“Thank you. I’ll talk with you soon.”
I hung up the phone and felt a little more relieved. In the back of my mind, I was still worried. But the absence of any other letters made me feel better. I slid my phone back into my pocket and continued gazing out the window. There was no reason for me to sit there and debate the choices I had made in my life. If Phillip could freely explore this place, then so could I. So, I decided to do a little venturing of my own while he occupied his time in the library.
I made my way to the backyard and began walking through the maze of shrubberies. Everything was impeccably groomed, and I came upon a fountain with an area to sit next to it. Memories assaulted me from all angles. Bittersweet memories of my own home and walking those same types of mazes at my father’s side. Life before my father’s death had been beautiful, filled with memories and experiences I would carry with me for the rest of my days. But walking through everything and being reminded of what had been so painfully ripped away from me had tears rushing to my eyes.
I missed having everything at my fingertips.
But I would never go back to the girl I was before. My family’s fall from grace had made me into the strong, proud, independent woman I was today. And I wouldn’t change it. I’d proven repeatedly that I could rely on myself and not a man to give me what I wanted, and that lesson was invaluable to a girl who grew up in privilege the way I had. I could hold my own against the world. I had confidence in that. And it was a confidence I never would have found within myself had it not been for the tragedies that befell my family and its name.
I continued walking around, feeling the warm Vienna breeze kick up my summer dress. I ran my hand along the shrubberies and stopped to smell the beautiful flowers that sprouted up from all angles. There were moments where I wished I did have a partner at my side. A man to help me make it through the tougher times. Being the rock for a mother that had spiraled mentally became rough sometimes. I cried myself to sleep alone more times than I cared to admit throughout the week. Being strong on my own was a two-man job, and I was simply one woman with an identity that didn’t match the life she lived.
I got to the end of the maze of beautifully cured plants and looked back at the estate, taking in its looming form as my eyes settled on the terrace.
Phillip was standing there. Watching me.
Of course he’d want to be in the room now that I wasn’t in it.
I turned my body away from his and continued to walk through the grass. I made my way over to the tennis courts and closed my eyes. So many games I had played with my mother. So many lessons from my father. It had been years since I’d played a decent game of tennis. My mother could’ve been a professional at the sport. I smiled as I saw her beautiful face, sweating as she dualed my father, grunting and yelling as she whipped his ass in every single round.
It was the only thing my father never could beat my mother in, and she’d never ceased to gloat about it.
I whipped my eyes open and dabbed at the tears forming in them. Maybe pretending to be engaged to Phillip was doing more harm than good. Maybe it was having this negative effect on me. I needed to harden my heart. I needed to keep the endgame at the forefront of my mind. Getting Cristoff to sign that deal at the end of the week was the only reason I was there. I was an article that had been paid for, a prop in the ruse Phillip and I were projecting. For all I knew, that was how he saw me—nothing more than a prop. Like his choice in suit or the pair of socks he plucked from his drawer every morning.
I sure as hell didn’t feel like a person with him. And the last thing I needed to do was start wishing my fake life was real.
Sunday evening was reserved in Cristoff’s family as the large, traditional family dinner. All of his relatives, both distant and close, came pouring through the front doors right at five thirty. Elizabeth and I came down promptly at six before being guided to two chairs right in the middle of the brood. And the chairs were a little too close for my liking.
His family was an assemblage of odd ducks, weird people with weird quirks I never found anywhere else except for in those families that came from old money. For instance, Cristoff’s first cousin, Gwyneth: she kept mindlessly twirling her finger around the rim of her crystal glass, making it sound off in the middle of the room while everyone yelled to be heard over it. Around and around her finger went, and my eyes followed it with a vengeance. I wanted to pluck her glass away from her and give her a plastic one. Did she not understand how annoying she was becoming?