“Hey Rhett, great party,”my friend William says, patting my shoulder as I walk by the crowd in my living room spilling into the terrace and backyard.
Riley isn’t here, but she did it.
She sent a general email saying she couldn’t come, but Cara her assistant is here and has been helicoptering all over this party. An intense presence, but she’s making sure everything goes smoothly. Servers move around the room gracefully bearing trays of delicious delicacies.
My crowd of potential and current business partners, family and friends mingle happily and sip their champagne and cocktails while a jazzy band plays in the garden.
Riley also did a good job with the décor. The walls are lined with lush velvet curtains, while elegant chandeliers provide a warm glow to the room. The staff is efficient and the food, delicious.
I wish Riley was here with me.
I see Alex arrive, and as he makes his way to me, hope lightens inside me. Maybe him showing up is a good sign. He could simply come up with an excuse and not show his face at all.
“Hey dad, can we talk?” he asks, then glances around me, making sure no one is hearing us.
I nudge him to my library, for privacy. I usually get that feeling in my gut when he makes a mistake, and this time it isn’t. “What’s up?” I ask after I close the door behind us.
“Happy Birthday,” he says, but doesn’t make any effort to hug me.
I jam my hand into my pocket. “Thank you.”
He leans against my desk and looks at the floor, then at me. “I’ve been thinking… it’s really fucked up that you slept with my girlfriend.”
“Ex-girlfriend.” I also didn’t know they were together when I first slept with her but I keep this nugget of information to myself. Doesn’t change that I still slept with her after finding out, besides, I don’t want to expose Riley or make it awkward for her.
“Yes,” he says, and makes an annoying face. “So. It is fucked up.”
I plop on a black leather chair, glancing at the credenza where I keep my most beloved bottles of whisky. What if he’s just here to pass judgment and roast me as a birthday gift? I run my fingers through my hair. “I agree.”
“But I guess it evens out with all the things I’ve done in the past.”
Relief spreads through me, and my shoulders loosen up. I have to start giving Alex the benefit of the doubt more often. “Thank you.”
He shifts his weight from one side to the other, still leaning on the desk. This subject obviously isn’t easier for him than it is for me. But, to his credit, he’s brought it up. “I mean… I talked to Riley. Seems like she’s into you too. I don’t want to make it awkward to you both.”
“We aren’t together, son. You don’t have to worry.”
He glances at me, and there’s warmth in his eyes. “Okay. Well, just saying… it’s whatever for me.”
Pride swells in my chest. Pride of him and even a bit of guilt for me, for underestimating his emotional intelligence. None of this is easy, but here he is, my son, being the better person. “Thanks. That’s definitely the best birthday gift I could ask for.” I stand, and eat up the distance between us, and before I give him time for him to change his mind, I pull him into a hug. He’s stiff at first, surprised, but then he hugs me back, and we pat each other’s back heartily.Thisis the best birthday gift.
An hour later,I take a sip of whisky and undo the top buttons of my collar.
I know I have to go back to the party, and I will. I just need a moment to gather myself. How did my life change so much so quickly?
I rock back on the chair, wishing I could leave the weight of my heartache with it once I get up. I know I can’t. I need to find a way to work in the same building as Riley and treat her like what she is—a valuable, talented employee. Nothing more.
A knock on the door pulls me from my thoughts. “Yeah?”
The door is open, and Riley walks in.