Marriage on madison aven.., p.6

Marriage on Madison Avenue, page 6

 

Marriage on Madison Avenue
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  “Uh-uh,” Naomi said, already shaking her head. “Claire and I will hold down the fort. You will go off with Clarke. If you two want to sell this, you’ve got to show up at the party together.”

  “She’s right.” Claire nodded. “Audrey walking in with her two friends and Clarke showing up later is going to look strange.”

  “All right, Dree, you’re with me,” he said, already heading across the lobby toward the front desk to check in.

  Audrey hesitated. “I thought you guys said I couldn’t be fashionably late to my own engagement party.”

  “Generally, no. But being fashionably late because you and your fiancé just came from a hotel room together? Deliciously scandalous.”

  Audrey wrinkled her nose. “Eww. Everyone will think we were doing it.”

  “Audrey, you’re supposed to be marrying the man. Everyone should think you’re doing it.”

  “Right, right. Okay. You guys can make polite excuses for us?”

  “Absolutely,” Claire assured her. “Plus, Oliver and Scott are meeting us up there. Nobody does charming upper-crust chitchat like Oliver.”

  “You do realize that Oliver’s there as my date. You’re married to Scott,” Naomi said, bemused.

  “Yes, but do we really want Scott to be the one making small talk?” Claire asked, knowing full well that her husband, while sinfully rich and a pseudo-celebrity in the world of Manhattan real estate, had little tolerance for pretty manners.

  “Right, okay. Go. Make sure you mess up your hair a little, like you were doing the nasty,” Naomi said, gently shoving Audrey toward Clarke. “Oliver and Claire will make fancy talk. Scott and I will stomp around and glare at anyone that dares to grumble at your absence.”

  “You’d better not grumble,” Audrey said. “There’s a caviar and champagne bar up there.”

  “Ooh. Well, in that case, tell Clarke to hurry up,” Claire said.

  Audrey nodded in acknowledgment and headed toward a waiting Clarke.

  “Hey, but, Audrey?” Naomi called.

  She turned back toward her friend, who gave her a side grin. “Don’t hurry too much. Clarke doesn’t strike me as the type of man who would rush through that.”

  Audrey rolled her eyes and turned away. She had never spent much time thinking about her best friend’s sex life, and she certainly wasn’t about to start now.

  * * *

  “Do you really think your parents did it on purpose?” Audrey called from the bed, her feet dangling over the side. She’d kicked off the Louboutins. As expected, cute definitely did not equate to comfortable.

  “Did what?” Clarke asked back through the open bathroom door.

  “Arrange for you to be the keynote speaker on the same day as your engagement party.”

  There was a knock at the hotel room door before he could answer, and Audrey hopped off the bed. “I’ll get it.”

  She opened the door to a smartly dressed hotel employee holding a tray with champagne in an ice bucket and two flutes. “Champagne for Mr. West and Ms. Tate, courtesy of Naomi and Claire,” he said by way of explanation.

  Audrey rolled her eyes, even as she stepped aside to let him bring the tray into the suite Clarke had reserved for the night.

  “On the table okay?”

  “Sure, that’s great,” she said, picking Clarke’s wallet off the dresser and pulling out some cash for a tip.

  “May I open the bottle for you?” the man asked.

  “No, thank you, we’ve got it from here,” Audrey said.

  He nodded in acknowledgment, wished them a good night, and closed the door behind him with a quiet click.

  Clarke stuck his head out of the bathroom, the lower half of his face covered in shaving cream. “Champagne?”

  Audrey lifted the bottle out of the ice bucket to read the label. “Taittinger.”

  “Let’s open it.”

  She glanced at the clock on the nightstand. “It’s six oh five.”

  “Exactly. The party’s been happening for all of five minutes. The majority of the guests haven’t even left their penthouses yet.”

  He had a point. Fancy engagement parties in their world could go all night as people stopped by before dinner plans, after dinner plans, and so on.

  “Besides,” he called, disappearing back into the bathroom, “this party’s really more about my mother than it is us.”

  “At least you’re admitting it,” she replied, pulling the foil off the top of the bottle.

  “I never denied it.”

  “Well, I thought it might be at least a little bit about Elizabeth,” she said, keeping her voice casual as she attempted to twist the cork off the champagne, but it remained stubbornly put. And Clarke remained stubbornly silent.

  She gave the cork a few more twists before deciding it needed bigger hands and more muscle. Audrey took it into the bathroom, coming up short at the sight of a bare-chested Clarke. After taking a quick shower, he’d pulled on his suit pants but was apparently waiting until he finished shaving before putting on a shirt.

  She swallowed, feeling strangely flustered.

  Audrey had seen Clarke shirtless plenty of times over the years. Hot tubs, swimming pools, the beach, on a boat. But this felt decidedly different. His hair was wet, the bathroom was still steamy from his shower, and the gentle scraping sound of his razor against his jaw was surprisingly intimate.

  He glanced over at her questioningly, then seeing the champagne bottle in her hand, jerked his chin in acknowledgment. With one last swipe of the razor, he set it aside and rinsed the shaving cream from his face.

  Clarke grabbed a hand towel off the sink to dry his face and extended his other hand for the champagne bottle. “Hoping to get a look at the goods before you purchase?”

  “Hmm?”

  “It’s very wifely. You creeping on me in the bathroom.”

  She rolled her eyes. “I’m here for the champagne, not your six-pack.”

  And it was definitely a six-pack.

  She narrowed her eyes and gave his upper body a scrutinizing look. “Either you’re suspiciously hairless or you wax your chest.”

  “The latter,” he said, wrapping one hand around the champagne bottle, the other around the cork. “Women seem to prefer it.” He twisted the top off with a confident pop.

  “Plus, nothing to block your view of your chest muscles when you preen,” she pointed out.

  He grinned and handed her the bottle. “True. Why, you prefer your guys hairy?”

  “Well, not when you put it that way,” she said with a wince. “But I do usually prefer man over pretty boy.”

  He gave a sad shake of his head. “Damn. Our marriage is off to a rough start.”

  “Chest hair is our first irreconcilable difference,” she agreed, retreating to the bedroom to pour two glasses of champagne. Well, actually, a half glass for herself. She was already one glass in, and she wanted to keep her head clear.

  “So, what’s our plan?” she asked, handing him his glass as he joined her in the bedroom.

  “Hold on,” he said. “Toast first.”

  “To what?”

  He shook his head and, reaching out, unceremoniously clinked his glass to hers, which she had yet to raise before taking a sip. “I don’t know. Friendship?”

  “To friendship,” she agreed, taking a tiny sip and setting the glass aside. “And to getting back to being just friends. How soon can we call this off after a fancy engagement party without it being weird?”

  “The whole thing is weird.”

  “Well, that’s true,” she agreed. “I still don’t understand why we didn’t tell your parents that we’d changed our minds at dinner on Friday.”

  It had been bothering her all week, but with his work travel schedule, she hadn’t seen him, and it hadn’t seemed like a conversation to have by text or phone.

  He settled on the foot of the bed, feet braced on the floor, staring down at the wine. The shower and shave had helped considerably in making him
look more like himself, but they hadn’t erased the dark shadows beneath his eyes.

  “I don’t know,” he admitted, taking another sip of the wine. “For a minute there, standing in their living room, I felt like a seventeen-year-old kid again, desperate to piss them off the way they piss me off. I’m not proud of it.”

  “You know your mom only gets all up in your business because she loves you, right?”

  He frowned and looked down, from side to side. “That’s odd. I could have sworn I’m sitting on a bed, not lying on a couch.”

  Audrey rolled her eyes and went to sit beside him. “I’m just saying. Maybe if you tried talking to her, you could tell her you don’t want to be with Elizabeth, rather than pretending to be engaged to me?”

  He took a generous swallow of the champagne. “Quick refresher, Tate. This wasn’t my idea.”

  “I know,” she agreed quickly. “But it feels different now. Pretending to be engaged to get the Internet trolls off my back versus lying to family.”

  “All families are not created equal,” he said, his voice a little testy. “Your family’s an upper-class Leave It to Beaver. Mine’s more like an East Coast Dallas.”

  “You watch Dallas?”

  “I’m very evolved. You know this.”

  She smiled and looked down at her bare feet, wiggling her toes. “It’s been sort of fun.”

  “What?”

  “Being engaged this past week.”

  “Well, of course. I’m a fantastic fiancé.”

  “You’re a terrible fiancé,” she corrected. “I haven’t seen you in days. But I’d forgotten how much I’d once dreamed of being a bride-to-be. There’s a special sort of energy that comes along with an engagement, even the fake kind. Though, I imagine you’re eager to be done with it.”

  He glanced down at her. “Why would you think that?”

  “Well, you can’t very well be wooing every woman in the bar the way you normally do while I’ve got this rock on my finger.”

  “If that’s your way of asking if I’ve stepped out on my fiancée, absolutely not.”

  “Well, congratulations,” she said dryly. “You’ve made it an entire week without sex.”

  “Thank you for noting my sacrifice.” Clarke glanced down at his watch, then stood, refilling their champagne before taking his shirt off the hanger and pulling it on. “Guess we should go pretend to be in love, huh?”

  “You pretend to be in love. I’m just here to show off my shoes,” she said, reaching down to pull on the painful but beautiful pumps.

  “And I need you to say it out loud, we’re done after this, right?” she said, stepping toward Clarke and batting his hands aside to fix the tie knot he was mangling. “Your mom will get the message to back off with the Elizabeth stuff, and Scandal Boy and his minions have gotten the hint that I’m not a romantic pariah.”

  “How do you know they won’t be back with a vengeance when we call it off?” he asked, studying her. “That they won’t say, ‘There she goes, losing another one’?”

  “I thought about that,” she admitted. “Which is why it’s going to be crucial that I’m the one who dumps you.” She gave his chest a friendly pat. “How’s your fake cry?”

  “How much time do I have to work on it?”

  She shrugged. “This is your show now. We can either issue a peaceful statement in the next day or two, or we can put on a spectacular show tonight. We can have it be about something silly but real. Like, let’s say, maybe I’m not so keen on the fact that you’re texting another woman during our engagement party?”

  Clarke grinned as he pulled on his suit jacket. “Spectacular. My playboy reputation could use a bit of a boost anyway. Shall we?” he asked, extending his arm to her.

  She smiled and slid her hand into the crook of his elbow, though her smile slipped a little as they headed toward the elevator, wondering why Clarke seemed so eager to play the part of villain.

  Chapter Six

  SATURDAY, JANUARY 18

  Well, well, well, she’s done it again. As if she didn’t attempt to steal the late Brayden Hayes out from under his wife, it turns out our little home wrecker has been up to her old tricks…

  —@ScandalBoyNYC

  Clarke was at the bar ordering himself a martini when his mother finally cornered him.

  “Enjoying yourself?” Linda asked mildly. She held out her glass for the bartender to refill her chardonnay, not caring, or noticing, that she’d just cut in front of five people. Clarke knew that as the hostess of the party, it was her prerogative. Just as he also knew his mother would have cut in line regardless of whose party it was.

  It never occurred to her that the Honorable Judge West would be treated with anything but deference to the point of worship. Though, in reality, most people fell in line. As a boy, his childhood friends had never spoken above a whisper in her presence. Even his teachers had spoken in almost hushed tones when they’d called his mother into the office for yet another we have some concerns about Clarke’s behavior in the classroom talk. It hadn’t gotten better as he’d gotten older. Girlfriends, colleagues, even his own father—especially his own father—acted as though Linda West’s word was law, her agenda manifest destiny.

  Everyone, except for Clarke himself.

  Well, and Audrey. Even as a four-foot little girl with an ever-present bow in her hair, it had never seemed to occur to Audrey that his terrifying mother should be treated differently than her friends, her own mother, or her imaginary friends. It was one of the things he’d always liked best about Audrey. She simply saw people as people.

  “Enjoying myself immensely,” Clarke answered his mother as the two of them stepped to the side of the bar.

  “Audrey seems to be in her element,” Linda said, taking a sip of her wine.

  Knowing that any mention of Audrey usually came with a side order of insult, Clarke scanned the room for his “fiancée.”

  Even if she hadn’t been the only woman in the room wearing white, he’d have seen her right away. Not just because he always seemed to have a sixth sense for his best friend’s presence, but because now, as always, everyone and everything seemed to revolve around her. Audrey had always been the very opposite of a wallflower, the center of attention, often in the literal center of every room. She didn’t set out to have all eyes on her; all eyes just seemed to find her.

  He smiled as the sound of her happy laugh reached him fifteen feet away, even with the conversation of fifty-something people buzzing around them.

  “How nice that her parents could fly out for the celebration,” Linda said.

  Clarke didn’t know where Audrey’s father had disappeared to, but Audrey’s mom was right by her side, an older version of her daughter, with the same bright smile and friendly presence.

  Quick to laugh and easy to like, Kathleen Tate was the exact opposite of Clarke’s own mother. Growing up, it had often been Kathleen that Clarke had turned to when he’d had a problem at school, with a girl, or with his parents. Something, Clarke was sure, Linda had taken notice of. In fact, he was willing to bet it was one of the many reasons why Linda seemed to dislike the Tates.

  The other, of course, being that they were “party people who’d inherited their wealth and thus hadn’t known a hard day’s work in their life.”

  “Doesn’t Audrey have a sister?” Linda mused.

  “Adele,” Clarke said, even though he knew full well that his mother knew everything there was to know about the Tates. “She just had twins a month ago and couldn’t fly out.”

  “Kathleen and Richard must be thrilled to have grandchildren. I understand that since neither of them work, they’re able to care for the babies so that Audrey’s sister could return to her law firm. I admire a woman who prioritizes a stable career and rearing children.”

  Clarke rolled his eyes. No way was he going to touch that conversational dynamite. It was almost impressive, the way his mother managed to load multiple land mines into a couple sentences. Where are
my grandchildren? Not that I’d be able to play nanny, since your father and I have real work, unlike the Tates. Oh, and wouldn’t it be nice if Audrey had a real job instead of taking pictures all day?

  “Interesting,” Clarke said, taking a drink of his cocktail.

  “What?”

  “You weren’t entirely sure that Audrey had a sister, and yet you know said sister’s career choice?”

  “Lucky guess,” she said, refusing to rise to the bait.

  His mind now on the topic of attorneys, Clarke looked around for a different lawyer. The one who was half-responsible for his agreeing to this party in the first place. He hadn’t seen Elizabeth all night and wondered if his ex had had the good sense not to play into his mom’s manipulations by coming to his engagement party.

  Without realizing it, his gaze specifically scanned for navy, which had been Elizabeth’s go-to for everything from suits to casual wear to ball gowns.

  Sure enough, there she was, dressed in a knee-length navy dress and matching heels. Basic short heels, he noted, not a hint of lace or frills or bows like Audrey tended to prefer. He was strangely disappointed in Elizabeth for attending the party, until he realized the hypocrisy of that thought.

  He was the one who’d been so childishly annoyed by his mother’s attempts to push him toward Elizabeth that he’d called Linda’s bluff on this stupid party.

  And Audrey had been right. Playing pretend-engaged as a joke to halt some Instagram moron’s gossip chain was fun. Continuing the play to get back at one’s mother at thirty-one was straight-up pathetic.

  His mother must have read his thoughts, because she stepped slightly closer, lowering her voice to avoid eavesdroppers. “I was only trying to help.”

  Clarke didn’t pretend to misunderstand. “By trying to force me back together with a woman I haven’t seen or even talked to in years?”

  “Are you sure you and Elizabeth weren’t good together?” she asked, a thread of stubbornness in her voice.

  Had they been? Truth be told, Elizabeth Milsap had always been a bit of a blind spot for Clarke. Despite being his longest relationship to date, he wasn’t sure he’d ever really known the woman, and he definitely hadn’t known himself when he was with her. She was different from every other woman he’d dated, or slept with. Driven, serious, a little bit quiet. She’d held herself, and everyone around her, to high standards.

 
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