Chapter Ten

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With the last of the party guests gone, she sat at the bar with the manager adding up the damage while Kate and Dash talked horses with her father outside at the valet stand. The party was an overwhelming success though she'd drifted through it like a ghost. A shake of his hand. A simple hello. And nothing. Not a spark of recognition on his part. Thomas Crown, the man she'd regrettably let slip in and out of her life, now belonged to someone else. And without warning she'd been reduced to that which she'd secretly feared for months. Another one-night stand. At times she'd felt sick, seeing his hand on the small of Kate's back. Listening attentively to every word she said. Laughing quietly at their own private jokes. It was fate's cruelest twist to date.

With the bill settled, she took refuge in the ladies room, praying for strength and composure. The eyes that stared back through the mirror, however, were distant and filled with doubt. It was time to close the weekend and say goodbye, though she didn't know if she could face him again. She'd avoided him and Kate for the majority of the party. Just a casual comment or two in passing. Playing Hostess-with-the-Mostest made it easy. But saying farewell was a different story without a hundred plus bodies surrounding them to buffer her uneasiness.

Dash Pennington. Dash Pennington. His name had looped through her mind all afternoon, as though she were just hearing it for the first time. He was no longer her Mr. Crown. And she knew, with total certainty, that he never would be again. With a deep breath, she donned her bravest face and exited the restroom, ready to deliver her most convincing performance yet.

"Is everything alright?" Kate called to her.

"Paid in full." She confirmed with an air of confidence.

"Natalie, Kate..." Stephen beamed. "I know I've said it a million times already, but this has been the most wonderful day I've had in years. So many dear friends. How on earth did you manage to get all the old crowd back together?"

"It had nothing to do with us and everything to do with you." Kate smiled.

"They love you, Daddy. You're the reason this was such an enjoyable day." Natalie added.

"Well, it was beyond enjoyable. It was beyond words of any kind."

"And just so you know..." Kate winked at her sister. "We can keep a secret."

"You see what I've had to put up with all these years, Dash?"

"With daughters this beautiful, I'd say they're worth the trouble." He smiled at them.

"I wish you didn't have to go, Darling." Stephen watched as a yellow cab pulled to a stop in front of the restaurant. "Are you sure you can't stay? Just one more night?"

"I wish I could." She hugged him tightly. "But I really have to go."

She released her father and turned to Kate, fighting to keep herself composed.

"Well, you did it again. Everything was perfect , Nat. Absolutely perfect." Kate wrapped her arms around her.

"Thank you for everything. The dinner. The sculpture. It was perfect." Natalie whispered.

"Call me tonight?" She pulled away with a smile.

"Of course." Natalie gave a knowing nod.

"Ms. Powell?" The cabbie stepped from the car.

"That's me." Natalie turned and summoned another smile.

"Any baggage, ma'am?" He asked, giving the trunk a tap.

"Actually yes, I almost forget." Natalie took a step toward her father's car.

"Let me help you." Kate and Stephen offered in unison.

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