What struck Merrily the most was the difference in his appearance. He was, of course, in an impeccable tuxedo that molded his large, muscular frame lovingly, obviously tailored to perfection. His broad shoulders tapered to his narrow hips. He'd been good looking before but now he was devastating. That was only part of it. His expression was completely closed off, giving away nothing of what he was thinking. It had been much the same way before, but his eyes had been at least somewhat expressive as he stared into hers. Now, they were cold. Calculating. As if he saw and heard as much as she had and was making a mental note on every single indiscretion and how to use it against the transgressor. He might look like he was there drinking and having a grand time without a care in the world, but Alex was working that room even harder than she was. The only difference was, he intended to do something with the information he gleaned. Either that, or he was looking for something in particular.
Their eyes met and he held her gaze steadily. A tall, thin blonde draped herself over him, as if he was all hers. Merrily had no idea if they were together or not and that made her blush, turning away. What if she'd kissed another woman's man? She was many things, but she'd never overstep like that.
She tried to keep moving, finding the pattern she was supposed to follow again away from Alex, but people kept snagging food from her tray. With any luck, she'd run out soon.
"I don't understand why you don't use this fundraiser for the local animal shelter, Alex," the blonde pouted. She'd burrowed so close to his side, she was practically fused there. "The city has enough homeless shelters. Besides, who wants that element in our city anyway?" She purred her stinging, insensitive comment, as if she were so much better than people like Rose and Merrily.
"There are always those in need, Victoria," Alex said with a shrug. "People are more willing to take in a stray cat than a person."
"Maybe so, but shouldn't they be getting jobs or something? I mean, handouts only mean more handouts." There were a few murmurs, but no one outright agreed or disagreed with her.
"Spoken like a person who paid more for her shoes than she did for her admission donation." Merrily didn't realize she'd said it out loud until all eyes settled on her.
Victoria looked down her nose at Merrily, giving her a disdainful, scornful look. "I'll have you know, I'm on the board of directors for the Housing the Homeless committee. I guarantee you I know more about the city homeless shelters than you do, girl."
Merrily knew she should just duck her head and leave. Keep her mouth shut. To her horror, her mouth had other plans. "I know every shelter in this city but one is currently filled to capacity on one of the coldest nights of the year. The only one with any room is one of the scariest places I've ever been in." Before she could get her wayward mouth under control, she added, "But I'm sure with your superior knowledge of homeless shelters, you know all about the drug dealers and pimps taking over during the night. Why, I bet your sleeping bag is down there right in the middle of the room where you can be available to anyone who wants to talk to you about it after you leave here." She tilted her head. "Do you even know where all the homeless shelters are? Because I can name every one and tell you which street they sit on and the landmarks surrounding them."
Again, no one seemed to know whether to outright disagree so they kept quiet, looking to Alex for guidance. Merrily wanted to sink into the floor and disappear. She was more foolish than her mother had ever thought she was.
Alex gave a slight smile. "Our little Mary over there has yet to learn her place in my home, but I'd say she was well on her way." He didn't say it with menace or even as a reprimand, but Victoria took it as such. The blonde woman sneered and looked down her nose at Merrily once again. "Once she does, her words will have greater meaning."
"My name is not Mary," Merrily said between clenched teeth.
Alex shrugged, but met her gaze directly. "No. It's not."
"I suggest you leave now, little girl," Victoria snapped, cuddling even closer to Alex as if seeing Merrily as a threat instead of a servant. Merrily thought she might as well be trying to climb inside his jacket. "I assure you, you won't be here long." The carnivorous smile said she'd be the reason Merrily left. Apparently, they really were together. Alex gave Victoria the side eye, still not showing any discernible emotion. Maybe a little irritation, but Merrily had no idea if it was for her or Victoria.
"You could use a break," he said, waving his hand toward the kitchen. "Take fifteen minutes to yourself."
"Without pay," Victoria called. Merrily wanted to throw the tray at her and had to concentrate on turning around. If her body ran away as horribly as her mouth had, she'd be in a world of hurt.
"Alex!" A deep voice boomed from behind her and a burly man pushed past her, nearly knocking her down to make his way to Alex. To her horror she recognized the man. Daniel J. Maddison… the second. Rose's paternal grandfather.
Merrily felt the room closing in on her. She couldn't breathe. Alex had gotten her to tell him about Rose's father; now the very man who'd paid her mother for Merrily to get an abortion was in the same room with her. Talking to Alex!