The man she loved had rejected her and married her twin sister, less than an hour ago.
And now this…
She’d never she felt loved or like she belonged.
Now she knew why.
Nell squeezed her eyes shut and tried to shut her mother’s pale, perfectly-made-up face out. If only she could erase the memory of her hushed words.
You’re not my daughter!
Clamping her hands over her ears, Nell Lewis reeled backwards against the flimsy wall of the stall and emitted a low moan.
This wasn’t happening. Not today with her heart already breaking.
Nell couldn’t be having the most important conversation of her life with her mother as a side note behind the locked door of the ladies’ room during Hannah’s wedding reception.
But she was. Less than an hour ago tall, blond, perfect Hannah had married Colt.
Well…not really her Colt. Except in her dreams and fantasies. Then her elegant mother—no, not her mother, Audrey--had barged into the ladies’ room, demanding to know if the outrageous rumor she’d heard was true.
Which, of course, it was.
Did you jump out of a cake wearing a silver thong and bra at Colt’s bachelor’s party last night and throw yourself at him?
Nell, who was deeply ashamed of what she’d done and bruised by Colt’s coldness rejection, had cracked the stall door to protest.
“It was just a bikini! Not a thong! Please don’t call it a thong!”
Grabbing her arm roughly, Audrey had bolted the ladies’ room door to insure their privacy.
Audrey hadn’t asked why Nell was upset. Nor had she drawn her into her arms to comfort her as she would have Hannah. She didn’t care. She’d never cared.
The only daughter she’d ever loved was Hannah. Now Nell understood.
When their discussion grew heated, Audrey had lashed out with those horrible words that had wounded Nell to the core, words that were still echoing inside the hollow chambers of her heart.
You’re not my daughter.
Did this mean that everything that was wrong in their messed-up family was her fault? Probably.
“So, who the hell am I, Audrey? Is that what I’m supposed to call you now--Audrey?”
“Don’t you play the innocent and attack me! You provoked me with your stupid stunt. I was out of my mind when I came in here! What were you thinking last night?”
I wasn’t thinking. I was wanting…craving…desiring…everything I’ve been denied my whole life.
“But you said it!”
“Lower your voice… please.” Audrey eyed the door and then rolled her eyes. “We have to deal with your stunt of last night…somehow.”
“I love Colt,” Nell whispered.
There! She’d confessed her terrible, pathetic secret. She loved Colt, who belonged to her fraternal twin. No…if Audrey wasn’t her mother, Hannah couldn’t be her fraternal twin. But Nell had thought maybe Colt cared more about her than he could admit. That’s why she’d acted so crazy.
“No—you don’t love him. You only want him because he’s hers,” her mother said.
“That’s not true.”
“You’ve always been jealous of her and wanted what she had. Stolen precious treasures that were hers…”
True. Because she’s so perfect and I’m so hopeless… Because you love her so much… Because you gave her gifts and never gave me gifts.
Because you never loved me. And I didn’t know why—until now. Because she’s a doctor like Daddy. Because she saves lives. And all I do is put broken cars back together. I dropped out of college.
Like their mother, Hannah was tall and blond with lovely blue eyes. Daddy was tall as well with ebony-black hair, vivid blue eyes and an aristocratic bearing, but he lacked Nell’s olive complexion. No, Nell, who was short and curvy, didn’t look like any of them.
“Do you remember stealing the pearls I gave her after she performed so brilliantly at your piano recital when you were twelve?”
Nell’s heart began to pound, and she swallowed. What?
Nell, who hated it when her mother threw her past transgressions up at her, defended herself automatically. “I didn’t take them.”
But she had. Unlike Hannah, Nell, who’d hated piano lessons, had forgotten her notes as soon as she’d climbed onto the stage and sat down in front of the piano. Her mind had gone blank in that gilded ballroom before that posh audience. Absolutely blank.
While the parents and other piano pupils caught their breath and grew silent, she’d replayed a single phrase in a terrifying, endless loop until her piano teacher had finally climbed onto the stage and circled her with her arms.
“That’s enough, dear,” she’d whispered kindly before taking her hand and leading her backstage.
Audrey had brought her palms to her eyes and lowered her head in shame. Appearances were everything to her mother.
When they’d returned home and were alone in Hannah’s room, Hannah had removed the delicate string of pearls her mother had given her for playing so well and had put them into her red velvet jewelry box for safe-keeping. “I’m sorry about the recital,” she whispered. “It doesn’t matter that you forgot your piece. Mother shouldn’t force you to take piano.”
“That’s easy for you to say because you do everything perfectly.”
“Still, I’m sorry…”
“I don’t want…your pity.”
Nell, who had received nothing but a cold look from her mother, had waited until her twin went downstairs before seizing the necklace and ripping the pearl apart. Later she knew she’d treated Hannah badly when she’d tried to comfort her, but she was so miserable, she couldn’t help herself.
Her heart knocking with guilt, she’d scooped the pearls up and had dropped them down a heating vent in the wall. Afterwards, she’d hated herself even more for forgetting the notes in her piece, for being hateful to Hannah, and for destroying Hannah’s necklace out of spite.
Hannah had deserved the necklace. She’d practiced, as Nell hadn’t. Hannah always did everything Mother wanted them to do. She studied. She kept her person and her room tidy. She dressed welled in clothes their mother chose or approved of while Nell wore jeans by day and slinky outfits when she dated.
In comparison to Hannah, Nell was low, unlovable, worthless.
Sometimes Nell thought that Hannah had known who she was and what she wanted from birth while even now Nell wondered if she would feel lost and abandoned for her the rest of her life.
If she couldn’t fit into her own family, would she ever belong and be loved by anyone?
Not that she could imagine ever loving anyone other than Colt, who’d made his lack of feelings for her plain last night. Like everyone else, he disapproved of her. Who could blame him?
Audrey lifted her chin. “If anyone dares mention what you did last night, we will say it was one of your silly pranks. You drank too much at the rehearsal dinner. As for now: this is your sister’s day. During the reception, you have to put your jealousy aside. You’ll act the lady I raised you to be. You’ll dry your tears, lift your champagne flute to the happy bride and smile. You’ll make your toast. Then you’ll sit down and behave yourself. You won’t take even the tiniest sip of your champagne. You’ll do nothing to attract anymore attention to yourself or detract from her special day.”
Although her little girl’s voice was firm, Audrey’s thin face was white, and her large, blue eyes over-bright and piercing.
“And Daddy? Who’s he? Is he my father? Is Hannah even my sister? Who am I?”
Her mother’s eyes widened with a mixture of pain and frustration as she fought to hide her true emotions.
“Did you hear anything I said?”
“Is he my father? Please tell me I still have a father.”
Nell couldn’t bear the thought that he might not be, for it was he, who’d tucked her into bed and read her stories on the rare nights that he was home early enough from the television station to do so. It was he who’d shown up at her school performances along with Ramiro, their chauffeur, who was the person she was closest to, even closer to than Daddy, of all their household. At least, she’d grown up with someone to love her, even if he’d been an employee.
“Ramiro! He isn’t my real father, is he?”
“No! We aren’t having this conversation.” There was steel in Audrey’s whispery voice now. Was there hate as well? “This isn’t the place. Or the time. We will put last night and what I said to you a while ago aside.”
“You owe me the truth.” For once.
Pressing her lips together, Audrey stared down at her. “First, we have to get through your sister’s wedding.”
Even though she was upset, Audrey was gorgeous and golden and perfectly put together. Nell, who despised her own fiery temperament, had always admired her mother’s extraordinary poise. Everything her mother touched, their penthouse on the Upper East Side, their estate in Hamptons, was beautiful.
Everything in her life except me is perfect, beautiful…and lovable.
In the large mirror above a row of stylish, granite sinks on the opposite wall, Nell caught a glimpse of the puffy circles under her red-rimmed eyes. While Audrey looked serene, tears smudged Nell’s eye makeup, and her long dark hair had come loose from its elaborate coiffure and cascaded wildly about her shoulders. Her complexion was abnormally pale. If she gave a toast, anyone who had even a bit of gumption would know something was wrong.
Her mother rummaged through her small beaded bag and pulled out a tube of lipstick. “Here.”
Outside the locked door, Nell heard the sounds of laughter and glasses clinking. Wedding toasts were being given to the newlyweds.
Nell’s hand shook as she opened the tube and began to apply the livid color to her pale lips. But the bright color made her eyes appear redder and her skin paler.
“We will be missed,” Audrey said. “People will wonder where we are. Important people. We have to get back to the reception.”
“Important people?” Nell whirled. “When will I ever matter?
“Everything isn’t always about you!’
It’s never about me.
“You will blot your lipstick—it’s much too dark, even with your olive skin. And smooth your hair. You look like a gypsy. Then we’ll go out there together.”
“Mother and daughter.”
“You will make your toast.”
“I’m not doing anything until you tell me who I really am and what I’m doing in this family.”
“If you insist. I’m sure it’s a common enough story. Your father had a baby with another woman at the same time I had Hannah. There! Now you know!”
Nell dragged in air in an attempt to breathe. “You always told us you got pregnant with us on your honeymoon.”
“I did become pregnant with Hannah on our honeymoon. Your father slept with another woman the night before we married. When you were born, your biological mother left you with Easton.” Audrey’s lips thinned. “When he presented you to me, the morning after Hannah was born, I was devastated…but I took you in. As my own. Was that so wrong? I pretended you were mine. I gave you everything, a home, nannies, lessons, wonderful schools. I tried to make the best of things. Really, I did. It’s not as if I hated you.”
Nell’s hands had begun to shake. No, she was shaking all over. “You gave me material things…but not your love. Never your love.”
She sighed heavily. “I did my best. It wasn’t easy for me.”
“I’m sure…having a gypsy for a daughter.”
“Oh, why do you always have to make things so difficult? What’s done is done.”
Pretended you were my own…
Fisting her hands to stop their shaking, Nell felt cold and nauseous. Pretended… The word made her sick. Had she been so unlovable?
Yes. She was dark and small and voluptuous. She’d been too lively and too earthy. Too real. Everything that was wrong or sick in their super-wealthy, status-seeking, secretive family was all her fault.
All her life she’d wondered how she could have so little in common with her brilliant, blond twin. She’d felt a lack of love from her mother and a slinking reticence in her father and had always sensed something was profoundly wrong. She’d never felt at home in their palatial apartment or on the yachts of her parents’ friends.
“Who’s my biological mother? Why did she give me up?
“She was poor. And highly unsuitable.”
“Was she a criminal?”
“She broke the law. She was deported.”
“Why? I want to know why!”
“Easton said she wanted more for you than she could give you.”
So, she left me behind. She dumped me.
Nell sagged against the wall.
“Okay, I told you. Now pull yourself together. Do you have some powder?”
Audrey had just told her she’d never belonged…and all she could think of were appearances.
When someone knocked on the door, Audrey sucked in a breath and then another as Nell returned her tube of lipstick and dabbed at her eyes with the back of her hands.
Audrey’s face froze in a smile as she unlocked the door.
“There you are! We’ve been looking everywhere for you two,” Ella, one of her sister’s bridesmaids, squealed as she rushed inside. “It’s way past time for Nell’s toast.”
“Of course.” Audrey’s voice was light and friendly. She looked and sounded amazingly unruffled. “Nell had a little stage fright, but she’s all right now. Aren’t you, darling?”
You’re not my daughter… You’re not my daughter…
So, I’m not our darling. My real mother…left me. Daddy must have felt guilty and awful about forcing me to be brought up by you, his wife. Me with my dark complexion and gypsy curls.
Pretending a confidence she didn’t feel, Nell flashed a fierce, mega-bright smile at Ella. Ella returned the smile before she dashed away to join a cluster of giggling bridesmaids.
When Nell stepped out of the ladies’ room, her gaze fastening on the darkly handsome man across the ballroom who towered over her sister, Terrified her vulnerability would be laid bare to him a second time, Nell froze.
But not before his dark eyes flamed with more of the guilt and hunger they’d held last night before he’d coldly shut down. When her knees threatened to buckle, he squared his shoulders and turned his back on her, but his split-second glance and icy rejection was enough to send a shattering bolt of fresh grief through her.
Wrapping his arms around her twin, he pushed her veil aside, bent his head to Hannah’s and kissed her cheek tenderly.
Message received. I love her. Not you. She’s mine, and I’m hers. So, go away and leave me alone.
Bile rose in Nell’s throat. Pain and self-disgust cut off her breath. It wasn’t Hannah’s fault that she was perfect…and lovable. And a catch. Or that I misinterpreted the way you looked at me every so often when we were together, maybe because I was so desperate for you to care.
Nell wanted to run. To hide. Instead she notched her chin higher and stood her ground.
She would live this down.
But how long would this hideous, overwhelming feeling of loss haunt me? How long will I covet this man who belongs to my sister, this man who can never love me no matter how I hoped he could?
How long do I have to hate myself for feeling so inferior to Hannah and so awful for wanting him?
Someone called to her. “Nell? Your toast?”
How can I possibly make my toast with him watching, knowing… and despising me for throwing myself at him half-naked last night?
If I open my mouth, I’ll crack into a thousand pieces or say the wrong thing and then everyone will know I love him—including Hannah.
I’ll hurt her, crush her, on her wedding day that she’s planned so carefully, and I don’t want to do that. I love her. I really do. It’s just that I…I want to be loved too.
He’s hers. I have to accept that. And move on.
I can’t do this. I can’t.
You have to.
Nell’s hands refused to stop shaking as she fingered her scribbled notes, incomprehensible now because of her blurred vision, dyslexia, overwrought state and the ink that had smeared from her tears. She was not good at speeches the way Hannah and her father were.
“I won’t cry again!” she told herself.
Taking a breath, she fought to ignore the dazzling glimmer of glamorous wedding guests near Colt, all who were staring expectantly at her.
Deep breath. You can do it.
Colt’s narrowed eyes drilled her, scorched her, exactly as they had last night when she’d popped out of that cake wearing a few strips of strategically placed silver and landed in his arms.
Don’t look at him. Don’t think about last night and how it felt when he looked at you before he pulled himself together, how it felt when his arms tightened around you for that split second before he threw you aside.
She took two more long breaths, but they did nothing to fill the empty ache in her chest.
Pull yourself together.
Make the toast.
Get it over with!
Nell tucked a couple of escaped tendrils of her dark hair behind her ear. I can do this.
The hollow space in Nell’s heart expanded. How would she endure feeling left out over and over again as she watched Colt and Hannah play the perfect, adoring, married couple at every family holiday for the rest of her life?