Marriage on madison aven.., p.3

Marriage on Madison Avenue, page 3

 

Marriage on Madison Avenue
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Did you hear? A certain Madison Avenue diva’s got herself a new man, allegedly. How long he’ll stick around is the real question. Rumor has it our favorite girl’s cursed in love—she couldn’t keep a man if he was chained to her Bottega Veneta crocodile handbag.

  —@ScandalBoyNYC

  Clarke’s apartment was a ten-minute walk from Audrey’s, which wasn’t nearly enough time to walk off her anger. Not that she was mad at Clarke—she could handle him in her sleep.

  No, Audrey was still pissed at the imbecilic @ScandalBoyNYC, who, before she and the girls could even finish their mimosas, had taken yet another swing at Audrey on Instagram. The boy, man, woman, whatever, apparently had a well-connected source, which was more than a little annoying. Still, the guy should really be more careful about whom he spoke with. Nobody in Audrey’s acquaintance would have even joked about attaching a chain to a Bottega.

  Petty and unfounded as they may be, the accusations still stung. Audrey was no stranger to social media trolling, but it was embarrassing to have her romantic life open to scrutiny. She didn’t even tell her closest friends the innermost workings of her heart—to have strangers on the Internet assessing her single status was downright galling.

  But she’d have to deal with that later. First, there was the not so little matter of her fiancé.

  Like Audrey, Clarke West lived just off Madison Avenue, though a bit farther downtown. Ironically, Audrey noted with a smile as she turned onto Sixty-Fourth, right next to the Bottega Veneta store. Flipping the mental bird to Scandal Boy as she passed the high-end shop, she hopped up the stairs to Clarke’s townhome.

  She knocked and waited impatiently. When there was no answer, she pulled out her spare key and let herself in, fully intending to make herself at home and wait her best friend out. Opening the front door, Audrey was welcomed by the sound of Queen blaring from upstairs.

  So he was home. Good. Audrey set her purse on the end table she’d helped him pick out and hung her coat by the front door the way she had hundreds of times over the years.

  Clarke’s house was gorgeous, and Audrey gave herself plenty of credit for that. Not for the prewar architecture, obviously. That had been somebody else’s genius. But Audrey had refused to let such a gorgeous space be wasted with Clarke’s barren man cave decorating sensibilities. With the help of one of Manhattan’s top interior designers, Audrey had given the townhome a decidedly masculine, country-club vibe. The floors and staircase were a rich mahogany, the walls deep blues and greens. The furniture was an intentional mismatch of worn leather and offbeat plaids, the walls adorned with pictures of horses and hunting dogs that Clarke liked to fuss about but never bothered to take down. Audrey suspected that had far more to do with his mother hating the artwork than it did Clarke himself liking it.

  She followed the sound of “We Will Rock You” up the stairs, already knowing she’d find him in the one room in the house that hadn’t seen her touch—his home gym. She leaned against the side of the open doorway, not wanting to startle Clarke in the middle of bench-pressing. He’d outfitted one of the larger spare bedrooms with a treadmill, squat rack, free weights, and, as evidenced by the fact that he still hadn’t heard her arrival, a top-of-the-line built-in sound system.

  Dressed in gray sweatpants and a tight black workout shirt, Clarke pushed through the last of his reps and set the bar back on the rack. Swiping a towel off the ground, he levered up into a sitting position on the bench, freezing for a moment in surprise when he saw her standing there.

  Grinning, he held up a finger. Wait. He reached for his phone and, with a swipe of his thumb, turned the music down.

  “Hey, Dree!”

  Dree. Not her favorite nickname, but he’d been using it since childhood, and there was no teaching this playboy new tricks. She crossed her arms, one shoulder against the doorjamb. “Anything you want to say to me?”

  He smiled wider. “Your hair looks great today?”

  Audrey lifted her eyebrows and waited.

  Clarke wiped the towel over his forehead and merely grinned wider.

  “You know that doesn’t work on me.”

  “What?”

  She waved a hand over him. “That grin. The perfect white teeth, the strategic amount of stubble, the Superman muscles.”

  His eyes narrowed slightly. With thick dark brown hair, classic good looks, a tall, broad-shouldered frame, and most damningly of all, the name Clarke, Superman references had followed him his entire life. He liked them about as much as she did the name Dree.

  “Strategic amount of stubble,” he repeated. “What, you think we men can train our facial hair to grow just so?”

  “Well, gosh, I don’t know,” she mused. “Maybe I’ll find out after we’re married.”

  “Ah.” He dragged the towel over his face. “That.”

  “Yeah. That. Again?”

  “You say it like it happens all the time,” he said, standing. “This is only the second time.”

  “Third. And that’s three fake engagements too many. What was it this time, another debutante hoping that claiming her baby is yours will lure you down the aisle?”

  It was one of her least favorite parts about being friends with a man of Clarke’s considerable charms. He liked women, and they really liked him. In fact, Audrey wouldn’t be surprised if there were entire book clubs and wine nights dedicated to figuring out how to get a ring on his finger. Mrs. Clarke West was a highly coveted position, and the more daring prospects had tried to trick him into it over the years.

  Clarke’s default escape plan was to announce he was already engaged. To Audrey.

  “I don’t date debutantes,” he grumbled. “I’m not sure I even know what a debutante is.”

  “Still waiting for the explanation.”

  He sighed and faced her. “Elizabeth’s back in town.”

  It took Audrey a moment to track. “As in your ex? Superstar lawyer who moved to DC?”

  Clarke rolled his neck to loosen it. “Linda somehow talked me into meeting her for lunch on Friday. Except when I showed up at the restaurant, guess who was waiting at the table.”

  “I take it not your mother?”

  He shrugged, looking for all the world like he didn’t care that his mother had tricked him into a lunch with his ex-girlfriend. But Audrey knew him well. Knew from the tight line of his jaw that it bugged him. Everything about his mother bugged him. Hence why she was Linda and rarely Mom.

  “I swear, sometimes I think Linda liked Elizabeth better than I did,” he grumbled.

  Audrey smiled. “Of course she did. Elizabeth is a mini her.”

  Clarke’s mother had always been a bit of a mystery to Audrey. Somehow the woman managed to be a full-time interfering mother, a full-time controlling wife, and a full-time chief judge of something or other for the state of New York.

  As for Clarke’s ex, Elizabeth Milsap wasn’t yet a wife or a mother, as far as Audrey knew, but she was a high-powered lawyer who’d left New York for DC a couple of years ago with political aspirations that hadn’t involved Clarke. Audrey suspected that his mother had been more upset about the breakup than Clarke himself, and it didn’t surprise Audrey in the least that Linda would try to maneuver Elizabeth and Clarke into getting back together.

  Linda loved her son. She just had a manipulative way of showing it.

  “Okay, but what does Elizabeth being back in the city have to do with the fact that the gossip section of the Post seems to think we’re engaged?”

  “Well.” He draped the towel over the back of his neck and tugged on both ends. “After we had lunch—”

  “Wait, you actually stayed and had lunch with Elizabeth?” Audrey was surprised. Clarke was a pretty easygoing guy, but not when it came to his mother’s machinations. If Linda told him to turn right, he’d run left. When she’d suggested he wear a blue tie to prom, he’d worn red. When she’d told him to go to Yale, he’d chosen Dartmouth. When she’d told him to follow Elizabeth to DC, he’d bought a townhome in Manhattan
.

  The fact that he’d go along with anything arranged by his mother was unusual.

  He grunted. “What was I supposed to do, just leave Elizabeth sitting there?”

  “Would that have led to you and me not being engaged? Then, yeah.”

  “Nah, it wasn’t lunch that did it. It was after lunch as I was leaving the restaurant. Tilda Covey was walking in as Elizabeth and I were walking out.”

  Audrey groaned. Tilda Covey was one of New York’s most notorious busybodies, and one of Linda West’s closest friends.

  “Exactly,” Clarke said in response. “She told me she heard congratulations would soon be in order, followed by humming that damn wedding stomp.”

  “It’s the wedding march.”

  “Whatever.” He tugged at the towel harder. “My mom obviously had told her Elizabeth and I were involved, and seeing us together all but confirmed it for Tilda.”

  “And your knee-jerk reaction was to say you’re engaged to me?”

  “Do you have a better idea?” he asked.

  “The truth! Tell Tilda and your mother that it was one lunch and that you haven’t seen Elizabeth in years.” She paused and frowned. “Have you?”

  “No,” he said. “But you know Linda. I wouldn’t be surprised if she had an engagement notice ready to send the papers in hopes of forcing me into it.”

  “She wouldn’t do that,” Audrey protested.

  Clarke gave her a look.

  “Okay, maybe she’d have done it. And maybe your reason for making us engaged was understandable. But now”—she lifted a finger in warning—“undo it. Today. Get us un-engaged.”

  “As soon as I’m done with my workout,” he said with a grin, seeming relieved to be off the hook. “Have I told you you’re the best friend in the whole world?”

  “I already know.”

  He tossed the towel on the side of the treadmill and began to lower himself stomach-first to the floor. “Lay on my back.”

  “Pass,” she said as he got into plank position.

  “Come on. Like we used to do, when regular push-ups got too easy.”

  “First of all, nobody likes people who say things like ‘regular push-ups got too easy.’ Second of all, that was in high school.”

  He looked up. “I can wait all day, Dree. Just remember, the sooner I finish this workout, the sooner you don’t have to marry me.”

  She pushed away from the door with a sigh. “You’ll get me all sweaty.”

  “Good. If you ask me, it’s been way too long since you’ve had contact with a man’s sweat. Randy doesn’t count.”

  “No, he doesn’t,” she agreed, since she and Randy had never gotten past the make-out stage before she’d seen his mirrored room of horror.

  She kicked off her shoes and gingerly lowered herself so she and Clarke were back-to-back. “I don’t remember this being so hard when I was fifteen,” she said, putting her arms out for balance and laughing as she started to fall to the side when he lowered into a push-up.

  “Yeah, you really have the hard part,” he said with an exaggerated grunt. “Maybe we need to talk about your chocolate addiction.”

  She reached up and tugged his hair in reprimand. “A gentleman never comments on a lady’s weight.”

  “Is that what this is? A lady’s weight?”

  She tugged his hair harder.

  For all his complaining, his push-ups seemed effortless once she found her balance, and he did a couple dozen or so with both their body weights before collapsing to the ground. “You’re right. It was easier in high school.”

  “Most things were,” she said.

  He turned his head slightly, propping his arms beneath his head, though making no effort to push her off. And she didn’t make an effort to move. She’d forgotten the unique sort of comfort that came from physical contact with someone else, even if it was being sprawled platonically atop her best friend.

  “What’s up?” he asked.

  She gave a little smile, appreciating that he knew her as well as she knew him. Appreciating that he knew, even from the most innocuous of statements, when something was bothering her.

  She exhaled. “You know Scandal Boy?”

  “I do not.”

  “Instagram influencer. But the mean, gossipy kind. Likes to dig up dirt and expose it.”

  “Ah. Society’s vermin.”

  “Basically,” she said. “Anyway, somehow Randy found him, or he found Randy. At least I think it was Randy. He’s the only one other than you, my parents, and Naomi and Claire who know everything that went down with Brayden.”

  “Ah shit. That’s out there?”

  “Yup. Word on the street is I’m a home wrecker, who also can’t keep a man, and oh yeah, I’m cursed.”

  “Well, that’s bullshit,” he said loyally.

  “Is it?” She stared up at his ceiling. “I mean, I know I haven’t exactly put myself out there on the romantic front since Brayden. I thought I wanted to be single, but… it’s starting to get a little embarrassing. It’s also not like guys have been banging down the door trying to woo me.”

  “Maybe it’s because you use words like woo?”

  “You’re the worst fake husband ever.”

  “Our ill-fated love affair will end just as soon as you get off me.”

  “All right, all right.” Audrey meant to move. But she didn’t.

  She felt an idea lurking.

  Instead she turned her face slightly to the side, until her cheek rested lightly against his. “What if we didn’t end it?”

  “Hmm?” he asked, sounding half-asleep.

  “What if we stayed engaged? Just a little bit longer. A couple days.”

  He laughed incredulously. “What?”

  “What if we didn’t correct the rumors just yet? What if we let people believe that it’s true. That we really have done what basically everyone’s assumed is inevitable—that we’re super in love.”

  “I don’t do super in love.”

  “But you could pretend to.”

  “I could,” he said slowly. “But why would I?”

  “To spite your mother? You know she’s never liked me. It would kill her to think that not only are you not marrying perfect, smart Elizabeth, but instead are marrying silly, flighty Audrey. She’d die.”

  “Tempting,” he said darkly. “Very tempting. But I’m thirty-one. A little old to be playing the part of rebellious son.”

  “Says the guy who told the Manhattan Post he was engaged just to thwart his mother’s plans.”

  “I merely planted the rumor to stay one step ahead of her. I wasn’t actually going to pretend we’re getting married.”

  “But we could.”

  He was silent for a moment. “What’s really going on here?”

  She rolled off him, lying on her side and propping her head on her elbow. He did the same, facing her.

  “I know it’s stupid,” she admitted. “I know Scandal Boy is just a mean little troll, and I should be mature and take the high road. But it’s all people are talking about in my Instagram comments. The conjecture about why none of my posts ever mention a man. Half of them think I’m a closeted lesbian, and I’m okay with that. But the other half are speculating I’m some sort of relationship pariah. One theorized that I had shark teeth for a vagina.”

  “Oh God,” Clarke said, rolling onto his back and covering his ears. “What I wouldn’t give to unhear that.”

  “And I know it’s just Instagram,” she pressed on, ignoring him. “And it’s not real life, except it is for me. That’s my job, and it’s one I love.”

  He turned his head back toward her, searching her face. “And being ‘engaged’ will help?”

  “Just for a little while,” she said. “Social media has a ridiculously short shelf life. They’ll be onto some other target in a few days, and we can break things off amicably, like we always do.”

  She poked his muscled shoulder with a finger. “Please? It’s just a few days you’l
l have to keep it zipped up and pretend to be wildly in love with me, and then you can go back to sowing wild oats.”

  “What?”

  “Sleeping with every woman in Manhattan,” she clarified.

  He pointed at his heart. “Wounded.”

  “I’m not judging. I have full respect for your bachelor brand. I just need your help. Just for a week or so? People think my vagina is made of teeth, Clarke.”

  Clarke continued to study her for a moment, his dark golden gaze thoughtful. Then he reached out and slapped her hip. “Get up.”

  When she didn’t move fast enough, he jumped to his feet and hauled her up himself. “First, we need some ground rules. If we do this, the word vagina is officially banned.”

  She lit up. “Wait, you’ll do it?”

  “I’m going take a quick shower, then we’ll head out.”

  “Head out to where?” she called after him as he sauntered toward the master bathroom.

  He turned around and grinned as he walked backward down the hall. “Gotta go shop for a big-ass diamond ring for my wife-to-be.”

  Chapter Three

  FRIDAY, JANUARY 10

  How many karats does it take to reverse a curse and hold on to a man? A certain Madison Avenue influencer is apparently trying to find out…

  —@ScandalBoyNYC

  I forgot how scary your parents’ house is,” Audrey muttered, leaning in to look at the door knocker on the West’s 80th Street residence. “Is that a lion? With its mouth open?”

  “Don’t be ridiculous, Audrey,” Clarke said, opening the door. “That’s not a lion. It’s clearly the spitting image of my mother.”

  A second later, they were greeted by the very mother in question, and Audrey was forced to acknowledge that Clarke’s comparison of the lion wasn’t far off. Not that Linda West resembled a lion, exactly. In fact, she very much resembled Clarke. She was broad shouldered for a woman, or perhaps it just looked that way because she favored vintage Chanel suits with boxy shoulders. Linda’s eyes were the same gold brown as her son’s, and her hair was as dark as Clarke’s—though at sixty, she probably had some salon help with that, Audrey was betting.

 
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