The One That I Want. Michelle Monkou
him. If tested, he’d be unable to recall anything. Hopefully he wouldn’t have any long conversations that would tax his memory.
But he sensed that it was an empty fantasy because their gazes stuck to him like prickly burrs. It didn’t help that a few heads tilted toward each other for whispered chitchat. How much did they know about him?
“And the last one in the lineup is my friend Laxmi Holder,” Fiona revealed with an appreciative pat on her friend’s shoulder.
“Just to be clear, it’s best friend.” Laxmi smirked at him.
Good grief, she belongs to the other side. Dresden nodded in mock salute. “Not to worry. I won’t usurp your place.”
“Hope not. She’s got enough friends.” Laxmi pointed at Fiona with her thumb. “I, on the other hand, may have an opening for a friend with benefits.” She widened her smile.
Dresden felt like her partner in crime, with their shared secret about not being complete strangers. He swallowed the automatic response to match her smile with his. Hard to be around this intriguing woman and not react to her or anything she said. Besides, he was certain Fiona had picked up that something had occurred between the two. Although she was baffled now, no doubt that she would corner Laxmi later for the lowdown.
To throw off Fiona and get himself onto emotionally neutral land, Dresden allowed himself to drift along with the meandering conversations closest to him.
The cousins soon overshadowed his preoccupation with Laxmi. Jointly they engaged him in animated conversations exchanging information about their childhood misadventures. Listening to the details from their childhood, he felt like a spectator. He couldn’t help thinking about what it would have been like to be part of the family dynamics. But their exuberance and effort to draw him in with humor and great storytelling abilities helped dissipate some of the awkwardness of the situation.
However, he took the more comfortable route to talk about his humorous interactions with his students and his more interesting research trips. Childhood stories, living in exotic places with his family, and anything else that he deemed too personal, remained unspoken.
Sliding his attention past the cousins, he saw Verona, far enough away but still in his direct line of sight. He studied the woman who’d given birth to him but couldn’t look at him. She didn’t smile much. Didn’t talk much, either. She wasn’t a sad figure. More like a contemplative spectator at the table. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected or what he’d wanted—a bereaved woman in perpetual torment would be nice.
A low-level headache hummed across his brow. Maybe he should have stayed at the bar. He needed a little help to get through the night. However, his escape plan hit a snag.
The program started with the official introduction of Grace. The matriarch walked forward to take her place on the stage. Guests cheered her on with a standing ovation. Dresden clapped along with everyone as each major accomplishment was read about her humble beginnings in the media industry to the steep upward trajectory to success and power.
He chanced a glance at Laxmi before he resumed his seat. She was chatting with one of the cousins. Not once did she look in his direction. He did but also didn’t want her attention. Still, why on earth did he feel a twinge of disappointment because she ignored him?
Grace stepped up to the microphone, first acknowledging the ovation and grand introduction. Her speech turned somber and reflective.
Dresden listened to her creative version of his inclusion in the family. More details than he’d preferred, about Grace hiring Leo to find her grandson so that she could celebrate this milestone birthday with her entire family. Her pride extended to her daughter Verona and the reunion of her children, whose successful lives were testimony to the Meadowses’ traits of grit and determination.
Bitterness simmered in his chest like embers. Charlotte and Patrick deserved all the credit. And he’d never betray their love by sharing any part of himself with Verona.
“Would all my grandchildren join me onstage?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know she’d do this.” Fiona touched his fisted hand on the table as she rose to join her grandmother. The cousins also stood, looking expectantly over at him.
His mind raced along with the thump of his heartbeat. His body, on the other hand, felt like it was in a high-drama family saga moving in slow motion. He had to stand. Had to walk to the stage. Had to take his place next to people he didn’t know or belong with, as part of the united front for the public and for Grace.
Cameras didn’t stop flashing. Were they all so fascinating, to need every facet of their life on record? He tried to shield his eyes but couldn’t manage that and see to walk. Feeling more than a tad self-conscious, he retreated between a gap in the lineup. The rest of the family all dealt with it like pros.
Dresden concentrated hard on not barfing onstage. Alongside him, he witnessed Fiona, like her cousins, charm the audience with her testimonial of love and devotion for her grandmother. Their sincerity stirred up warm, cozy feelings about family and legacy. While they lauded Grace’s impact to their lives, he related the same feelings to his memories of his adoptive parents. Nothing would change where his loyalty resided. Except, a deep-seated fear formed that he could fall under the spell of the Meadowses.
Meanwhile, the guests continued cheering through Fiona’s speech. They were the fans for the home team, fully engaged at a pep rally. How would he follow her blaze of glory with his version as the new Meadows? What emotional bloodletting would he have to perform for the guests’ satisfaction?
The anxiety had him wishing that he was back at the bar admiring a particularly sexy woman in her red-hot minidress. Timing wasn’t on his side, but he’d make do with the temporary opportunity.
Damn, it was his turn. Fiona offered a final wave before she left the podium to rejoin the line of grandchildren. His nerves popped and multiplied in the pit of his belly. Too many thoughts to process and no time for second-guessing. Dresden rubbed his palms along his pant legs and blew out a shaky breath.
The short walk to the podium felt a mile long. But nothing more delayed his face time with the guests. He tried to smile. Tried to make his face relax. Tried to hold it together.
He dug deep and imagined standing in front of a freshman class. This was nothing more than teaching the early history of Canada. If he was lucky, he’d have to deal with only a few glazed stares.
“Tonight I’m here with the Meadowses to celebrate Grace’s birthday. Thank you for the invitation.” He inclined his head toward the head table. “Right now...” He paused, trying to direct his words so that only positivity flowed. “This has been...quite a year.” A few chuckles joined in with his weak laughter. He scratched his forehead, although there was no itch, just an unease that wouldn’t stay buried. “A lot to take in. And we will move onward and upward. So, um...enjoy the meal.”
Then he took a step back from the podium. With a loud exhalation, he looked over at Fiona. Sorry. He mouthed the word before looking back out over the crowd. A soft buzz of chatter gradually filled in the silence after he finished.
He sought one person’s judgment—Laxmi’s. He was sure Grace regretted his stumbling debut to her friends. That was why he’d rather deal with Laxmi and her series of pointed questions about his behavior than Fiona’s or Grace’s disappointment.
Without pausing to analyze the consequences of the next steps, Dresden walked briskly off the stage. His strides lengthened and picked up momentum toward the exit. Escape. Freedom. All he wanted right now was cool air filling his lungs.
He reached the hotel entrance out of breath, but grateful, and pushed open the door. The temperature had dropped significantly, adding a frigid edge to the already frosty condition. His face tightened against the wind but he needed the briskness to take his mind off his actions.
“Sir, do you need a taxi?” An attendant stepped up, ready to hail a cab with his whistle.
“I guess I should get one.”