“Thank you.” I took the glass of champagne from the server, then took a sip and scanned the room. As usual, it was packed. It always was. It was the annual charity ball to kick off the new year. The Manhattan family was known for this event. Every year, the planners tried to outdo the year before.
A man in a black tux with the standard black mask over his eyes and nose walked my way. It was a masquerade ball. Everyone was wearing their version of a mask. While the masks concealed the identities of the strangers in the room, it couldn’t hide my brother. Any of my brothers or cousins for that matter.
“I thought you might try and skip out,” Otto said.
“Nah.” I took another drink. “It’s not so bad.”
My older brother stood shoulder to shoulder with me while we both watched our family and guests dance and enjoy themselves. Music filled the room. The live band, a group that had some big hits in the nineties, was on stage belting out an upbeat dance song. Women in beautiful ball gowns and enough jewelry to fill a Tiffany’s storefront moved around the room. Men all in black tuxedos mingled together. Some were clearly on the prowl. The mysteriousness of the masquerade ball always led to an air of excitement.
“See anything that catches your eye?” I asked him casually.
He shrugged a wide shoulder. “These things make me nervous.”
“How so?” I asked with a laugh.
“I guess I’m a little worried my ex might be under one of those masks,” he replied. “I would like to think I would know her, but she’s a chameleon. My luck, she’d be the one I picked out of the crowd.”
“Do you really think she would show up to this?” I asked him.
“I wouldn’t put it past her,” he replied. “Or one of her friends.”
Otto had been burned pretty bad by his ex. It left a rotten taste in his mouth and had made him a little bitter. We were the two brothers that could relate to losing the woman we loved.
“Able looks happy,” I commented.
We watched our younger brother dance with his wife, Sarah. The two were terrible dancers and making fools of themselves, but neither seemed to care.
“Texas looks good on him,” Otto said. “I half-expected him to show up with boots on.”
“You can take the boy out of Manhattan, but you can’t take the Manhattan out of him,” I said with a laugh.
“Did Selena beg you to bring her tonight?” he asked.
We started to move around the room. As the sons of the powerful Manhattan family, part of our role was to mingle and be seen. If we didn’t make an effort to smile, nod, and shake hands with the guests, our mother would be on our asses. We were grown men, but no one messed with Anne Manhattan.
“She did.” I smiled thinking about my nine-year-old’s pleas. “She made all kinds of promises to stay out of the way and be good.”
“She’d be a lot more fun than some of these people,” he said under his breath when a couple of people came directly toward us.
We both smiled, shook hands, and participated in a little small talk before extracting ourselves. I didn’t hate the events we were required to attend, but I could think of a hundred other things I would rather do. Hanging out at home with my little girl was one of them. Watching football or taking the dog for a walk. But I supposed the cross we had to carry because of our last name wasn’t all that bad.
“Markos!” A woman in a black lace mask rushed toward me. She gave me a kiss on the cheek and patted my chest.
“Sorry,” my cousin Case said from behind her. He pulled his wife to his side. “We’ve been hitting the champagne kind of hard. When I say we, I mean Emma. Just Emma.”
“Stop,” she said with a laugh. “I’m in a good mood. A great mood! The company just posted the best holiday numbers yet!”
“Congratulations,” I said.
“We have to get the girls together,” she went on while leaning heavily against Case. “Lucy was just asking me when she could see Selena. Selena is kind of her idol. She’s been asking us if she can start ballet.”
“We’ll have to try and get them together soon,” I said. “Selena is going to be trying out for a new studio this week.”
“I know!” Emma exclaimed loudly. “I heard she was going to try and get into the place that’s going to be here tonight!”
“The Julian Dance Company,” I said, nodding. “It’s the best studio in New York. She got the audition, which was the first hurdle.”
“I can’t wait to see them!”
“Alright, Emma,” Case said and put his arm around her shoulders. “Let’s go find you some bread.”
I watched Case lead away his wife. Several of my cousins had found love recently. I was envious. I wanted to get dressed up for one of these events and escort my beautiful wife around the room.
Heather should have been standing beside me. Instead, the universe decided Selena didn’t need her mommy.
Heather had been ripped away from us. No amount of money or power had been able to save her. Saying goodbye to my beautiful wife had been the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. Her death had left me a shell of a man.
Selena was the only reason I was still going. I had to take care of her. I didn’t have the luxury of rolling over and giving up.
“There’s Mom,” Otto said and nudged my arm. “She’s with Uncle Britt and Aunt Nina.”
“There you two are.” Mom greeted us each with a hug. “I thought you might have tried to get out of this.”
“Wouldn’t miss it.” I faked a smile.
“Liar,” she said. “You were trying to get out of it just this morning. I assume Selena’s mystery illness cleared up?”
I offered a sheepish grin. “Busted.”
“This is for you,” Uncle Britt said. “Getting the ballet company here tonight was nothing short of a miracle. I think I owe favors to half the city now.”
“For me?” I asked.
“We know Selena is trying out soon,” Aunt Nina said, smiling. “We thought it would be nice for us all to interview them, if you will. We can’t have our favorite little ballerina dancing for just anyone.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I’m looking forward to seeing them perform.”
Aunt Nina nodded. “Anybody that gets Selena in their studio is very lucky.”
“Agreed,” Mom said, smiling proudly. “She is going to be the principal of one of the leading companies in the world.”
Selena didn’t have a mother, but she had a huge family that loved and cherished her. She was both the luckiest and unluckiest girl in the world. “We’ll see if she sticks with it,” I said. “It’s a lot of work. I want her to make sure she’s committed to this.”
“I think it’s going to be starting soon,” Mom said. “We should find our seats.”
“I’m going to get a drink,” I said to the group in general.
I made my way to the open bar. A woman wearing a very sexy red dress with a mask adorned with feathers at the sides was leaning against the bar. She turned to look at me before she stood to her full height. She was attractive. I could admit that, but I wasn’t interested. That part of me had died with my wife.
“Hi,” she said, smiling.
I nodded. “Hello.”
The mask was actually kind of a blessing. People wouldn’t recognize me right away. Being a part of the Manhattan clan meant I was known. People knew us. They knew the bulk of the Manhattan men were single. Sadly, there were women who wanted us because of our last name. They didn’t care if we were assholes. Being married to a Manhattan opened doors. It wasn’t just the name women were after, it was the money. It wasn’t bragging to say we were all very, very wealthy. The Manhattan businesses were all very successful.
“I’m Jessica,” she said and extended her hand.
“Nice to meet you,” I said and shook her hand without giving her my name.
“Are you here alone?” she asked.
She was bold. Forward. Nothing like Heather. Not my thing. “I’m with my family,” I answered.
She looked down at my hand, clearly in search of a wedding ring. I had stopped wearing my wedding ring a couple of years ago. It felt weird being married to a dead woman. I eventually stopped wearing it, but there were times I missed it. I missed the protection it offered.
“You’re one of them, right?” She moved just a little closer to me. Her dark eyes were boring into me. It felt like she was looking into my very soul.
“I’m sorry?” I asked.
“Which one are you?” she asked with her head tilted to the side. “I can’t tell. The mask makes it difficult to pinpoint who you are. You all have very similar builds.”
She obviously knew I was a Manhattan. Thankfully, the bartender saved me from having to answer. “Can I get a scotch, please?”
My admirer was moving in close. I tried to ignore her. The bartender slid my drink across the bar. “Thank you,” I said to him. “Have a good night.” I smiled at the woman and walked away.
I took my seat at one of the long tables where my family would be seated for the show. Otto joined me at the table. “Who was the woman looking at you like she was going to swallow you whole?”
“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging. “I didn’t ask.”
He smirked and shook his head. “You can’t avoid it forever.”
“I could say the same to you,” I replied.
“I’ve gone out with a few women,” he said. “You’ve gone out with none.”
“Not interested,” I said. “I’m focused on Selena. She’s all that matters.”
It was true. I didn’t want to get involved in the dating game. It had been a long time since I had been involved in the dating scene. Ten years. When I met Heather, it was my senior year in college. I fell in love with her almost immediately. We got married shortly after. When she died, I had been consumed with grief. Between the grief and being tossed into the world of being a single parent of a toddler, dating was the last thing on my mind.
A server came by and delivered a family-style platter of appetizers. My mother was in charge of hiring the caterers every year. The food was always top notch.
“Is Selena nervous about her audition?” Otto asked.
“Yes. Is that bad?”
“Is what bad?” he asked.
“That’s she’s nervous,” I said. “She’s nine years old. She shouldn’t be nervous about an audition. I’m still on the fence about this whole ballet thing. I secretly hope she decides not to make it her career. I watched a documentary about some ballerinas. Those girls put their bodies through hell. I don’t want Selena to go through that.”
“I say you have to support her and let her figure it out,” he said. “I know that’s not what you want to hear. She’s a smart kid. She’ll know what she wants. I think you have a couple of years before you have to worry too much.”
“You think two or three years is a long time,” I told him. “But when you have a kid, time flies by. It’ll be tomorrow when she’s going to high school.”
“You sound old,” he said, laughing. “Take another drink. You’re bringing me down.”
It was easy for him to make jokes, but I was the one watching my daughter grow up before my very eyes. I was the one that felt like time was moving too fast. I wanted her to love what she did. If ballet was it, then I had to support her. But I was going to do my due diligence to make sure I was letting her join a studio that would treat her well. I could be considered a helicopter parent. I knew it and I didn’t make any bones about trying to hide it.