretly enjoy disapproving of each other. Certainly she enjoyed taking pot shots at him most of the time - anything to rattle his ridiculously staid cage - and judging by how quickly he usually jumped into the fray, he wasn’t averse to trading jabs with her, either.
“Sorry about that. I got caught up with one of the Jones-Smythe girls,” Elizabeth said as she rejoined Violet.
Violet focussed on her friend, turning her back on the prig across the room. “Can we go yet?”
Elizabeth’s lips twitched. “You know we can’t. They haven’t given the speeches yet.”
“So? No one will notice if we slip out. We paid for our tickets, they have our money. That’s the bit they’re really interested in.”
“Behave. It’s not that bad.”
“E, be real. These people are the walking dead.” Violet’s gaze swept over the well-dressed crowd attending the Heart Foundation’s annual fundraiser. “Older than Moses, richer than God and more boring than a truckload of accountants.”
Elizabeth laughed, then immediately lifted a hand to her mouth to hide her smile, almost as though she was afraid someone would take her to task for being amused by Violet’s irreverence.
Violet eyed her friend with fond frustration. In all the years she’d known Elizabeth she’d only seen her really let her hair down a handful of times. She was always on her guard, always careful, always elegant and considerate and good - more so now than ever with her wedding to Mr. Stuffed Shirt looming on the horizon.
“You look really beautiful tonight, in case I didn’t say so before,” Violet said impulsively, reaching out to touch the silk of Elizabeth’s slate blue sheath dress.
With her deep blue eyes, pale blonde hair and delicate bone structure, Elizabeth was the epitome of a cool, reserved English rose. So many people were fooled into believing her coolness ran more than skin deep, but she was hands down the most passionate, big-hearted person Violet knew.
Pity Elizabeth felt the need to hide all that passion from most of the important people in her life.
Elizabeth waved a dismissive hand. “You’re the stand out, Vi. You always are. That dress is amazing.”
Violet smoothed a hand down the side of her red velvet Flamenco-style dress and struck a pose so that she showed plenty of fishnet-clad leg through the slit in the skirt. Convention had it that redheads shouldn’t wear red – too much of a good thing and all that – but Violet had never been big on adhering to convention. She’d worn her deep red hair in a cascading up-do tonight, and matched her lipstick to her dress.
“Thought I’d give the Heart Foundation some bang for their buck,” she said. “Test out a few pacemakers.”
They both laughed.
“I have a party we can crash once we get out of here,” Violet said. “Canary Wharf loft, great music, open bar... It’s going to be a good one.”
For a moment Elizabeth’s face lit up. Then her gaze found someone over Violet’s shoulder and she shook her head, the light dimming from her eyes.
“Not really Martin’s scene, I’m afraid.”
The hairs on the back of Violet’s neck stood on end. She didn’t need to turn around to know that Elizabeth’s fiancé was approaching. She took a big gulp of her champagne as Martin joined their twosome.
“Sorry,” he said, his gaze on Elizabeth. “I was talking with Lord Burrows and lost track of time.”
“No need to apologize. We wouldn’t want you to miss an opportunity to let him know how much you admire his good work,” Violet said, her face poker straight.
Martin’s grey eyes were coolly disapproving as they met hers.
“As a matter of fact, that was exactly what I was doing. I happen to admire the Foundation’s work a great deal.”
“Plus he’s a member of the Savage Club,” Violet murmured. “Or perhaps you’ve already found someone to second your nomination for membership?”
Martin’s cheeks turned a dull shade of brick red. “I’m sorry if my attempts to better my lot in life seem crass to you, Violet. Not all of us have the benefit of being born into the upper echelons.”
His blunt rebuttal to her veiled dig made her feel small and petty. She opened her mouth to return like for like but Elizabeth’s hand rested on her wrist.
“Might I suggest a ceasefire? Just for the evening?”
Her tone was light but her eyes were beseeching as they met Violet’s. Suddenly Violet felt ashamed of herself for baiting Martin.
She wasn’t sure why she’d gone out of her way to piss him off. It wasn’t as though he’d done anything to provoke her. Except breathe, of course.
Swallowing the last of her champagne, she abandoned her flute in the pot of a nearby fern, earning her yet another reproving look from Martin.
“Why don’t I make it easier on everyone and head off to this party of mine?” she said. “You two will have much more fun without me hanging around.”
Elizabeth’s expression dropped and Violet immediately felt like a heel for deserting her friend at this dull-as-dishwater affair. She forced herself to look at Martin.
“You should sneak out of here, too, and take E somewhere fun. Reward her for being such a stoic.”
Martin started to protest, then caught sight of Elizabeth’s face.
“You’re bored?” he asked.
“No. Of course not. This is fun,” Elizabeth said with a quick smile.
Violet waited for Martin to take her at her word and plow on with his own plans for the evening, but instead he frowned.
“Why am I not convinced?”
Elizabeth wrinkled her nose. “Because I’m a terrible actor?”
Martin smiled, the slow curve of his mouth revealing a dimple in his left cheek.
Violet frowned, as she did every time she saw that dimple.
It didn’t belong on his face. It was as simple as that. Dimples were impish and mischievous. They spoke of laughter and pleasure, not three piece suits and pipes and slippers and cardigans with elbow patches.
“If you want to go somewhere else, we can,” Martin said. “I’ve spoken to everyone I need to.”
“We could get a drink somewhere. There’s that new bar near your place,” Elizabeth suggested.
“Why not?” he said easily.
“Great. If you’re heading for Bloomsbury you can drop me at Tottenham Court Station on the way through,” Violet said breezily.
Ignoring Martin’s frown, she tucked her arm through Elizabeth’s and started walking toward the exit. He might want to protest, but he was too much the gentleman to deny her request - and she wasn’t enough of a lady to be above using his better instincts against him.
They stopped to collect their coats and handbags from the cloak room before following Martin to the vintage Jaguar sedan that was his pride and joy. Wordlessly he held the rear door open and she gave him a cheeky smile as she ducked past him and into the car.
“Cheer up. It’s not too far, then you’ll be rid of me.”
His mouth tightened but he didn’t say anything.
At the ripe old age of twenty-nine, she should probably have grown out of goading people for sport, but for some reason she never tired of poking Martin with a stick to see how long it would take before he growled and snapped.
“Where’s this party of yours?” Martin asked as he slid into the driver’s seat and started the car.
She was busy rummaging in her handbag for the black camisole she’d stuffed in there earlier and she glanced at him in surprise.
“You’re not driving me all the way there. It’s the other side of town.”
There was a question in her voice, and for the first time that night he smiled at her, his eyes meeting hers in the rear view mirror.
“You’re right, I’m not. I’m just trying to work out if Tottenham Court is the best place to drop you.”
“It is. Trust me.”
“I’m afraid I’m not nearly that naive.”
“I think we might have to agree to disagree on that one. By the way, you might want to keep your eyes on the road for the next few minutes.”
She slipped her arms from her coat sleeves. “I need to get changed.”
She could see the tension come into his neck as he stared at her in the rear view mirror. She lifted her hand and found the tab of the zipper hidden in the side of her dress. She raised her eyebrows.
Daring him to keep watching.
Martin’s lips pressed together and he shot his gaze to the front.
“Don’t worry. Vi’s a pro at getting changed in small spaces,” Elizabeth said.
“Yes. I’m sure she’s had lots of practice,” Martin said flatly.
Violet unzipped her dress and slipped the shoulder straps off before pulling the camisole over head. She let it slide down her body. Once she was decent up top, she began to wiggle out of her dress.
“As a matter of fact, Martin, I have. Lots and lots. So many tight places I’ve been,” she said as she shimmied the dress past her hips. “It’s hard for a girl to keep count.”
Martin’s gaze remained glued to the road ahead. She slipped her dress past her knees and ankles, then dropped it onto the adjoining seat before pulling her red spandex mini skirt from her handbag. Five seconds later she was smoothing the stretch fabric over the tops of her thighs.
“There. All done.”
Martin’s gaze flicked to the rear view mirror for the first time since she’d started changing. She felt his censure as he took in her new outfit, but he didn’t say a word.
“Won’t you be cold?” Elizabeth asked worriedly.
“Not once I start dancing.”
Elizabeth had twisted to face her and her eyes became wistful for a few seconds. “Remember that party we had just before we graduated? I could barely walk the next day I danced so much.”
“I remember, party animal. The miracle is that you do.”
The car slowed to a halt. Violet glanced out and saw the familiar red, white and blue sign of the Tube station.
“Can I leave my dress with you, E?” she asked as she reached for the door handle.
“Sure. I can drop it by the boutique on Monday if you like.”
“There’s no rush. But if you do come over, we can have lunch and discuss your hen’s night. We need to decide how many strippers to hire.”
In her peripheral vision she saw Martin roll his eyes. Hiding a smile, she slid from the car, slipping into her coat again.
“Thanks for the lift, Martin.”
“A pleasure, as always, Violet,” he lied.
She laughed as she shut the door. The moment she stepped to the curb he was gone, the car powering into the cold night. She stared after them for a moment.
He hadn’t looked once, even though there’d been moments there when she’d been almost naked.
Mr. Honorable to the end.
She turned toward the station, annoyed with herself. It wasn’t as though she’d wanted him to look. He was Elizabeth’s fiancé, for God’s sake.
There was something so...controlled about him. From the moment she’d first met him she’d felt it - a sort of determination to prove he was worthy. Or something like that.
Suddenly it struck her that in many ways he was the male version of Elizabeth, who was also a master of the art of self control and people pleasing. Two peas in a perfect, tidy little pod.
Two people playing a part that ought to come naturally but doesn’t. Two people who don’t really know each other. Not in the ways that count.
Maybe that was why she was disappointed Martin hadn’t so much as batted an eyelid as she’d stripped in the back of his car - it would have at least made him human. Would have given her hope that underneath all that old-before-his-time fuddy-duddiness was a real person with flaws and faults and feelings.
She descended below street level, her high heels clattering against the stone steps. The smell of urine hit her as she made her way through the tiled tunnel. A train was pulling up to the platform as she arrived and she stepped straight into it. The carriage was barely a quarter full and she found a seat by herself and crossed her legs, adjusting her long coat so her legs were protected from the cold. The announcer told everyone to “mind the gap” before the train pulled away. Violet stared out the window, thinking about Elizabeth and Martin and their upcoming wedding.
It was a mistake, of course. Even though she was thirty years old, Elizabeth had barely lived. She needed a man who would challenge and stretch and inspire her, not someone who wanted to wrap her in cotton wool and admire her from a distance.
As for Martin, she had no idea what he needed - apart from a ton of TNT jammed up his tightly clenched backside.
She stirred, looking away from the darkness outside the train. She hated to see her friend settle. Hated watching her be buried beneath obligation and expectation. Orphaned at a young age, Elizabeth had spent her life pleasing her elderly grandparents - her payment of sorts for their kindness in taking her in. From where Violet sat, Elizabeth was living the life they wanted for her, not the one she might choose for herself, should she ever have the option.
And foolish E is going along for the ride. All the way down the aisle.
For a moment Violet was filled with an ineffable sadness. Standing by and watching Elizabeth make such a huge mistake was going to be one of the hardest things she’d ever done. But she would do it, because she loved E more than anything, and E was convinced that Martin would make her happy.
Violet hoped like hell that her friend had the right of it.
And if she was wrong... Well, Violet would be there to help her pick up the pieces, as Elizabeth had done for her many, many times in the past.