Behind Palace Doors (Hollywood #3)(2)Online read: Im sorry to pull you into this, he told her. I couldnt trust anyone else right now. He prayed he chose the right words to make her understand. She was, after all, still recovering from an ugly public. It is a perfect July morning, and Elle, a 50-year-old happily married mother of three, awakens at “The Paper Palace” - the family summer place she has visited every summer of her life. But this morning is different: Last night, Elle and her oldest friend, Jonas, crept out the back door into the darkness and had sex with each other for the.
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hen stress overcame Victoria, she did what she knew best. She designed.
She grabbed a notepad and pencil from the drawer of Stefan’s desk in the master suite and took it to the balcony overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The tranquility, the peacefulness of the crystal-blue water ebbing and flowing to the shore should’ve calmed her nerves.
Unfortunately when you were lied to, even by omission, nothing could relieve the hurt and betrayal. Not even the beauty of the country she was legally the next queen over.
But the deception wouldn’t have been so bad, so crippling if it hadn’t come from her best friend...the one person outside her family she depended on, cared for. Loved.
Victoria dropped to a cushy white chaise and began sweeping her pencil across the paper. Soon a dress formed, but not just any dress. Her wedding dress. The dress she’d taken vows in, promising to love, honor and cherish her husband. The dress she’d designed for a princess.
Letting the pad fall to her lap, Victoria closed her eyes and leaned back against the chair. Why did life have to be so complicated, so...corrupt? Didn’t anyone tell the full truth anymore? Was she naive in taking people at their word?
But she hadn’t just taken anyone at their word; she’d taken Stefan at his. The rock of stability who had always been there for her. How dare he do that to her emotions, her heart? He of all people knew how she’d been battered and bruised. Why hadn’t he come to her with the idea of the documentary? Why go to her brothers behind her back?
Another crippling ache spread through her, and she had no idea where to put these emotions. Did she cry, throw something, pack her bags and leave?
“There you are.”
At the sound of Stefan’s voice, Victoria turned her head. With a smile on his handsome face, he strode through the open patio doors. And she knew how to handle this situation. Right now she couldn’t look at him as her best friend, couldn’t see him as the man whom she’d confided in for years. No, she had to see him as was—a man who’d lied to her.
“Sketching another gown?” he asked, leaning down to her notepad. “That’s the dress you wore for our wedding. Why are you drawing it again?”
Laying the pad aside, she came to her feet, ready to take the blow of the truth...if he revealed it.
“Just remembering the day I married my best friend,” she told him, watching his eyes. “The day we promised to be faithful and honor each other. And even though I had my doubts and worries, I knew you’d never hurt me because we have something special.”
He tipped his head to the side. “Everything all right, Tori?”
A sad smile spread across her face. “Not really. You see, I married you because you needed me and I wanted to get over the pain and humiliation of my last relationship. You promised to provide me with that support and stability. You promised to never hurt me, and I assumed that meant honesty, as well. Obviously I was wrong.”
He reached for her, touching her arm, and she didn’t step back. Because even though he’d damaged something inside, she still craved his touch. But she wasn’t begging for his love. Never again would she put her heart on the line for such foolishness. And damn him for destroying that dream.
“What happened?” he asked, concern lacing his voice.
As tears threatened to clog her throat, she tamped down the pain, knowing she needed to be strong or she’d crumble at his feet and never stop crying. The inevitable emotional breakdown could and would be done in private.
“I learned the truth,” she told him. “I discovered that no matter what your heart says, not even your best friend is trustworthy.”
“Victoria, what the hell are you talking about?” he demanded. “I’ve never lied to you.”
Moisture pooled in her eyes, making his face blurry. She couldn’t lose it, not here, not when he’d try to console her and break her down.
“Bronson called.” She stared into his eyes, wanting to see the moment he realized that she knew the truth. “He’s ready to move forward with your documentary. And since you’ve used me for the title and your film, I guess that’s my cue to exit stage left.”
His eyes widened, and he took both her arms in his strong hands. “Victoria—”
“No. There’s no excuse as to why you couldn’t have told me. Not one. So don’t even try. I’m done being hurt. I’m done being lied to. My God, if you lied about this, what else have you kept from me?”
She jerked away from his grasp, tilting her chin. “I will be leaving as soon as my jet is ready. Since your brother is doing better, you don’t need me here. Actually, you shouldn’t need me at all anymore. You’re getting your crown in a few short months, but after the coronation I’ll be divorcing you.”
Sharp, piercing pain speared through her. She never imagined she’d be divorcing the one man she loved with her whole heart. Every shattered, broken piece of it.
As she moved by him, she stopped, looking into his eyes. His face was only a breath away.
“If you’d let me—”
Shaking her head, she stepped back. “I just want to hear one thing from you. Did you know you were going to ask my brothers to help you before or after we married?”
Stefan swallowed and held her gaze. “Before.”
And the last of Victoria’s hope died.
Head held high, shoulders back, Victoria walked inside, through their master suite where they’d made love countless times and out the door. She didn’t break down until she was safely locked inside the guest bath down the hall.
Her iconic actress mother would be so proud of her departing performance.
* * *
Stefan’s world was completely and utterly empty. Two days ago Victoria had gotten on her jet and left Galini Isle. Two days ago she’d stood before him, hurt swimming in her eyes, and accused him of betraying her trust, and in the next moment she was gone.
She’d known exactly how to bring him to his knees and cause the most guilt. He hadn’t been fully truthful with her and now he was being damned for it. Nothing less than he deserved.
Stefan slammed his empty glass back down on the bar in his study. Scotch wouldn’t take the pain away, and to be honest, he deserved any heartbreak he had because he’d brought every bit of it on himself. He’d known she’d been lied to before. Why the hell hadn’t he discussed his plans with her?
He hadn’t called Bronson back. Who knew what Victoria had told her brothers when she returned home. For all Stefan knew, this project was over before it got started.
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But right now he didn’t give a damn about his project.
What he did care about was the fact that he’d damaged something, someone so beautiful. He didn’t know if they could get past this trauma, not just for the marriage, but the friendship.
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He had to get her back. He couldn’t lose their friendship. Victoria was the single most important woman in his life, and living without her was incomprehensible.
Stefan gripped his glass, resting his other hand on the bar and hanging his head down between his shoulders. Hindsight was just as cruel as fate, in his opinion. He’d known he was using her, had known that he needed to in order to gain what he wanted. But fate had dangled all those opportunities in front of his face and he’d taken chances he never should’ve taken—the marriage, the documentary...the sex. Because all of those chances didn’t just involve his life, they affected Victoria’s.
He hurled the Scotch tumbler across the room, not feeling any better when the crackling of glass and shards splintering to the floor resounded in the room.
Seconds later his guard burst through the door. “Your Highness, are you all right?”
Stefan shook his head. No, he was not all right.
“Glass broke,” he said. “I’ll clean it.”
With that, the guard backed out again, leaving Stefan alone once more. But alone wasn’t good. Alone meant he had only his thoughts to keep him company, and it was those haunting thoughts that had that invisible band around his chest tightening.
Memories of Victoria washed over him—on their wedding day gliding down the aisle, swimming in the ocean, beneath him in bed, gazing up at him like he was her world.
If they were just friends, then this revelation about the movie wouldn’t have hurt her so badly. He’d lost her as his wife...he refused to lose his best friend, too.
* * *
Victoria was still in her office. Her employees had left long ago, but she stood in the middle of her spacious sewing room in front of the three-way mirror trying her hardest to pin the dress without sticking herself...again. The design was finally coming along, and she wanted to get it finished tonight.
Working through a broken heart was the only way she would get past this. She had to throw all her emotions into her work because if she went home, if she had to stop and even think for a moment about her personal life, she’d crumble and may never recover.
A knot formed in her stomach. She hated regrets, and hated even more that those regrets circled around Stefan. Fury filled her, pain consumed her. But at the end of the day she only had herself to blame for falling in love with him. She should’ve known better. Hadn’t she seen over the years how he was with women? Hadn’t she witnessed firsthand how he’d discarded them when they got too close?
And Victoria had fallen into his trap, fallen for those charms and assumed that bond they’d formed as teens would get them through anything. But even the strongest bonds could be broken with enough force.
On a sigh, she shoved a pin through the silk gathered at her waist and glanced up into the mirror. A scream caught in her throat at the sight of the man standing behind her.
“Need a hand?” Stefan asked.
She whirled around. “How did you get in here?”
“Door was unlocked.”
She’d been so wrapped up in her anger, her hurt and work to check it after her last employee left.
“I’ve called you for days. You never answered or returned my calls.”
Victoria crossed her arms over her chest, as if that could protect her from allowing any more hurt to seep in.
“I went by your house first,” he told her, still remaining in the doorway as if he were afraid to come closer. Smart man. “I should’ve known you’d be here working.”
“And as you can see, I’m busy.”
She lifted the heavy skirt of her silk gown and turned back to the mirror. Reaching for another pin from the large cushion on the table beside her, she tugged at the bustline. If that didn’t get pinned, she’d be spilling out, and she refused to ever let Stefan have the privilege of seeing her naked again.
“I flew all this way to talk to you, Tori. Don’t shut me out.”
With care, she slid the pin in, annoyed at her shaky hands. “I didn’t shut you out. You did that when you chose to keep the film to yourself and use me for my brothers.”
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, Victoria.” He moved farther into the room, his eyes locking onto hers in the mirror. “You won’t even listen to me? I’ve been up front with you about everything else other than the film, but you’ve already lumped me into that same jerk category as Alex and assumed the worst.”
“So what if I have?” she asked him. “You took my trust and loyalty for granted. You knew going in you wanted to use my brothers for this documentary. Why not just tell me?”
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Resting his hands on his denim-clad hips, he shook his head. “I knew you had enough going on in your life. This film really didn’t involve you.”
She was wrong. The hurt could slice deeper. She’d always heard that the people you love most could also hurt you the most. Too bad she had to experience the anguish and despair to understand the saying.
“I see.” She swallowed, turning back around to face him. From up on the large pedestal where she stood, she was now eye to eye with him. “I’ve been your best friend, then wife and lover, but you didn’t think this involved me. That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? I obviously wasn’t as much a part of your life as I thought because I assumed we shared everything. My mistake and one I certainly won’t make again.”
“Tori, I can’t change what I did, but I can’t let you go, either. I need you.”
“Ah, yes. The beloved crown and country,” she all but mocked.
“Don’t,” he told her. “Don’t let your anger get in the way of doing what is right.”
She nearly laughed at that.
Doing what is right?
Fine, then, since she prided herself on honesty, she’d do what was right and tell him how she felt.
“I fell in love with you,” she blurted out. Her eyes locked on his. “Crazy, isn’t it? And I don’t mean love in the way a friend loves another. I love you in the way a woman loves a man, a wife loves a husband. You don’t know how I wish I could turn these emotions off.”
When he remained silent, Victoria kept going, ignoring the dark circles beneath his heavy-lidded baby blues.
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“I thought you loved me,” she said, not caring that she was bearing her soul. This situation couldn’t get any more humiliating, anyway. “I was naive enough to think that all your actions were signs that you were taking our relationship deeper, but you don’t love me. If you did, I wouldn’t be hurting like this right now. You only flew here because you care about yourself, not me.”
Moisture filled Stefan’s eyes, but Victoria refused to believe he was affected by her declaration.
“But I’m willing to give you a chance to speak for yourself. Do you love me? Is that why you’re here?” she asked, searching his eyes. “Honestly?”
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“As much as I ever did,” he told her. “You’re my best friend.”
She lowered her lids over the burn, a lone tear streaking down her cheek. “Do you love me as more than a friend, Stefan?” she asked, opening her eyes.
“If I could love anyone, Tori, it would be you.”
“So the answer is no.”
Silence enveloped them, and she couldn’t stand another minute in his sight. And since he was making no move to leave, and this was her turf, she’d have to be the one to walk away.
“You’re the last man I will ever let humiliate me,” she told him, damning her cracking voice. “And you’re the last man I’ll ever love.”
He reached up and swiped away a tear with the pad of his thumb. “Can you at least work with me for the coronation?”