Beneath This Ink (Page 62)

I strode up the ramp to the Steamboat Orleans on Fourth of July, my heels and spirits high. I’d come up with a plan. Finally. I would tell Archer before I left work on Monday, and I’d tell my father when he arrived home on Monday night. I’d practiced my speech, over and over, and I was feeling confident that Archer would see things my way.

Con had done so much good in the community without asking for any kind of recognition. We could all learn something from him about giving back without expectations.

Archer would understand. He was a philanthropist to the core. He’d respect that about Con. I truly believed that Archer would want me to be happy. I hoped my father would feel the same way. I didn’t want to be estranged from the only parent I had left, but it was certainly a possibility. A very disheartening possibility.

The party was already in full swing when I arrived, and I shook hands and made small talk. I worked the crowd to avoid my father, and occasionally caught glimpses of Simon and Charlie. She looked incredibly poised and almost…accustomed to this type of event.

Now that’s interesting.

I didn’t have time to dwell on the thought when a warm hand pressed against my lower back.

I glanced over my shoulder…to find Lucas Titan.

“What are you doing here?” I hissed.

“I believe I was invited.”

“This wasn’t on your list.”

“Because I’d already been invited, and I assumed you’d be here anyway.”

His arrogant confidence pissed me off. “Well since I didn’t agree to meet you here or act as your date,” I spat the word, “feel free to find others to mingle with.”

His jaw clenched, and his green eyes darkened. A frisson of fear rippled through me at his aggressive posture. “I thought we’d already had this discussion ad nauseam, Vanessa. The one where I tell you that you’ve got a lot more to lose in this situation than I do.”

I found my backbone and reinforced it with steel. “I’m going to tell Archer. When he gets back on Monday. So your leverage is gone, Titan.”

His jaw relaxed into a feral smile. “Oh, Vanessa. Don’t try to play games you can’t win. All it would take is one phone call.”

“You’re such an asshole.”

“Better play nice.” I calmed the urge to slap him by sucking in a slow, deep breath and releasing it. I’d promised Con that I wouldn’t go to another event with Lucas. Promised him I was done playing this role. This game. This farce. And now I was breaking that trust. I squeezed my eyes shut for a beat. I just needed to brazen this out.

“I need a drink,” I said, turning for the bar. Lucas’s hand never left my back as we worked the crowd until we reached our destination.

When Lucas opened his mouth, presumably to order for me, I held up a hand. “I’ll have a gin and tonic, please.”

Lucas’s raised eyebrows cemented my plan to get just tipsy enough to make this bearable, but not so drunk as to make a spectacle of myself.

I thought it was a workable plan.

Three G&Ts in, and I was feeling much better about the state of my life. Lucas had disappeared to discuss business with someone, and I was in desperate need of the ladies’ room. Carefully making my way down the stairs to the lower deck, I found the facilities.

After double-checking that I still looked mostly presentable, I exited and headed back up the stairs, staring at my feet to make certain I didn’t miss a step.

I reached the top and ran directly into my father.

“I’ve been wondering when I’d get a moment of your time tonight, my dear. How about another drink with your old man?” he asked, leading me toward the bar.

I followed dutifully, but I was getting sick of being led around this boat like a damn horse. First Titan and now my father. “A club soda with lime for me, please,” I told the bartender. It was probably time I lay off the booze.

My father ordered a scotch—over my objections about his health—and paid for our drinks. “Cash bars are so tacky.”

“But they help make sure the cost of the event is defrayed so that the donations go toward the cause they’re supposed to be supporting.” I thought the words came out coherent, but my father eyed me suspiciously.

“You’ve had a few.”

I was doubly glad I hadn’t ordered another.

“It’s the Fourth of July. I guess I was in the celebratory mood,” I replied.

A knowing look spread over his face. “And here I was hoping you were celebrating your new man.”

I froze.

He couldn’t know. I looked down at my club soda and sipped, trying to hold it together and come up with something to say.

But my father kept going, “Although Lucas Titan isn’t the one I would’ve picked. He’s an arrogant bastard. Doesn’t understand how things work around here. But if he’s your choice, I suppose he and I can have a come to Jesus talk and settle our differences.”

My head jerked back, and my glass almost slipped out of my hand. Lucas. He’s talking about Lucas. Not Con. I should have been happy that my secret hadn’t been discovered, but with the initial shock of his words had come a sense of relief—relief that I could finally stop hiding it.

But no. And now I had to dig my way out of this.

I cleared my throat and fumbled for an answer. “It’s not what you’re thinking. Lucas and I aren’t—”

My father’s expression hardened, and he steered me toward a break in the crowd and an unoccupied corner of the deck. “I said I wouldn’t have picked Titan, but I can find my way to approve of him. If it’s not what it seems, then maybe you should work a little harder to make it what it seems, Vanessa. You’re not getting any younger, and your mother would be rolling in her grave to know that you still haven’t settled down. So unless you’re going to steal Simon Duchesne off the arm of that tattooed trollop he’s here with, you better go find Lucas Titan and get to work.”