He arrived with a smile on his face, flowers in his hand, and gave her a big hug. “I’m so pleased that you’re here, Gretchen.”
She laughed, hugging him back. “A bad Petty always turns up.”
He groaned at her pun, then set her down on the floor. “Look at you. Gorgeous. Not an ounce of bad in you.”
She glanced over at Hunter, smiling. “I didn’t know you were friends with Cade.”
“We go back to college,” Cade said, flashing a white grin.
“Not nearly as far back as we do,” she said. She then turned to grin at Hunter, who had moved to her side.
“I see I don’t need to give introductions,” Hunter said in a guarded voice.
“You can, if it’ll stop Cade from giving me a noogie,” Gretchen teased.
Cade looked a bit embarrassed by her words. “I haven’t given a girl a noogie ever since I discovered they don’t have cooties, Gretchen. I think we’ve missed out on a few years in between.”
She smiled at Hunter to answer his enquiring look. “Cade grew up on the same street as I did. The twins, Cade, and I were the only children in the neighborhood, so we tended to play together quite a bit,” she told Hunter. Gretchen glanced over at Cade. “You know Audrey’s going to be here tonight, too.”
He nodded. “I’m not surprised. She’s Logan’s assistant, correct? Sometimes she shows up at these sorts of functions.”
Gretchen gave a little frown. So he knew Audrey was in the city and working for Logan? Why did no one tell her these things? “That’s right. I’m sure she’d love to catch up.” Another pair showed up at the door and Gretchen excused herself, heading over to greet her agent and her date.
Soon enough, everyone had arrived to the party, including Hunter’s friend Logan and his fiancée, Brontë. Brontë was good friends with Gretchen, so she immediately began to help with the food and drink. Her editor had arrived as well, along with his assistant and the publicist, and Gretchen spent a few minutes showing them around the dining room and talking about the house and the letters with great enthusiasm.
Gretchen introduced them to Hunter as well, but his normally reticent manner had gone stiff and cold. She couldn’t help but notice that Kat stared at his scars a bit too long and then whispered to her date. She felt a flare of irritation at her agent’s callousness. No wonder Hunter hated gatherings like this. People acted like he was a sideshow instead of just another person.
The only guest missing in their small party was Audrey. When Eldon showed up at the door of the dining room to announce another guest, Gretchen headed to his side, anticipating her sister’s arrival. To her surprise, Eldon moved into the room alone and headed to Gretchen’s side, leaning in to whisper.
“Your sister is here, Ms. Petty. And she has brought a . . . problem. Could you please follow me?”
Gretchen’s eyes widened. “Of course.” She glanced across the room where Hunter stood in silence near Jonathan and Reese, and she gestured to him that she would be back. She quickly followed Eldon down the hall and asked, “What’s the problem?”
“Follow me, Ms. Petty,” Eldon said in a disapproving voice. “You’ll soon see.”
She hurried behind him, anxiety ratcheting up a notch. Had something happened to Audrey? Her sister was always so self-contained and capable. If there was something wrong, it usually didn’t have anything to do with Audrey. Audrey strove to be perfect.
When they arrived in the massive main foyer, everything was made clear. Audrey was in the doorway, dressed in one of her coordinated suits and low-heeled pumps. Her pale red hair was drawn back into its usual tight bun. She also looked miserable.
Draped over Audrey’s shoulder was the heavily braceleted, too-skinny arm of Audrey’s twin and Gretchen’s sister, Daphne. Audrey’s polar opposite, Daphne’s hair was a dyed mess of black and pink streaks, and dark makeup pooled under her eyes. Her clothes were torn and dirty.
And she gave a goofy smile at the sight of Gretchen. “Oh, hey sis,” she slurred. “Heard you were having a party and thought I’d crash it.”
“I’m so sorry, Gretchen,” Audrey said in a tight voice, shifting her weight even as Daphne slid against her. “She showed up earlier today and I couldn’t leave her alone.”
“It’s okay,” Gretchen said, moving forward to take Daphne’s arm. “Hey, Daph. How’s it going?”
“Greaaat,” Daphne said cheerfully, and her breath reeked of booze. She transferred her weight from Audrey to Gretchen, and Gretchen noticed how slight her troubled sister was. Audrey—sensible, sturdy Audrey—was rounded thanks to her desk job. Daphne was skin and bones, and she seemed unnaturally twitchy. She put a finger to her lips and then grinned. “I’m avoiding my manager. He’s trying to take my money again.”
“You mean put you on an allowance?” Gretchen said mildly, turning to look back at Eldon. “Can we add another seat to the party?”
“Are you sure you want to do that?” Eldon gave Gretchen an unhappy look.
She wasn’t sure at all, but she didn’t have much of a choice.
“’Course she does,” Daphne said, and blinked rapidly. Gretchen noticed her pupils were huge and dilated. “I’m the entertainment. Don’t you know who I am?”
“He doesn’t care who you are, and you’re not the entertainment,” Gretchen told her.
“I’m really sorry,” Audrey said, hurrying behind her. “I didn’t know what else to do. Should we leave her in a room somewhere to let her sleep it off?”
“Can we trust her not to steal the silver?”
“Then no, we can’t. This is Hunter’s house.” Gretchen sighed. “Come on. Let’s introduce my junkie sister to my boyfriend and my new editor. This’ll be fun.”
They returned to the dining room and the soft, casual voices of conversation died at the sight of Daphne’s skinny, listing form.
“Hi, everyone. This is my sister Audrey and her twin, Daphne.” Gretchen winced, waiting for the explosions. The gasps. The whispers. Something always happened when Daphne entered a room.
It didn’t take long. Kat was the first to arrive at her side. “Oh, my God. Is that . . .” Her gaze went to Gretchen. “You’re Daphne Petty’s sister? The Daphne Petty?”
“Daphne! I am such a big fan.” The editorial assistant arrived at Daphne’s side, gushing with clear excitement. “I loved your first album. I even saw you on tour in 2010 with the Lipstick Project.”
“Yeah, that was me,” Daphne said, brightening to the subject. She put an arm around the editorial assistant’s shoulders and leaned in way too close. “They sucked, didn’t they? That fucking tour was a nightmare. Hated every moment of it. Couldn’t wait to get backstage and get loaded every night, just to get through the goddamn day. The drugs were the only thing that made it worth it. Shit, they had some fine ass drugs.” She peered at her new friend’s face. “You don’t have any drugs on you, do you?”
“Um.” The editorial assistant’s eyes widened and she looked to Gretchen for help.
“Daph,” Gretchen said in a warning voice.
“Oooh, wine,” Daphne said, heading for the table.
“No wine!” Audrey said, hurrying after her sister.
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me that Daphne Petty was your sister,” Kat hissed at her. “She is a gold mine of Hollywood gossip. Do you think she’d let us do an autobiography? We could sell it. We’re talking millions.”
“No, Kat,” Gretchen said, turning her agent away from Daphne and Audrey. “She’s not interested and neither am I. Her life is private.”
“Not that private,” Kat pointed out. “She’s in the tabloids every week. Is it true that her manager has her on a strict allowance? Is it true that she slept with Thomas Steele and aborted his baby? That her label assigns her handlers?”
Gretchen gave Kat a stern look. “I’m serious. Drop it. Daphne’s off the table.”
Kat raised a hand, indicating that she was backing off. “I’m just saying. You know where to go if she ever needs an influx of cash. Which, according to Star Trax magazine, is any day now.”
Ugh. Gretchen rubbed her forehead, stress returning. Count on Daphne to mess things up tonight. She’d been hoping to have a low-key dinner to excite the publishing house, not try and put her sister up for auction to a group of vultures.
Brontë stepped in, smiling apologetically. “I hate to break in to the conversation, ladies, but dinner’s going to be served in a few minutes. Gretchen, where do you want to seat Daphne?”
Gretchen hesitated. Daphne’s high-pitched giggle cut through the air, grating on Gretchen’s nerves. “Put her on the far end of the table. Let’s make sure nothing but water gets close to Daphne.”
Brontë nodded and moved to Daphne’s side. As a former waitress, Brontë had experience in dealing with loud, obnoxious patrons, so Gretchen was assured that Brontë could handle her.
“Is everything all right?” Hunter was at Gretchen’s side in the next moment, his arm moving protectively around her shoulders. “You look unhappy.”
“Just surprised,” she told him softly. “Though I shouldn’t be. Daphne just brings trouble wherever she goes.”
“Do you want me to have her escorted off the premises?”
“No.” Gretchen shook her head. “Let’s just try and ignore her through dinner. I think Brontë has her handled.”
Indeed, Brontë was chatting cheerfully with Daphne and escorting her to the far end of the table, away from the wine and her new editor. Reese and Jonathan were watching Daphne with an amused expression, but the look on Cade’s face was sad. She knew how he felt—she wanted to cry every time she saw Daphne. She was a shadow of her former self.
“Wait,” Daphne slurred. “Where’s my sister?” She scanned the room, and then her gaze moved to Gretchen.
And then stopped on Hunter, still protectively looming over Gretchen’s side.
“Oh, my God,” Daphne said. She leaned over to Brontë and whispered loudly, “That dude is fucking hideous.”
The room grew immediately silent.
Ah, hell. Gretchen put her arm around Hunter’s waist and smiled, even though she wanted to punch her sister in the mouth. She knew Hunter had to be humiliated. “Daphne, this is my . . . boyfriend, Hunter.” Were they boyfriend and girlfriend? He’d confessed love, so she felt comfortable saying that. She hoped he didn’t mind.
Daphne just stared, blinking her stoned eyes. “He’s like a bad acid trip.”
“Daph! Stop it! You’re embarrassing me.”
Daphne giggled. “Me? What about Quasimodo at your side there?”
“That’s enough,” Gretchen said through gritted teeth. She strode forward, pushing Brontë aside and grabbing Daphne by the arm. “I don’t care if you’re my sister. If you can’t be polite, you’re out of here. I’m going to call your manager and rat you out.”