Victoria leaned in closer to Ash. What she had to say was important, but the rest of the office didn’t need to hear it. This was between them.
“I put Mischa through a lot of shit back in the day. More than he deserved,” Victoria said.
Around them keyboards clacked and people spoke in low tones on the phone, filling the real estate office with the white noise of productivity.
“Sounds like it’s a good thing you went your separate ways.” Ash spoke through clenched teeth.
That was the understatement of the century. It didn’t matter how much Victoria hated that she’d lost him, she loathed herself for almost destroying him. And then to come back into his life, all these years later, and see him engaged to another woman who could feed his desire to be someone’s savior…
“It was. He still doesn’t deserve to be treated like that. But he’ll go through it, because that’s who he is. A collector of pretty broken things,” Victoria said.
“Your point is?” Ice lined Ash’s words.
Victoria didn’t blame her. “Don’t be that person. Don’t be me. Don’t put him through hell because you can’t stand on your own.”
Ash clenched her jaw, and her nostrils flared. “I appreciate your concern for my fiancé. Was there anything else?”
“Nope. Tristan’s next on my list.” She pushed away from the cubicle and strolled away, as if the conversation was the easiest thing she’d done all day.
That didn’t mean Victoria could ignore the whispers of guilt gnawing at her gut. She didn’t know the woman. Had no idea if the scars up and down her arms were old, or any right to judge regardless.
She did know some things. Ash was uncomfortable with the marks—not distinct enough to be from a suicide attempt, but numerous enough to indicate the cutting wasn’t a one-off thing. She was hiding something about her past, and Mischa shouldn’t have to deal with that kind of pain. Not again.
Victoria flashed the receptionist a smile, never letting the internal turmoil show on her face, and strode toward Tristan’s office.
She knew one other thing, too. Mischa had never looked at her the way he did Ash. With the kind of adoration and affection that said he’d restructure universes for her.
It was a good thing Victoria was over Mischa, or those looks would hurt. Not that Mischa had really been the source of her infatuation to begin with. No one except her therapist knew that.
She paused in Tristan’s open office doorway and knocked on the frame. None of that mattered, because this was the real reason she was here.
He looked up, raised an eyebrow, and turned back to his monitor. “Can I do something for you, Vicky?”
Mentally, she gritted her teeth at the nickname. Growing up as Vicky Next Door made her loathe having her name abbreviated. Her smile never wavered. “I’d like five minutes of your time.” And with any luck a couple more hours of it tomorrow night.
“You made your pitch. Check’s in the mail. I might have room on my calendar two months from never.”
The reason she’d come back into their lives had more to do with this visit than with Mischa. Sure, finding her ex engaged was a shock, but Victoria had a different purpose these days. Making sure the charity she worked for could keep supporting kids.
A few days ago, she stopped by the office to ask Mischa and Tristan for a donation, hoping to play on that whole knight in shining armor complex to get a building out of the real estate firm to house a new rec center.
It was when she met Ash, and when she was sucked back into how sexy, razor-sharp witted, and asinine Tristan could be.
She stepped into the room and closed the door behind her. “This isn’t business. Not for you anyway.”
That earned her two raised brows and a longer glance.
“You owe me.” She hadn’t intended to play that card—especially since the only favor she’d done him was staying away from Mischa for several years—but he flustered her. The ice-blue stare that had always cut to her core, as if he could see through her soul. And his cool exterior, which made it impossible to tell what he wanted. Everyone wanted something. Being able to tell what made her a first-class negotiator. But she’d never figured out what that was with Tristan.
“Five minutes,” he said.
She’d take it. She settled into the chair across from him, pasted together any shards of fractured composure, and solidified her smile. “I understand you’ve got an invitation to the country club fundraiser. You need a date who will make you look good.”
“I assume that means you, so I won’t ask. What I’m curious about is how you found out, and why you think I don’t already have a date?”
She should have considered that. Of course he wouldn’t have an issue finding someone to accompany him. He was one of the city’s most eligible bachelors. Old enough to be stable, young enough staring didn’t draw too many comments about age difference, and a wealthy former Olympic medalist who kept in shape.
All the above added to the reasons she didn’t know what to offer him in exchange for what she was asking.
“I’m friends with someone who has access to the guest list. And it doesn’t matter if you have a date, I’ll make you look better,” she said. He could call anyone. And half of them would be more affluent and shine just as brightly at a formal dinner as her. But none would leave the impression she did.
“So you’re here to make sure I look good in front of a bunch of people I grew up with?”
She shook her head. “I’m here to beg you to introduce me to those people. And I mean that literally. I’m not above begging.”
She could have asked Mischa. His name popping up on the guest list earned her the call. But there was the whole fiancée thing. And Tristan did grow up with these people. She needed influence. The best kind. Tristan would give her that.
Besides, she and Tristan would look good together, and she never underestimated the power of appearance. An important lesson learned in Hollywood, especially as what it looked like ended her career.
As much as she’d never compare the two best friends out loud, Tristan’s reputation would take her further than Mischa’s. Tristan radiated his influence and upbringing. Mischa was chaos incarnate. People with money didn’t care for unpredictable. They liked to know their cash only left their wallets with their permission.
“Why this dinner? What makes it, above all others, worth swallowing your pride?” Tristan asked.
Because any charity knew that the big functions filled the coffers, and theirs were dipping toward empty. “I’m not.”
He pursed his lips. “You’re literally willing to beg.”
“I am. In front of you. You’re not going to tell anyone else, because that’s not how you work. I already know you’ve got a low opinion of me. My pride doesn’t fluctuate at all.”
“I don’t have—”
“Don’t go down that path.” She refused to let him lie and insist he didn’t think poorly of her. When he asked her to walk out of Mischa’s life, years ago, he literally didn’t hesitate to point out she was the toxic matter in the relationship.
He sighed. “Then why me? And why does this dinner mean so much to you?”
Because she liked the idea of being on his arm. She daydreamed about being his date because he wanted it, not out of obligation.
“I’ve already told you that. You know these people. I need them to take me seriously. And it has to be this event, because it’s the one happening now, while we’re trying to grow. These kids deserve more.”
She could probably ask someone else. There were other rich guys who would take her call if it meant a date. She’d make that sacrifice for the charity. But this was Tristan, and now that she’d found a way back into his life… was it such a big deal that she wanted to enjoy it just a little longer?
And he still hadn’t answered her. “Please?” She rose, prepared to kneel and beg.
Embarrassment on Victoria’s behalf tickled Tristan’s senses when he realized she actually meant she would beg. “Don’t do that,” he said.
There were a few situations where he wouldn’t mind seeing her on her knees, but never if she thought it was required to get what she wanted.
She sat again, smoothing her skirt over long legs. “You’ve peppered me with questions, but you haven’t said no. Tell me what’s holding you back or kick me out of your office.”
“I’m just trying to figure you out.” And keep his gaze on her face, rather than letting it drift lower, over the way her suit jacket highlighted the curve of her breasts and narrow waist. Then again, her pale eyes were just as captivating and distracting. He shook the thoughts aside.
She was still Victoria. The woman who was willing to let her demons destroy herself and his best friend, and who had never shown appropriate remorse. Except maybe the afternoon he’d visited her in rehab, years ago, and given her an ultimatum—stay away from Mischa on her own, or Tristan would use every connection he had to make it happen on his terms.
She’d pleaded for a chance to apologize then, but the desperation made the request lack sincerity.
Her enthralling beauty didn’t change the past.
“I don’t know what else you need me to say.” She sounded sincere today.
This wasn’t the same woman he talked to back then. He knew that the moment she walked into their offices and asked for a lunch meeting a few days earlier.
“Whether or not you believe it, for me this is about the kids I help,” she said. “Those men and women you’re rubbing elbows with tomorrow night? They have influence in this town, and I want to get in front of them with someone they know and trust. You can make me those connections.”
“This is about contacts? I can hook you up without the dinner. Scott McAllister—always good for a cause.”
She gave a short laugh, but there was no humor in it. “I need real estate contacts. Contractors. Builders. Financiers. Not video games. Besides, Rinslet is already a top donor. They’ve given us a computer lab, and set up an annual scholarship fund.”
Of course they had. “That’s still not the same as an entire building, with ongoing upkeep.” If he did the math in his head, it was close. “How about Dean Rice Jr.? His dad’s a prick but he’s in the family business.”
“And he’ll be there, and you can introduce me.” She didn’t miss a beat.
Tristan wanted to say yes. The annoying chant of if she were anyone else, you’d yield ran through his head. “After this you’ll go back to keeping your distance from Mischa?”
She wasn’t anyone else, though. Even if the split from Mischa had been amicable, and she wasn’t any more interested in Mischa than he was in her. She was his best friend’s ex. That violated all sorts of bro codes.
And makes you her second choice.
He ignored the mental taunt, which sounded oddly like his Olympic snowboarding coach. “Would you have asked him to go with you, if it weren’t for Ash?” Not that the invitation would exist in that case, since Ash’s father extended it.
Victoria shook her head.
“All right.” Tristan would make sure Mischa knew this was just business. He boxed away past and prejudice, and replaced it with cool and professional. “I don’t have a date for the country club charity dinner. If you’re free, would you join me?” He kept his tone smooth and kind. Now was as good a time as any to start playing the part.
Her smile, the only genuine one he’d seen from her today, pinged in his chest.
“I’d love to,” she said. “Pick me up at seven-thirty?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Is there anything else I can get you while you’re here?”
“No.” She rose and shook his hand. “Thank you for your time.”
He was glad to see she slid into the role of cool and reserved as well as he did. Not that he expected otherwise. He came around the desk and saw her to the front exit.
Mischa’s door was closed, which meant he was heads-down in design work. This news would wait until later. Or, Tristan would dump the surprise on him, the way Mischa had done to him so many times over the years.
In the meantime, Tristan would pray this wasn’t a bad idea. Not because he was worried about how Victoria would look or act. When she was sober, she was a picture of perfection. The perfect actress.
A nagging behind his ribs said this was a mistake, though. Despite all the reasons it should be okay, he couldn’t shake that feeling.