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February 10th, 1933. Cape Town, South Africa.

February 10th. In four days, though you couldn't really count the fourth, Isabella was going to be married. For a week, guests had slowly arrived from around the world, most of them strangers to her, invited by her future mother-in-law. Royalty, aristocracy, tweed and lace. Hands she was happy to shake, cheeks she was happy to kiss, but intimidation she couldn't shake. Almost nine years of consistent presence in the spotlight had given Isabella near immunity from shyness and nervousness and second guessing. Her reputation was no longer as questionable as her behavior; she was considered witty, charismatic, and professional.

But Betsy Fitzwilliam and her plans had reduced Isabella to a state of paranoia that she was powerless to understand. Weddings were beyond her, both in function and operation. She had been to a few now, and learned the stereotypes, but her ignorance meant that she had not been the one in charge of planning. While she picked the dress and was given some input on decor and allowed to invite everyone she wished (as she tended to know celebrities, and Betsy was not discouraging about celebrity), the rest of it was out of her hands.

As the date grew nearer, she grew more confused, wondering what would be expected of her. There was a rehearsal in three days (or two, if the fourth wasn't to be counted). Isabella could dance and sing for crowds as large as a thousand or more; could walk nude in front of complete strangers. She could even be photographed in the midst of sexual acts. But what she couldn't do was predict what a wedding would require, and it was overwhelming.

Betsy, though about nine inches shorter than Isabella, managed to be frightening. She was a hard woman to please, and highly critical of her son's choice in women. Isabella's American nature and career on the stage did not impress her, no matter how rich Isabella supposedly was.

The mansion, however, was crawling with people. Teaming with them. Most of the immediate family, and dozens of close friends, were sharing the expansive property. The house itself was still undergoing renovations, making it crowded and in some cases tricky to navigate. The most notable change was an expansion onto the eastern side that would one day be a complete kitchen.

All of the noise and chaos ordinarily thrilled Isabella to death. She had now seen familiar and unfamiliar faces--faces of people she hadn't seen in five or six years, in some cases. Since leaving the circus. The younger generations spent the warm summer days and nights on the beach, hunched around or dancing around bonfires and telling stories about shark attacks that scared people out of the water. The week since the first arrival (Andy's grandmother and aunt) had been good and only slightly stressful. And Ian, who she hadn't seen in years, and who hadn't seen her since she shot up and out and flattened her accent, was a pleasant sort of cushion. After she stopped crying all over him, anyway.

Ian. She didn't know where he was now, but she wasn't looking for him, either. Not really. Andy was out with some of his groomsmen (the ones he considered brothers; his real brother was home), terrorizing the city or sharing their last few bawdy tales before Andy, the sometimes ringleader, was out of commission. The first of the lot to be lost. Isabella didn't care what he did, so long as it didn't annoy her later (and she was difficult to annoy, loose in her scruples as the world thought she was). And because of this, because of his absence, she wasn't really looking for Ian, but sometimes she glanced at people if she saw a shock of dark hair.

It had been a good week, but the stress was mounting, and the higher it went, the more she needed breaks to sit and think. Not about marrying Andy; she loved Andy. Really, she didn't have to think about anything. She just needed some sort of quiet, because there was a buzzing at the back of her brain that wouldn't leave her alone.

And she knew what that buzzing was. It was an old and unwanted acquaintance. She couldn't shake it. She had stopped trying to. There was a new sound, too, that made the buzzing worse.

She was in one such state now as she didn't look for Ian and instead wandered slowly up the master staircase, aiming for her bedroom. Their bedroom--hers and Andy's. A suite with a balcony (and a closet much too small to house all of her clothes, which were still in trunks, boxes, and the closets of other guest rooms). The last week had turned it into an occasional meeting place, but she had come to cherish that room since first adopting it in December. It was the first bedroom she could really call her own. The first bed she had ever picked out.

Andy's underwear was all over the floor--a boxer short there, an under shirt here--and she smiled, feeling domestic, and picked everything up only to realize that she didn't know where to put it next, so dropped it all on a chair. The bed was half-made (Andy's side left rumpled), the balcony doors open to let in the sun and warm breeze, and Iz's boxes of clothes took up all of the nice walking space that would one day be available to them.

Rubbing her face, she looked around and slowly sat on the end of the bed, one hand balanced thoughtfully on the wooden post, the other on her lap. Outside, the sounds of the usual chaos filtered softly in and, with her back to the door, she watched the blue sky .

Emilia, who had been looking for Ian, walked past closed door after open door after closed door after open door again, nervously sticking her head into each one of the open ones just long enough to try to figure out if she was invading anything or if her husband had disappeared into that particular room. It would figure he was out getting to know Elijah, his replacement as Isabella's older, protective friend – though Emilia hadn't ever heard Ian say he felt replaced, she may as well have guessed so – or with Nicolette somewhere.

And if he had, in fact, been with Nicolette somewhere, being able to find her would've suited well too. Being able to find anyone she knew would have – was that Isabella? Sun reflecting into the blondest blonde hair Emilia had ever seen caught her attention, and when she poked her head into that door, instead of turning away again she spoke hesitantly: "Izzy?"

It had to be her, right? No one else had hair like that, even if they somehow managed to have the same physical shape.

Isabella looked up and over her left shoulder, turning her body just enough so it didn't put a kink in her neck to do it. Once stable, she smiled. Once she smiled, she turned her head back into place. "You look a little lost!" she said to the balcony doors.

"I'm completely lost!" Emilia admitted. "You look bored."

Although, she thought, maybe being bored when the alternative was the madness of planning a large wedding – and, having had a fairly small wedding, Emilia wouldn't have known – was a good thing. It seemed it might be.

"Oh, I wouldn't stay bored," Isabella said. "I don't think I've been bored in a good three months. I'd like to be, just to try it. Can't remember what it tastes like."

"We could go escape into the middle of nowhere and just sit for a few hours, but I don't think that would be very boring. Just idle." It sounded nice, either way, as far as Emilia was concerned – except that she'd never been to South Africa before, let alone Africa at all, and wasn't sure what people or creatures would attempt to attack them.

"I think we would end up lost as well as idle, and I've absolutely no problems with getting lost. Except that Andy took the car." And Isabella had only learned how to drive a couple of months earlier, and was not yet legally able to do so. And she had a penchant for speed that scared her fiancé (much as he refused to show fear).

"I suppose everyone is on the beach."

"With the car?" Emilia's mental image immediately translated to people driving on sand, and she wasn't sure how to interpret that.

Confused for a second, Isabella skipped a beat before answering.

"Hm? Oh! No, Andy's not at the beach. I just suppose everyone else is." She looked over her shoulder again. "You can come in here, long as you ignore Andy's underwear." She turned back around and finished with, "I know I do."

At that Emilia couldn't stifle her laughter. "At all times, or only when it's on the floor?"

"Whenever it inconveniences me," Isabella said with a grin.

"Which I bet is whenever there aren't people around and sometimes when there still are," Emilia guessed, smiling innocently. The innocent smile was a bad habit of hers – all her smiles came out that way unless she was deliberately mimicking her sister. "Though I think the entire ceremony is supposed to be clothed?"

"Oh, oh, yes." Isabella folded her hands in her lap. "I think Betsy would kill me if I debauched any part of it. I won't be showing my ankles until after it's all over."

"Your ankles?"

Emilia had been to quite a few weddings. None particularly seemed to care about ankles. "You can't show your ankles? What if you have to lift your skirts to walk?"

"I suppose she'd never forgive me!" Isabella laughed a little. She was anxious, and talking about Betsy made her more anxious. "No--she's concerned. I make her concerned. You know. Andy's family is important and I'm a bawdy temptress. I'm sure she expects me to do cartwheels."

"I'd say you should but in this circumstance it's probably a bad idea. I don't know what Ian's parents think of me." Emilia shrugged, shoving some of her loose hair behind her shoulders. It was hotter than February should have been. By quite a lot. "I don't have any reason to think they don't like me but I was always more worried about Bradley than Colin."

Isabella smiled. Ian's parents were one step away from being her own. Meg had been frightening by virtue of being a mother with no nonsense about her, but that reputation didn't hang in the air for long.

Betsy, however.

"I could see why, though I do like to pick on Bradley. I don't know that I could have lived with him."

"I think he would have liked to live with you. I mean, he sort of did, we sort of all lived together." Sort of, anyway. The circus had always felt like a collective stomping ground to Emilia, who hated the off season when it was so quiet. "You just would've had to get used to the fact that he can go days without speaking and doesn't know how to take care of himself, which is why when Ian wasn't with him usually Katie was."

"Oh, honey, I was wretched at doing the same thing. First time I tried to cook on a stove I caught the pan on fire, then the stove. Elijah was there. It was Elijah's stove." She had never used an oven like that before. Hearth cooking was something she knew and could probably manage to remember, but dials and knobs and coils and the concentration of heat did her in.

"That was a year ago."

Emilia had been about to remind Isabella of how bad Bradley was with steak; how often he ruined anything that might have required a stove – and then the story got finished and instead she just found herself laughing.

"I hope he took pictures!" was the first thing that came out of her mouth.

"Of course he did. I was screaming and crying and having a heart attack, and he goes for his camera!" Elijah's priorities were Elijah-based and nothing else.

"I'm glad Andy comes with cooks."

"Well, at least you survived! And – that's good. I wish our house came with cooks, but at least I'm not given heart attacks by stoves anymore." Anymore. "That does sound awful, though – I noticed you're still friends, he must've done something to make up for it."

"Oh, that was nothing. I offered to buy him a new stove. I don't know that it bothered him very much. That I nearly caught his kitchen on fire. Elijah is one of a kind, or else the world would be in a real state!" She loved him to pieces, and no stove could come between them.

"His neighbors might've minded, if people had lived upstairs." Emilia was trying to imagine Elijah explaining it. No, no, it's okay, my friend just blew up my stove. I'll get your floor repaired.

Isabella laughed. "No, no one lived upstairs. It wasn't so terrible. I'm just glad I didn't practice when I was alone. I'd have lost all my senses and burned my whole apartment to a crisp. Depending on the apartment. I wasn't living in one at the time." She lived in more apartments than she cared to remember. And more hotels than she could remember.

"Not at all, or were you living in his?" The idea of living in a hotel may've occurred to her sister, but not so readily to Emilia. "And – I'm sure it's rather good you didn't blow up his home, though knowing him, and I admit I don't know him well, he might've laughed that off."

"Using it as I needed it. Really staying in a hotel or with Theo--you've met Theo by now, I'm sure. I can't keep it straight. I've had to introduce more people to more people than I ever have in my life! And I don't know Andy's side all that well. It gives his mother extra reasons to bitch about the whole affair." Isabella sighed. She didn't really care what Betsy thought, only that she was intimidated by the scale of the wedding and what would happen if it didn't go well.

"Everyone tells me this is what mother-in-laws do."

Emilia actually had to think about it – hers wasn't too overbearing, and she was sweet and motherly to everyone. Her brother's mother-in-law, though –

"Most do, yeah."

Isabella watched a gull fly out over the water. The pause was only a pause to collect her thoughts about the whole extravaganza. Parties and people were things she so loved, but she couldn't escape a general feeling of restlessness and nerves. Not usual for her. Not usual at all.

"This whole thing," she began, then stopped, as she lost her train of thought. But it wasn't lost for long. Trains aren't often gone for good. "It still feels something of a joke. Or, well, not a joke. A joke isn't the right word. I understand the point. I would have loved to understand how to plan a wedding on my own. I really would. Dig my fingers into my own business. I'm sure I'll regret letting her plan the whole thing one day."

"That's really not right, that you weren't allowed to." Emilia couldn't think of any way that that was even remotely fair; it was Isabella's wedding, after all, not Lady Fitzwilliam's. Regardless of whether Isabella herself was going to be Lady Fitzwilliam, which Emilia wasn't really sure about – she didn't quite follow the way peerages worked. It never made sense to her that some people were some things and their immediate relatives weren't. "It's your wedding and it should be the way you want. At least half. And the other half Andy should've picked."

"Oh, it's not bad." She smiled. "I wouldn't know where to begin. I really wouldn't. I could pick out dresses. Andy could pick out his tux. She helped me along with all the other things they needed me to do. My guests. My people. I think she respects me. I just think she doesn't understand me. Oh, but we got to pick where we're going to be vacationing! We're going to Paris for our Honeymoon! I've never been and it's all I can think of. I'm already packed--except for my best things." She liked it when Andy unsnapped her best garters.

"She'll learn to understand you – or maybe she won't, but at least she'll learn to live with that and you can be friends," Emilia half-suggested hopefully. "And that does sound lovely; we didn't have the money for much, and Nicolette's the only one of my family who I think's been to Paris. She'd tell you good and bad about it, but I'm sure you'll have a great time."

Nicolette had had problems with men, which Emi didn't expect Isabella to encounter.

Isabella was going to quip about how Ian must have blown through everything he made, but she couldn't really afford to, as she had barely any money to her own name and should have been, and was considered, a very wealthy entertainer.

Managers were expensive!

"I'm doing a few shows there, or so my manager says. And he's not even here because he's a prick and wouldn't come. When I switched from the managers I had in Chicago to the Morris agency, they wanted me to come do all these grand things in Europe. I had several months before the revue was to even open and they thought I should take advantage of it. I don't know why we never did the whole thing. I wanted to go to Paris and do some real burlesque even then. Maybe that was why they chose not to. I'd never recover my reputation if they let me free in Paris."

"Maybe they'll let you now. Are they still your managers?" Should she have known that? Probably. Had the trip made her forget? Of course. Asking if Andy would mind, which came up for about half a moment in Emilia's head, was quickly disregarded as a stupid question.

"The Leons? Oh, gracious no. They'd never be allowed to work for William Morris. No, Boris--well, I can't say he has his head on straight. No one in the business has his head on straight. But his is at least somewhat diagonal, and facing forward so he doesn't see his bullshit as easily as the rest. He didn't come to see me off because he's afraid I'll see him cry." She could only assume. he had claimed conflicting schedules with mysterious secondary clients she had never met. "I'm meeting him in Paris, though. Where he'll grit his teeth at Andy and pretend he likes that I'm married."

Why wouldn't he be happy for you died on Emilia's lips as it was easy for her to figure out after a second why. She did laugh again, a little, though. "Andy will charm him, I'm sure. The rest of us like him. Some of us are hard sells. Actually, I just think Bradley's a hard sell."

Isabella smiled. "Oh, Bradley's a big fuzzy bear. He just hates that I know his secret. But it used to be that nothing pleased me more than making him frown, because I figured that the more he frowned, the more he liked whatever it was I was assaulting him with. And he was so fun to rile."

Of course, it didn't work out quite so well when the frowning had to do with her shadowing Ian, but she at least understood it. And loved it all the same.

"He's an awfully skinny bear. Skin and bones! Bears are supposed to be warm and fuzzy and Bradley is only that when he's wearing a big sweater."

At least he wore big sweaters sometimes. Always had.

"I'll at least give him the satisfaction if describing him as a large person, though I do think I now weigh more than he does. Until he wears one of those big sweaters." Isabella laughed, imagining various excursions to the coast where she had then climbed into his sweater to share it. And to try to push him backwards into the water. "God, they're so big I'm unconvinced he didn't steal them from Victoria."

"Would we be able to tell? Maybe they could wear each other's clothes – damn, now I'm thinking of Bradley in a dress." Emilia put her face in her hands, shaking her head.

"I think he'd get lost in one of her dresses. And can you imagine what she would have said to see him cross-dressing? I wish she had been able to come or I would ask her." Victoria, far too heavy to even walk comfortably, was unable to make the trip. "'Victoria, if Bradley was caught sneaking into your closet, what would you do?'"

Isabella suddenly felt a twist of anxiety. The more she spoke, and the more she analyzed such an absurd situation, the more apparent it felt.

"And what would he do? I mean, he used to say the most awful things about that one boy in the band – who was it, Davey? Awful things. But Jordan kept confirming them. And Bradley's faces just got worse."

"Oh, I do feel bad for him. He would have had a heart attack to see what goes on in vaudeville, I suppose. I'd have married in a tuxedo if only to give Betsy a fright!"

"You'd look lovely, though!" Emilia had at least seen photographs. "We could all wear tuxedos. Though I think that's a bit improper."

"Improper! I don't know what the hell it means to be improper. All I know is what gives me pleasure." Isabella grinned, confidence straightening her spine. "And I look damn good in a tux. Doesn't change what's underneath it; just makes men more interested in digging me out."

"Being improper doesn't make it bad," Emilia admitted, grinning. "It makes it more fun, in some circles. Embarrasses the daylight out of Ian, though – whatever that even means."

Isabella's grin and spine both fell, though the motion would have only been obvious to the window at which she was still staring.

"Yeah." And she could have expanded for days--could have shared a thousand anecdotes, too, that would illustrate all the times Ian became flustered. But as soon as she opened her mouth to say something, she stopped. She had missed too much and her stories were old and dusty and, moreover, irrelevant to everyone but herself.

Her mouth still open, she quickly reverted to teasing. "I've made a career out of being improper. It must have embarrassed him away."

Emilia hesitated. That she wasn't sure how to comment on; the mood had suddenly dropped and she hadn't meant for it to. Not a bit.

"I don't think he was ever embarrassed by you," she said carefully.

Isabella looked up, internally mortified but outwardly surprised (a careful dilution of just enough embarrassment). "No! Oh, no. I know. I wasn't being serious. No, if I had that capability, he'd still be hiding somewhere quite remote."

"He's predictable, though. We'd find him," Emilia said wryly. "And then you'd embarrass him straight to death, once he got over his horror at being found someplace entirely unsurprising."

As far as Em was concerned, Ian was entirely obvious.

Isabella, again, wasn't entirely sure she could contribute anything relevant. That hadn't stopped her in the days since his arrival, but it was stopping her now that everything was sinking in for the very first time. "I suppose his biggest trouble would be finding some place to hide at all. I never knew him to hide. Maybe lock himself in a trunk by mistake."

"Or get stuck up a tree. Or something equally ridiculous." Emilia teased with love -- a habit that more belonged to Nicolette, but Emilia could pick it up and employ it just the same.

"To be fair to him, it was usually my fault if we got stuck in a tree," Isabella said as she curled her hand around the bedpost again.

"He'd never have blamed you, though; he took responsibility for things for you. Which would have annoyed me, I think, if I were in your position. It's a little too protective."

It was hard to admit how much she agreed, so Isabella didn't say anything at first. Didn't say anything for several seconds, either, until she felt as though she was putting the spotlight on her silence.

"I suppose that's just the way he is," she said. It was a stupidly unhelpful thing to say and limped out of her mouth as though it was paralyzed, but she didn't know what else to say.

Emilia certainly wasn't going to defend him, either. It was an annoying tendency and she felt he treated Isabella too much like a child, when she obviously wasn't one. Too many people did that.

"It's not a very good way to be, but at least he doesn't act like that much anymore. He's still too fatherly to you, though – walking down the aisle is one thing, but sometimes he acts like your protector, not your friend. I've pointed out it's bothersome."

Now Isabella was beginning to feel uncomfortable. It wasn't yet showing, but inside, her stomach was turning and her heart was beginning to pound a little more than it needed to.

Instead of expanding on anything, or agreeing on anything, or even disagreeing, Isabella said, "Have you really?" She felt as though she was only half-aware of her response.

"Yes, because I think he shouldn't be treating you like a child. You're a bit mature to be treated like a child. He just doesn't want you to have grown up." While Emilia couldn't be sure that was completely true, she felt it was, and so felt also that she could say it.

It was easy for Isabella to assume that Emilia knew what she was talking about. Isabella hadn't seen Ian in five years. Letters might have power (they had power for her and for her soon-to-be-husband), but they are only letters. Andy could easily have forgotten to write back. So could Ian. All of the other things that made these men so important to her were hers and hers alone when it was only a letter bridging the spaces between them.

Ian was more important than most of the people Isabella knew, with the exception of her fiance. Hearing all of this was like seeing every self-conscious worry materialize into reality. This made it impossible for her to disguise the anxiety.

"I suppose I must be a great disappointment, having grown as much as I have." She gently ran her fingernails against the wood of the post. "Strange how much things change. And why they change."

"Oh, I'm sure he doesn't think of it like that." Emilia didn't want to start a fight. She'd always had problems with the way Ian babied Isabella, treated her feelings like that of a little girl's even when she was nearly fifteen years old. And it wasn't like she and Nicolette hadn't known that Isabella felt differently about their relationship than Ian had. He had touched her in ways he shouldn't have at her age at all, let alone if he hadn't planned on following up on them later.

"Not consciously, anyway," she continued, "but he's an idiot sometimes, and he's always been a bit of an idiot regarding you. Did basically everything wrong. Did you wrong, and I'm glad that you've got somebody who didn't. I only wish he hadn't either."

Did basically everything wrong.

Isabella replayed it so many times in such rapid succession that it felt like Emilia had shouted it at it.

The funny thing was, she agreed. But what she agreed with had an entirely different direction than what Emilia meant, and Isabella knew that. And so suddenly she found herself shaking, her mouth dry. She didn't want think about this. She hadn't given it a lot of consideration for so long. She had successfully rid herself of the continual nagging at the back of her skull. Sure it had come back the moment she saw him and hugged him the way she had as a smaller girl, but it wasn't quite the same. It wasn't as intense as this. This felt old; the way it was when she was alone and grappling with why Ian left her.

There was one thing Iz never would have wanted to give up: her time with Ian at the circus. The most precious memories she had to comfort herself with when the whole world was one big, scary labyrinth.

"I don't know--I don't know that it was wrong," she said. No conviction. Her words were tip-toeing across very thin ice.

"Well – I'm sure not everything was wrong, no, but the way he treated you in America was completely unfounded." The way he'd treated her, the way he'd treated Nicolette and the way he'd treated Isabella back at the circus were all completely unfounded, but Emilia didn't quite want to get into that.

Isabella was doubly alarmed now. Alarmed enough to look up at Emilia. "What did he tell you?"

"He didn't tell me much of anything – he told Nic a few things but mostly I listened to her, and she was so angry at him for not informing the press that actually, she was his girlfriend, and we'd been aware of the fact that how you felt about him wasn't what he felt about you, and he did an incredibly bad job of handling that, and kept leading you on long after he should've stopped, and –" Emilia was in rambling confession mode, and only stopped for half a breath. "– in general didn't do anything the way he should have. He just upset you and upset her. He let the world believe a lie about the two of you, and I'm certain it had to have hurt you to have it not be true. It was a stupid thing for him to do and he never thought about anything but publicity."

While that probably wasn't really true, both of the Bellandi twins had always felt it was. He'd been ignoring Isabella's feelings and Nicolette's feelings in exchange for what would sell tickets and sell papers, and even Bradley didn't do that.

Isabella almost stood up. She flinched as though she was going to, but stopped herself.

Only two people, other than Ian (and Ian was a toss-up, even though she told him herself), knew she was in love with him. Andy was one of them, and Ian's nephew, Finnegan (who was older than Ian), was the other.

"I didn't know the press was saying a damn thing about us," Isabella said. "I never told them anything but his name! And he never--we never read anything. Not a single paper! Not one! Maybe--maybe he did when I was busy and he was on his own, but he never told me what they said and never brought one where I could see."

This was so long ago, but still fresh and overwhelming and quickly causing her to go back to places in her mind where she had no interest in going. Not anymore.

It was too easy to start crying, but for now she would swallow as hard as she could to keep it from happening. "How could you know half of how I felt about him?"

"I'm not saying I could," Emilia replied, softly, feeling horribly guilty for having said any of it at all, true or not. "I can't read your mind, sweetheart. He just acted in such a way that we thought must've led you to believe certain things about your relationship that he didn't feel. And all the newspapers all over were saying that the two of you were – actually, I think 'sweethearts' might have been the word. 'Beau' got thrown around. The world assumed you were lovers, though they admitted that you had only ever said he was your best friend. Nic went absolutely mad that he'd been letting people assume the two of you were more than you were, and it wasn't because of publicity. It was because she felt he was still leading you on and because she felt he was disregarding her."

"That was just the press! The press--the press thinks I had secret abortions in the basements of brothels across America! Why are you assuming I feel--whatever it is you assume I feel? When he was with me--" Isabella couldn't describe it. She didn;t want to. It was too much. No one possibly understood it. Without him, she would have had no one, and the word would have been even more difficult to understand.

She sat down again, her throat swelling shut. She didn't want these comforting things, these lasting memories treated like dirt under the bottom of someone else's shoe.

"This is--this is like…" Like he calculated everything and walked from her trailer cackling like a maniac. That didn't fit with what they did together. He always felt like her other half, but now it felt like everything she depended on in Ian, from the tangible to the intangible, wasn't real or was no longer there. Or was a mistake. It was terrifying, and she instantly felt five years younger, trapped in a situation she didn't understand enough to escape.

Flashing across her mind now were all the negative images she had since Ian left her behind. All the things she envisioned. All the hurt. It was uncontrollable, and before she could try anything to get herself back together, she was crying. So she covered her face and hunched over.

"Nicolette believed he was saying it," Emilia said softly, hoping Isabella didn't blame her for any of this, hoping her first instinct was okay – to put her arm around her friend's shoulder and pull her a little closer, trying to comfort. Hoping she wouldn't push her away. "I'm sorry; I shouldn't have said anything. He just was always so callous with you, the things he did, and it never sat right with us."

They would have been good friends if he hadn't touched her the way he had, hadn't used her the way the twins always thought he seemed to be using her. That level of intimate sexuality had never been appropriate, and it wasn't about propriety, it was about hurting people. It wasn't just about image. Not to them, anyway – but Emilia felt awful for ever feeling like Ian and Isabella's friendship had an air of dirty little secret to it. She hated thinking about it, because it always made her so angry at the man she really did love, but ...

"He didn't treat you right. Gave you a ring, for crying out loud, and there's no way people would assume that just meant friendship – he lied to you, and he was never sorry enough about it. Always acts, still to this day, like everything is fine and he never hurt anybody. I know he loves you, sweetheart, but he should own up to what he did wrong."

Isabella couldn't believe how explicit this was getting. So the one person she had relied upon and loved and used as a steady rock to get through the lowest points in her life was nothing more than a con artist like the rest.

It hadn't felt wrong, and it didn't seem wrong, and the memories were so important that she now frightened and feeling the urge to plug her ears and sing as loudly as she could to block all of this out. So much of it had been things she said. She remembered, vaguely, calling Ian a liar. She remembered the conversation with the Gray siblings that, she thought, had implied he used her and that a ring was a strange present.

But on the other hand, she was also becoming slightly bristled, and though the tears were still falling and were going to fall regardless, she exposed her face enough to say, "Our double act was five goddamn years ago!" She wiped her eyes carefully, makeup smudged against her fingers. "I've never been asked about him since! He has his films, and I have my vaudeville, and--and that was it! I haven't been in his life since I was fifteen!"

Isabella found herself needing to stand again. She used the post to support herself and held on as though drowning. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have known decency. I wouldn't have known anything. He took great care of me when I met him and for the two years we had together before I left! And if all of that was a lie, he's a better actor than he gets credit for. Why, Gordon Carey should have won an Academy Award for playing Isabella Radcliffe!" she said, her voice thrumming with nerves. Not angry. Not sad. A mix of everything.

Immediately, Emilia hated herself for saying anything at all.

More than she already had.

"Not a lie," she was quick to press, quick to reassure, because she hadn't meant to cause problems like this. Not at all. Not even a little. She was a bit shocked she had, and continued wanting to kick herself. "He loves you, he always has loved you, but he acted in a way that presented a different kind of love than he actually felt for you and that was what was insincere. He gave you a ring and he touched you intimately and those were lies, because he didn't want anything romantic, and let you believe otherwise, and that was a horrible thing to do I still haven't forgiven him for."

Isabella couldn't even find the right words. Or any words at all. Her jaw was set so hard that her neck was aching, and she looked helplessly around the room without seeing anything. "I don't know what he wanted then," she said after a long, uncomfortable pause. A pause she filled by touching the old ring as though she wanted to take it off. "I don't know what I wanted then." A friend, really, and she hadn't known that friends don't touch and kiss. And then she liked it so much.

She didn't know she felt anything significant until he was out of her life and Love's touches weren't the same.

She hadn't thought of Love in a long time. He had never made her skin crawl, but now, forced to think that Ian was no different, he did. She couldn't explain why.

She was afraid to argue about how sincere Ian was. After all, she didn't know. Maybe he had explained more to other people than he ever had to her. Maybe he had given away every private moment he shared with Isabella. That made her angry. What gave him the right? Especially if everything was one giant falsehood, that made it even less important. Two teenagers sticking their hands in inappropriate places--she learned that was normal, at the very least. But something about this was apparently worse than normal. Unacceptable. Offensive. Pretend. Isabella had slept with a dozen men with no romantic interest in her, and yet Ian still didn't meet the same standards.

Just when the world was falling into line, it took a sharp curve.

"I think," Emilia hazarded a guess, carefully, thoughtfully, nervously, "that he only wanted to be friends, and then – you know, I don't even know. I never understood why he would do things like kiss you that way; I had thought it was because he wanted an intimate relationship, and then he never ... I don't know. He never made sense to me either."

Isabella crossed her arms over her chest and bit into her tongue. It was so hard to keep from saying things she would later regret, or things that didn't need to ever be said. Most of the things that crossed her mind didn't stay long enough to be articulated, anyway. Her head was throbbing.

"It just happened," she said, her voice thick, "and I should be sorry for it, I suppose, but I'm not. I can't be."

"You absolutely shouldn't be! He should be sorry for how he handled it -- he should apologize for leading you on so much and acting in such ways. You have no reason to be sorry. You have a right to be angry at him but you have no reason to be sorry."

Isabella simply couldn't stand hearing that Ian had led her on. These were precious memories! Delicate cargo she carried with her. A few of the best things from the strangest decade of her life.

But were they, if they didn't mean anything? If Ian apologized for them, it would break her heart.

Now she was afraid someone would tell him to, and that he would, and suddenly she began to cry again and immediately covered her face. She missed him so terribly but every visit came with so much baggage.

"How can I be?" she murmured, perhaps not controlling herself as well as she needed to. "He was--he was proof that not all men were--," like Love? Did she want to go there? "I don't know where I'd be--I don't know what I'd be like if--if it hadn't happened."

Emilia simply sat for a moment in silence, stunned out of anything to say. Not because she was surprised; because she was angry at herself for saying things, because she was angry at Ian for making her want to say them.

She had nothing she could say that helped, and nothing that might not make things worse. She had nothing she could say at all. Really nothing. And so she didn't try to say anything, just pulled Isabella back into her arms. There was nothing she could do but give her a hug and say, "For that I'm glad it did. I just wish he had been more straightforward, that's all."

Isabella only cried harder. Cried hard enough to keep her from speaking. From even bothering to speak. She covered her face, but didn't pull away, and let herself go completely.

When she did speak, it was so stuttered that she almost gave up. "Why--why does it matter?"

The strangest thing was how she agreed with certain things, and yet, at the same time, agreeing was the last thing she wanted to do. The last thing that made sense. All of the thoughts in her head were supposed to be exaggerated, but now they were out in the open, spoken by someone else. Someone she had once been violently jealous of. Someone she might still have been.

Why did it matter? For that matter, how had they really ended up talking about it? Emilia didn't know -- she couldn't remember. Racking her brain backward in the conversation didn't get anywhere but angrier at herself for upsetting Isabella so much.

"I suppose really it doesn't," she said thoughtfully. "The only reason it upset me was that I thought he was upsetting you, and thought he owed you an apology for that."

Isabella started shaking her head. Over and over, as though someone was holding it. She remained where she was, letting herself be held, for another minute, before she took a step back. She was trembling too much to hold still.

She turned slightly away, now facing the direction of the door. "I didn't mean to feel anything for him. I didn't--it all came later. It isn't his fault that I left. And--and--it's just..." She waved her hand helplessly, then crossed her arms tightly again, as though hugging herself. Then she started to shake her head again as her throat closed. "I can't."

As guilty as Emilia felt, she knew staying in Isabella's way, pushing her presence, trying to make her feel better, would only make it worse.

So instead she said, "I'll get out of your way," and then quickly added, "See you later?"

Because everything had to be okay -- she couldn't have ruined a friendship over this.

Isabella nodded, feeling awkward and embarrassed as well as tangled up. There had to be a way out of this, and she would likely spend the rest of the day trying to figure out where it was.


The Dirty Life Universe

January 2010

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