Marriage on madison aven.., p.17

Marriage on Madison Avenue, page 17

 

Marriage on Madison Avenue
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  “And you want different?” Claire’s voice was gentle.

  It was something Audrey had asked herself constantly over the past few days, and she’d finally settled on the answer.

  “I want safe,” she said quietly. “I want someone who will never hurt me.”

  “The way Brayden did,” Naomi said astutely.

  Audrey gave a jerky nod.

  “I can understand that. I do understand that,” Claire amended. “But as special as what you and Clarke have, are you sure you want to give up on all hope of romance? You’re so—”

  Audrey lifted a finger in warning. “Do not say I’m so young.”

  Claire pursed her lips. “Okay. I won’t. But plenty of people meet the love of their life in their thirties.” She pointed between Naomi and herself. “What happens two years from now if you get swept off your feet in Food Emporium?”

  Audrey’s nose wrinkled. “Why would I be in Food Emporium?”

  “Fine, then with the Citarella deliveryman,” Claire said, referring to the fancy grocery store Audrey preferred. “You know exactly what I’m asking, and you’re avoiding it.”

  Audrey sighed. “I know. And look, we talked about it. If one of us meets someone who we can’t live without, we’ll deal with it. But why would I just sit around lonely on the off chance that might happen, when I could have something really lovely and wonderful now?”

  “Audrey.” Naomi’s face softened. “You’re lonely?”

  Audrey swirled the ice around in her glass. “A little, yeah. I mean, you have Oliver. Claire has Scott. We all get together plenty, but most of my nights are pretty solo. It’s not like I have any prospects on the horizon, and my romantic history is dismal at best.”

  “And people do get married for worse reasons all the time,” Naomi granted.

  “Yes!” Audrey said excitedly. “See!”

  “Okay, I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Claire said, “but I’m jumping on Naomi’s bandwagon here for a second, and I’m going to ask the intrusive question. Is this a friends-with-benefits situation? Like, how does the living situation work?”

  “We’ll live together,” Audrey said. “I don’t know whose house yet. But separate bedrooms.”

  “So no on the benefits, then?”

  “No. Clarke doesn’t see me that way.”

  Naomi’s blue eyes went wide. “Interesting choice of words.”

  “Yes,” Claire murmured. “It is an interesting choice of words.”

  “How—”

  “You said he doesn’t see you that way. You made no mention of how you see him.”

  “Of course I don’t—” Audrey broke off, thinking of Clarke’s kisses, first at the engagement dinner, then at the cake shop. They’d thrown her off balance. The kiss at the ski lodge, though, had straight up knocked her off her feet.

  If she were really honest with herself, could she say that she wasn’t affected by him as a man? That she hadn’t been thinking about him way too often, wondering what it would feel like if she and Clarke ever kissed for real? Could she deny that sometime in the past couple of weeks he’d gone from being just Clarke to the guy who gave her butterflies every time their hands brushed?

  Putting her elbows on the table, Audrey frowned and dropped her face into her hands. “When did he get so hot?”

  “He has always been hot,” Naomi said, putting a sympathetic hand on Audrey’s back. “You’ve just buffered yourself really well against it.”

  “Well, what changed?” Audrey wailed. “I want my buffer back.”

  Claire reached for her left hand, flicking the diamond engagement ring good-naturedly. “This has a way of changing things. It was bound to happen. By pretending to see Clarke in a different way, it forced you to actually see him that way.”

  “So how do I undo it?”

  “Well, you don’t marry him,” Claire said in exasperation.

  “No, no, hold on, I think this is workable,” Naomi said. “I mean, what if you did propose the friends-with-benefits situation? Would it be so crazy? You’re both beautiful. You trust each other. The sex could be epically fun.”

  “It could also be epically disastrous,” Audrey said. “Claire, what do you think?”

  Claire winced. “Um, do I have to answer? I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that in a month, you’ll be Mrs. West. Or are you keeping your name?”

  “I’ll keep it,” Audrey said. “Over a million people know me as @TheAudreyTate. It’s literally my job to be her.”

  “And you don’t think they’d follow @TheAudreyWest?”

  “Huh,” Audrey said, tilting her head. “I’d never thought of it, but that doesn’t sound bad, does it?”

  “It doesn’t. But I think you have plenty of time to figure it out,” Naomi said.

  “Does she?” Claire asked doubtfully. “Her engagement’s now moving at warp speed.”

  “Oh please,” Audrey said. “You literally went to Paris as a single woman and came back married a week later.”

  Claire grinned. “That’s true. Best decision of my life, too.”

  “Well, this is the best decision of my life,” Audrey said. “So there.”

  She picked up her menu, wanting—needing—a break from the conversation, but she didn’t miss the concerned look her friends exchanged.

  She understood. The three of them had made a pact, and she knew they saw it as their duty to look out for her romantic interests, just as she’d looked out for theirs. Audrey just hoped they could understand that all situations were not created equally.

  They’d made an agreement to help protect each other from scoundrels, yes. But there were different ways of doing that. With Naomi, it had been helping to expose one scoundrel so that she could see what was right in front of her—Oliver. With Claire, it had been helping her friend see that all men weren’t like Brayden, and that some, like Scott, were pretty damn great. And absolutely perfect for her.

  But Audrey didn’t fit into either category. She hadn’t given up on love. She didn’t think all men were cheats. She just knew that with the big kind of love came big risks, and she didn’t think she could survive another Brayden. Or at least her heart couldn’t.

  So, yes, she knew from the outside, she and Clarke sounded crazy. Even on the inside, it was a little bit nuts. But it was safe. He was safe.

  Clarke was the only man who’d always been simply Audrey’s, no one else’s.

  But now she just had to figure out how not to want him so that she didn’t lose him.

  Chapter Nineteen

  WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 26

  I’m still not understanding why I need to be here?” Clarke said, feeling uncomfortably large and, well, male, in the decidedly feminine space.

  “It was part of the deal,” Audrey said, picking up something that looked like a pile of hot-pink string and setting it back down again. “The store’s giving me an entire trousseau on the house. In exchange, I document the shopping process. With my lover.”

  She blew him a kiss, and Clarke pretended to bat the kiss away. “What the hell is a trousseau?”

  “It’s an old-fashioned phrase,” an approaching saleswoman said. “It refers to the articles of clothing that a woman would bring into her new marriage. Including, but not limited to, the unmentionables.”

  Clarke would love nothing more than to not mention the bras and thongs that were currently surrounding him. He’d love even more to not think about Audrey wearing any of them.

  “So, where do we start?” Audrey asked cheerfully. “Bras? Panties? Teddies?”

  Clarke’s pulse raced in panic until he realized she was talking to the saleswoman, not him. Nope, cancel that. His pulse was racing regardless.

  He looked around the store frantically. No windows. Why were there no windows?

  “Why don’t you two make yourselves at home back in the sitting area? My name’s Michelle, and I’d love to bring out some things that you’ll like. Both of you,” she said with a playful win
k toward Clarke.

  He knew he was supposed to smile. Knew that he should smile. And though he was pretty sure he managed to show his teeth, the look she gave him was somewhat concerned.

  Clarke refused to look at Audrey lest he give himself away, but it was probably too late for that. He was practically sweating.

  “We’ve got a fridge in the back with some champagne, white wine, and beer. Can I bring you two anything?”

  “Ooh, a glass of white sounds lovely. Is it too early?”

  Clarke didn’t care what the hell time it was. “Beer. Please.”

  He’d have preferred something stronger at the moment, but he’d take what he could get.

  The saleswoman told them to take their time browsing, make note of anything they liked, and then head to the back and get comfortable.

  His blood pressure slightly more under control, Clarke glanced over at Audrey only to have his pulse spike all over again. “What are you doing?” he said, putting a palm over her phone to block the lens pointed at him.

  “Clarke! This is part of the deal! We have to take pictures of the whole experience.” She gave him a bemused look. “What is with you?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “You know exactly what I mean. You look like you’re about to be violently ill on that table of very expensive panties.”

  His eyes squeezed shut. “You know how when we started this, I banned you from using the word vagina?”

  “Sure. Rather immature, but I’ve honored it.”

  “I’m adding panties to the list.”

  She rolled her eyes, unimpressed. “Don’t be that guy. What else would you have me call them? Underwear? Wait, no. Are you an underpants guy? As in, ‘Hey baby, let’s get you out of those underpants.’ ”

  Dear God.

  “I don’t know. I guess I don’t… refer to them.”

  “So, what, we can discuss guys’ boxers versus briefs, no big deal, but the women’s equivalents are unmentionable? Hey! I bet that’s where they got that name. I’m putting that in a story,” she said, pulling her phone out of his grip and opening up Instagram.

  She looked up from her phone when she was done, her expression softening slightly. “Okay, no joke, you’re really not looking like yourself. What’s wrong?”

  “Nothing,” he said, resisting the urge to run a hand over his forehead to check for sweat. “Just feeling a little out of my league.”

  “Out of your league?” she asked skeptically. “I was under the impression that you were rather proficient at this.”

  “Lingerie shopping? Hardly.”

  “Well, not the shopping part, but the product itself.” She spread her hands wide and gestured around the swanky store. “You can’t tell me you haven’t seen plenty of the goods out in the wild. Don’t underestimate how many mornings I’ve stopped by your place before we headed to brunch and found Saturday-night’s companion lingering around wearing very little.”

  “Not my fault women never leave when you want them to leave,” he muttered.

  She tugged at the end of her ponytail, looking suddenly nervous as she studied him. “Are you going to say that about me?”

  “What?”

  “Well, I mean, we haven’t really talked through any of the logistics of this. I was imagining we’d be living under the same roof—”

  “Of course we will,” he said, frowning. It was what he was most looking forward to, if he were being honest. His home always felt most right when Audrey was in it. More alive, somehow. And for that matter, it didn’t have to be his house. He had the same sense of ease and rightness when he was at hers. Almost as though home was wherever Audrey was.

  He promptly winced at the saccharine clichés of his own brain.

  “Well, if you can’t wait for those women to leave on Sunday mornings, how are we going to be any different?”

  “Well, for starters, because it’s us,” he said, trying not to feel bothered by the fact that she’d put herself in the same category as his one-night stands, or even his five-night stands. Did she not realize that she was different?

  “Hey.” He moved slightly closer, not wanting to be overhead. “Are you having second thoughts? You know you can back out anytime, no hard feelings.”

  She let out a breathy laugh. “You realize how crazy that sounds, right? A groom telling his bride there will be no hard feelings if she backs out of the wedding?”

  “Which is what makes our situation so perfect,” he said, reaching for her hands, almost without realizing he was doing so. “We care about each other’s happiness. You being happy is what matters most to me.”

  “Same,” she said, giving his fingers a quick squeeze. “But.” She leaned in. “It doesn’t explain why you’re acting like a nervous virgin in here.”

  Clarke barked out a quick laugh. “I am, aren’t I?”

  She arched her eyebrows with a silent mm-hmm expression.

  “Honestly?” he said, glancing around at the walls covered in tiny bits of lace and silk. “I haven’t spent much time in lingerie stores. I’ll confess I feel completely out of my element.”

  “I suppose,” she said thoughtfully, pulling her hands away from his, picking up a peach-colored thong, and giving the elastic a very gentle tug, “that it must be different seeing all the unmentionables in their original habitat and not being peeled off some woman’s naked body.”

  Clarke felt heat rush from his face to his groin, immensely grateful that Audrey was staring thoughtfully around the store and not at him, because his body’s response to her words was immediate and unrestrained.

  His brain’s response was panicked.

  Because the naked body that had flashed through his mind at her words wasn’t some faceless woman of his past. It was Audrey.

  Clarke dragged a palm over his face, grateful when Michelle returned with a beer and glass of wine in hand. “See anything you like?” she asked with a smile, handing Clarke the beer.

  He managed an inarticulate grunt.

  “You’ll have to excuse my fiancé,” Audrey said with a reassuring smile at the saleswoman. “His testosterone’s flaring up.”

  Michelle laughed. “It’s a very feminine space. We sometimes joke about putting a flat screen in the back just to make the guys feel more at ease.”

  Clarke didn’t need a flat screen. He needed a cold shower.

  He followed Audrey and Michelle to the back of the store. The two women were discussing panty lines, and before he could order his eyes to keep to themselves, his gaze dropped to the backside of the brunette he would be marrying in a month’s time.

  Interesting that after all these years being her friend, he’d never noticed how shapely her butt was, how perfectly—

  “Clarke?”

  He dragged his eyes back up, saw that she was looking over her shoulder at him with a puzzled look on her face. “Michelle asked if we had any plans for the honeymoon. I was telling her you’d insisted it be a surprise.”

  Clarke had insisted on no such thing. He and Audrey had never talked about a honeymoon, but he was sure as hell thinking about it now. Thinking about her in a tiny bikini or one of the skimpy white nightgowns in the front window of the store or wearing nothing at all…

  He shook his head. This had to stop. It was Audrey, for God’s sake.

  Realizing both women were waiting for his response, he grinned, hoping it looked more normal than he felt. “Dree, if this is your way of snooping for details…”

  “Told you,” Audrey said with a dramatic sigh for Michelle. “He won’t give me even a hint.”

  After Michelle had turned away, Audrey gave him a quick wink. She knew full well that he wasn’t planning a honeymoon and was merely looking for him to play along to get out of the conversation.

  But suddenly he was thinking about it. Why shouldn’t they go on vacation together? Maybe Paris in April or some Greek villa.

  The back area of the store was even more feminine than the front, if that was possible. A
large, circular pale pink tufted couch was in the center of the room, beneath an enormous chandelier. Positioned around the seating area were dressing rooms, with heavy pink curtains that could be pulled for privacy.

  “Okay, if you two want to have a seat here,” Michelle was saying. “I’d already set a few things aside for you before you got here, but after seeing you in person, I’ve got a few more ideas. That long dark hair is going to look so fabulous against our white bridal line.”

  Clarke began shifting awkwardly in the chair, trying to get more comfortable.

  “Give me just a minute,” Michelle was saying. “Feel free to make yourselves at home, take pictures, whatever you want.”

  Audrey already had her phone out and was taking a video of the sitting area. He noted she was using the lens he’d gotten her for Valentine’s Day and felt a surge of happiness around his increasing panic that he couldn’t sort out his own emotions.

  “Clarke, look like you want to be here,” she instructed when the camera pointed at him. He lifted his beer and smiled dutifully.

  “Perfect.” She came toward him and, flopping on the couch beside him, held the camera out to take a selfie. “Smile! Oh wait, hold on. Shoot, this is why people have selfie sticks.”

  He sat patiently for about twenty seconds as she tried to find an angle that would capture both of them before setting his beer on a fussy-looking side table and taking the phone out of her hand. “Longer arms.”

  They’d taken selfies dozens of times over the years—hundreds—and he was used to her body pressed against his side, her cheek near his, but those were friend selfies. And though she was still his friend, and though their engagement was not a typical one, that pose didn’t feel like enough.

  Now, urged by some unidentifiable need, Clarke wanted something different. He craved something more. Not that he could tell her that. He glanced down at Audrey. “How’s the Scandal Boy situation?”

  She shrugged. “There’ve been a few subtext jabs about bets being placed on when a certain vain socialite and her BFF beard will back down and admit their ‘wedding’ is a joke, but nothing too nasty.”

 
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