Dalton Caine watched his sister as she moved around the party and wondered how many of these people were truly her friends. For as long as he had known her, Catherine had never been a social person, but now here she was, hosting a lavish bash for at least sixty guests and fluttering through the crowd like a society queen. Though she had waved to him from across the room, she had yet to speak to Dalton, who had arrived over half an hour before.
No surprise. Family had never featured high in her list of priorities.
Catherine had lost a lot of weight since he’d seen her last, so much that it worried him. Tonight, with her dark hair tied back in a severe ponytail, her features were drawn and sharp. It made her cheekbones appear more prominent and her wide mouth, painted a deep shade of red, seem huge. She wore narrow-legged trousers and a black jacket with nothing underneath, exposing the boniness of her chest. She talked animatedly with a group of men, gesturing throughout with a half-empty glass of white wine. While many of the guests held plates from the extravagant buffet, Catherine appeared to be avoiding the food.
He hadn’t seen his sister in person for almost a year, and the signs were there that she was neglecting herself again.
Catherine put her free hand on the shoulder of one of her guests and threw back her head in a theatrical laugh. The sound carried across the terrace. Dalton noticed how most of the other attendees observed her with bemused interest, though none of them were laughing with her.
He knocked back the dregs of his vodka and tonic and headed to the bar for another.
Though it was mid-March and the evening had a spring chill about it, the party was taking place outdoors. Half the large terrace and garden had been covered by a temporary gazebo. Electric heaters and real fire pits were placed around to create a warm alfresco experience, despite the time of year. A pop-up bar was set on a raised patio to one side.
Dalton returned his empty glass and asked the bartender for another. It looked like it was to be a long and uneventful night. He might as well enjoy the free drinks, if nothing else. He had made several attempts to strike up conversation with Catherine’s friends, but none could be roused for much more than a polite ‘nice to meet you’.
As he waited for his drink, a middle-aged woman in a smart navy trouser suit sidled up next to him.
“Hi,” he said.
She gave him a warm smile, tapping her ringed fingers on the piano-topped surface of the bar. “Hello.”
“This is some party, isn’t it?” he said, trying once more to start a conversation.
She frowned. “Oh, yes. Yes, it is. I know the caterers. They did my niece’s wedding last summer. They are always very reliable.”
“Are you a friend of Catherine’s?” he asked, and when the woman frowned again, he elaborated, “I’m her brother…Dalton.”
“Oh.” She suddenly looked flustered. “It’s lovely to meet you. Well, no, I don’t know your sister well. My husband does business with Justin. That’s the only reason we were invited, I think. You know how it goes—to grease the wheels and keep things turning.”
Justin was Catherine’s new boyfriend and owner of the McMansion where the party was taking place. Dalton had met him briefly upon his arrival. He seemed like a nice guy, a good few years older than Catherine. He appeared to have a down-to-earth attitude, despite his obvious wealth. Grounded, even. He was not at all what Dalton expected from one of Catherine’s men. She tended to favour the young six-pack hunks who looked good on her social media posts.
“Do you live around here?” the woman asked, looking at him with renewed interest.
“No. I’m just here for the party and a chance to catch up with Catherine. I only arrived this afternoon.”
“Oh, that’s lovely. You must be staying here then…at the house.”
He shook his head. “I’ve got a room at a hotel on the harbour. Quay House. It’s beautiful.”
“Hmm. We don’t really know Nyemouth. We live in Morpeth. Nyemouth is…well, a bit too touristy for my taste.” She lowered her voice. “And it’s rough. You want to be careful down there. Don’t go wandering around on your own…especially at night. I won’t put a foot in the place, myself—not after all the things that have gone on.” She gritted her teeth and grimaced.
Dalton flashed a good-natured smile. His drink arrived, and he excused himself. Like everyone else he’d tried to speak to, the woman seemed to be quite a snob. It was no surprise that Catherine surrounded herself with these types. She had always considered herself a cut above everyone else. Despite their comfortable middle-class upbringing, Catherine had never been satisfied with their status.
The house was indeed huge. Dalton had noticed as the taxi brought him here that it was the largest plot in an estate of modern mansions. It seemed natural that Catherine would have gravitated to the man who owned it. He had seen photos and videos of it on her Instagram account, but the images didn’t do justice to the size of the place.
The other guests had separated into their small social bubbles, and no one seemed in the mood to mix with anyone from outside. Dalton couldn’t take much more of this and sought out the reason for him being here.
Catherine was holding court with the same group of men. Dalton pushed straight in.
“Hey, sis,” he said brightly.
She paused mid-sentence and a shadow of annoyance passed over her beautiful face, before she let out a loud shriek and threw her arms around him. “My little baby brother,” she screamed.
Dalton winced. Catherine had looked thin from across the room, but it was only as he hugged her that he realised just how bony she had become.
“Guys,” she said, spinning him around to face the group of men. “This is Dalton. Isn’t he gorgeous? And single, if any of you fancy a ride.”
Dalton shrivelled inside as four pairs of keen eyes looked him up and down. One of the men stepped closer, as though he believed Catherine had made a serious offer. Dalton gave a tiny head shake, and the man backed off. He didn’t need his sister to pimp him out on top of everything else.
“This is so cool,” Catherine cried. “C’mon, baby bro. We’ve got to get a picture for my socials.” She flung the arm carrying the glass of wine around his shoulder and pulled him close, while thrusting her phone high above them. “Selfies, first.”
Dalton gave a tight smile, keeping his teeth covered while Catherine took one photo after another for what seemed like minutes. Her breath was sour with wine, and he wondered just how much she’d had to drink, especially on an empty stomach.
“That should do,” she said, tossing her phone to one of the hangers-on. “Now, video.”
It was difficult to guess the age of the man who filmed them. His hair was highlighted, and his face was so puffy with fillers and Botox that he could have been anything from twenty-five to sixty.
Catherine leaned in even closer to Dalton. Her fingers went to his shirt and deftly undid two buttons.
“What are you doing?” he gasped, trying to stop her.
“You’ve got to make it sexy, darling.” She opened his shirt and exposed his hairy chest. “My followers expect it.”
“Now you’re on,” the man with the phone said. His lips curled back in an unpleasant, predatory smile…like a wolf.
Catherine pressed her face close to Dalton’s.
“How do we look?” she asked.
“Perfect,” the wolf replied
Dalton fidgeted and tried to ease away, but Catherine’s grip was unrelenting.
“Hey, guys,” she addressed the camera in an even louder, falser voice than before. “I’ve got a real treat for you all. You’re always messaging and telling me how much more you want to know about my life. Well, get a load of this…my cute little brother.” She planted a sticky kiss on his cheek. “Isn’t he gorgeous? I know you’re all going to be fluttering over this post.” A loud, fake laugh.
Dalton squirmed, somehow managing to maintain the fixed grin. This was all wrong. He hadn’t seen his sister in so long, and she had turned their first serious catch-up into a social media post.
“Why don’t you tell everyone where they can follow you?” Catherine pressed him, laying her head against his. “Everyone is going to want more of you.”
“No kidding,” one of her friends sniggered.
“Eh?” Dalton asked.
“Well, duh. Your Insta. Twitter. Where can people find you?”
“Oh,” he said, feeling like a stunned mullet under the glare of the phone camera. “Well, they can’t. I’m not on social media.”
“Of course, you are. I know you are. Come on. Don’t be shy.”
Dalton’s face, neck and ears burned red. He searched desperately for a solution. “My accounts are all private.” He shrugged and gave an awkward glance to the camera. “Sorry.”
“OMG. What’s he like?” Catherine ruffled his hair. “Shy, as well as gorgeous. Well, don’t worry, folks. I’ll keep working on him. It’ll only be a matter of time before he gets the bug and starts selling his nudes on OnlyFans.” She gazed at the camera for another ten seconds before snapping her fingers. The wolf handed her back the phone.
Dalton stepped aside, grateful to have his personal space again.
“For fuck’s sake.” Catherine turned on him, waving the phone in his face. “You could at least have made some frigging effort. Do you know how many followers I have? How many people will see that? Oh my God, you’re like a fucking zombie.”
“Sorry. I’m not comfortable with all that stuff.”
“I’m not comfortable with all that stuff,” she mimicked. Her posse of friends sniggered. “This is what I do. I’m a fucking influencer. I’m not even sure I can post this shit. My fans are going to think my brother is stupid.”
“Then don’t post it,” he snapped. “I never asked to be in one of your posts.”
“That’s typical,” she said, addressing herself to the acolytes. “It’s par for the fucking course with my family. Most people would kill to be in one of my posts and associated with me, but not these fuckers. Ungrateful pricks.”
Dalton took a deep breath. Keep your cool. “Sis, come on. I drove for almost seven hours to see you tonight. Don’t be like this.”
Catherine took a large swig of wine. “Like what? It’s my party. I only want to share some of my happiness with my followers. You’re the one who’s too high and fucking mighty to pose for a selfie.”
Stay calm. “We took a selfie, didn’t we? It’s the video I feel uncomfortable with. Come on. Why don’t we go and have something to eat and a quiet catch up. The food looks delicious.”
“Of course, it bloody does. I paid for it, remember? You go and stuff your face if you want to. I want to party and have a good time. C’mon, guys. Let’s get more wine. Not the shit they’re serving at the bar… I’ve got the good stuff hidden inside.”
She spun on her heel and flounced off without a backward glance. The four men who had hung on her every word gave Dalton a final once over before following her trail.
Dalton shook his head and scratched the back of his neck. She’s drunk. Don’t take it personally. Catherine’s and his relationship had always been up and down, but he had expected a slightly better welcome than that. As the only member of the family to make the journey from Surrey to Northumberland, he’d been hopeful it could be the start of something, the healing of a rift. Wishful thinking. Maybe things would be better tomorrow when she was sober. If she was sober.
He went in search of a bathroom. Open French windows led into a large dining room. It was no surprise to discover that the interior of the house was all style over substance—highly polished floors and white walls, with vague modern art in gilt frames. The dining table was a large white oval surrounded by twelve throne-like chairs covered in silver velvet. The whole impression was of something chosen by a designer, largely unused and uncomfortable.
He made his way into a hall with a grandiose staircase ascending to a mezzanine. The ceiling was one of the highest he’d seen outside of a hotel, with an enormous, crystal chandelier that could have come straight from a production of Phantom of the Opera. Only here, instead of the anonymous art of the dining room, were a series of framed black and white portraits of Catherine.
Dalton stopped to study them. The photos were nothing like the filtered selfies she posted online. They were all from the same session. Catherine was on a beach, wearing a plain white shirt, the wind tossing her shoulder-length black hair. The photographer had captured something quite lovely and natural about her. Her smile seemed easy, genuine, and in the more serious shots, when she gazed at the camera, there was a depth and character in her eyes that Dalton had not seen before. It was obvious, from the strength of the pictures, that Catherine could have been a successful model, like their mother, if she’d ever possessed the discipline and self-restraint to pursue the profession.
He gazed at each of the images for several minutes, absorbed by their beauty.
The spell was broken by the sound of a toilet flushing. A few moments later, a door on the right opened and a man stepped out. He caught Dalton’s attention straight away. Dressed in jeans, a black T-shirt and a dark overshirt, the man looked nothing like the pretentious people he’d encountered so far this evening.
He was also very handsome, which didn’t hurt. He was naturally good-looking, with brown hair, slightly wavy on the top and cut short at the back and sides where it was starting to turn grey. He had a serious-looking face, and Dalton’s initial impression was of something quite sad about his eyes and downturned mouth.
“Hi,” Dalton said cheerfully, hoping the guy wouldn’t turn out to be like all the other guests.
“Hello.” The man didn’t return the smile, but seemingly noticing Dalton’s interest in the photographs, he came closer. “Do you like them?”
There was a trace of an accent there. Dalton couldn’t quite place it. Eastern European, he guessed.
“Very much,” he replied. “They’re remarkable. I’ve never seen Catherine like this before.”
The man looked between Dalton and photographs. “I’m glad you like them. I took all of these.”
Up close, he was even better looking than his first appearance. His eyes were dark grey and there was stubble on his square jaw, also flecked with grey.
“Wow,” Dalton said. “They are sensational…really.”
At last, his mouth turned upwards into the smallest suggestion of a smile. “Thank you.” He held out his hand. “My name is Antoni.”
Dalton accepted the handshake. The party had finally improved.