“I told you,” Sloan said after returning and taking a long drink, “I have no interest in coming back. I’m certainly not wanted or needed there.”
“According to who?”
“Vivian, for a start.”
“Since when has her opinion ever counted for anything? In fact, it usually makes you do the opposite.”
“Not this time.”
“Why?” Patrick moved closer. “Sorry, bro, excuses are not gonna cut it.”
“I told you what happened. She wouldn’t even defend herself.”
“Did you give her a chance or did you just railroad her with that overbearing attitude you get sometimes? Did you even tell her what you told me? What her mother said? I doubt she even knew what she was defending herself against. I told you that you were wrong...and this time, I can prove it.”
“Ziara went to bat for you—against Vivian.”
Something tingled in Sloan’s chest, but he ignored it. “What do you mean?”
“The lingerie line. Vivian wanted to cut it—and me—from the show. Ziara kept production moving until Vivian got wind of it, then she argued that it should stay. And so should I.”
“How?” Sloan asked again, his throat tightening too much to get anything else out.
“The same argument you used, plus pointing out that a few choice tidbits have already been leaked to the press. Hints of a completely new direction for Eternity that has the RSVPs pouring in like water in a spring flood.”
He was almost afraid of the answer. “Who alerted the press?”
“Not me. Not Robert or Anthony, who were surprisingly supportive of her arguments, by the way.”
Patrick nodded. “So I’m guessing that only leaves one choice. Unless you did it yourself?”
“No way.” Sloan’s hands lifted in a hands-off gesture. “I want nothing to do with this show. Nothing.”
Patrick leaned closer, his knowing look pinning Sloan where he stood. “You sure? You haven’t been looking at any designs, thinking about fabric or drape or weight?” He wiggled his eyebrows. “It’s very sexy when a woman comes to her man’s defense.”
“I’m not her man.”
“Deep down, you know Ziara had nothing to do with her mother’s blackmail threat. Time to admit you were wrong.”
Sloan turned to face the bay window, staring out over his wooded backyard. “What if I’m not?”
“Don’t you want to be?”
“Yes,” Sloan said. It was harder to admit than he’d thought it would be, but it was the truth. He wanted Ziara to be innocent; he wanted that shattered look on her face to be real—not some kind of act that she’d learned from her conniving mother.
“Then don’t worry about it. I, personally, am pinning my money on Vivian,” Patrick said, his voice deepening in disgust.
“But I have no proof.”
“And you’ll never get it brooding around your house. Get back in the game, you coward.”
Sloan would never have tolerated it from anyone else, but from Patrick, he knew those words were the honest truth. It was time to put his protective armor aside, face the fact that he loved Ziara and give her a chance to prove her innocence.
“Vivian will fire Ziara after this,” Sloan said. “She’s never tolerated me being a part of anything.”
Patrick nodded. “With or without you, I think that’s already her plan.”
* * *
When Ziara arrived at the fashion show venue, it was a scene of organized chaos. Watching for one last quiet moment, an achy sadness spread through her. After tonight, her job at Eternity Designs would be done and she’d be on her own again. The loneliness had started creeping in earlier this week, an extension of Sloan’s absence.
Spotting Patrick, she eagerly walked down the aisle, anxious not to be alone with her thoughts.
“It’s beautiful,” she breathed, staring at the simulated 1930s nightclub, elegant in its classic simplicity, sexy with silver and black details. The colors of the dresses and lingerie would look amazing against that backdrop. Peeking from a side wing, as if it had just dropped off guests at the show, was a 1930s silver Rolls-Royce classic car.
“Isn’t it, doll?” Patrick said. “And the background changes colors.” He paused. “But I guess you already knew that.”
“Yes, I did,” she said with a sad smile as she remembered the day she and Sloan had picked it out, together. Tucking away the pain, she turned all business. “Time to get ready for opening night, huh?”
By early evening she was a weird combination of tired and wired, with a long night still ahead of them. She didn’t attend the preshow hors d’oeuvres, but she watched the crowd arrive for the event. Vivian was in her element, glimmering in a golden lace overlay gown as she smiled and conversed with members of Atlanta’s elite.