Authors: Molly O'Keefe
“If there is one contemporary romance novel you must read in 2013, this is it … this book,this book … I could go on and on … but I will just end with this: not only was the plot beautiful but the writing was as well.”—Love’s a State of Mind
“One of my favorite things about [O’Keefe’s] books is the way they refuse to shy away from messy, complicated characters and relationships.Wild Childis no different in that regard … It is a testament to O’Keefe’s skill as a writer and a storyteller that she imbues Jackson and Monica’s stories (as a fledgling couple and as individuals) with a tremendous amount of emotional depth and sensitivity … O’Keefe can bring characters … into vivid and compelling life as they stumble, sometimes joyously, often painfully, always passionately, toward love and mutual happiness.”—Dear Author
“I fell in love with this book from the very beginning … It has the right amount of romance … And the sex scenes were hot, too.”—Night Owl Reviews,4 stars
“As I have come to expect from Molly O’Keefe,Wild Childis a deliciously steamy romance that has plenty of substance … Another fabulous book by a very gifted author that I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys contemporary romances.”—Book Reviews and More by Kathy
“Molly O’Keefe is one of my favorite writers. You can count on her to create characters that will test you and take your emotions for a spin, one moment loving them the next wanting to give them a good shake. Well, she didn’t let me down with this story … The writing is spectacular and meaningful, the story has depth and the characters areextremelyinteresting and true to their designed nature. I make no bones about O’Keefe being one of my favorite writers and, even though I was prepared for a good book, I was blown away by this one.”—The Book Nympho
“Super hot scenes, funny moments and some of the most romantic gestures I have ever read.… Happy reading!”—The Reading Café
“It’s no secret that Molly O’Keefe’s novels are my favorites in the very crowded contemporary romance genre. Her books … are brilliantly subversive. All of the novels I’ve read by this author riff on romance archetypes and conventions in a deliciously satisfying manner … When it comes down to it, if you’re looking for an authentically complex romance narrative … readWild Child.”—Clear Eyes Full ShelvesCrooked Creek NovelsCrazy Thing Called Love
“There is no stopping the roller coaster of emotion, sexual tension and belly laughs. O’Keefe excels in creating flawed characters who readers will root for on every page. Despite very serious subjects and tear-worthy emotion, the tone of the novel is a perfect balance of fun and heart.”—RT Book Reviews, 4½ stars
“O’Keefe’s newest romance hits the high notes with a storyline that tugs on the heartstrings, maintains a sizzling degree of sexual tension, and plays on realistic, authentic conflicts that keep the audience emotionally invested from start to finish. Gripping storytelling and convincing character-building allow the story to unfold in the present and in the past, offering windows into the psyches of a damaged hero and his restyled first love. An intense, heartwarming winner.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Crazy Thing Called Lovehas become my all-time favorite contemporary romance!… Don’t miss out on O’Keefe’s Crooked Creek series! These are the books you will still be talking about in twenty years!”—Joyfully Reviewed
“There is nothing lacking in Molly O’Keefe’sCrazy Thing Called Love. I am glad to say that it has every possible thing a woman could want in a good romance story. The Crooked Creek series is something that you will definitely want to get your hands on.”—Guilty Pleasures Book Reviews
“Wonderful story … unlike anything I have read before … Highly addicting.”—Single Titles
“This was an absolute joy to read … Definitely a book worth picking up.”—Cocktails and Books
“O’Keefe keeps the momentum of the present story going at a breathtaking pace with well placed visits back to the past, providing insight into these characters.”—Fresh FictionCan’t Buy Me Love
“Readers should clear their schedules before they pick up O’Keefe’s latest—a fast-paced, funny and touching book that is ‘unputdownable.’ Her story is a rollercoaster ride of tragedy and comedy that is matched in power by believable and sympathetic characters who leap off the pages. Best of all, this is just the beginning of a new series.”—RT Book Reviews
“From the beginning we see Tara’s stainless steel loyalty and her capacity for caring, as well as Luc’s overweening sense of responsibility and punishing self-discipline … Watching them fall for each other is excruciatingly enjoyable … Can’t Buy Me Loveis the rare kind of book that both challenges the genre’s limits and reaffirms its most fundamental appeal.”—Dear Author
“Can’t Buy Me Loveis an unexpectedly rich family-centered love story, with mature and sexy characters and interweaving subplots that keep you turning the pages as fast as you can read. I really enjoyed it. It’s also got some of the most smooth and compelling sequel bait I’ve ever swallowed.”—Read React Review
“If you love strong characters, bad guys trying to make good things go sour, and a steamy romance that keeps you guessing about just how two people are going to overcome their own angsts to come together where they belong, then I highly recommendCan’t Buy Me Loveby Molly O’Keefe. You won’t be disappointed.”—Unwrapping Romance
“A stunning contemporary romance … One of the most memorable books I’ve read in a long time.”—DEIRDREMARTIN,New York Timesbestselling author
“Molly O’Keefe is a unique, not-to-be-missed voice in romantic fiction … An automatic must-read!”—SUSANANDERSEN,New York Timesbestselling authorCan’t Hurry Love
“Using humor and heartrending emotion, O’Keefe writes characters who leap off the page. Their flaws and foibles make for an emotional story filled with tension, redemption and laughter. While this novel is not a direct continuation of the first in the series, it makes the reading richer and more interesting to devour the books in order. Readers should keep their eyes peeled for the third book and make room on their keeper shelves for this sparkling fresh series.”—RT Book Reviews
“Have you ever read a book that seeped into your soul while you read it, leaving you feeling both destroyed and elated when you finished?Can’t Hurry Lovewas that book for me.”—Reader, I Created Him
“Can’t Hurry Loveis special. It’s that book that ten years from now you will still be recommending to everyone because it is undeniably great!”—Joyfully Reviewed
“An emotion-packed read,Can’t Hurry Love … is a witty, passionate contemporary romance that will capture your interest from the very beginning.”—Romance Junkies
* D P G R O U P . O R G *
Indecent Proposalis a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Bantam Books Mass Market Original
Copyright © 2014 by Molly Fader
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
BANTAMBOOKSand the HOUSEcolophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
ISBN 978-0-345-54905-1eBook ISBN 978-0-345-54906-8
Cover design: Lynn AndreozziCover photograph: Josep MaSuria/ImageBrief
ContentsCoverTitle PageCopyrightChapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10Chapter 11Chapter 12Chapter 13Chapter 14Chapter 15Chapter 16Chapter 17Chapter 18Chapter 19
July 16, 2013
“Ken Doll is back.”
Ryan Kaminski didn’t have to look to see who Lindsey was talking about.
Ken Doll had been Lindsey’s obsession for the last three nights.
“Yeah? What’s he doing?”Talking on his phone? Texting? Ignoring the rest of the world?She did not understand why people came to a bar to stare at their phones and ignore people. If they didn’t want to talk to people, they should just hide out in their apartments like she did. Ryan scooped ice into the martini shaker and then poured in vermouth, followed by high-end vodka that cost about a week’s worth of tips, and slid on the top before giving it all a good shake.
“Ken Doll looks sad,” Lindsey added.
Thatmade Ryan look over her shoulder at the handsome blond man at the far corner of the bar. For three nights he’d been coming in, working on two different phones. Making calls. Sending texts—never looking up. Never acknowledging that he was actually in a room full of people.
He ordered beer—Corona in a bottle. Tipped double the bill and usually left every night without saying anything more than “Corona” and “thank you.”
Ken Doll would be totally unremarkable—there were plenty of men at The Cobalt Bar spending more time ontheir phones than actually talking to people, and wearing beautiful tailor-made suits that clung just right to their bodies while they did it.
But they were not nearly as interesting as Ken Doll.
Because Ken Doll was just so damn pretty.
His blond hair had a slight curl to it, just enough that you knew it probably made him crazy. Piercing blue eyes. Like they’d been computer enhanced, that’s how blue they were. In the soft, smooth plane of one cheek there was a dimple—she’d only seen it by accident when he smiled at a woman who asked to take the bar stool to his left the other day. But the real kicker—the show-stopper—was how he moved, efficient and graceful, like there was simply no time to waste, because he was A Man Who Got Things Done.
Watching him unbutton his jacket before sitting down was like watching a mission statement. A planted flag.
That’s what Ken Doll had that every other man in this bar was lacking.
But tonight he didn’t have his phones out. He sat there, hands pressed flat against the mahogany bar, as the raindrops caught in his blond hair gleamed red and blue under the moody lights. He was wearing a University of Georgia Bulldogs tee shirt under which his shoulders … oh, that slump, it told a very sad story indeed.
Ryan poured the martini into the chilled glass, took a twist off the fresh lemon behind the bar, and put the glass on a napkin before sliding the drink over to the woman who’d ordered it and collecting the twenty the woman had left on the bar.
These meaningless transactions made up her life. Over and over again.
“I want to ease Ken Doll’s pain.” Lindsey didn’t even pretend not to watch Ken Doll while pulling a draft for one of the guys working the couches. “Like. Really.”
Lindsey was well suited to that task. The bar’s uniform—the short leather shorts, the fishnets and tall boots—took on a whole new level of sexy with her. She was a twenty-one-year-old party girl from the Bronx who could take care of herself and anyone else who wanted to have a good time.
Next to her Ryan felt old, way older than thirty-two. She felt old and crotchety and like she was only days away from yelling at kids to get off her lawn. Not that she had a lawn.
Ryan should just get out of the way and let Lindsey take care of Ken Doll.
But she didn’t.
Once upon another lifetime she modeled, and she still did when she could get the work. When she couldn’t, she worked at an overpriced bar inside the very swanky Cobalt Hotel in midtown Manhattan.
She knew all kinds of pretty.
But there was something about pretty and sad that got her antenna up.
“Switch sides with me,” Lindsey said, referring to the neat-down-the-middle split between her side of the bar and Lindsey’s.
“Come on,” Lindsey pouted. “You hate the guys that come in here. He’s wasted on you.”
“This is true.” Ryan had a fervent dislike for the posing and the posturing, the manicured and manscaped version of masculinity that walked into this bar. She hated the ego and the way the men watched her body—admittedly on display—but when she caught their eyes, no one was home. Or they were constantly looking past her for someone else.
For something better.
“But he’s not like the other guys that come in here,” Ryan said.
This was so true; other people in the bar watched him out of the corner of their eyes, as if they knew he was different from the rest of them. Or he was familiar and they just couldn’t remember why.
She didn’t want to ease Ken Doll’s pain, at least not in the way that Lindsey did. But she’d been serving him for three nights and she was dying to know his story. “And he’s on my side. Sorry, Linds.”
She tossed a black bar towel toward a scowling Lindsey and sauntered over to Ken Doll’s corner. There was a weird energy rolling off him tonight, and the air in this small part of the bar was electric and still. Humid, from the water burning up from the heat of his body.
“The usual?” she asked, waiting for him to look up at her so she could smile.
He ran a hand through his blond hair, sending water droplets into the air.
“I’ll have scotch. Neat.”
Finally, he looked up at her, and the distracted but polite distance she was used to seeing in his sky-blue eyes was replaced by a sizzling, terrible grief. Or anger. She couldn’t be sure. Not that it mattered, really.
Because tonight, Ken Doll burned.
“Whatever,” he said, his voice low and broken. “Just bring me whatever.”
She poured him Lagavulin, and she barely had the tumbler on the bar in front of him before he grabbed it and shot it back. “Another,” he said.
Two more shots later, she brought him a glass of water and a menu.
“Thank you,” he said, glancing at her through impossibly long eyelashes. But he pushed the menu away.
“My name is Ryan,” she said. “Apparently I’ll be the woman getting you drunk tonight.”
His laughter was dry, like wind through November trees, but he didn’t say anything.
“And your name?” she asked. “That’s usually how it works, in case you’re unfamiliar. I tell you my name, you tell me yours.”
“Harri-… Harry. You can call me Harry.” His voice was laced with traces of the South, pecans and sweet tea.
She held out her hand, and after a moment he shook it. “Nice to meet you, Harry,” she said.
There were no calluses on that hand, which wasn’t all that surprising in the land of his-and-hers manicures. But every time she shook a man’s hand she thought of her dad’s big palms, the blisters and cuts, the thick calluses—a working man’s hands.
Harry’s palms were smooth and supple, but his grip was sure and strong and he didn’t do anything skeevy—so points for him.
“You too, Ryan.”
“Everything okay?” she asked.
He blew out a long breath, laughing a little at the end, as if he just couldn’t believe how everything around him had turned to shit. “Have you ever done everything in your power and not have it be good enough? And not just a little bit, but have everything you are capable of be not even close to enough?”
“No idea,” she joked, deadpan. “Ever since I was a girl I dreamt of making overpriced martinis for men who only stare at my chest.”
It took him a second, the weighty stare of his checking to see if she was being serious or not, but finally he laughed. A wearyhumphthat made her feel just a little victorious.
“Well, it’s a first for me.”
“It’s no fun, is it?”
He shook his head, the muscles of his shoulders flexing under his shirt like he was about to twitch out of hisskin. Empathy, something she very rarely felt at work, swarmed her.
“I’m …” he trailed off, his hands on the bar curled into fists.
“Angry?” she supplied, watching his knuckles grow white.
He nodded slowly. “And sad. Mostly … sad.”
Inside, deep inside, a penny dropped and the complicated mechanism of her desire—of her elusive and rarely seenwant—was engaged.
Well, shit, she thought.Maybe I will be easing his pain after all.
Later, she brought him the chicken and waffles, because while he’d slowed down on the Lagavulin, he hadn’t stopped.
“I didn’t order this,” he said, looking down at their signature dish, guaranteed to soak up the alcohol in his stomach while making him thirsty enough for more.
“Comes with the scotch.”
“Speaking of which.” He held up his tumbler. At least he’d switched to scotch and water.
“Can I trust that your fancy New York City chef knows what he’s doing with chicken and waffles?” Harry asked, not quite smiling, but not quite looking like the world was going to crush him.
“Well, our chef is from Mobile, so she might know her way around.” She set the refilled tumbler back down in front of him. “It’s raining out?”
“Yeah … I stepped out to get some air and it’s cats and dogs out there.”
Cats and dogs?she thought, swallowing her smile.That’s just adorable.
Rain could go either way for business, and Lord knew she needed the money of a good night, but she was content at this quiet end of her bar.
“This is kind of you,” he said, contemplating the food.
“Well, you seem like a nice guy.”
“I’ve barely said two words to you.”
“Well, I have a sixth sense about these things, and those two words were serious and well-meaning.”
“Serious and well-meaning is exactly me.” He cocked his head, watching her from beneath long lashes. “Or a pet dog; I can’t be sure.”
She laughed, happy to see that he was getting into the spirit of the banter. “I have never had a well-meaning dog in my life. Thieves and layabouts, all of them.”
“I had one. As a kid. Daisey. She meant well.”
Oh God, he was walking down old-dead-dog memory lane.
“You are just all kinds of sad tonight, aren’t you?”
He spun his glass in a slow circle. “I guess so.”
“You know,” she said, “where I grew up there was this bar called The Sunset right down the street. A real dive bar. Guys went in after their shifts on Friday and didn’t come out until Sunday afternoon. Well, they got this new daytime bartender. A real soft touch. She fell for every hard-luck story that sat down in the corner. And then word got out that Ben Polecka came in there crying after his wife left and the bartender gave him free beers all afternoon. Soon, everyone was going in there pretending to cry to get free beer. And my sister, always a bit of an entrepreneur, decides she and I should go stand outside the bar and charge guys five dollars to kick them in the balls. You know, as a kind of guarantee of real tears.”
He laughed, which of course had been the idea, but it still came as a bit of a surprise.
“How much money did you make?”
“Five bucks,” she shrugged. “We were out there for like three hours, and finally Bruce Dinkle took pity on us.”
“That was his real name?”
“And Bruce Dinkle paid you to kick him in the balls?”
“He did. We bought some ice cream, and it felt like we were on top of the world.”
His laughter faded and then the smile vanished, and then the weight of the world was rolled back up on his shoulders.
She leaned against the bar and crossed her arms over her chest, well aware that her breasts nearly spilled from the vest she wore, but Harry’s eye didn’t wander. They stayed glued to hers as if he didn’t even see the body beneath her chin. “Okay, you sad sack. Tell me. Who is your best not good enough for? A wife?”
He shook his head, and she would be lying if she didn’t say she was relieved.
“I’ve never had a boss.”
No boss? What planet is this guy from?
“Then who, my friend, is making you feel this way?”
“Why?” He smiled at her, looser than he’d been, but not yet totally unwound. The guy could hold his booze; she’d give him that. “You going to give them a talking-to?”
“I just might.”
“What would you say?”
“I would probably say, listen …” She paused, waiting for him to fill in the blank.
He shook his head, that blond hair gleaming red and then blue under the lights. “I’m afraid it’s … complicated.”
Gary, her manager, glanced over from across the room, and Ryan reached for some unprepped garnishes under the bar and made a good show of stripping mint leaves off the stem for mojitos. “Give me the gist. Youdon’t have to spill state secrets, but you might feel better getting some of this off your chest.”
“You an expert on that too?”
“I’m a bartender, Harry. I am an expert on lots of things.” She chucked the mint stem into the trash under the bar. “Lay your burdens down, my friend.”
“It’s my sister. She’s in trouble.”
“Ah, oddly enough, this is a subject in which I have plenty of experience.”
“You have a sister who gets in trouble?”
“Iamthe sister who gets in trouble.” Something buzzed up the back of her neck. A warning to shut her mouth and walk on, perhaps send Lindsey over. But she ignored it, despite having gotten so much better at heeding those internal warnings. She grabbed more mint just so she’d have something to do with her hands.
“So, is she in big trouble or little trouble? Like if one is dating a jerk and ten is living on the streets, where does she fall?”
“She isn’t even on that spectrum.” Something in his voice made her realize the jokes were soon to become offensive. That there was no part of this he was going to find funny. And funny was a huge part of her armor. And without her armor she was just vulnerable and sympathetic—two things that had gotten her in more than her fair share of trouble.
Leave, she thought.Switch sides with Lindsey. Forget about Sad Ken Doll.
But that was impossible. His anger and grief were magnetic.
She put down the mint.
“I’m so sorry, Harry,” she told him sincerely.
“It’s fine.” His smile revealed the dimple, and for a moment she was distracted enough not to realize he was lying. But she had been a bartender for over a decadeand she could smell a lie a mile away. And whatever the situation was with his sister, it was far from fine.
“That’s what you’ve been working on for the last few days. With the phones? Trying to help your sister?”
“I couldn’t stare at the walls of my room anymore. All day, every day, trying …”
He sighed, pushing away the plate with the half-eaten chicken on it. For a moment Ryan thought he was going to walk out; he was coiled, poised to just vanish.
And that would be for the best, she thought. For her. Maybe for him. Because the last thing he probably needed was a sister in trouble and a hangover in the morning. And the last thing she needed was this compassion—this empathy and curiosity, the rusted guts of her desire—making her decisions for her.
But then he relaxed back into his chair. Back into the moment with her.
She exhaled the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
“Not that it’s done much good. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to help her.”
There was an invisible barrier down the middle of the bar. This one and every other upscale bar in the five boroughs. The barrier was well documented not only in The Cobalt Bar employee handbook, but also in her own rule book: no fraternizing with the drinkers. A lesson she’d learned twice the hard way.
But she shoved her fist right through that barrier and put her hand over his. To her surprise, he grabbed her fingers and held them tight in his, like a lifeline he was terribly in need of.
“She’s … she’s my baby sister. And she hasn’t needed anything from me in so long and now … now that she does, now that she really needs me, I might not be able to help her. It’s killing me.”
Everything, the empathy and the desire and the shockof his touch, twisted and turned inside her, making her ache. Making her wish there wasn’t a bar between them, that she could wrap her arms around him properly.
She squeezed his hand instead. “Do you have any other family?” she asked. “Someone else who can help you?”
“I am heading home tomorrow morning to talk to them.” His tone indicated that this was a bad, bad thing.
“They won’t be able to help?”
“Help or hurt—it could go either way. Smart money is on hurt.”
She stood there, silently bearing witness to his grief. Letting him grip her hand so hard their knuckles rubbed up against each other’s.
“It’s so crazy, and my mother … Mother is not going to handle this well. She’s never approved of my sister, and this is going to put her right over the edge.” He shot her a wry look and then sighed. “The one bright spot is, I think I know a guy who can help.”
“That’s good,” she said.
“Well, there is a decent chance that he will laugh in my face and tell me to go fuck myself. And then …” He hung his head, wiping his hand across his face. “Oh God, then I have no idea what I’m going to do.”
Screw the barrier. Screw the rule book. Screw the rest of the bar. She lifted her hand from his grip and touched his cheek, the perfect bone structure of his jaw. The fine scruff of his beard felt good against her palm.
The man needed some sympathy. Some human connection. He’d been wrestling with what seemed like a nightmare for the last three days. And she … maybe she, who lived behind a solid glass wall of rules created by shitty past experience, could use a little human connection, too.
“He won’t,” she said. “You’ll convince him.”
He turned his face and whispered, “How do you know that?” into her hand.
The sensation of his breath between her fingers sizzled up her arm and across her chest, settling in her belly, where it smoldered and burned.
“Because I’m a little sister, too. And my big brother would tear down the world to help me. That’s what big brothers do.”
She smiled into his bloodshot blue eyes when he opened them.
The thick air crackled with the power of all the desperate grief and anger he was throwing off.
She felt the touch of his gaze across her face. Her lips and eyes, the cheekbones that had earned her quite a bit of money. Her hair pulled back in a high ponytail and falling over her shoulders like a luxurious cape.
What he saw wasn’t really her. It was a quirk of genetics, a lucky break in the womb. To have her mother’s nose and her father’s eyes. Her grandmother’s bone structure and her grandfather’s outrageous thick, shiny hair.
It was just what she looked like. The tools she used to make a living.
And it had taken her years of destroying nearly every relationship that ever meant anything to realize that.
“You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
She pulled her hands free of his. The moment of intense connection between them was fading to something slightly more manageable. Attraction and appeal. A rare camaraderie, but at least she wasn’t ready to crawl over the bar into his lap.
“That’s the scotch talking.”
“Give me some credit. It’s not just your looks, Ryan. You’re lovely.” For no good reason, that made her flustered,made her feel stupid for reaching across the barrier.
The rules were in place for a reason, after all.
“Ryan!” Lindsey said. “A little help?”
Ryan turned to see Lindsey inundated with gray-suited Wall Street types, so she gave Harry a quick smile and headed over to help her.
“Getting a little cozy, aren’t you?” Lindsey asked, her eyes twinkling. She was a good sport, Lindsey. As long as someone had the chance to get lucky, she was happy.
“He’s a nice guy.”
“They always are. But listen.” She jerked his chin across the bar where their manager, Gary, was talking to a few of the regulars in the corner. “Gary’s watching you, so just be careful. He fired Will last month for going home with that crazy bitch from Saks.”
As if he heard, Gary looked over. Gary was a nice enough guy, but the rules were pretty ironclad and he could lose his job for ignoring them.
The rush at the bar lasted a good hour and finally around ten p.m. slowed down to a trickle. Lindsey sent out another martini, a watermelon margarita, and three more Coronas and checked her watch. “It’s cutting time,” she said.
“You’ve been here since three,” Ryan said, because the first one in was usually the first one to go home unless they were working a double. She set dirty glassware under the bar in the gray bins and then handed them to Sam, who was heading back to the kitchen.
“Grab me some lemons, would you? And more mint and more thyme. Thanks.”
Sam, a notorious flirt, winked at her, taking the bins with him.
“Yeah, but I don’t have a hot guy at the end of the bar waiting for me,” Lindsey said.
Ryan looked over her shoulder to where Harry sat,looking at his phone, nursing a Corona, the chicken and waffles forgotten at his elbow.
“Ugh, denial is so boring,” Lindsey said, grabbing two more pint glasses and starting the intricate pour-and-wait system for Guinness. “Get into my back pocket.”
Ryan reached into the tight pocket of Lindsey’s shorts and pulled out two sticks of gum, a twenty-dollar bill, and a condom.
“Go,” Lindsey said. “Stock my garnishes and then take Sad Ken Doll someplace and cheer him up.”
It had been a long time since Ryan had gone home with a guy. Picking up at a bar was for other women, younger women. Women who hadn’t been burned quite as effectively as she had.
There was also the small matter of losing her job if management found out.
But as with every job, there were ways of getting around management, if a woman wanted to bad enough.
She glanced back at Harry and caught him staring at her.
His eyes flared and the bar fell away again, the whole world disappeared. He had some kind of magical power when he really looked at her, a way of making her feel like the only woman on the planet. And hundreds of lesser men had tried and never, ever come close to doing that. Of engaging the old and rusted machine of her desire.
This man did it with one look.
A sudden breathlessness seized her, and the fifteen minutes she had left on her shift was too much. The time it would take her to get up to his room was too much. The fact that he—serious and well-meaning—might not take her up on what she was going to offer was a reality she had no interest in.
She wanted him—his scruffy face, the burning angerin his eyes, the beautiful symmetry of his body, the delicious humanity of his grief.
Without a second thought, she slipped the condom in her own pocket.
“Thanks, Linds,” she said.
“No problem.” She wiggled her butt while Ryan tucked the twenty back in her pocket.
An asshole at the bar whistled.
“Oh, you wish, buddy,” Lindsey said.
“Hey,” the guy said, leaning across the bar toward Ryan. “You look really familiar to me.”
“Because you were in here last week.”
“No … My friend,” he jerked his thumb over his shoulder, vaguely referencing one of the other guys in suits with manicured hands behind him. “He says you were the Lips Girl like fifteen years ago. Is that true? Can you do the thing? The slogan—”
“Your friend is wrong,” she lied, and dismissed the guy by turning her back on him. There were bigger things on her horizon than trying to put a shine on ancient history.
Ryan walked over to Harry and picked up his plate of half-eaten dinner.
“No wife?” she asked. “No girlfriend? No woman waiting at home for you? Don’t bother lying—I’ll be able to tell.”
He shook his head.
“Are you gay?”
That made him smile, and again she felt that little spike of pleasure. Of a job well done. “I’m not gay, and no one is waiting for me, Ryan.”
“Are you staying at the hotel?” she asked.
His burning blue eyes met hers, and there was no confusion; he knew what she was asking.
“I’m getting off in about fifteen minutes.”
Harry stood, a new urgency in his movement. He tossed several bills on the bar, but she pushed them back at him.
“It’s on me,” she said. “The Sister in Trouble special.”
By the shocked and blank look on his face it was obvious no one ever joked with him, and she wondered if he had any friends. Why would a man like him in what seemed to be the worst three days of his life show up alone at her bar?
But when he did laugh, it was a good one. Full-throated and deep, the kind of laugh that made other people smile. But not Manager Gary, who walked by giving Ryan a serious warning glare.
She took Harry’s plate and stepped away.
“Room 534,” he said.
She nodded once, the number tucked away.
“Ryan?” he said.
It wasn’t a hard thing to get up to the guest rooms from the bar. You had to go through the lobby and upstairs to get to the bathrooms anyway. She had changed out of her work clothes in the bathroom, the tight leather vest and dark shorts, and put on a camisole tank top and a gray jersey skirt. The boots stayed—overkill maybe, but they were too big to fit in her bag.
On her back, the top of her tattoo was visible just over the edge of her tank top. Ophelia’s hands and the blue-green vines that bound them.
Her stomach fluttered with nerves, and her palms were damp. It had been … a very long time since she’d done this. There had been that two-year round-robin of questionable choices after her divorce six years ago. After which all the rules about guys from bars were formed and up to this point, easily unbroken.
But she found as she got into the quiet solace of the elevator, where she expected to be swarmed with second thoughts and serious misgivings, that she was only more excited. So much so that beneath the camisole her nipples were hard and her breath was short. Between her legs anticipation made her ache.
The door pinged open and she stepped into the opulent hallway that made up The Cobalt Hotel. Room 534 was just left of the elevators and down the hallway a few steps. Outside the door she took a deep breath and then knocked lightly.
The door swung open almost hilariously fast andHarry stood there, backlit by the soft glow of the lamp in the room.
He’d showered. Shaved. He smelled woodsy and clean and rich. Masculine.
Her nipples really liked that and she was sure if he looked past her eyes, he’d see. But he was polite, very polite for a man who was going to fuck a bartender he’d just met, and he didn’t break eye contact.
He wore jeans and a white tee shirt. His feet were bare.
His second toe was longer than the first. A little imperfection on all that perfection only made him more interesting.
“Come on in,” he said quietly, shifting aside.
She stepped into the guest room, and the sound of the door clicking shut behind her was the sound of no return.
Here we go, she thought.
“Can I get you a drink?” he asked. “I nearly decimated the minibar before coming downstairs. But I think there’s a bottle of white wine left in there.”
“Am I taking advantage of a drunk man?” she asked, setting her bag down on the low dresser as she walked into the room.
“No.” His voice was low. Serious.
Oh, her nipples were just approving everything this guy did.
She stepped farther into the room. A king-size bed.
“No thanks on the drink.”
“What would you like?” he asked. She could feel him behind her. Close, but not too close, giving her room should she need it. Room to get comfortable. Room to change her mind.
“Hmmmm?” She laughed and turned to face him.There were high spots of color on his face. But those eyes, they were locked on hers, unmoving. Hot.
A test of sorts, she lifted her hands to her collarbones, pushing the heavy fall of her ponytail off her shoulder. With one finger she traced the demure lace edge of her black tank top. His eyes drifted from hers and followed the movement, but only for a second before his eyes met hers again.
The air in the room—filled with lust and danger—was hard to breathe.
I don’t know you, she thought. She was alone in a hotel room with a man she’d just met, which was risky, but everything she did know convinced her that she was safe.
Secure and menaced, both at the same time. It was heady.
“You don’t have to be so polite,” she breathed, her finger finding the upward curve of her breast and tracing that, too.
“I’m a Southern gentleman, Ryan. I’m afraid that’s how we’re raised.”
“I was born in northeast Philly.” The implication that she was raised without manners wasn’t true, but it certainly served her purpose right now. Hungry for him, her finger glided closer to the hard, aching edge of her nipple. She dropped her gaze from the magnetic appeal of his, and she looked shamelessly at his body. The way his chest filled out that tee shirt. The bulge of his erection beneath the button fly of his jeans.
“And the men from northeast Philly, what are they like?”
“Rough.” She thought of Paul. “They have a certain ‘take what they want’ quality.”
“Is that …” He tilted his head, as if sniffing her on the wind. And she felt suddenly … deliciously … at risk. “Is that what you like?”
“As a rule, no.” She likedhim. The way he’d been downstairs—split open and vulnerable. Human. Real.
His smile was sharp and fast, a flash of something predatory. “But tonight? From me?”
“I want you however you are,” she said.
He flushed, and she got dizzy in the quiet before he charged across the room, pulling her up on her toes, against his chest. His mouth, those perfect lips, hovered just over hers.
“Who the hell are you?” His minty breath, with the tang of the alcohol he’d been drinking under it, swept over her lips.
His fingers swept along her hairline, reaching back through her thick hair to cup her skull in his hands. “Thank you, Ryan Kaminski,” he murmured. “For being here.”
Oh God, she nearly melted right there. Right into him. With one hand cupped around her head, he took the other and placed it at her neck and then slowly, so slowly, dragged it down her chest, his fingertips brushing hard over a nipple.
Her knees buckled as her body, long asleep, awoke with a gasp. A raging fire. A sudden painful need.
His knee slipped between hers, the hard muscle of his thigh right between her legs. Right. Between.
She gasped at the pleasurable pain of it. His eyes were still on hers, but his gaze was no longer polite. It was demanding and hard, and she quaked beneath it. His hand slid downward over her stomach, setting all of the muscles there trembling over the rolled top of her skirt. He shifted his hand, his fingers pointing down, and stopped just before reaching the ache between her legs.
She rocked into his leg, biting her lip.
“That’s still pretty polite,” she whispered.
He smiled down at her and then pushed his leg up higher and harder against her.
“How about that?”
Without warning he spun her slightly, so her back was against his chest and she felt the length of him against her ass. She pushed back against him and he groaned, surging up against her.
“You were very … kind to me tonight,” he breathed into her ear. She closed her eyes against the electric pulses his voice and breath sent down her neck and over her body.
“You planning on returning the favor?” She looped her arm around his neck, pulling him down slightly while she rubbed herself against him. A cat in heat. Whatever. It had been a long time.
“I am,” he said. His hands cupped her breasts. Not so polite anymore, there was demand in his touch, and she bit her lip. She felt the edge of her tank top get pulled down by one of those long, elegant fingers until her breast was revealed.
And then the other one.
She reached for the hem of her shirt, to just be done with it, be done with every bit of cloth between them, but he stopped her.
“Like that,” he breathed, again against her neck. “Look.”
He grabbed her chin, not hard … but not lightly either, and turned her head until she saw them in the mirror.
“Oh my God,” she breathed. The two of them together, they were gorgeous. Like incredibly hot. Her arm around his neck lifted her breasts like she was offering them and his wide, lovely body was curved and curled against her. His hair gleamed gold in the lamplight, hers the color of mink.
“You are really the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” He slipped the hand that wasn’t holding her chin down the front of her body, over those breasts, her stomach, and down between her legs, cupping her pussy in his palm, pushing her skirt between her legs.
“You watching?” He kissed her neck, his fingers moving out of the way. His thumb brushed her lips and she sucked it into her mouth.
His eyes, burning blue fire, met hers in the mirror and he groaned, pushing his erection against her, his legs flexing under the denim, and she reached with her other hand behind her ass to touch him through his jeans.
Those manners he’d been talking about, that Southern boyhood that required him to make polite eye contact even while a woman was fondling herself in front of him, were swept aside by the dark hand of lust.
He shifted them until they faced the mirror.
“Lift your skirt,” he breathed.
“You do it.” She squeezed his erection. “I’m busy.”
His laughter was part growl, and instead of lifting the skirt he pulled it down, over her waist and hips, until she stood in front of him in a thin black cotton g-string and a tank top.
And the boots.
She tried to watch as long as she could, the way he soaked in the sight of her, how his hand looked between her legs, pushing aside that cotton and finding the heat and wet of her. The small muscles in his forearms flexing and shifting as his fingers found the hard stone of her clitoris and made friends. Slowly at first, with soft touches, light but growing heavier. Faster.
Her eyelids fluttered shut and she groaned.
Some switch got flipped in him and he pushed her backwards to the bed until she felt the mattress hit the back of her legs.
“What—?” Without the fire of him behind her, she was cold.
“I’m sorry.” He tossed her on the bed and she was suddenly very aware of how big he was, how if he chose to exert his strength she wouldn’t have a chance.
“Sorry?” Panic rippled through her.
But then he fell to his knees on the floor between her splayed legs. “I’ve got to taste you, Ryan.”
He used his thumb to pull aside the cotton and she stared blindly at him, waiting for the damp heat of his mouth. And when it came, when it happened, there was nothing delicate, nothing careful—it was fierce and messy, his whole mouth devouring her, his hand spread wide over her tummy, holding her still as she nearly jackknifed off the bed—electrocuted by his tongue and lips. His fingers spearing inside of her.
She came and she came. Rolling waves picking her up and tossing her around like a rag doll.
His mouth gentled. He gave her a soft kiss, a slow lap, another. And she twitched under his attention. Shook as his breath ran hot over her fevered flesh. Finally, he sat back, his hands cupping her knees. His thumbs stroking the skin there, making her toes curl in her boots.
After a moment she sat up, light-headed. Feeling a little silly but very grateful. There were many beautiful things about a man’s mouth that she could not recreate by herself.
And this man’s mouth was particularly beautiful.
In the low lamplight, his chin was shiny, his eyes bright.
He looked pleased and dirty and totally delicious.
Quickly she contemplated what kind of luck pushed Harry into her bar.
She laced her fingers through his and tugged. “Come up here.”
With that economic grace of his he surged up onto the bed, covering her piece by piece. Knees, thighs, belly. He stopped for a second, braced against her, and pulled off his shirt, kindly giving her skin to touch. And such fine, lovely skin it was, stretched over lean muscles, covered with hair as blond as what was on his head. She ran her fingers down his chest, across his nipples. He flinched slightly.
His thumb traced the curve of her lower lip. “I haven’t kissed you.”
“That’s not entirely true,” she laughed. Her clitoris still buzzed from his kisses. “I haven’t kissedyou,” she said.
“Should we fix that?”
Leaning forward, she kissed his chest. The bit of bone at his sternum. He kissed her shoulder, a surprising quick, hard peck, and she laughed before kissing the tender skin near his armpit, which made him jump.
He kissed the soft hollow at her throat, where the skin dipped between her collarbones.
Humming slightly, she lifted his hand and kissed the wide center of his palm.
Laughter, deep and dark, rumbled out of his chest, and he slipped his hand over her face and then up over her hair. Carefully he pulled out the dark ponytail holder and her hair spilled down over her back, across the white blankets of the bed.
The sight of her hair seemed to end some game for him and he shifted them so she was lying flat on her back in the bed and he came down over her, with his skin and his serious eyes and his gravitas, and she felt herself slip a little bit in love.
Just a little. It was something she did—fall in love. Quickly, easily, like a rib popped out of place by one wrong twist. Of course it wasn’t real love. It was infatuation, lust. Camaraderie. A certain affection. Respect. All in all a potent mix.
Part of why she needed those rules, that hard glass wall of bad past experiences. Because she was always so ready to be in love. Always, despite pretending otherwise, wanting this feeling. This heady mix of the best of herself being called out by a man.
Which would be concerning if she knew his last name. Or who he was.
But they were just tonight. That was all.
And so a little infatuation was safe.
When he kissed her it was deep and thorough. Not so much a kiss as it was a possession. A slow and consuming takeover. He took his time, worked his way in slowly until it felt as if he’d always been there. Kissing her, the weight of him pressing her down into the superior mattress of The Cobalt Hotel.
His hand slid from her waist to her breast and she purred in her throat, slipping her own hand between them over the erection she felt behind his zipper.
The slow possession gained urgency. Gained need, and she fumbled with his zipper, growing frantic to touch him. To have him.
He reached down to help but only made things worse, and he laughed into her mouth before lying back, unzipping his pants, and pushing them down over his hips and legs. The hard length of his erection popped free and lay against his belly and it was as irresistible as the rest of him, and she slipped over him, lying on her stomach between his legs. He scooched up so she wouldn’t have to twist awkwardly to stay on the bed.
She cupped him in her palm, measured him with herfingers, looked at every inch of him before curling her hand around the solid girth of his dick and leaning forward to lick, very slowly, the head. The salt and sweet of him flooded her mouth and she moaned at the taste.
He gasped and twitched and she smiled her wickedest smile, feeling her wickedest feelings.
She could sense him watching her so she settled into her work, easing up on the bed until her breasts rested against his leg, the rough hair teasing her nipples.
Slowly, she jacked him in her fist, testing her grip until she heard him hiss.
Oh, he was too much, just too much, and she lifted herself up slightly so she could take him into her mouth. Swallowing him deeper until she felt him against the back of her throat and his hands clutched into the thick fall of her hair.
Yes, she thought,yes. Just like that.
She hummed, hoping he would understand that she liked that.
He pulled her hair away from her face, holding it back with one rough hand.
“So good,” he breathed. “You look so good.”
Between her mouth and her hand she worked him harder. Faster. Lips, tongue. Both hands. Squeezing. Licking. Until he was pushing up into her mouth when she pushed down and she wasn’t sure if maybe she was hurting him, or he was hurting her, but she couldn’t stand it anymore.
He came out of her mouth with an audible pop and she got up on her knees beside him, staring down at the lovely flushed and sweaty delight of him.
“I want to fuck you.”
He shook his head, his eyes wild, as if words were just totally beyond his ability to understand.
“Why not?” she asked. There simply wasn’t any way this hookup was going to end like this. She was dying for him. Dying for the sensation of him sliding deep inside of her.
“I don’t have any condoms,” he said with a slight wince.
“Oh, you southern boys haven’t gotten the memo—we northern women can take care of things.” She got up off the bed, pulling off her damp and messy G-string, the tank top.
But leaving the boots.
From her purse she pulled out Lindsey’s night-making condom before turning toward him, the condom between her fingers.
He smiled, then propped up on his elbows, his legs still spread, his ruddy cock lying against his abdomen.
“I like you northern girls.”
Feeling like some kind of swashbuckling female pirate, she leapt on the bed and straddled him while ripping open the wrapper with her teeth.
“Really?” she asked, holding the tip of the condom with one hand while sliding the rest of it over him. “You want to talk about my ink, now?”
Mesmerized, he stared like he’d never seen someone roll a condom on with such panache. Willing to give him more of a show, she hiked herself up his body, holding his cock still while she slowly, with breath-stealing, excruciating deliberateness, eased herself down him.
Despite her eagerness, despite the wetness he had inspired between her legs, there was still the small pinch and sting of taking this man inside of her. The strange reality that no matter what, sex was a matter of submission for her. Of accepting what on some level seemed unacceptable.
She was not and had never been very good at compliance.
“Oh … God, Ryan.”
“Sublime. Fucking … perfect. You are perfect.”
Let’s not go overboard, she thought. But once he was inside all the way and she was seated hard in the cradle of his hips, she shook her hair out of the way and raised herself up over him, holding onto the headboard, nearly wild with a surge of power and sex and something old and womanly, and began to ride him.
Most men didn’t know how to be on the bottom. They either held themselves still, letting her do it all, or they grabbed her hips, keeping her still while jackhammering into her from underneath
But not Harry. No, Harry understood. Making this work for both of them meant meeting her downward slide with his upward push. When she jerked forward against him, he pushed back until she felt the pressure of his body against her clit. He held her breasts, hard, his fingers careful but insistent vises against her flesh.
“Look at you,” he breathed. “Fuck, look at you.”
She was too busy looking at him, watching his face turn from pleasure-stoned to demanding. To animal. The pressure built from her clit and from deep inside where she was clenched so hard around him.
He reached up to hold her shoulder, pushing her against him, adding force to the incendiary grind they’d worked up. And it worked; pleasure spiked and she fell back slightly, holding herself up against his leg.
But then, predictably, she hit a wall—her pleasure built but went no higher. No matter what she did, it leveled off into a plateau.
She jerked and circled her hips, trying to wring every bit of pleasure from their bodies. But it didn’t work. Between her legs she was growing numb.
The frustration moaned out of her.
“You need more?”
Stunned that he seemed to know, her eyes flew open, but he did know. Of course he did.
Words were about five minutes behind her and all she could really do was nod and twitch and want to come so bad she could taste it.
She dropped herself onto him, prepared for him to heave up and over her and end this, but he kept her there, one hand on her hip and the other slipping between her legs. His fingers found her clit and he pressed his thumb hard against her and she felt sparks drift outward from her skin, as if she were a torch held up against the night sky.
“Make yourself come,” he breathed. “I want to see it.”
With his thumb against her she smashed through the plateau; pleasure was a force living inside of her, ready to break through her bones and muscles and skin, ready to take her over and she couldn’t stop it, didn’t want to. She sobbed, sweat running down her back as she shook over him, no coordination left in her body. Nothing left in her body but this one stubborn strand keeping her on earth.
He surged up, wrapping one arm around her waist, and she felt his palm against her back, imagined it against Ophelia’s body. Ducking his head, he caught her nipple in his mouth and sucked hard and the points of contact—the nipple, clit, tattoo—severed the strand and she was shattered. Simply shattered.
He held her while she shook, stroking her back, murmuring nonsensical things, her hair sticking to both of them, trapping them in a web. A cocoon.
I like it here, she thought, her face pressed to his chest. His deodorant smelled good.
He was still hard inside of her and there was no urgencyon his part to finish, at least it didn’t feel that way, and she nearly laughed.
Honest-to-God, whoisthis guy?
What were the chances that the best lover she’d ever had would stumble into her bar on a Tuesday night?
And be named Harry.
She leaned back, untangling her hair from around them so she could see him.
“Thank you,” she breathed.
His smile was drawn tight; the poor guy was barely holding on.
Such a gentleman, she thought, lifting herself off of him so she could lie down on her back across the king-size bed. His eyes burned their way across her body, leaving trails of cinder and ash from her breasts to her waist, down the long length of her legs.
Whatever remained of the polite southern gentleman in this man left town at the sight of those boots, because he growled and pounced. His body, hard and heavy, over hers, his cock, hard and hot, sliding right back inside of her. Deep. And then deeper. So deep she had to shift her head back to breathe.
His body slammed into hers, and she embraced the violence of it, the deeply erotic sound of flesh hitting flesh. The growling, grumbling roar in the back of his throat.
Yes. Yes, it should always be like this, she thought just before mindlessness slipped over her. Just before she was reduced to animal in his animal arms.
“Ryan,” he growled. “God. Come on. Fuck. Come—”
He roared through four more hard, heavy strokes, so bruising, so punishing, she fell apart again under their lovely brutality.
And he collapsed against her, boneless and sweet.
It took a few moments for her heartbeat not to thunderin her ears. For the world not to sparkle in the corner of her eyes.
“Wow,” he breathed.
She laughed, lifting boneless arms to wrap them around his neck.
After a long, delicious moment he shifted to the side to take care of the messy reality of the condom, and she began the slightly excruciating process of getting up and getting dressed and getting gone. But he stopped her with an arm around her waist, pulling her back into the muscular curve of his body.
“Stay,” he breathed, and she could sense him starting to drift away on sleep. So she turned around, facing him, running fingers through his pretty blond hair with the slight curl. She touched his cheek, tickling him until the dimple made an appearance and his eyelids fluttered open.
“Hi,” she breathed.
“Tell me another story,” he breathed, shifting against the sheets, burrowing into the bed. “About your entrepreneurial sister. And your brother who would tear down the world for you.”
“Why?” She laughed.
“It sounds nice.” He yawned so hard his jaw popped. “Sounds like a nice way to grow up.”
“It was,” she whispered. “How did you grow up?”
“In a bowl. Without air,” he whispered, but before she could ask him what he meant, he gave way to dreams.
Just a few more minutes, she thought, and closed her eyes to better enjoy the astronomical thread count and his strong arms and the rare illusion of care.
She woke to a room thick with shadow. Alone. The white duvet pulled up to her chin. Her boots were gone—he must have taken them off her sometime in the night, because she didn’t remember doing that. She stretched her toes in the soft, sleep-warm sheets.
Dawn, she thought, and listened for the sound of the shower, or of Harry quietly getting ready for the trip to find the man who would get his sister out of trouble. But then she realized the sunlight coming in under the blackout shades on the window was knife bright and she rolled over to see the clock on the bedside table.
Beyond the table, the closet was open and empty. The bathroom was dark. The sink counter empty of toiletries. Next to the TV were her bag and her clothes, folded and stacked.
Harry was gone.
The slice of pain was embarrassing and awful. And totally unexpected.
She sat up, clutching the sheet to her chest, trying to staunch the slow bleed of startling emotion.
It was a hookup at a bar. You can’t go falling in infatuation just because he was sad and provided expert cunnilingus.
Though the truth was she’d fallen in love for far worse reasons before.
But there was a flash of white paper on top of her clothing, and she flushed with a sort of seventh-grade thrill.
She managed not to leap out of bed like the woman in a rom-com movie, but she couldn’t stop the hard chug of her heart as she picked up the note, the dark scrawl of his handwriting not quite legible in the shadowy room.
She flicked on the light and sat down on the foot of the bed.
Ryan Kaminski. His handwriting was like the way he moved—no flourishes, but graceful in its economy.I watched you for a few moments before leaving, debating whether to wake you up. But in the end I decided to let you sleep, because you are simply lovely and while sleeping you are only more so. Also I was in no great hurry to start a conversation about why I cannot see you again, or call you. Why anything more than this amazing night between us would be an impossibility. I arranged a late checkout, and breakfast will be arriving around ten. I hope you can stay to enjoy it.
That had to be one of the most lovely kiss-off letters she’d ever seen. Really quite masterful.
Her stomach full of a weird kind of regret and morning-after melancholy, she made a quick call down to the front desk to cancel the breakfast. She would shower at home; the #7 train to Sunnyside would remove some of Harry’s fairy-tale dust that still lingered on her skin.
She dressed, and after a moment of painful consideration, folded the note and tucked it into her purse.
The door clicked shut behind her and she checked her phone as she walked down the hallway toward the elevators. Luckily, she still had some juice left.
A text Lindsey had sent last night bloomed on her screen.
So? Did you make Ken Doll happy?
I gave it my best shot, she texted back hours after Lindsey’s original note.
Atta girl, came the response fairly quickly. She imagined Lindsey in bed with her phone.
How was the rest of the night?
Gary asked some questions about you and Ken Doll. I threw him off the scent.
For some strange reason, that made her feel almost weepy. Talking to Harry last night about his sister when it had been years since she’d talked to her own.Years. She talked to her brother more often because he was pushy that way, but that she was closer to Lindsey, whom she’d known for only two months, than to her sisters, well, it hurt on this weird morning when she felt all raw and turned inside out.
The elevator doors opened and she turned left out of them, tucking her phone back into her bag, which was why she didn’t see the men’s bathroom door open and Gary come stepping out.
“Ryan?” His familiar voice made her stop in her tracks, her stomach slipping down into her boots.
“Gary.” He really was a nice guy and if the bar were unaffiliated, what had happened between her and Harry probably wouldn’t even get her hand slapped. But The Cobalt Hotel was a part of a conglomerate and there were rules about this stuff.
“What are you doing here this morning?” he asked, pretending to be casual, clearly trying to give her a chance to lie.
There was no point in pretending. That wasn’t quite her style.
She smiled and shrugged. “What do you think?”
“Christ, Ryan,” he said, stepping alongside of her and pulling her into motion, down the stairs toward the bar. “Couldn’t you have taken him to your place? Why the hell did you have to stay here?”
“Because I’m a sucker for the free shampoo in the rooms.” She had swiped it. She might be too proud for a free breakfast, but she wasn’t too proud for travel-size luxury toiletries.
He paused in front of The Cobalt Bar’s locked doors.
“Do you even know who he is?” Gary asked.
“You’re not my father, Gary.”
“No. I’m not asking do you know his name and sexual history. I’m asking do you knowwho he is?”
“He’s … someone?” She’d known that, of course. The gravitas. The way other people in the bar watched him from the corner of their eyes. She just chose to ignore it.
“Oh, Christ, doesn’t anyone read the newspaper anymore? I thought you were smarter than the rest of the idiots who work here. He’s Har—”
Some remnant of self-preservation made her hold up her hand. “Don’t tell me. Don’t. It’s over. It won’t happen again.”
“But you did it here. And now you told me about it.” He lifted his hands as if to show her how they were tied.Poor Gary. Stupid Ryan. “I have to fire you.”
“Don’t bother, Gary,” she said. “I quit.”
She patted his shoulder, because he was better than most, and headed out into the full summer reality of July in New York City. It was hot and close, though the smell of the garbage hadn’t taken over yet.
The sun had heft to it and it fell over her bare shoulders like a lover’s arm.
Instead of heading toward the subway, she turned east toward Central Park. A hike in heels that pinched her toes, but such was life.
In Ryan’s reality, everything had a price. No pleasure came without its sorrow. No joy without its despair. And perhaps losing her job on top of the vague despondence she felt over the letter in her bag was overkill, but karma was a bitch, and sometimes she took more than her due.
Still, she thought, dodging a couple holding hands on their way to work, the fact that she’d gladly pay the cost for another night with Harry might indicate she wasn’t quite done paying.
Wednesday, August 7
Harrison Montgomery’s hands couldn’t stop shaking.
In his tumbler of water the ice cubes bounced against the crystal.
It wasn’t the fault of the jet engines, or transatlantic turbulence. The ride, as ever, in the Montgomery family jet was smooth as silk.
The shaking was from him. From inside him. From his muscles. His brain. The damaged edges of his exhausted heart.
It’s done. It’s over. She is safe and we’re taking her home.
That mantra had no effect on the shaking. He put down the glass and balled his hands into fists, hoping that might help. Exhaustion made him nauseous, but every time he slipped into a doze, all he saw was his sister, beaten and bloody, filthy and unconscious, and his eyes popped open, his heartbeat pounding in his throat.
Ashley had been kidnapped by Somali pirates.
The thought—even though he’d been living with it for the last three weeks—was still surreal.
Who gets kidnapped by pirates?
The statistics of that particular question got skewed by the fact that Ashley had spent the last year as an aid worker in Kenya and a friend had convinced her to takea vacation to the Seychelles. They’d rented a boat for a day and the pirates had picked them up.
In the last three weeks he’d negotiated her release, gathered the ransom, and found Brody Baxter, a former bodyguard for the Montgomery family, who was the man who actually went into the tiny desert village that had been armed to the teeth to get Ashley. They then spent twenty-four excruciating hours in a Nairobi hospital making sure she was okay to fly, that there weren’t internal injuries or brain trauma.
Thank God there weren’t.
He’d scheduled a more thorough exam to be done by their family doctor once they got back to New York City and called ahead to their grandmother’s building, letting them know Ashley would be arriving and that she didn’t have any keys. Or ID. Or clothes.
In front of him was all the paperwork that would allow her to enter the country without a passport with as little hassle as possible.
Luckily, being a Montgomery had a few perks, and he could count on some political friends on that score.
He’d done all of this—negotiating, ransoming, traveling, waiting—without the press finding out. Which was a miracle, really, considering he was a Montgomery and the press, as a rule, cared about what he and his family were doing.
He’d also done it without major international incident or a SEAL team.
Or sleep, really.
All while running for the United States House of Representatives.
And now, for some reason, with Ashley finally safe and sleeping in the back of the plane, he found himself unable to use his hands. The pen he’d picked up to finish the paperwork shook right out of his fingers.
“It’s the adrenaline,” Brody Baxter said from the seatacross the aisle. His eyes were closed and his head shimmied against the headrest with every small bounce and shift of the plane.
Harrison yanked further at his tie, trying to get some air.
Brody opened one dark eye. “You are jumpier than the Somali boys we got her from, and they were pretty damn jumpy.”
Harrison stared down at the same passport paperwork he’d been looking at for the last twenty-four hours and the words blurred.
Tears stung hard behind his eyes and he had to gasp to catch his breath.
“She’s safe, man,” Brody said. “You did it.”
Until the day he died, he would not forget his first glimpse of her in Brody’s arms as he ran down the tarmac toward the ambulance. Unconscious, bloody, her dress in tatters, her hair a wild mess, filthy.
I’m too late, he’d thought, putting a hand against the ambulance so he wouldn’t fall to his knees as nurses and paramedics swarmed Brody and Ashley.If I’d worked faster, done more, she wouldn’t have been hurt. Those men wouldn’t have kicked her. Beaten her.
“Harrison.” Brody’s hard voice worked on some instinctual level and he brought his head around to stare at the man. “You did it. You did it just right.”
“It was you, actually,” he said, his voice catching on emotion and exhaustion.
Brody had always been an impossibly cagey guy, and the years since he’d started working for the family only made him more so. His dark eyes both lauded him and damned him, which Harrison guessed was fair considering their history. The Montgomerys had not been kind to Brody Baxter.
“What you did,” Brody said. “There aren’t ten guysin the world who could have done that as well. She’s safe, because of you. I was just the muscle.”
He thought of the days in New York, talking to senators and lobbyists. Retired generals. The assistant to the President’s chief of staff. Had all of that been time wasted?
Trying to get all of that done on his own, holed up in a hotel room, avoiding press and family. Had that been a mistake?
They heard Ashley in the back, stirring. She’d been in and out of sleep, disoriented and confused, and Harrison didn’t want her to wake up alone and scared. He began to shift to his feet, but his arms would not help him. His knees were jelly.
“I got it, man,” Brody said, clapping his large hand on Harrison’s shoulder. “Try to get some rest.”
Harrison sagged back into his seat and let the big man go sit beside his sister. Briefly, he wondered if this was going to be a problem. Ashley had, at one time, caused quite a scene over Brody.
But Harrison found he did not have the energy to be worried. He couldn’t even follow the thought to any conclusion.
He propped his elbows up on the small foldaway table and scrubbed his hands through his hair and down over his face. When was the last time he showered? Changed his clothes? Slept?
The answer to the last question came in a vision of a tattoo, a woman wrapped in seaweed and vines being pulled underwater, her blond hair a cloud around her composed, nearly blissful face.
Perhaps it was his general defenselessness, or exhaustion, but the thought of Ryan Kaminski slipped into his skull like an assassin.
He couldn’t count that night as a mistake. It was thefirst time in his life a woman had slept with him without knowing his family. Without one eye on his connections and his money.
Ryan had picked him, for him. And not at his best. At the very lowest point in his life, she’d held out a hand.
What kind of person did that?
What kind of person found such weakness and confusion interesting? And not just a little … What had happened in that room destroyed him. It wasn’t just the incredible sex, but the honesty. The honesty had been addictive and erotic and rare. So rare he hadn’t realized what a kingdom of lies and half-truths he ruled, until meeting her.
And ironically, he’d lied to her. A lie by omission was still a lie. Maybe worse because of its intrinsic cowardice.
Harry. No one ever in his life had called him Harry.
Oh God, he had to stop thinking about her.
It was one thing to cling to the mysterious woman and that charged night like a lifeboat while waiting to find out if his sister was alive or dead, but they were returning to the real world. Real life.
And in real life he was Harrison Montgomery, the favorite son of a fifth-generation political family out of Atlanta. And in three months about to be a congressman. The representative in the House for Georgia’s fifth congressional district.
His father was finishing up his last term as governor of Georgia, and appropriately going down with the sinking boat of corruption and scandal that had been his life’s work.
And in order to wipe the mud off his family name, to return some pride to his sister and himself and future Montgomery generations, Harrison’s role, his mission, was to be without weakness. To give no rumors thechance to find foothold, no reporter trying to make his name even the slightest whiff of scandal.
And his night with Ryan to the outside eye was nothing but scandalous.
That night was an anomaly. Best forgotten.
He took a deep breath. Another. Stretched his hands out and then made fists. Pushed his messy, dirty hair back into some kind of order, straightened his dirty tie. Bit by bit he found himself back in control of himself. His body. His thoughts.
Ashley was safe. She was here.
Ryan was forgotten.
And he was Harrison Montgomery, with a family dynasty settled comfortably, familiarly, on his back.
Brody returned and sat down in his seat.
“She’s sleeping again,” he said.
“That’s good.” Harrison flipped the page on the passport paperwork and began filling it out, his mind clear. His hand steady.
“You okay?” Brody asked.
“Fine,” he answered without looking up. “Just fine.”
Wednesday, August 14
“The good news! It just keeps coming!” Wallace Jones, Harrison’s campaign manager, a whirlwind of spectacularly bad ties and genius brain cells, burst into Harrison’s office without knocking.
“I could use some good news,” Harrison said, sitting back from the dual, equally unappealing tasks of dealing with his mother and fundraising calls.
Financially, he was tapped out. Between getting his sister free and the campaign, he was running on fumes. And credit.
And his mother was here to harass him about Ashley.
So, yeah, he could use some good news.
“Poll numbers!” Wallace said, lifting a handful of papers into the air. “The Education Initiative is working; so is VetAid. We’re still up across all demographics. We’re spanking Glendale in women under fifty, minorities, and college students.”
Harrison left the jubilation to Wallace—he was far better suited for it. Punching the air felt stupid to Harrison. But the 100-proof relief poured through him all the same.
He allowed himself an unchecked smile and loosened his tie. Practically a party.
“College students don’t vote,” Patty Montgomery said.
Across his small office, on the large couch where he’d been spending far too many of his nights since gettinghis sister back on American soil, sat his mother, Patty Montgomery. Her black suit matched the black of the couch and the gray light from the window illuminated her in a strange way, and he had the brief impression of her sitting on a stage.
And despite having grown up in Manhattan, her Georgia accent with its Buckhead polish was flawless. She sounded local. Several generations of local.
Wallace whirled to see Patty—his enemy in so many ways—on the couch and tossed his hands up in the air. “Jesus, Harrison. How many times do I have to tell you having your mother here does not help our campaign? We are trying to distance ourselves from the mistakes your father has made.”
“Family issues, Wallace. Not political,” Harrison said, though Wallace was right. The education scandal, the housing market, unemployment skyrocketing, increasingly disturbing race relations in Atlanta—all of it Harrison was trying to fix. All of it happened on his father, Ted’s, watch.
“With your family it’s always political!” Wallace sat in the chair across from Harrison’s desk instead of flopping down on the couch, as was his usual practice, and glared at Patty. “I assume this is about your sister?”
“Ashley is safe. That’s all that matters.” Harrison was trying to finish the argument his mother seemed hell-bent on rehashing.
“All that matters?” She laughed, as if the safety and well-being of her only daughter was far down on her personal list of things that mattered. She ran a hand over her perfect, unmoving blond bob, the gold and diamond rings on her fingers gleaming, using all the meager light to her advantage. “You are running for Congress. Your father’s approval rating is at an all-time low, and she is somewhere pouting because I asked herto answer a few questions. Runs off with that man without a word to us? Tell me, how am I wrong?”
“That man’s name is Brody,” Harrison said.
After Harrison and Brody got Ashley back into New York City, Brody had then whisked her away somewhere to recuperate after Mother bullied Ashley with press conferences. Ashley, concussed with bruised ribs and recovering from severe dehydration, exhaustion, and probably PTSD, had not been up for press conferences.
“I knew going to him was a mistake.”
“He was the only choice we had. She’ll call us when she wants to.”
“Does this mean we can actually talk about business?” Wallace asked.
“Ah yes,” Mom said, putting on the Steel Magnolia routine, something she did only when she was truly angry or there was a journalist in the room. “The spectacular approval ratings among people who just don’t vote?”
“In the political stone age, that might have been true. But the world is changing, Patty.” Wallace was young and black, a political street fighter with very little respect for the old guard. Mother would never say it, but Wallace was her worst nightmare.
“Well, one thing doesn’t change,” Patty said. “Money. And Arthur Glendale is getting some big money from contributors. His media budget is three times ours.”
“And so far it hasn’t mattered,” Wallace said.
“You’re foolish if you think it won’t.” Patty got to her feet. “A million will barely keep us on the air.”
“I’m working on the money,” Harrison said, lifting the call sheets.
“There’s not a million on that list,” Patty said. “Not even close. So we need a miracle.”
“By miracle,” Harrison said, “you mean I need to getAshley to show up to some campaign events. And I’ve already said I’m not doing it. She’s been through hell.”
“Your sister is a Montgomery,” Patty said. “She knows her responsibility, and I’m not sure why expecting her to be grateful for your part in getting her out of Somalia makes me the bad guy in this.”
Of course she didn’t.
“The press release about her kidnapping and rescue gave us a bump,” Harrison said. “Let’s just give her some time to heal.”
“You know,” Wallace said, sheepishly running a hand over his dark hair. “While I appreciate you wanting to protect your sister and I dislike agreeing with the Queen Mum, Arthur Glendale has pockets deeper than anyone has imagined, and without something to break up the media message that you are too young, too inexperienced, too rich, too goddamned Montgomery, and somehow too handsome to be a trusted public servant, you might lose what started as a shoo-in run for the House.”
“I thought you came in here with good news,” Harrison said.
“Your mom killed it.”
“Am I required to say it again?” Mother asked, holding out her arms. “All those problems would be solved if you were married.”
“It’s true,” she insisted. “If you were married, you would immediately be considered more substantial.”
Marriage was Mother’s Band-Aid. Respectability the solid wall she hid all the family sins behind.
“I can’t just pluck a woman out of thin air.”
“You’re not even looking,” she cried. “You’ve spent all your time in school or with VetAid and not enough starting a family. Waiting to fall in love is not helpingyour career.” Her tone conveyed quite clearly her derision toward love.
Harrison had no feelings about love, derisive or otherwise. He had no time and no energy to waste on chasing something he felt quite convincingly was not meant for him. Not meant for anyone in politics. Or his family.
Marriage and family were tools.
Love was a yeti.
He was thirty-one years old and this was his entire experience. His entire life. Since he’d turned twenty-two, every minute of every day was spent becoming who he was right now. Every turn in the road led him here. Not to a family, not to a wife, but to correcting his father’s mistakes. Making the Montgomery name something he could be proud of.
What else was he supposed to do but exactly this?
In the end, it didn’t matter how he got into office. All that mattered was that he got in.
“We’re in this and we’re leading in the polls. If the matter is more money, we’ll get more money. As for the Ashley miracle, I’ll ask,” Harrison said, bowing under the pressure because they were right. He looked like a kid standing next to Glendale. “When I get her on the phone. I will ask.”
“Well, will you look at that,” Wallace said, grinning at Mother. “Look what happens when we work together. We should channel our powers for good more often.”
Mother did not smile. She picked up her purse from the couch and slipped the strap over her shoulder. If there was a prototype for politician’s wife, Mother was it. Elegant, genteel, and calm. Stylish. Never flashy. Confident and contained. She gave the impression of still, deep waters. And even in his shabby, cluttered, crowded office that was basically just a cement box, she exuded a sense of Old World money.
There was a flash in his memory, the image of a woman in high leather boots and a thin tank top with a tattoo peeking over the edge.
Despite his efforts, he’d been unable to forget that night in New York City.
Raw. Rough. Unpolished.
Ryan had been the opposite of Patty Montgomery on a cellular level.
Perhaps that was why he’d been unable to stop thinking of her.
With effort, he refrained from smiling. Stopped that one flash from turning into a lightning storm of memory.
He stood and opened the door for his mother. Outside his office the campaign headquarters was crowded with staffers and interns, doing the hundreds of large and small tasks that made this campaign a real and tangible thing every day.
Outside the wide plate-glass windows was Peachtree and the downtown city center, cloaked in a gray rain. Mom’s car and driver were outside waiting for her.
Noelle, her assistant, waited outside the door like a loyal pet.
“I’ve told your secretary to put a Friday luncheon on your schedule for the twenty-third,” Patty said to Harrison.
“Our family?” Family meals were not something that happened at the Governor’s Mansion. Not on Fridays. Not anytime.
“It’s an article forSouthern Living,” Noelle supplied, glancing up from her iPad, where she seemed to have all her plans for world domination. “The Holiday edition.”
Right. The only reason his family would sit down at a table together was if there was a chance someone wouldtake a picture. Mother was very good at making them look like a typical family, with family dinners and vacations to the shore and trips to amusement parks, when in reality they didn’t do any of those things without a camera crew making it happen.
“Distance, Harrison,” Wallace said. “We don’t need pictures of you and your dad standing arm-in-arm over a turkey, for God’s sake.”
“The magazine won’t come out until after the election,” Mother said. “And considering the way you’ve been tearing your father apart in speeches, a family photo shoot and article will go a long way toward showing there are no hard feelings.”
She meant publically. Because personally, it was far more than hard feelings between him and Ted—there was a cavern of disappointment and anger. Of disgust.
Some men were created in the image of their father. Harrison grew up in his father’s negative space. In the holes Ted had left behind. Harrison was who he was in spite of and to spite his father.
But Ted had clout and loyal followers—an Old World liberal guard that didn’t like Harrison, and it would do his career good to get them on his side.
Harrison glanced at Wallace, who after a moment shrugged.
“What time do you need me?” Harrison asked.
“All day. I’ve had your schedule cleared.” Mom glanced over her shoulder. “Goodbye, Wallace,” she said.
“I can’t come for lunch?” he asked.
And with that Mother was gone, down the center aisle of the room, a warship sending smaller vessels—interns and staffers—scrambling out of her way.
“Your mother terrifies me,” Wallace said.
“You have a funny way of showing it.”
“It’s a very complicated fight-or-flight response. I can’t explain it. I feel that way around most women.”
Harrison smiled. Thought again of that tattoo and the long, silky brown hair falling over it, revealing and obscuring at the same time.
“Let’s get back to work,” Harrison said, walking back to his desk and the call sheets there. The destiny he’d been groomed for his entire life was waiting for him.
And there was no place in his destiny for that tattoo and the woman it belonged to.
Sunday, August 18
The nausea woke her up. The nausea always woke her up. A greasy, sick pull from sound sleep, from pleasant dreams about money and being able to go a day without barfing.
It was all-consuming, the nausea. Like an untrained puppy who kept jumping up when it shouldn’t. Or a shitty friend with too much drama. It was, in fact, so paramount that it wasn’t until she opened her eyes that she realized she wasn’t in her own bed.
The ceiling was yellow and lacked the water stains from the time her upstairs neighbor left the sink running. Television news was on in the room and she didn’t have a TV in her apartment.
The bed was funny. The mattress uncomfortable and beneath the sheets, covered in plastic.
She lifted her hand to find an IV tube stuck in her vein.
“Hey. You’re awake.” It was her brother’s voice and she turned her head slowly, keeping the world steady, to find him sitting beside her bed.
“Hey,” she whispered. Joy bounced through her, momentarily pushing aside the dizziness and exhaustion. Wes. Her big brother, who’d braided her hair after Mom died and forged Dad’s signature on notes so shecould skip school and go with him to Phillies games and showed up with pizza and milk at the end of the month when Dad’s check had been stretched so thin it could barely keep the lights on.
It had been a few months since she’d seen him and as usual, it was a shock. Wes was a shock.
He’d always been an intense guy, an explosive kid and teenager. A lesson in extremes, that was her brother. Slow to love, quick to fight. Short temper, long memory. Smart brain, stupid heart.
But this man version of him seemed … dangerous. As if the years had worn away the middle ground between his extremes. He was all or nothing. In or out. All of his filters were gone, and he sat beside her bed in a sea of palpable anger.
Wes turned and pointed a remote at the TV in the corner behind him, putting the news on mute.
She reached out and touched his beard. Tugged it. An old welcome.
His lips curled in a familiar half-smile.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“Flushing Hospital,” he said.
The world rolled off its anchors and her stomach pitched.
“You need to throw up?” he asked.
She breathed through her mouth until the wave passed. “No. I’m okay. It’s just strange being the one in the hospital bed,” she teased.
He smiled so sweetly at her. “It’s a little strange for me too, but it’s been a while since I was the one with the IV tubes.”
“Allen Hayes?” she asked, remembering the last fight that got him in the hospital.
“I had no idea his sister could pack such a punch.”
She ran a finger down the bumpy ridge of his nose. Ithad been broken more than once. He grabbed her hand and pressed his mouth to the back of it.
“Do you remember what happened?” Wes asked.
“You were coming to take me to dinner.” Excited, nervous, not exactly sure how she was going to break this insane news to her brother, she’d buzzed him up to her apartment, unlocked her door, and then run to the bathroom to vomit.
“I found you passed out on your bathroom floor. It looked like you’d vomited blood, so I called an ambulance,” he said.
Blood she remembered, but that was all.
Oh God. She put a hand to her stomach.
“You’re fine. Both of you.” She could hear it in his voice, the lecture he was dying to give her.
She blew out a long breath, trying to get the sudden spike of her heartbeat under control.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That must have been scary.”
“Well, it’s not a moment I want to relive anytime soon, seeing my sister passed out in a pool of blood. You hit your head on the corner of the sink. Split the skin over your ear and knocked yourself out.”
“I knocked myself out? On the sink?”
“At least it wasn’t the toilet.” Wes smiled. “You’re still your own worst enemy.”
Laughing felt good. Felt so good, like throwing open the window on a perfect day.
Wes picked up her hand and held it between his two. His hands were callused across the palm, worse on his right than on his left. And he was thin, thinner than she’d seen him in a long time. Whatever the mysterious computer work he wouldn’t talk about required of him, it was taking too much.
“It’s good to see you,” she said, squeezing his hand.
“Talk to me, Ryan,” he breathed.
She hadn’t said the words out loud to anyone yet. A week ago what she’d thought was the flu turned into a missed period and a drugstore pregnancy test and finally a doctor’s confirmation. So far the baby was a secret she kept to herself, and it still didn’t feel real. She was in serious survival mode between the nausea and the joblessness and the fist-shaking minuscule failure rate of condoms that had not panned out in her favor.
Also surprising was how much she wanted this baby. It had been years since she’d thought of starting a family, and now certainly was not an optimal time, but none of that seemed to matter.
She was sick, scared, financially strapped, and emotionally vulnerable, but she was so damnhappyabout this baby.
Her new family.
“I’m pregnant,” she said.
He opened his mouth to let out the lecture but she stopped him. “Don’t,” she said. “Anything you say about staying out of trouble will only be hypocritical.”
“I’ve never been pregnant and alone and sick.”
“I’m breaking new Kaminski ground.” Even he had to smile at that.
“You’ve been sick like this the whole time?”
Her mouth was gummy, her lips dry and cracked. “I haven’t been feeling great for a week. But it’s only been like this for three days.”
“The doctor said you were severely dehydrated.”
“I haven’t been able to keep anything down.”
His hands squeezed hers and she pulled her fingers free, bracing herself for the outburst. “Jesus Christ, Ryan, why didn’t you call me sooner? Why do things have to get this bad before you ask for help?”
“I don’t know, Wes,” she sighed. “But yelling at me isn’t going to change anything.”
He stood up and turned to look out the window. All she saw out that window was blue sky. Not a single cloud. Not a skyscraper or apartment building. It was as if they were floating above the city. Just a blue so dense and so deep it didn’t seem real.
“You plan on telling him?”
“He is not around, Wes.”
She wasn’t about to tell her big brother that she didn’t even know Harry’s last name.Oh God, he’d go ballistic.
“Okay, so, no father. What is your plan?” The sunlight fell over his face, bringing out the red in his hair and tightly clipped beard, turning his eyes to amber. It was funny that she’d always been called the pretty one, had been able to make some kind of living for a while off of her looks—that stupid Lip Girl thing when she was seventeen—when Wes was the real beauty.
Half intellectual whiz kid, half well-groomed Viking berserker.
His look was popular and on Wes, extremely authentic. He’d make a killing if he wanted to.
Right. Her plans.
“I’m keeping the baby.”
She pushed herself up to sitting because she quite literally wasn’t going to take Wes’s coming lecture lying down. “I haven’t really had a chance to plan past that while vomiting my guts out.”
“Are you working?”
She plucked at the edge of the thin hospital blanket; it was beige. The color of her life these days.
“No. I picked up a few shifts at a bar down the street, but once I started getting sick I was late too many times and the manager let me go.”
“So, no job? Tell me you filed for insurance—”
“I did. I’m covered.”
“A few months’ rent.”
“You need to go home, Ryan.”
She bristled. “No, I don’t. I don’t need to go back to Nora, pregnant, with my tail between my legs, so she can say I told you so.”
“You realize you are a thirty-two-year-old woman? This sister fight with Nora is getting ridiculous.”
“Tell her that,” she muttered. “She’s the one keeping me in exile.”
But he already had. Wes had been trying to get them to make up for years, but the hurt Ryan had caused Nora was too bad. Too big. It wasn’t a forgive-and-forget kind of thing. It was a carry-the-hatchet-to-the-grave kind of thing.
“There’s a lot of money in pregnant modeling,” she said, grasping at straws. She’d looked in the mirror, and what she saw there didn’t say Happy Pregnant Woman About Town. She looked like she had barely survived the zombie apocalypse. “My agent says I’ll probably be able to get some catalog work. Maybe some national spots.”
“Right, as soon as you get off the bathroom floor.”
“Morning sickness doesn’t last forever.”
“Then you don’t remember when Mom was pregnant with Olivia.”
The memory of her mother, shuffling around the house,gray-faced and miserable during the entire pregnancy, gave Ryan’s stomach a slimy twist, and she looked away from her brother’s damning eyes.
“Women have babies by themselves in New York City all the time. I’m hardly alone.”
But she felt it. She really did. So alone her entire life was just an echo chamber, her mistakes bouncing back at her.
Outside in the hallway, someone yelled and a metal tray was dropped. The noise was so loud she flinched.
“I can help,” he said. “But even I can’t support you and a baby in New York City. I don’t have that kind of cash.”
“I don’t want your help.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Don’t yell at me, Wes,” she cried. “You can’t demand access and answers from me when your whole damn life is a secret.”
“This isn’t about me! It’s about you and your baby.” He threw his hands up in the air. “Day care. Schools. That one-room closet you call an apartment. You need help. Point-blank. End of story. And I know you’ve been living your life on your own terms for a long time, but if you plan on having this baby you’re gonna have to get over yourself.”
Get over myself, she thought, and nearly laughed. He said it like pride was a luxury when it was all she had left. The only thing that her family, her ex-husband, her life hadn’t taken away from her.
The vague upset in her stomach that she’d gotten used to was suddenly eclipsed by head-to-toe chills, her skin breaking out in goose bumps.
The price of the baby, she thought, putting her hands over her stomach,will be my pride.
She’d known after the night with Harry that there would be more to pay.
Her brother’s glowing intensity was suddenly too much and she looked away, staring blindly toward the silent news on the television.
Behind the dark-haired anchor with apple cheeks, the wordsKidnapped by Somali Piratesflashed red and yellow.
Wes grabbed the remote from the bedside table and turned up the volume.
“What is this?” she asked, happily jumping on the distraction.
“You haven’t been following the news?”
“Been busy, Wes. Puking my guts up.”
The screen changed to a picture of a pretty woman with curly brown hair and a wide smile.
“That’s Ashley Montgomery,” Wes said. “She was kidnapped by pirates, rescued, and then vanished again.”
“And I thought I had it bad,” she muttered, pleased when Wes smiled at her.
“The worldwide media search for Ashley Montgomery has finally ended,” the news anchor said. “Montgomery has turned up in a small town in Arkansas, where she’s been recuperating after surviving three weeks in a Somali pirate camp. Apparently she’s been busy organizing a series of senior citizen initiatives in the small town but has said that she will be stepping out occasionally to help her brother’s congressional campaign.”
A man, blond-haired and smiling, radiating a kind of poise and confidence that one would expect from a guy running for office, was shaking hands with people in a huge crowd as he walked toward a podium.
The crowd was holding signs that saidHarrison Montgomery for CongressandA New Hope.
“Two months ago, Harrison Montgomery’s run for Georgia’s Fifth District seat in the House of Representativesseemed like a sure thing. But Republican candidate Arthur Glendale is giving the Montgomery Golden Boy a run for his money.”
“Ryan?” Wes asked. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m going to be sick.”
Sunday, August 18
Ryan was proud of her apartment. It was an engineering/small-space lifestyle marvel and it had taken years to get it just right, to come up with all the clever space-saving tricks. The key was sparseness. Absolutely no clutter or mess. Having no attachments to things helped, too. No pictures in frames, no mementos to keep in boxes that took up space. Living this way required a certain ruthlessness, but she was suited for that.
The books were her only luxury.
Which wasn’t to say her apartment was dour. No. She’d painted the kitchen part of the studio yellow to go with her red teacups, which went with her blue rug. The walls in the living area were lined with shelves filled with books and jewelry, along with some of her prettier shoes that she’d collected over the years. Her clothes were nestled in there, socks and underwear in a shelf basket. Her laptop was tucked under the couch.
After the divorce and selling the house in Jersey, she’d moved to this Queens apartment, thinking it was only temporary, hopeful she’d get some more bookings, maybe a national spot, and make some money that would let her move someplace else.
Someplace without water stains, and with a real closet and—dare to dream—an oven. Maybe a one-bedroom in Brooklyn.
But the big contract didn’t come, and she’d stayed in Sunnyside and made her little apartment work for her.
“This place is worse than a college dorm room,” Wes said as he walked in behind her.
“Like either of us has ever seen the inside of college dorm room,” she muttered. She hung her keys on the hook beside the door and collapsed onto the couch underneath the loft bed she’d made with her own two hands last year.
Upstairs, her neighbor was screaming in Spanish at something on the TV.
And the smell of someone cooking cabbage seeped through the walls.
Home, sweet home.
“We need to talk about this,” Wes said, pacing the four steps from her kitchen area to the bathroom door.
“There’s not much left to say.”
“Harrison Montgomery knocked you up and there’s not much to say?”
Ryan sighed and rested her head in her hands. “You make it sound like I’m a victim, Wes. And I’m not. It was more than consensual, we used protection, something happened, and I’m pregnant.”
“You’re pregnant, broke, out of work, and sick as a dog.”
She glared at him. “You don’t have to stay. You can leave if this is so damn troubling to you.”
“You know, maybe Iwillleave, and I’ll head on down to Atlanta and let Harrison Montgomery in on what’s going on with you.”
“Don’t, Wes.” She stood, because these were not idle threats with her brother. Not at all. He would do just that and feel as if his actions were totally justified.
“Tell me why I shouldn’t?”
“Because I need some time to think!” she cried. “Because this is my life, and I just realized that the father ofmy unborn baby is running for Congress. Maybe I don’t want him involved in it!”
“You’ve got to be realistic. He is in a financial position to help you.”
“I don’t give a shit, Wes. He’s in the middle of a campaign—this could seriously mess that up for him.”
“You’re kidding me, right? You’re pregnant, alone, and broke and you’re worried about his fucking campaign?”
Ryan sat back down on the couch, suddenly exhausted. By everything. The baby growing in her stomach, her tiny apartment, her brother.
That explained the gravitas.
And the complicated family.
In fact, details of that whole night rearranged themselves into a different order. A different reality. She had a very hard-won sense of her own worth and it took some great weight to crush her, but Harrison Montgomery lowering himself from his lofty heights did it.
Harry had been slumming.
But even as she thought it, even as the proof seemed irrefutable, she didn’t want to believe it. He had not been in that bar looking to score. Drinking away the pain of his sister’s unsure future at the hands of Somali pirates had been his objective.
Christ, she thought. Amazed anew at how he’d kept his shit together that night.
There was not a chance in the world she would have had that kind of poise in the face of something that terrifying. She’d have been running down the streets of New York like a lunatic, not sitting so still in the corner of a bar like he was the axis upon which the world spun.
“Can we just take a break for a while?” she said. “You can go back to telling me how impossible my life is in a little bit. Okay?”
Wes braced his hands on his lean hips, his burgundy tee shirt worn and thin over black jeans and work boots. The Wes Kaminski uniform. She wondered if his secret job paid him at all.
“Fine,” he sighed. “Take a nap. I’m going to go to the store.” He opened the fridge and took quick stock. “You’ve been living on milk?”
“And oranges. Get lots of them. And sometimes I want peanut butter. Crunchy.”
“What about meat?”
She gagged at the thought.
“Got it,” Wes said with a smile, and she felt all her defenses get wobbly. Everything was wobbly, and she pulled the chenille blanket—red to match her teacups—from the back of the love seat over her tired and sore body.
“I’ll be okay, Wes. I always am. I just need some time to figure this out.”
“You don’t have a lot of time, Ryan.”
“I’ve got nine months.”
Her eyes drifted shut and she didn’t hear her brother whisper, “You’ve got until Friday.”
Friday, August 23The Governor’s Mansion
Harrison’s BlackBerry was getting hot in his hand, nearly burning his ear.
“We have got to do something, Harrison,” Wallace was saying. “Glendale is killing us in the press. You look like a Boy Scout. Like literally, an earnest little boy in shorts with a stupid sash and knee socks.”
“I get the idea, Wallace,” he said, pacing the front porch of the Governor’s Mansion in the bright noon sunlight. Inside, the bullshit was thick on the floor ashis mother was telling theSouthern Livingstaff writer all about her heritage recipe for Georgia Caviar, a black-eyed pea salad his mother had never made in her life.
And his father was pretending that these family meals had been a tradition for as long as he’d been in the mansion. There was even a baseball game playing on the television.
When Ted had been running for the Senate the first time and Harrison had been six or so, Mom arranged a press conference at a park so newspapers could get pictures of him and Ted playing catch. They’d had to send staffers out to buy baseball gloves because they didn’t have any.
One of Ted’s bodyguards taught him how to throw the ball, because Dad tried but got frustrated too fast and started drinking from the flask he always had in his pocket.
Mom had been furious. At Harrison. At Ted. At the world that was always so willing to disappoint her.
But no matter how awkward and truly false the event Mother was orchestrating, she used these little vignettes as a way to get work done. Today she was in there talking about Harrison’s VetAid initiative to provide veterans returning home from war and their families much-needed legal aid.
You just had to wade through a lot of lies to get to the truth of his family.
“Ashley is coming to the fundraiser next week. That will help, won’t it?” he asked. He’d finally gotten his sister on the phone and she’d agreed to do three events to help his campaign, on the one condition that he come to Bishop, Arkansas, to get her.
Have you ever in your life been just Harrison?she’d asked.And not Harrison Montgomery?
Once, he’d answered, thinking of Ryan Kaminski and that night that seemed more dream than real.
“Maybe we need another photo of you with your shirt off,” Wallace said, pulling Harrison’s thoughts away from tattoos and one-night stands. “Or a trip down to Manuel’s Tavern to get your picture taken behind the bar.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You are the new generation’s JFK Jr.—let’s not shy away from the sex appeal.”
“That’s a bit of a stretch.”
“I’m getting worried, Harrison.”
“Yeah, I get that. But I’m not going to take off my shirt. If we stick to the message: education, family—”
“Community, yes. The message is good. But Glendale has the same message and way more money. And his dad is dead.”
And my dad is alive and still making mistakes.
Behind him he heard the scuff of footsteps on the brick porch and turned to see Noelle standing just outside the doorway.
“They’re ready for you,” she said, and he nodded at her.
“I’ve got to go,” Harrison said to Wallace.
“Is Noelle there?” Wallace asked.
“What’s she wearing?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“What? I like her.”
“You have a serious thing for inaccessible women.”
“Wait … why do you think she’s inaccessible? I could totally—”
“Wait, wait—Jill down at Headquarters said a guy from Homeland Security came looking for you.”
“Yeah. Is there a terrorist part of the résumé you forget to tell me about?”
“No. Of course not.”
“Harrison,” Noelle whispered. “We really need to get inside.”
Harrison said goodbye to Wallace, tucked his phone in his pocket, and turned back toward Noelle, who stood there with her clipboards and her two phones and the pencil tucked in the bun of blond hair at the back of her head. She was an impenetrable wall of efficiency.
“Lead the way.” Harrison’s attempt at charm was met with blinking pale gray eyes.
“Your mother would like me to remind you not to bring up the education scandal,” Noelle said as they walked back into the mansion. The first floor was a showcase used primarily for entertaining and tours. All the furnishings were a part of a historical federal collection and were hugely uncomfortable. Upstairs were his parents’ quarters, and they were only slightly less formal. But they did have a couch that wasn’t made out of horsehair, and the chairs when he sat on them didn’t creak.
“Education reform is a major part of my platform because of the Atlanta corruption.”
“You’re joking, right?”
“It looks bad on your father.”
“Itisbad on my father.”
Noelle pushed her glasses up farther on her nose, her gray eyes steely, and he wondered, briefly, if there wasn’t more to his mother’s loyal pet. “There are other things to talk about.”
They turned into the living room, where Mom and Dad, dressed in carefully calculated casual clothes, were sitting with theSouthern Livingstaff. There was the writer, the photographer, and a videographer, becauseapparently there was going to be some special bonus material on the website. As well as a lighting guy and a sound guy.
And all of them turned to look at him when he walked in.
“Son!” Dad said, coming to his feet, his wide smile revealing the dimples Harrison had inherited. A former high school football star, Ted was still a big, strong man, with a barrel chest, who carried himself well. Harrison was the exact same height but without the football player build.
Ted’s years of alcoholism were physically obvious only in the broken blood vessels around his nose and eyes. All of which were now carefully powdered over.
His blond hair was growing silver, his shoulders just slightly rounded. His blue eyes were still sharp.
There were times it was eerie looking at his father, times when the physical resemblance between them was so strong. So unbelievably real that Harrison lost himself for a moment.
That is exactly how I will look in thirty years, he thought for perhaps the thousandth time.
It was nearly surreal.
As a boy, watching crowds cheer for his father, men line up just to shake his hand, women press newborn babies into his arms so he could kiss them—it had only solidified his perception of his father as a hero. A god.
A man to emulate in all things.
And that’s what he’d done. He’d emulated his father’s overblown wealthy-white-man sense of privilege. His sense of destiny and entitlement. Of course he should get what he wanted. Of course he deserved the best. He was Ted Montgomery’s son, after all.
And then he turned twenty-two and his father ran for Vice-President, and there had been Heidi and the car crash.
And Harrison found out who his father really was. Who all of them really were.
The memory of it, of finding out about it and feeling part of himself, his identity, his plans and goals to be just like his fucking father, shattering—it stopped his blood. Even years later, he looked at his father, remembered Heidi, and stepped away from Ted’s outstretched hand.
“Harrison,” Mom said, also coming to her feet, smiling so wide to cover the cold silence between the two men in her life. “We’re so glad you could take a break from your busy campaign schedule to join us. I was just telling everyone about your work at VetAid.”
Right. He would play the Montgomery game. Like he always did. Because it was a means to an end, a way into Congress and beyond that, the White House.
“I’m glad to be here, Mom. Are we ready to eat?” he asked, rubbing his hands together. “I’m starving.”
By three o’clock in the afternoon they still hadn’t eaten and Harrison was getting ready to end a ridiculous discussion on Montgomery holiday traditions, when Dad’s head of security walked into the sunny room.
“Is there a problem, Jeff?” Dad asked.
“There’s a man downstairs,” Jeff said. “Says—”
In the hallway, someone yelled and another voice answered back, just as the door behind Jeff opened up and a stranger burst in.
“I didn’t feel like waiting,” the man said to Jeff, flashing a malicious grin behind a trimmed beard.
They all jumped to their feet, but Mom was the first one to speak.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“No. Actually,” the man said, and pointed to Harrison, “I’m here to talk to your son.”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until we’re done,” Mom said.
“I’m guessing you didn’t see my badge. Let me give you a good look.” From the back pocket of his black jeans, the man pulled out a badge and held it out toward the family.
DHS. Homeland Security.
The guy wore jeans and a tee shirt. Beat-up boots. He didn’t look like any agent Harrison had ever seen.What the hell is going on here?
“I don’t care what your badge says; you can’t come in here and harass my son,” Patty said.
The bearded man shot Harrison a pointed look that somehow managed to call him out.You let your mom fight your battles for you, you miserable boy—that’s what that look said.
“Please excuse me,” Harrison said to theSouthern Livingstaff before stepping to the door. “Let’s talk outside, Mr.—”
“My name is Wes Kaminksi,” the man said, glancing at the cameras and the witnesses before staring at Harrison, something unholy and bright in his eyes. “My sister is Ryan Kaminski.”
The name detonated in his chest.
And he stopped for just a moment, halfway across the room.
Wes saw his hesitation and grinned.
“Ah, so you do remember.”
“Is she all right?” He imagined something awful. Something catastrophic. Something that would bring her brother, a DHS agent, to his door.
Wes blinked and then grinned, like the asshole had him by the short hairs. “If you do the right thing she will be.”
Do the right thing?
Harrison inferred the only thing he could.
And a reality he wanted desperately to deny sucker-punched him, driving all the air from his lungs.
His savior that night had figured out who he was and was looking for her payout.
It was Heidi all over again.
“Outside.” Harrison smiled with all his teeth and led Wes out the door, past security and the assistants.
Fuck. Camera crews. Journalists. There was a good chance someone in that room was getting on Google to figure out who Ryan Kaminski was. And within three hours there would be people camped out in front of her house, demanding to know how she knew Harrison Montgomery.
Normally, no one would care, but his sister was all over the news these days.
His heart pounding in his hands and behind his eyes, he opened the door to an old bedroom filled with boxes of holiday decorations.
“After you,” he said to Wes, who eyed him warily as he walked in. Harrison slammed the door shut behind them so hard, a plastic elf carrying wrapped gifts toppled to the floor.
“How much?” Harrison asked through his teeth.
“What?” Wes asked. The man was full of a hot, manic energy, and in its presence Harrison only got colder.
“How much money do you want? I assume she took pictures somehow? Maybe while I was sleeping?”
“You think I’m here for money?”
“A sex scandal is hardly original. But I’ll give your sister credit; she really had me fooled—”
Wes charged at Harrison, but Harrison grabbed him by the neck of his shirt and turned, pushing him into the wall. Feeling out of control. Violent.
It felt so good that he put more of his weight against the thinner man, pushing his knuckles into his chest until he felt bone.
“Yeah, you know what you need?” Wes sneered. “To beat up a DHS agent. That will make the shit storm of bad press about to rain down on your head better.”
“What do you want?” Harrison bit out.
“Ryan is pregnant.”
Harrison laughed, though the solid ground tilted beneath his feet. That night, that perfect, beautiful night, was being torn to pieces, ripped to shreds, and he wanted to walk away from the mess that was being made of those memories. He didn’t want to say these things. He didn’t even want to think them.
“You’re pretty fucking silent for a guy who talks for a living.”
“What makes you think it’s mine?” he asked. If Heidihad taught him one thing, it was that you couldn’t hold on to perception because you wanted to. Because it was easier.
“Because she says it is.”
“My guess is the other men she’s slept with recently don’t have as much money as I do.”
“Fuck you, asshole.” Wes slammed his fist up under Harrison’s jaw and Harrison reeled back, but he didn’t let go of Wes’s shirt.
“She didn’t know my last name,” Harrison said. “She didn’t even ask. You’ll excuse me if I doubt her purity.”
Wes growled and pushed Harrison back against the other wall. They kicked aside a box, and red and gold snakes of garland spilled across the carpet.
“I should make you eat those words,” Wes sneered into his face, doing a pretty good job of cutting off his air supply. “She didn’t want to tell you because she was scared it would fuck with your campaign. She doesn’t want anything from you. Not one thing. She’s sick, she’s broke, and she’s alone, but she didn’t want shit from you. But I came down here anyway, because,” he laughed. “Because I thought you might do right by her. Because there’s no way my sister would spend the night with a man unless she’d seen something worthwhile in him. But my mistake. My fucking mistake.”
Harrison shoved Wes back, breathing hard.
“Never mind,” Wes said, jabbing a finger in Harrison’s face. “Stay away from my sister.”
Wes took a deep breath, wiped the sweat from his face with the edge of his shirt, and left the room, slamming the door so hard another box toppled. A Christmas star fell out at Harrison’s feet.
He braced his hand against the wall. And then both hands. His forehead.
All his work, everything he’d done since he was twenty-two years old, was in ruins.
Because I am just like my father.
Unable to give that poisonous seed the space it needed to grow, he took a deep breath, pushed away from the wall, and straightened his tie.
Think, Harrison. Think.
Damage control. That’s what he needed right now, because fucking Wes Kaminski with his badge had barged into a room filled with cameras and journalists and said the one name that could potentially bring down everything.
He grabbed his phone out of his pocket, nearly ripping the fabric in his haste and fury.
“Are you calling to ask me if I want leftovers?” Wallace asked. “Because I do. I really—”
“Listen to me,” Harrison said. “I need you to find me everything you can on Wes Kaminski—he’s a Homeland Security agent—and his sister Ryan. She’s a bartender at the bar in the The Cobalt Hotel in Manhattan.”
“What … why?”
“Just do it, Wallace. I’ll explain later.” He hung up. Finally, when he was calm, when he could wear the mask of dutiful son again, he went back out and joined the Montgomery Family Charade, feeling every moment like the worst of himself had been exposed.
Eight hours later
Ryan kept her eyes on the sidewalk in front of her as she walked from the corner store back to her apartment. The carton of milk—chocolate this time, because a girl needed a thrill now and then—was heavy in her hand. Far heavier than a gallon of milk should be, but thatwas the joy of pregnancy for her. A constant head butt against her new limitations.
But she was feeling better, thanks to the Compazine prescription the doctor had given her.
She could use a latte or ten, but the Internet seemed fairly divided on caffeine, so she was trying to err on the side of caution. For the first time in her life.
The summer night was thick and humid, and the streets were crowded with groups of Dominican girls in their summer clothes pretending to ignore the Dominican boys who were practicing their leers. Ryan smiled, remembering what it was like to be so young on a young summer night.
Best feeling in the world.
Even at ten o’clock at night, apartment windows were thrown open, letting out all kinds of music and the sounds of babies crying and moms yelling at kids and dads yelling that they couldn’t hear the game over all the yelling.
She loved her neighborhood. It reminded her of her family, of where she grew up before everything went bad. When they were loud and rowdy and loving. Always loving.
It had cooled off with the sunset and the Korean barbecue place on the corner pumped out the sweet and meaty smell of bulgogi, which used to make her mouth water but now made her queasy.
She missed being hungry.
Missed loving food.
On the plus side, she wasn’t throwing up anymore. And she was outside on a gorgeous summer night. So all in all, things were looking good for Ryan Kaminski.
Fantasizing about all the lattes she couldn’t have, she didn’t see the guy on the sidewalk in front of her building until she nearly tripped over him.
“Excuse me,” she said, noticing the guy’s big camera. Maybe her neighbor in 3B finally made good on the threats she’d been making at high volume for over a year to kill her no-good cheating asshole husband.
“You Ryan Kaminski?” he asked. His breath smelled like coffee and potato chips and he had crumbs in his mustache.
“Who wants to know?” she shot back, which made the guy grin knowingly.
“How do you know Harrison Montgomery?” He lifted the big camera around his neck to take her picture, blinding her with the flash.
“I … I … don’t,” she said, stumbling up the path, glitter in the corner of her eyes.
She opened the lobby door and once inside, turned back around to see the photographer take out his phone and make a call.
“What the hell?” she breathed.
“Paparazzi,” a guy said, and she turned to see a beautiful tall black man in a bad tie. He seemed vaguely familiar to her, but that was the life of a bartender. At some point it seemed she’d served everyone in the five boroughs a beer.
But so scathing was his gaze, she felt the need to pull the carton of milk to her chest, an extra layer between her and the hate he clearly felt for her.
“It will probably get worse,” he said.
“Who the hell are you?” she demanded.
“Wallace Jones. I’d like to say I’m the man here to make your life hell, but I think that guy is waiting for you in your apartment.”
In a great rush she realized why he seemed so familiar: in the footage of Harrison she’d been relentlessly watching for the last few days, this guy was almost always in the background. Looking nervous.
As she watched, he pulled a roll of antacids out of his pocket and thumbed one into his mouth. “Go,” he said. “It’s kind of making me sick looking at you.”
“Listen, asshole,” she snapped. “I haven’t done anything!”
“You might not have done anything,” Wallace interrupted, his dark eyes pulling her apart piece by piece. “But your brother sure has.”
Her stomach fell to her feet. “Wes?”
“Bearded guy? Definition of a loose cannon? Paid a little visit.”
She didn’t stick around to hear the rest of the “How Wes Thought He Was Doing the Right Thing but Actually Managed to Screw Up My Life Even More” story. She bypassed the extremely slow elevator and went up two flights of stairs, pausing at the landing to get her breath back.
Once upon a time she used to run a six-minute mile, her body strong and fueled.
Now her ass was kicked by a flight of stairs.
The hallway in front of her apartment was eerily quiet, like a scene in some horror film in which she was the dummy too stupid to realize she should just leave. Vanish into the night instead of reaching out with a slightly shaking hand for that doorknob.
The door opened at her touch.
These days she was pretty much a stripped wire, exposed to every element, every emotional whim, and despite her efforts to prepare herself for seeing Harry … Harrisonagain, she was wasted at the sight of him.
He stood in front of her dark windows, the city a bruised landscape behind him. He seemed bigger in his suit than he had in that Bulldogs tee shirt. Or maybe it was because he was Harrison Montgomery now and not Harry, and that came with its own weight. An extra few inches.
At the sound of the door opening he turned to face her and she thought she remembered how handsome he was, how appealing his gravitas, but she hadn’t remembered the half of it.
The lamplight gilded him in his tailored gray suit and his rich brown shoes, all of which cost at least four months’ rent. Gone was Harry’s grief and anger. This man was all cold and stony displeasure, his face carved in hard, unforgiving lines.
“Ryan,” he said, and even his voice was different. Still laced with sweet tea and peaches, but there was an iron bar down the middle of it.
Oh, Wes, what did you do?
There were a thousand things she wanted to say and do, like ask him about his sister and brush that hair off his forehead, or cup that dimple in the palm of her hand the way she had that night.
And all of those things would tie this moment, this place, the two of them, back to that hotel room and maybe erase some of the anger on his face. This distrust that radiated from him.
She imagined a smile from her might set them down in this conversation with a kinder, gentler hand.
But there was nothing kind and gentle about Harrison at the moment. He looked like retribution dressed in a thousand-dollar suit.
And Ryan had been pushed into plenty of corners, so she knew when to come out swinging.
“Harry,” she said, and his lip lifted, not quite a smile. No. It was far too mean to be a smile. “How did you get in?”
“Your landlord is very bribable.”
“Well, that’s troubling.”
“You’re lucky it’s just me in here.”
Considering the photographer standing outside her door, that was shockingly true.
“Did you give him your real name or your alias?”
“I gave him a hundred dollars and he didn’t ask any questions.”
“And I should have asked you a few more.” That came out heavier than she’d intended. Hurt. Angry. Her swing had lost its power and she stepped over to the kitchen to set the milk on the counter.
He was watching her; she could feel the icy-hot touch of his blue eyes against her bare shoulder, the long revealed length of her legs, and she wished she had on more clothes. A snowsuit, maybe. Or one of those burka things.
Because she felt utterly naked in her cut-off jeans and thin red halter top, her hair piled on her head in a messy knot.
A bra would have been nice.
“That night,” he asked, “did you know who I was?”
“No,Harry. I didn’t.” The plastic cap came off the milk jug with a loud snap.
“I don’t know if I believe you.”
“I don’t know that I care.” She took one of her red teacups and filled it with chocolate milk, not offering him any. Because that would be ridiculous, offering chocolate milk in a chipped teacup to future congressman Harrison Montgomery.
And because he’s had enough, she thought.More than enough of me.
“This is quite an apartment.” His tone was one shade away from a sneer.
Oh, could you be any more predictable?she thought.
“You like it? My uncle lived in his car in front of our house for a year. He had a microwave under his front seat. A foldout bed in the back. I learned everything about space-saving from him.”
Her words were met with crackling hostile silence, soshe turned and saw Harrison looking over her bookshelves.
The problem with living a stripped-down existence was that the things she did keep around, that did survive the form-and-function test—they were precious. Tiny windows into her soul, and she wanted to grab all the psychology textbooks she’d gotten at the used bookstore and her mother’s Lucite jewelry and stuff them out of sight.
“You have some interesting reading material for a bartender.Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, Social Psychology and Human Nature?”
“Came with the apartment,” she lied.
The look he sent her was scrutinizing and uncomfortable.
“Your sister,” she said, and he stiffened, and she recognized the protective-older-brother stance. She’d seen it a million times before. “You did help her. In the end.”
“I’m glad.” She lifted the cup to take a sip, but the smell made the tension in her stomach worse. The last thing she needed was to throw up in front of him. She lowered the cup but held onto it, so she had something to do with her hands. “When you said she was in trouble you weren’t kidding. But I suppose the Montgomery family does things on a larger scale than average humans.”
Silent, he just stared at her, his eyebrow arched, his electric-blue eyes soulless and dead.
“Why are you here, Harrison Montgomery?”
“Your brother came to see me.” He stepped closer. The apartment—already small—was claustrophobic now. “He says you’re pregnant.”
She lifted her chin against his icy gaze. Her heart hammering at her rib cage. “So I am.”
“Your brother seems to think it’s mine.”
The muscles in his jaw flexed as if he were making gravel out of his teeth. That night they’d shared, the way he’d grabbed her hand like a lifeline, the way his cheek had felt against her palm, the way he’d kissed her like she was property he needed to know every inch of—it was gone. The sweetness. The kindness. The mutual respect.
That small slip into infatuation.
It was all gone.
All that was left was hostility and a baby.
Worst one-night stand. Ever.
“I don’t care if you don’t believe me,” she said, setting down the cup with great care because she felt as if she were shaking apart. “I don’t want a single thing from you. Not money. Not anything.”
“That’s certainly independent of you, Ryan. But it’s too late for that. The press won’t care. They will form their own opinions. And all they need for confirmation is to talk to the other girl behind the bar that night. Or perhaps the manager. A patron. Anyone who saw us.”
“All they saw was us talking.”
“It doesn’t matter. Your brother stormed into my parents’ home while my family was conducting an interview, flashed his badge around—”
“Badge? What badge?”
He blinked. “Homeland Security.”
She laughed. Her brother ran in secret circles, but not that secret. “My brother is a computer hacker, Harrison. The badge was undoubtedly fake.”
“Don’t be embarrassed. He’s fooled smarter men than you. When he was in high school—”
“Stop, Ryan. Stop with the charming tales of poverty and petty crime. We have a real problem here.”
“Fine,” she snapped. She loved her tales of poverty and petty crime. It was all she had left of her family. “I didn’t know who you were. I did not set out to get pregnant.”
“The condom was yours.”
Lindsey’s, actually; not that it mattered, but it meant she didn’t know how old it was, or if it had been compromised in some way. All things she didn’t care about that night.
“You think I sabotaged it?”
“I think desperate women have done worse.”
“I’m far from desperate, Harrison.”
He glanced around her apartment, all her meager possessions on display.
“What a snob you are,” she laughed. If he thought she was desperate, he had no clue what desperation really was. Living in a car with a broken microwave under the front seat wasn’t even the most desperate thing she’d seen. “Look, let’s just be done with the slut-shaming portion of the evening. I’m not interested in anything you have to give me. I will not talk to the press. I won’t breathe a word of this to anyone! So you can take your accusations and your curled lip and get lost.”
For emphasis she opened the door to the hallway, but Harrison stepped forward and shut the door. He kept his hand braced on the door and leaned over her, close enough that she felt his breath against her exposed chest. Close enough that she could feel the heat from his body.
Memories, unwanted and uncomfortable, settled over her, sunk into her.
She might not like this man, but for one night she had really liked his body.
“I credited you with a great deal of insight that night at the hotel,” he said with withering disdain. “I am shocked to learn how wrong I was.”
Breathlessly stung, she ducked away from him, but there was no room to run in this apartment.
“Whether the badge was real, whether or not you set out to trap me, none of it matters. If we don’t address this situation now, it will only get worse. Tomorrow there will be five men with cameras out there.”
“I think you’re exaggerating.”
“I’m a Montgomery, Ryan. My sister has been the top of every news update for weeks. My father is destroying the state he’s the governor of and I’m running for Congress. We are the goddamn news. And if the story breaks now that I had sex with a bartender and got her pregnant? Your life—to say nothing of mine—will be hell. But I have the resources, the legal help and money, to handle it. What do you have?”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
“That bravery is very endearing. But you have a sister in high school, another one who works as an ER nurse. Do you really want to do this to them?”
“How do you know about them?” she breathed, torn open and vulnerable.
“A preliminary investigation into your life. Right now there are dozens of journalists doing the exact same thing.”
“I’m going to kill my brother.” God, she could just shake Wes and his overblown sense of justice.
“A sentiment I share, but that won’t help us survive this kind of sex scandal.”
“Oh my God.” She fell back against the counter, the reality of what was happening to them crashing down hard around her. “I’m a part of a sex scandal.”
“I see you are starting to get the picture.”
“And you’re running for Congress.”
“You’re falling behind in the polls.”
“Delighted to see you’re doing your homework.”
His sarcasm was elegant. One of those fencing swords against her raw fists. She didn’t stand a chance, and so she gave up the fight.
“All right … how do we get out of this?”
“Did you meet Wallace downstairs?” he asked.
“Yes. He doesn’t like me.”
“No. He doesn’t.” Harrison laughed. “In fact, he says I should simply ignore the rumors. Ignore you. Ignore your child and just bow out of the race, let Glendale take the seat, and lie low for a few years.”
She jumped at this solution because it required nothing of her. “Sounds reasonable.”
“But I don’t want to bow out of this election. I would like to win it and get to work.”
“I’m not stopping you.”
“But you are. If I ignore this story, it will eat my career alive. For the rest of my life I’ll be the Montgomery who had the sex scandal.”
“What do you want me to do about that?”
She laughed. She laughed so hard she had to brace her hand against the counter, accidentally knocking her pretty red teacup into the sink, where it shattered. But even that didn’t stop her from laughing.
“I’m not kidding.”
“And that makes it even more funny. Listen, Harrison, you broke into my apartment. Called me stupid. All but accused me of being a gold-digging whore. I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man on earth.”
He nodded as if he accepted that. “You would not be my first choice either. It would be more of a proposition, really. Business.”
“You’re making it sound worse.”
“You’ve been married once before,” he said. “A union you barely survived, if the hospital records are to be believed.”
Her ribs caved in on her heart, and for a moment she could not breathe through the shock of having that thrown in her face.
“Those records are confidential,” she whispered, wishing she sounded stronger. Tougher.
“To everyone else, yes.”
But not to me. That was what he was implying. He was the kind of special and powerful and rich that could reach into her life and shake out every skeleton.
She blanched, getting light-headed.
He reached out to help her and she smacked his hands away. And it felt good, so good that she looked him inthe eye and smacked his cheek hard enough that his head snapped sideways.
Her heartbeat pounded in the silence that followed.
“I deserved that,” he murmured.
“Damn right you did.”
“But it’s the only one you’ll get.”
Underneath his polish lurked something wild. And she remembered in painful clarity how she’d felt both menaced and safe that night in his hotel room. How exciting that had been. But there was nothing safe about him now. Nothing at all. He was all menace.
Harrison took a deep breath and when he smiled at her, she saw a glimmer of Harry. Slightly abashed. Fully human. Reachable. Touchable. More safety than menace.
A lie. She understood that now. It was a persona he could turn on and off at will. A trick, one that no doubt was highly effective with the voters. It had been highly effective with her.
“Let me … let me start again,” he murmured, leading her toward the couch. She shrugged away from his touch but sat all the same, because she was feeling weak and awful and the soft edge of her red chenille blanket was a small anchor in her reality.
He turned toward the sink, got down another of her red teacups, and poured her some more chocolate milk. After handing it to her, he sat on her little square storage ottoman that was full of her running gear. The fan between them blew in the scent of hot asphalt and grilled meat.
She moaned, low in her throat, turning away from him and the smell and the hot air.
“I haven’t even asked how you’re feeling,” he whispered, leaning forward, his elbows on his knees.
She put her hand over her flat stomach as if to protect the baby from this man’s duplicity. This Ken Doll withall that hidden grief, his kindness and coldness. She’d come to terms with this baby, had started to find joy in this little life, started to build fantasies about their future. And he was going to pull all that apart. Change it all.
It was time to get this guy back out of her life.
“The baby is not yours. This whole thing is moot. You can go.”
She wanted to press the cool cup to her forehead, but instead she just held it in her hands, meeting his warm gaze with her own hate-filled one.
“It doesn’t matter, Ryan. It’s only a matter of time before the press finds out you’re pregnant, and you are already linked to me.” She didn’t say anything, staring instead over his shoulder at the copy ofDulcan’s Textbook of Child and Adolescent Psychiatryshe’d been so excited to find on a half-price rack at The Strand. “It doesn’t matter whose baby it is.”
She sniffed and took a sip of milk. “The baby is mine.”
“What I am suggesting is not a marriage in the typical sense. I am suggesting a proposal. A business arrangement.”
“If it includes sucking your dick—”
His head jerked back, his cheeks red.Oh, Harry was embarrassed. She was small enough to be pleased with that.
“It doesn’t. That … that night will not happen again. It’s not a part of the agreement.”
“I’m not interested in your agreement.” She stood, but he grabbed her wrist. The warmth of his palm sent something sizzling up her nerves. Something—when he was looking at her like that—that made no sense. She shook off his touch.
“Let me explain, Ryan. And then I’ll leave and give you a chance to think about it.”
She sat back down, because it was the quickest way to get rid of him.
“We will get married as soon as possible. If I win the election, we’ll stay married. If after two years you no longer want to be married—”
“What about you? Are you saying you might want to be married after two years?”
“The best thing for my career is if we get married and stay married.”
“I’m not looking for happy. I’m looking for a way to keep doing the work I want to do. But after two years if you want out, we will quietly get divorced after the next election. After which I will buy you a house, anywhere you want. And we will go our separate ways.”
“And cut all ties? What about the baby?”
“What about it?”
She gaped. “What about it? You will have spent two years pretending to be a father and then you just … vanish?”
“I will also send you monthly alimony and child support checks. The sum of which you can dictate. Within reason. I suppose there might be times I will need to see the child.”
Need to see the child. Oh my God, is this really happening?
“You are a cold man, Harrison Montgomery.”
“I’m a practical one. Embroiled in a situation that requires me to be as clear as possible. Furthermore, as my wife you will agree to help me campaign; appear in public with me as my doting and totally supportive partner. If at any point word of our agreement is leaked to the press, you and the child will get no money from me.”
“What if you don’t win?”
“I’m not entertaining that option yet.”
“Well, I’m not entertaining any of this yet.”
Harrison sat back. “I understand you have your pride. I … admire that about you, Ryan. And despite my awful comment earlier, I know you’re smart.” He glanced around her tiny apartment, including the psychology books on the shelf, before looking back at her. “There must be something you want. Something I can give you to make this rather indecent proposal of interest to you.”
She was silent. Overwhelmed. Exhausted and angry. Sad and ashamed.
He took her cell phone from the edge of the bookshelf behind him.
“I’m putting in my cell phone number,” he said. “This is my direct line. You have forty-eight hours to give me an answer.”
“Or I am forced to make a statement about you. I would like to make the statement that we’ve been secretly falling in love and have gotten married in a small private ceremony at the Georgia Governor’s Mansion.”
“And if I don’t agree to your proposal?”
“Then you are a former bartender at The Cobalt Hotel who, with the help of your brother, a dubious DHS agent, is trying to blackmail me.”
“That will ruin his career.”
“Undoubtedly. It’s not like I want any of this, Ryan. He has forced both of our hands.”
She took a deep breath and slowly blew it out. “Why can’t we just say we’re dating? Or engaged? And then just break up when the election is over?”
“Because politicians don’t date, Ryan. They are either married or single. And they really don’t date pregnant bartenders who live in studio apartments in Queens.”
“But you marry them?” she spat. “How noble.”
“Marriage will give it all some legitimacy.”
There was a knock on the door and then, withoutasking permission, that Wallace guy walked in, looking around her home as if it smelled bad.
“This place looks like my shitty dorm room,” Wallace said. “Nice loft.”
“Fuck you,” she snapped, and the venom felt good.
“Oh, she’ll make a lovely addition to the family,” Wallace laughed. “Your mother, in particular, is going to adore her.”
Harrison herded Wallace toward the door. “Give us a second, would you?”
“We need to move,” Wallace said. “We’re already late for The Carter Center conference.”
“I know. I’m hurrying.” Harrison shut the door behind Wallace and turned to face Ryan.
He still glittered. She was sweaty and sick and ruined, and he was still more beautiful than any man should be. But his wattage was turned down, the fairy dust wiped away by a certain weariness, a reluctant helplessness.
The glimpse of this vulnerability had a predictable effect on her and because she was an idiot, she wanted to hug him.
Don’t believe this, she told herself.This version of him is an act to get you to do what he wants. Underneath he’s the soulless robot who knows too much about your life and thinks you’re stupid.
“Marriage isn’t going to fix this, Harrison.”
“It won’t be easy. But it’s a start. My family—”
“Is complicated.” She laughed, remembering when he’d said that. For regular people a complicated family might mean their mom was gay, or they had two sets of stepparents who couldn’t stand one another. She never would have been able to believe he meant he was a Montgomery, American royalty. “You told me.”
“So is yours.” He shook his head, a ghost of a smile on his face. “We should put your brother and my mother in a room and see who makes it out.”
Ryan refused to smile and Harrison crossed the room. He hesitated for a moment before picking up her hand. His fingers were warm and dry against her damp, cold flesh. “We can make this work, for the both of us.”
For a moment they both stared at their conjoined hands, and she was wondering what he remembered about her. About that hotel room. What details, if any, kept him up at night, burning and alone.
Though the idea that Harrison burned, alone or otherwise, seemed unlikely.
Harry burned. Harrison was far too cold for those memories.
She pulled her hand away.
“I can’t do it,” she said.
“I hope you can think of this as an opportunity, Ryan. To change your life. The life of your child. I have resources you can’t even imagine, and you can use them to secure a future for yourself,” he said, and with that he was gone, the door clicking shut behind them.
Ryan put the teacup down on the floor and barely made it to the bathroom before throwing up.
Harrison went out the back door of the apartment building, to a tiny alley where his car and driver had been waiting. Wallace, glancing around for any photographers, opened the back door of the car and Harrison slid in. Wallace followed.
“Let’s get out of here,” Wallace said to Dan the driver, and they turned off 48th onto Queens Boulevard and made their slow way out to LaGuardia, where the family jet was waiting for them.
“So?” Wallace asked, while Harrison dug his BlackBerry out of his coat pocket. The thing had been going nuts while he was in Ryan’s apartment. Twenty text messages. Ten voice mails. Three of those from hismother. One from theTimes. Two from theJournal-Constitution.
We are in serious trouble.
“Get Bruce on the phone. We need to have a contract drawn up.”
“She agreed to your indentured servant idea?” Wallace asked.
“You say potato,” Wallace muttered, but he was getting his phone out, putting in the call to Bruce.
“She hasn’t agreed yet. But she will.”
“Why don’t you just follow in the incredibly long and noble line of politicians who pay their mistakes to go away?”
“Because in the twenty-first century that doesn’t work anymore. The world has changed, and …” He rubbed at his forehead, at the headache just under the bone that he couldn’t reach. “I don’t know why I have to keep saying this, but that is not me. That’s not the way I want to live my life. Paying off a woman who is pregnant with my baby to be quiet?”
I am not my father. I might have made the same mistake, but I will not do what my father did.
“So you’re going to pay herandmarry her?”
“Listen to me, Harrison.” Wallace leaned forward, giving an impassioned plea. Harrison usually liked Wallace’s impassioned pleas, but this one was going to be in direct contrast to his own goals. “No matter how you spin this, it’s going to hurt.”
“Everyone loves a love story, don’t they?”
“You honestly believe you are going to be able to convince the world that you have fallen in love with a tattooed, foul-mouthed bartender from Philly? I mean, she’s beautiful. I’ll give you that, but come on. This isthe weirdest Hail Mary I’ve ever seen. This campaign is over.”
“What about the next one?” Harrison put voice to his greater fear, imagining the unimaginable. “And the one after that. We don’t get a hold of this story, it will ruin my career. I’ll always be the guy who knocked up a tattooed, foul-mouthed bartender from Philly, tried to pay her off, and failed.”
Wallace sat back, his silence eerily telling. “When you put it that way …”
“Right. Call Bruce.” It was bleak every way he looked at it, and the only option that left his future open was getting Ryan to agree to this proposal.
“You sure she’s going to agree to this?” Wallace asked, lifting the phone to his ear.
“She doesn’t have a choice,” he said. “Neither of us do.”
Saturday, August 24
The next morning Ryan was awakened by someone knocking on her door, and by the time she got down from the loft and into her robe, that someone was pounding.
“Hey!” she cried, undoing the chain. “Hold your horses.”
The moment before she unlocked the two deadbolts she remembered the journalists outside and the easily bribed Mr. Jenkins, and kept the door shut.
“Who is there?” she yelled through the wood, her heart suddenly thumping in her throat.
“It’s me, you skinny white bitch, now open up!” Ryan looked through the peephole to confirm.Right. Mary from 3B. “Skinny white bitch” was nearly an endearment in Mary’s vernacular, so she opened the door.
It was Mary and five more of her neighbors, surrounding Mr. Jenkins.
Everybody looked angry.
The hallway smelled like fried eggs and curry.
“Well, good morning,” she said, cocking her hip against the door. “To what do I owe this honor?”
“What the hell is going on outside?” Mary asked. “I can’t get to work without getting harassed by about twenty assholes with cameras outside my door.”
“Wait … what?Twenty?”
“At least!” Mary cried.
“They’re starting to go through our garbage!” Vasquez from upstairs yelled. “My wife caught one of them coming in through the emergency exit out back.”
“I’m … I’m sorry.” Speaking was hard through the thumping of her heart in her throat. “I’m sure it will die down.”
“When?” Mary asked, crossing her arms over her chest, her expression dubious.
“I … I don’t know.”
Her neighbors erupted in outrage.
“Have you called the cops?” she asked Mr. Jenkins, who up until this point and for most of her association with him had remained silent. He was kind of like a silent, balding troll in work pants with a key ring he liked to jangle in his pocket.
“Of course. It hasn’t done much good. They moved back to the street for about an hour, but they are right at the doors again. This needs to end,” he said, jangling the keys in his pocket.
“You know what needs to end?” she demanded. “You letting strangers into my home.”
Jenkins didn’t even flinch. “It won’t be your home if you don’t get rid of the journalists on the sidewalk in front of the building.”
“There you go,” said Mary, nodding her head in approval. “That’s how we do.”
Oh fuck you, Mary, she thought but had the good sense not to say. Mary worked as a baker, kneading bread. Mary could tear her apart. Like with her bare hands.
“You can’t just threaten me with that, Jenkins. I have renter’s rights.”
“Not when your actions have a direct and potentially dangerous effect on other residents of the building. Look at your lease.”
“Okay,” Ryan said. “I will … I will do what I can.” She met the eyes of her neighbors over Mr. Jenkins’s bald head. They were all glaring at her. Half of them no doubt still pissed about her complaining about the noise after midnight last year. She’d been big on petitions for a stretch there and she did not make friends with the locals. “I promise.”
Someone somewhere was making coffee, the smell as powerful as a house fire.
It made her cranky and she shut the door in their faces.
Pushing away the siren song of the three Starbucks within a two-block radius, she grabbed her phone and called her brother.
“Leave a message,” his machine said.
“Wes,” she said after the beep. “You have to call me. You have to. Because you have fucked up my life in an epic way. You need to make it right.” She was pacing between the kitchen and the bathroom. This little part of her apartment had never seen so much activity. “By first of all telling me what you’re doing with a DHS badge. You could get in serious trouble for that; and secondly, getting the pack of rabid journalists off my goddamned sidewalk. And third—”
His phone beeped at her, indicating she’d gone on too long.
She hung up and tossed her phone on the couch.
Surely, this morning, of all mornings, she deserved a coffee. A small one. A sip. Just a sip.
She glanced at the clock above the stove. It was eight a.m. She had thirty-six hours before she had to give Harrison her answer.
And if he told the press that she was a bartender who was trying to blackmail him, the press numbers outside her door would only grow. The harassment of her neighbors would only get worse. She imagined Marymight start selling “stories” to the press. Hell, half of them would.
And the quiet, simple life she had been fantasizing about with this baby was totally in jeopardy.
She leaned back against the wall.
Wes had to make this right. He justhadto.
Her phone, in the cushions of the couch, started to ring and she dove for it.
Nora. The sound of her sister’s voice brought Ryan to her knees.
They were Polish twins, born eleven months apart. They’d slept in the same bed. Shared secrets and stories and air under the Holly Hobbie quilt their mother had got for them on sale at Woolworth’s.
They’d borrowed each other’s clothes, beaten up the bullies that called them names, and stolen each other’s boyfriends.
Well, that was her mostly, stealing Nora’s boyfriends.
And she’d been living in exile for so long.
I’m sorry, she thought.I’m sorry for all of it.
“What the hell have you done?” Nora asked. That familiar voice saying familiar words triggered a familiar response.
“I haven’t done anything,” she snapped back, because she and Nora couldn’t have a normal conversation without going for blood. “It’s Wes—”
“Wes slept with Harrison Montgomery? I find that hard to believe.”
“Really?” she asked, trying to make a joke. Trying to do anything to make all the things wrong just a little bit right. “Because I wouldn’t put anything past Wes.”
“Oh, that’s rich, Ryan. That’s so rich coming from you.”
Ryan heard the sounds of pots and a pan gettingthumped down on the old yellow stove on Nora’s end. She was probably making breakfast. Dad sitting at his spot at the kitchen table, the newspaper pulled apart and set out in his paper-reading tradition. A coffee cup at his elbow, dressed for a job he didn’t go to anymore.
Olivia might still be asleep, or just dragging ass on her way downstairs for breakfast.
She and Olivia emailed each other, and Ryan sent her things from the city. Funky clothes and jewelry that would stand out in Bridesburg. But it wasn’t the same. It was almost worse, never seeing her in those funky things.
“Are you in trouble?” Nora asked.
“Do you care?” Ryan shot back out of habit. And then immediately wished she could take it back.
“Not particularly. Look, we’ve got journalists hounding us. Dad stood on the sidewalk last night with his shotgun and some asshole showed up at Olivia’s piano practice, asking her questions about you.”
“I’m … I’m sorry.”
“Yeah. And I’ve heard that before. Olivia has college visits this week. And I know that probably doesn’t mean anything to you—”
“Of course it does!” she cried.
“Then make this shit stop. I swear to God, if you blow this for her …” Ryan heard the quick inhale of a cigarette being lit. Nora was smoking. Shit was bad if Nora was smoking.
“I’ll make it stop,” she whispered, running her pinky over the fringe of her red blanket. She didn’t know how, but she’d do what she could to make this right.
“Can I talk to—”
Nora hung up. Ryan sat there on her knees beside the couch, listening to the silence for a few moments,before she finally hung up and set the phone back down on the couch.
She did know. She did know how to make this right.
Wes wasn’t going to be able to get those journalists and photographers off the sidewalk. Wes wasn’t going to be able to fix this. That was Wes’s lot in life, making messes he couldn’t fix.
And maybe she wasn’t smart enough to see another solution, or she was too damn tired to try, but the key to making this stop was in her hands.
And in the end it wasn’t even a decision she had to make. She just had to come to grips with what was happening.
She got off her knees and sat on the floor, her back to the couch, her legs in front of her. From under the couch, she pulled out the notebook and pen she used to make grocery lists and draft petitions to piss off her neighbors.
There wasn’t any other option but to agree to Harrison’s proposal. And she could survive anything for two years; she’d been married to Paul for four, after all. She could do this, particularly if it meant giving her baby a better start than the one she could provide on her own. Particularly if it meant protecting Olivia, and Nora and Wes and Dad, from the stupidity of Wes’s sense of justice.
What did a congressman’s wife do? Smile. Wave. Drink tea … she didn’t really know what else would be required of her, but she could do it.
She’d done worse.
But she would come up with her own terms for this indecent proposal and she’d look out for her family. The baby and Nora and everyone else back home.
The thought spread, turning to hope. Perhaps this was the way to get back in Nora’s good graces. The wayto get back home. Being Harrison’s wife didn’t feel like such a horror show when she thought of it that way.
The phone behind her rang and she reached up to grab it.
“You’d better have a good explanation for this,” she said, not bothering with hello.
“I was trying to do the right thing,” he said, his voice glum and contrite and sad and angry. “I swear I just wanted him to own up to his part in this.”
Weary, she laughed. “What are you doing flashing around a DHS badge?”
“Causing trouble,” he said. “Look, I’ve got a call in with Harrison; hopefully I can fix this—”
“You can’t, Wes. It’s past that. The press is onto the story. They’re in front of my house. They’re in front of Nora’s, harassing Olivia at piano. Dad’s going to shoot somebody.”
“Jesus …” he breathed.
“Yeah. Listen, I got this, but I need you to get me a lawyer. A good one. A … scary one.”
“Because I’m getting married.”
Harrison couldn’t believe it had barely been forty hours since Wes Kaminski had burned his life down to the ground, but he couldn’t put off his parents any longer. He arranged for a meeting at his campaign office for six o’clock Sunday night, knowing that would keep Dad away. Dad wouldn’t show up to his campaign office if he was on fire and Harrison’s office had the only water in the city. Dad met Harrison on his own turf. His pathetic way of trying to maintain some power.
“Has she called?” Wallace asked.
Harrison shook his head. He was in the middle ofmaking phone calls to some of his big backers, trying to reassure everyone that his world wasn’t going up in flames, but he got the very real impression that only half believed him.
“You want me to have Jill set up the press conference for tomorrow morning?” Wallace was lying down on the couch in the corner, tossing a tennis ball in the air with one hand and catching it with the other. This was Wallace’s deep-thinking ritual.
They’d both slept in the office last night, putting out fires. Jill, his press secretary, tried to quit early this morning. Thank God Wallace talked her down off that ledge.
“Yes.” Harrison dropped the pen so he could rub at his eyes with both hands.
“What do you want her to say?” Wallace threw the ball wide, so he had to stretch his arm off the couch to catch it.
“That I’m going to be addressing the rumors regarding my relationship with Ryan Kaminski.”
“And that relationship is …?”
“You’ll know as soon as I do.”
At five, most of his interns and staff had left the building, so it was just the core team still trying to salvage this campaign, still trying to get his education message out over the screaming gossip. At five after five his mother walked into his office in a summer suit with flowers on it, pearls at her neck. A blue purse over her arm.
It was the Patty Montgomery uniform, and he’d seen his mother in some version of it almost every day of his life.
“You’re early,” he said.
“You have been avoiding my calls and I’m tired of waiting.”
She looked … rumpled. Which was actually alarming. Even when Ashley had been kidnapped by the pirates,her fate unknown for three weeks, Mother had never stepped out of her home looking less than totally controlled. Her slightly mussed hair and lack of lipstick seemed like a declaration that the Montgomery family was hanging by a thread.
“Your father’s office is mobbed. Noelle is fielding calls fromThe National Enquirer. The Enquirer, Harrison!”
Just saying the words gave her a minor stroke.
She glanced at the couch where Wallace lay sprawled, not moving at the sight of her, and then sniffed before sitting down on the chair in front of his desk. “You need to tell me what’s happening. Your father isn’t stepping foot in this building until he’s sure a pregnant woman won’t come flying out of the woodwork.”
“If I had a nickel for every time that’s happened,” Wallace joked.
“I find none of this funny,” Mother snapped, glaring at Wallace before turning that glare onto him. “Who the hell is Ryan Kaminski?”
“Well, Mother, if all goes according to plan …”
“Wait. Wait, I want to get a good look at her face when you tell her.” Wallace leapt up from the couch to stand beside Harrison’s desk.
Harrison sighed, and in a moment’s silence gathered all his resources for the fight to come. “If all goes according to plan she’ll be your daughter-in-law.”
Mother recoiled as if Harrison had thrust roadkill at her.
“Oh, God, it’s better than I imagined,” Wallace said, clapping.
Mother ignored Wallace. “You’re joking.”
“That’s a ridiculous plan. Why would you marry some woman we don’t even know?”
“I know her,” Harrison said, fighting the assimilation of “we.” The Montgomery mantle.
Mother gasped. “With your child?”
“With his dog, actually—it’s very strange,” Wallace said.
“Yes,” Harrison said. “With my child, but it doesn’t really matter, does it?”
“Of course it matters! You are a Montgomery! You need to have a blood test done before you take on this kind of campaign … poison.”
“It’s all poison, Mother. I could come out with irrevocable proof that the baby isn’t mine, but I’ll still be in the mud.”
“Then pay her!” Mom cried. “Do what every other man in office before you has done—pay her off.”
“That doesn’t always work,” Wallace said.
“It doesn’t matter,” Harrison said, growing sick at the way everyone was able to throw around the idea of paying Ryan off, like she was nothing. Like this child was nothing. “I’m not paying her to go away.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mother said. “It’s what men in your position—”
“I’m better than that,” Harrison snapped. “I’m better than those men.”
“Those men,” Mother scoffed. “Like you know—”
“I’m better than Dad!” Harrison shouted, knowing how those words would wound her. How they would rip at her hard façade. She stared at him for one moment with terrible hurt, terrible pain. But he didn’t regret saying it. “I know about Heidi. The world may not know what you and Dad did. But I do.”
Wallace glanced away, as if he could make himself vanish.
“It wouldn’t be the same,” Mother said with pricklycare, casting a threadbare chill over a deep embarrassment. “You are not already married.”
“I won’t do what Dad did.”
“I’m the one who paid that girl off,” Mom said.
“Then I won’t do what you did either.” He felt bad for his mother, he did, but her feelings were just going to have to be sacrificed because he was exhausted running from his family’s past both in public and behind doors. “You’ve been telling me for months I should get married. That it would help me seem more substantial. More grounded. And now, here I am … getting married.”
“Not like this! You honestly think a wedding will fix the gossip?”
“I do. A wedding and a good show.” Harrison got out of his chair and stepped around his desk to lean against the front of it. “That’s whereyoucome in.”
The rest of the world held her in esteem. They bought the show she put on with such seamless skill. The perfect hair and clothes, the charity work, the unwavering support of her husband in the face of whispers and innuendos.
Somehow, no matter how many times she was the silent, supportive wife at the edge of the stage, no one ever pitied her.
Maybe because everyone knew that Patty Montgomery single-handedly, over and over again, had pulled her husband from the brink of disaster.
And looking at her—about to enlist her for the exact same job for his benefit—Harrison felt only sadness. Pity.
He wondered if his mother remembered who she really was. Before devoting her life to keeping her husband in a position of power, despite all Ted’s efforts to fall from grace.
He wanted to tell her that it was okay. That he knewall the truths she worked so hard to keep hidden. For a moment he wanted them to just be honest with each other.
But there was no telling what she would do if he tried to pull down all the walls of the world she had created.
As if she could read his mind, her face changed from frustration to something utterly familiar and hard and cold, and the moment for honesty vanished.
That slightly raised eyebrow, those pursed lips as if she’d smelled something bad, but was too polite to say it—that was the mother of his childhood. The mother with the expression that saiddon’t come to me with your minor fears and heartbreaks. I would rather not be bothered by your desire for attention or affection.
As a kid he’d been baffled by that look on her face, because she didn’t look that way when they were in public. She gave her kindness to strangers, saved her chill for him and for Ashley.
So effective was that face of hers, that vague air of disappointment and disinterest, that he just stopped wanting anything from her.
It wasn’t easy screwing with the balance of his relationship with his mother. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like needing her. His life was much more comfortable when he kept an icy, businesslike distance between them.
The chill was their comfort zone, and needing something from her made him feel vaguely threatened.
“If she agrees to my proposal, we’re getting married. At minimum for two years.”
“Two years!” she cried.
“To make it seem at least slightly legitimate. But we will have to convince the voters and the press that Ryan and I are in love. And that’s a show that only you can help us pull off.”
“You are kind of the Great and Powerful Oz,” Wallace said, squeezing the tennis ball instead of tossing it.
“Help us groom her for the role of a congressman’s wife.” Harrison hoped to appeal to her hubris. “Help us convince everyone that we’re happily married.”
Do for me what you have done for Dad your entire married life. Make the lie seem real.
“You won’t win this election, Harrison,” she said, as if she couldn’t wait to get that off her chest.
“That’s not the point. This election, next election, it doesn’t matter. She needs to look the part and we need to act like she’s being welcomed into this family. It’s the only way any of this works. It’s the only way my entire career isn’t derailed.”
“And if she doesn’t agree?” Mother asked. Harrison shrugged.
“We let the press tear her to pieces and hope we can stay above it.”
“I’m leaning more toward that option myself,” Wallace said, which actually made Mom smile.
“So … who is she?” she asked, tucking her purse on her lap and crossing her arms over it. “What exactly are we dealing with?”
“Let me do the honors,” Wallace said, pulling from the top of the stack of files on Harrison’s desk the report their investigator had made. He cleared his throat and opened the file. “Ryan Michelle Kaminski is a high school dropout.”
Mom put her head in her hands.
“Oh wait,” Wallace said. “It gets better. Remember that Lip Girl product from about fifteen years ago?”
“Wallace, let this go, would you?” Harrison asked. Ever since they’d dug up this little gem from Ryan’s past, Wallace had been telling anyone who would listen.
“Let it go?” Wallace laughed. “Your future wife wasa teenage fantasy for boys up and down the eastern sea-coast. This is something we need to deal with.”
“What is the Lip Girl product?” Mom asked.
“It was this Chapstick stuff that was sweet and sticky and kind of gross, but the whole campaign was around this one beautiful girl putting it on, kissing a man on the lips, and then turning and saying to the camera in a breathless purr, ‘Try it. He’ll like it.’ ”
“You’re kidding me,” Mother said.
“She was seventeen.”
“Oh my God,” she gasped.
“Look,” Harrison said, trying to stop the entire meltdown. “It’s bad. We all know it’s bad. That’s why we need everyone pulling together on this.”
Patty’s blue eyes slid to his and she made no effort to hide her repulsion. And he knew his mother would help, because she would rather eat her hands than have her family name suffer this kind of ignominy. But she would make Ryan pay.
“I pray she does not agree to this,” she said.
“You and me both,” chimed in Wallace.
At that moment Harrison’s cell phone rang and while everyone else froze in horror around him, he calmly grabbed it off his desk and glanced at the New York area code.
“It’s her,” he said, which sent Wallace into an explosion of swearing.
He glared Wallace into silence before engaging his phone.
It was a surprise to realize he’d recognize that dry, slightly husky voice anywhere. He turned away from his riveted audience. “Yes?”
“This is Ryan. Look, I’m … ah … going to take you up on your proposal. But I have my own terms.”
He sagged with relief. Now, maybe there was a chance he was going to make it through to the other side of this with his reputation and name at least marginally intact.
“Wonderful. I’ll have a driver come and pick you up at your apartment and take you to LaGuardia, where there will be a jet waiting for you. You have a half hour to pack.”
“You … you can just make all that happen in a half hour?”
“That is only the beginning of what I can do, Ryan. I’ll see you in roughly three hours.”
“I have a lawyer and he’s on his way to Atlanta now,” she said, and he imagined her up-thrust chin and was reminded of the woman he met that night in the bar. The woman he’d liked quite a bit.
“And you’re paying for him.”
He almost mentioned conflict of interest but decided against it. He needed her here, married and undergoing some fairly extensive media training as soon as possible.
“All right … I guess I’ll see you in three hours.”
Harrison hung up and turned to his campaign manager and mother, both of whom looked braced for a disaster. “We have a wedding to plan.”
It was amazing how quickly a half hour passed when you spent most of the time freaking out, spinning in circles, and trying not to throw up.
She called her lawyer, then called Jenkins and arranged payment to keep her apartment for one more month; she’d figure out what to do with it when things calmed down. She thought about calling Wes, but decided he’d done enough. And then she tried to pack, but she could only stare at her leather and her halter tops and the cut-offs and thin jersey skirts.
She had six pairs of flip-flops. One of them—her favorite pair—was held together with duct tape. The idea of standing next to Harrison wearing anything she owned was ludicrous.
All of this was ludicrous.
Even her nicer stuff, such as the dress she bought on sale for a friend’s wedding last year. Or the cheap business suit she wore to auditions that required that kind of look—it reeked of wrong. Of not at all good enough.
“Screw it,” she muttered, and just threw a bunch of underwear and pajamas into her bag with her toiletries and makeup. She’d get new clothes; half this stuff wouldn’t fit in a few months anyway. She’d buy a whole set of costumes for this ridiculous role she was going to play and then when it was over, she’d burn it. She’d burn it and take her baby and start a new life.
The sound of her cell phone ringing and rattling against the counter broke the silence in the apartment.
With a shaking hand she answered, “Yes?”
“This is her.”
“I’m the driver who is taking you to LaGuardia. You have a pack of journalists in front of your apartment. I’m idling in the back near the Dumpsters.”
“I’ll be there in a second,” she said and hung up.
She hooked her bag over her shoulder and looked around her apartment one last time.
Once, years ago, she’d thought that it was only a matter of time before her life changed. Before something amazing happened to her. Despite a life that conditioned her otherwise, growing up where she did, how she did, the best she could hope for was an amicable divorce and a kid who stayed out of jail.
Even after what she and Paul did to her family, and then the divorce, she still believed that something fantastic was waiting just around the corner.
That was what modeling had led her to believe. That she was one lucky break, one callback, one random Jumbotron shot at a football game away from her life changing.
Years had passed and she wasn’t sure when she stopped believing that. When she just accepted every day at face value. Something to survive and celebrate in equal parts. She’d lost sight of that strange hope and settled down hard into a life that was constantly in danger of collapsing under its own weight.
Money. Work. Now this baby. Her health. Her family. All of those things could crush her life as it stood. And she lived that way—every day. She was just like millions of other people, barely getting by, not making a dent or a scratch on the world they lived in.
Even in New York City, miles away from Bridesburg, she was living nearly the exact same life as if she’d stayed there.
But here she was standing at the edge of life-altering change. Terrifying change. And she was torn between laughing and crying. It was going to be awful; she knew that. Day in and day out with Harrison’s judgment and superiority, hand in hand with memories of that stupid night.
And a baby!His baby!That he was so willing to walk away from when all of this was over.
What kind of man was capable of that?
The kind of man who would use her and put her away when her use was over. So, she would do the same. She’d get her terms agreed to, change her family’s life, spend her two years smiling and waving and doing God knows what else, and then she’d … put him aside.
At the last minute, she grabbed one of her red teacups and shoved it in her bag.
A reminder for the awful times ahead of who she was and that she was precious. If to no one else, at least to herself.
Ryan spent the surreal trip from town car to private jet to town car arming and armoring herself with information. She was not going to show up at the Governor’s Mansion like some impoverished historical romance heroine who’d been knocked up by the Duke.
Wes had sent Ryan an email full of fascinating tidbits about the Montgomerys, and she studied it like she was cramming for her high school history test.
The Montgomerys were a fifth-generation political family out of Georgia.
They were soldiers and government leaders dating all the way back to the Civil War.
But in recent years, Harrison’s father, Ted, had been a very naughty boy. Politically and perhaps personally. Errant whiffs of scandal had dogged him for most ofhis career, including a nearly fatal car accident with a young woman who was not his wife. After the accident, Patty Montgomery quashed any rumors that Ted and the girl who’d nearly died were anything but co-workers.
But all of that had the faint stench of “she protests too much” around it.
The family ran an extensive foundation that seemed to fund Ashley Montgomery’s aid trips.
Harrison … well, Harrison was remarkably boring, really. Smug and indifferent in teenage interviews. There was, however, a hilarious picture of him with Chelsea Clinton looking hugely uncomfortable at a prom. His first year at Georgia he’d been a miserable student and a very serious frat boy. After freshman year he transferred to Emory, where he turned things around. Really turned things around. Double major in political science and history, and then he went to Emory Law and then kept going back to get more degrees. Including a Doctor of Law/Master of Theological Studies.
He started a nonprofit organization that served the families of vets, called VetAid.
Dad would like that, she thought before she could stop herself.
When Harry had told her at the bar that he’d never had a boss, he wasn’t kidding. This run for Congress looked like his first real job.
“Rich people,” she muttered.
“Excuse me?” the driver asked.
“Nothing,” she said. She imagined that this fancy car with its fancy driver, whisking her in air-conditioned comfort from the Atlanta airport north of the city to where the houses got bigger and the lawns got more lush, probably had one of those windows she could raise and lower for privacy. But she didn’t know where the button was.
“How much farther?” she asked.
She closed the email file on her phone, having gleaned as much as she needed for the time being. Basically, she was marrying into a very white, very rich, and pretty boring family.
If it weren’t for the sister kidnapped by Somali pirates and Harry (she’d begun thinking about the version of Harrison she’d slept with that night as a totally different person), there’d be nothing interesting about them at all.
Except, of course … her. And this baby.
She opened her purse and did her best to freshen up. The green sundress she’d decided on wearing had weathered the travel pretty well except for a dark spot near the strap, where she’d spilled some decaf coffee she’d been unable to refuse on the jet.
Privatejet. There had been a time, not so long ago, that she’d thought that was her due. A foregone conclusion in her rosy modeling future. Those ambitions were something that Paul had fanned to life in her. Or at least fanned to a larger flame.
And when they didn’t come to fruition, well, that’s when she’d learned the reality of marriage. Her marriage, anyway.
Funny to have those dreams come to fruition now.
She pulled her hair out of its bun and brushed it, letting it lie brown and silky across her shoulders. Casting directors, scouts, reps—they all said her hair was her best feature, and so she played it up.
Harry—Harrison—had seemed to like it that night in the hotel room.
If nothing else, perhaps she could throw him off his stride.
Makeup helped with the dark skin under her eyes and the paleness of her cheeks.
Long ago, she’d learned that most people didn’t seepast her looks. Her beauty had been her identity for a long, selfish, and miserable time in her life. But now she would use that same beauty as armor to keep Harrison from seeing all the parts of herself she would like to hide.
And by the time the car came to a stop, she looked pretty good, if she did say so herself. And she felt pretty good, too. Not like a sheep to the slaughter, but rather as a fully capable and intelligent woman who was making a decision to improve her future and that of her child.
I can do this, she told herself, and she believed it.
But the moment she stepped out onto a circular drive in front of a redbrick mansion with white columns lit up with dozens of hidden spotlights, her confidence took a hit.
It’s called the Governor’s Mansion, she thought, tugging on the hem of her cheap rayon sundress.You knew it wasn’t going to be a hut.
The front door opened and she found herself holding her breath, waiting for Harrison, only to be disappointed when it was Wallace trotting down the steps. He was a handsome man, tall and thin. But it was all ruined by his bad ties. This one was yellow and brown circa 1972.
He stopped a few feet from her, as if she were radioactive and infectious. “You are actually going to do this?”
“Hello to you, too.” She peeked behind him, waiting for her would-be fiancé to come out. She didn’t want to talk to any of them, but the guy she was engaged to would be better than Wallace.
“He’s in meetings,” Wallace said, apparently reading her mind.
She thought,Get better ties, but his face didn’t change.
The night around them was thick and lush and hot,and she felt sweat bead up under her hair.I should have left it up, she thought.I shouldn’t have bothered trying.
Because nothing about her impressed this man. Not her armor. Not her beauty. This man wasn’t about to get taken in by anything she had to offer.
Her brother had sent some information about Wallace, too. And having read all about his background, she understood him a little better. It didn’t make her like him, but she understood what he was doing: protecting his friend.
That kind of behavior was all over his file. A ghetto Robin Hood.
“This isn’t going to be a regular marriage,” he said.
“You know what I’ve been calling you?”
“I can’t wait to hear.”
“The indentured servant.”
“Aren’t you clever?”
“I am, actually.” He nodded at the driver, who went to the trunk of the car to pull out her bag, and then Wallace turned to walk back inside.
She wasn’t going to start this endeavor being anyone’s punching bag. This family might have more money than God, and this handsome man with terrible taste in ties may have more power than she did, but she was no one’s fool.
“Do you think your mother would have taken this deal?” she asked, and Wallace paused on the wide white steps. Slowly, he turned. And she saw in his blank-faced astonishment the knowledge of every single sacrifice his mother made years ago on his behalf. He knew exactly what his mother had given up for him.
And because of the file, so did she.
“Would she have taken this deal instead of working three jobs, and living in the shitty housing project on Chicago’s south side, all so you could go to the goodprivate school, so you could get the scholarship to Emory?”
“I’m sorry?” he breathed as if he hadn’t heard her correctly.
“Your mom,” she said, stepping closer. Knowledge was power, and she felt her own power return. “When she found out she was pregnant with you. Do you think if some man had come out of the blue and promised to make sure your life was set up in a way she could never dream of making happen on her own, would she have done that?” She tilted her head, watching him. She didn’t want an enemy in this man. She didn’t want an enemy at all; the next two years were going to be hard enough. “I think she would have. I think we both know your mother would have done anything for you. Including agreeing to this proposal.”
“You think you’re like my mom?”
It was obvious he didn’t. His curled lip would indicate she wasn’t fit to sit next to his mother in church.
“I’d do anything for this baby,” she said, brushing her hand over her stomach. “That makes us similar enough.”
He was silent for a long time, looking over her head at the lights around the fountain.
“Well, well,” he said and then smiled at her again, not particularly kind but not mean anymore, either. “Now who’s clever?”
He waited for her while she climbed the stairs.
“All I did was sleep with a guy at a bar,” she told him when she got to his step. “A nice guy who seemed like he was having a bad night. If you want to hate someone, hate Harrison. He knew who he was. I didn’t.”
He nodded slowly, as if mulling over the idea of hating his boss. “Clever and tough. That’s good. You’re going to need everything you’ve got with this family.”
She glanced around the front of the house, the stunning reality of Harrison’s wealth. The stunning realityof what she was doing. Of how unbelievably out of place she was.
“Is my lawyer here?” she asked as they took the rest of the steps together.
“Yeah, he’s with Bruce, discussing your amendments to the contract.”
“Is there a problem?”
“Well, we’re not thrilled with your amendment should he lose this election.”
“If it’s really awful, I want a way to get out of this marriage.”
“He’s not a bad guy.”
“I might have agreed with you at one time, but now I don’t know what he is. And that’s why I want to be able to dissolve the agreement if both parties agree when the election is over.” She gave him the side-eye. “If your mother was in this situation, that’s what you would want her to do.”
“All right,” he laughed. “We can give my mother a rest.”
“What about my other demands?”
“Shouldn’t be a problem. Paying the mortgage for your family’s house in Philadelphia, setting up a college fund for your sister, for your child, and keeping your brother’s name out of the press are all doable.”
“And the last thing?”
Poor Wallace looked tortured. “You … you really need that in writing?”
“Then it’s done. No sex.”
“No sex. And separate rooms.” She could not imagine sharing a bedroom with a man she didn’t know, not after years of her own privacy.
If she was going to be spending most of her time pretending to love and be loved by a man who couldn’t bebothered to greet her at the door on the evening of their wedding, then she was going to need a place to regroup.
“The Montgomerys have added their own stipulation.”
“A blood test when the child is born. The results to be kept private.”
She smiled humorlessly. And she wanted to tell him to fuck off, but she had nothing to hide. Harrison had no reason to believe in her; the connection she’d felt that night had been a ruse, the product of grief and her own stupid, wayward heart.
Wallace nodded and opened the front door.
Despite all her efforts to not be one of those historical romance heroines, walking into the marble foyer and seeing the slick hardwood floors beyond, the glittering chandeliers and sconces, she felt like one.
She felt small and alone. And like maybe her dad lost her in a poker game.
At the far end of the front entry—so large that two of her apartments could have fit in it—a door opened.
She wanted it to be Harrison coming through that door as much as she was dreading seeing him again. And now she was grateful that it had been Wallace at the front door; it gave her a chance to regroup. To fortify her walls. To be reminded in no unclear way that this was business. And nothing else at all.
But it wasn’t Harrison coming through that door.
“Oh Christ, brace yourself,” Wallace whispered, placing his hand at the small of her back as if to help hold her up. His solicitous concern was terrifying.
The woman that came across the foyer to stand in front of Ryan was small, though she gave the impression of being bigger than she was. Her dark suit wastailored to fit her thin body. Her long blond bob was perfect in every way, the highlights subtle, not a hair out of place. Her makeup was the same, elegant and restrained. She wore gold hoops in her ears and a small crucifix on a thin chain around her neck. A diamond the size of a grape on her ring finger.
Ryan knew a stylized look when she saw one, a costume top to bottom created to tell a story, to force a reaction. This woman wanted everyone to believe she was in the background. Nonthreatening. Vaguely forgettable.
But it was a lie.
She was chilling in her practiced innocuousness.
Behind her, another woman came out the door. Blond and rumpled, a pencil in her hair, two phones and clipboard in her hand.
“I’m Patty Montgomery,” the woman in front of her said.
Ryan had of course read plenty about her in the files and knew that what she was really wearing wasn’t that St. John suit or the god-ugly round-toed pumps, but ego. She was cloaked head to toe in her own hubris.
Unable to resist stirring the pot, Ryan shrugged, as if the name meant nothing to her. Beside her, Wallace swallowed a laugh.
“I am Harrison’s mother.” She said it slowly, as if Ryan were stupid. Or didn’t understand English.
“Nice to meet you. I’m his fiancée.” Ryan put out her hand to shake, but Mrs. Montgomery simply sniffed. As far as snubs went, it was expected and unimaginative.
Really? Too good to shake my hand? That’s what you’re leading with?Ryan thought, surprised by how pissed the lame insult made her. It seemed that all the anger and resentment that she wasn’t going to let herselffeel about this strange turn her life had taken had found an incredibly handy outlet in this woman.
“Wallace, where is Harrison?” Patty asked, looking past Ryan as if she weren’t there. “Reverend Michaels is in the south parlor and he doesn’t have a lot of time to wait.”
“He’s got a conference call with Gibbs in Washington. He should be done shortly.”
“Wonderful.” Patty gave Ryan another long look. “You have a half hour, I imagine, before the ceremony if you’d like to change.”
“No … nope?” Patty asked, her perfect eyebrows nearly hitting her hairline.
“This is it. My wedding dress. I got it from a guy in the garment district who only had one eye. It’s my lucky dress.” She was hugely gratified to watch Patty’s face nearly implode with distaste. Honestly, this woman was really too easy.
“Tomorrow morning we have a press conference, and after that you will be doing a school visit. Do you plan on wearing … that?”
“I’ve got some skinny jeans.”
“Noelle!” Patty called, and the messy shadow woman behind her stepped forward.
“Clearly, Ms. Kaminski is going to need a new wardrobe. Could you see that done?”
Noelle nodded and wrote a note on the clipboard she carried.
“I’m size four,” Ryan said, watching Patty from the corner of her eye. “Size eight shoe. Yellow looks terrible on me, and keep the skirts short. I may be a politician’s wife, but I’m not dead, am I?” She laughed, pouring it all on thick. For a woman who just seconds ago had thought she needed no enemies, she was doingher damnedest to make sure her future mother-in-law was going to be one.
It was her perverse streak, the rebellion she had against anything that wasn’t genuine. She’d take a hot mess over a woman pretending she was perfect, projecting a lie. She had no patience for that.
And this gut reaction to prove an act was false had gotten her in more than her fair share of trouble.
“We’ll need a stylist,” Patty said, eyeing Ryan’s hair. “Tony should be able to come in first thing before the press conference.”
“My hair is fine,” she said.
Patty stepped closer, bringing with her the crackling energy and disapproval of five generations of money and power. Ryan swallowed. “I don’t think you understand that whatever rock you have lived under is gone. Your sad little existence as a waitress and a would-be model—it’s over. The way you lived your life, the things you believe, they do not matter anymore. You are a Montgomery, and you will behave as such, or I’m afraid you’ll find this golden ticket you’ve managed to weasel out of my son will vanish. You. That baby. You will disappear right back into the hole you came from with absolutely nothing.”
“All right, Patty.” Wallace stepped forward, but Patty’s gaze was so cold that he froze in his spot.
“Is this the same speech you gave that girl who almost died in the car crash with your husband?” Ryan said, deliberately baiting the bear, because she’d been taken out by her knees by this woman. And the only thing to do when you were going down in a fight was to make sure you weren’t going down alone.
“Ryan,” Wallace breathed, as if a warning to take cover. To tip over that ugly chair and hide behind it. But she stood her ground, because it was all she had left.
“Do you think not caring makes you brave?” Patty’slow voice cut her to pieces. “It doesn’t. It makes you stupid. More than your lack of education, or where you come from, not caring just makes you stupid, Ryan. And you don’t know this about Harrison, but he cares. More than anyone else in this family, hecares. And you may have impressed him one night in a bar. But you are in his life now and he won’t be impressed by you at all. Now, you’re getting married in the south parlor. You have twenty minutes.”
Patty’s heels nearly bored holes in the granite and hardwood floors as she left, Noelle her shadow trailing behind her.
“Holy shit,” Ryan said, finally sucking in a breath. Panic roared around her. “What the hell am I doing?”
“Hey, hey,” Wallace said, grabbing a stiff armchair next to a table covered in flowers. “Don’t pass out. Please don’t pass out.” He shoved the chair behind her knees and Ryan collapsed gratefully into it.
She put her head in her hands and let her hair fall down around her. A cave that smelled like the shampoo that was still in her tiny shower back in her apartment.
The hole I come from.
I want to go home.
“This is ridiculous,” she said, torn between angry tears and hysterical laughter. Because Patty had been right; where she was from, not caring was the only way to survive. Where she came from you learned not to get your hopes up and then you learned not to hope.
After that, all you had left was bravado.
“No. No, it’s not.” She felt and heard Wallace get down in a crouch in front of her.
She shook back her hair, staring at this strange ally. “Ten minutes ago you would have given me the same damn speech.” Oh, now she was turning toward tears. Because this guy had a nice face.
“Yeah, and now I’m telling you to suck it up. Harrison, his career, hell, even his mother needs you to see this through.”
“I don’t give a shit about his mother,” she spat.
“Excellent. Me neither.”
She smiled, but sagged farther into the awkward chair. “This is going to be a disaster.”
“Maybe,” Wallace said. “But you’re here. You’ve come this far and you’ve done all right.”
That made her laugh. “All right?”
“Yeah, you know, better than all right,” he said, settling into his pep talk. “The lawyer. Making sure you get something out of this. That your family is taken care of. You’re clever. You’re tough. How’d you know about the girl in the car crash?”
“My brother sent me some information about the family, and I just put two and two together.”
She was tempted to ask him why he was being nice. If it was real. Because she could use something kind, something real right about now.
But tough was lonely. So was proud.
And she had a lot of practice with those things, having lived alone with them for years. Exiled from every Christmas and birthday with her family. Weekends at home, Olivia’s performances, Dad …
The thought of Dad got her to her feet.
This was how she made things right with Dad. The money her lawyer was making sure she got—that would go a long way toward fixing what she’d done.
She grabbed her leather purse. It used to be one of the nicest things she owned, but now, sitting on the granite floor under the chandelier, it just looked cheap.
I don’t care, she thought.I don’t care how I look to these people. I have a job to do, a past to make right, and a future to secure.
And I’m not stupid.
“Show me where the fucking south parlor is. I need to get married.”
Wallace pointed toward the door that Patty and Noelle had vanished through.
“Right.” She threw her hair over her shoulder and crossed the foyer.
“Ryan?” Wallace asked.
“You were right about my mom.” He was running a hand over that ugly tie. “She would have done this, too. For me.”
It felt like a blessing. But maybe that’s what any kind of approval looked like when you were lying down flat at rock bottom.
Whatever, she thought. I’ll take it.
She winked at Wallace, which made him laugh, and she opened the door to the unknown beyond.
Harrison saw Wallace tapping his watch in the study doorway. Harrison nodded and held up one finger.
Wallace pulled an exasperated face.
“Hey, Gibbs, I need to go.” He cut the analyst off in the middle of a discussion of language use in a new survey they were going to put out regarding fiscal responsibility. “Email me that poll data and I’ll look it over and call you back next week.” Gibbs agreed and hung up.
“I take it she’s here?” Harrison asked, hanging up his cell phone and slipping it into his pocket. He’d been procrastinating, listening to doors slam down the hallway and not in any hurry to join the fray.
Cowardly; he totally understood that.
“She’s been here waiting for nearly forty-five minutes,” Wallace said, and Harrison gaped at the man.
“Are you chastising me? The man who wanted me to pillory her in theNew York Times?”
Wallace shrugged, stepping farther into the mahogany-paneled office. It was on the first floor and therefore open to the public for tours, so it fairly reeked of formal inefficiency. But Harrison had never been comfortable in his father’s offices. Not since he was twenty-two. In the irrational fear he would be contaminated. Pulled offside by his father’s weakness.
The joke’s on you, isn’t it. The weakness was already in him.
Maybe that was why he was procrastinating, puttingoff the ramifications of his weakness. The utter reality of his failure.
“I’ve changed my mind about her.”
This honestly didn’t come as a surprise to Harrison. Ryan had the kind of tough-love charm that Wallace would adore. Hell, Harrison had adored it for one night.
Tell me who your best isn’t good enough for.
“Don’t tell me you’re turning into a romantic.”
“She went toe to toe with your mom,” Wallace said.
Harrison paused while shrugging into his coat. “And she’s still here?”
“She’s tough, man,” Wallace said with a shrug and a smile, like he was talking about some scrappy new pitcher for the Braves.
In Wallace-speak, it was high praise.
“We knew that.” He jammed paperwork into his briefcase, the amended marriage contracts he’d signed. No sex, separate rooms, she could leave if both parties agreed should he lose the election, the blood test Mother had insisted be included. This whole marriage was a farce. It wasn’t even a very good business arrangement since it was, at its core, a cover-up. “She is tough. Foolish and headstrong. Uneducated, a potential nightmare in the press, she has a loose-cannon brother with a criminal past, to say nothing of that Lip Girl thing. She may or may not be pregnant with my child. She may or may not have orchestrated this whole damn thing.”
“You don’t really believe that, do you?” Wallace asked. “That she’s tricked you?”
“Don’t act so horrified, Wallace. Twenty-four hours ago you were saying the same thing.”
“Well, as your soon-to-be wife just reminded me, there were two of you in that room and only one of you knew who you were.”
Harrison came abreast of his campaign manager atthe door. “If that’s true and she didn’t know me, she quickly figured it out, didn’t she?”
“Or her brother did and she really knew nothing about it.”
What if that was the truth? he wondered, but then quickly decided it didn’t matter.
“That doesn’t change the fact that I barely know her. But what I do know is she is without a doubt the worst possible wife for me.”
“Yeah,” Wallace said. “If all you are is a politician.”
“I’m a Montgomery,” Harrison said. “What else would I be?”
The south parlor was the scene of a very strange tableau. Reverend Michaels and Mother sat on the love seat, their heads bent together. One might think they were praying, but Harrison knew better. Plotting world domination perhaps, or at the very least the destruction of one former bartender from Philly.
Dad sat in a chair by the curtains, his tie and jacket gone. A drink in hand. And by the flush on his cheeks, it wasn’t his first. Ted was studiously ignoring everyone else in the room, particularly Ryan. As if just clapping eyes on her might hurt his approval rating.
Or maybe he was thinking about Heidi, the young woman he’d used and discarded.
Maybe he was feeling the edges of his own guilt.
Ryan sat in one of the gold brocade Queen Anne chairs, her legs crossed, a flip-flop dangling from her toe. She was reading something on her phone, one finger twirling the end of a lock of hair.
She was chewing gum.
In a house full of lies and pretense, she was startling, viscerally real.
“I think I’m in love with her,” Wallace muttered.
“Sorry I’m late,” Harrison said, stepping farther into the room.
“Well, well, if it isn’t the Golden Boy.” Dad wasn’t slurring. Not quite. But his words were dipped in ugliness. Ryan lifted her head, a deer scenting danger.
Harrison ignored him. Ignored him so hard he practically shook.
“Not so sanctimonious now, are you, son?” Ted kicked his legs out in front of him, angling his head as if to study Harrison more clearly. “Tell me, how does it feel to be just as human as the rest of us?”
Harrison threw his briefcase onto the chair.
“Nothing to say to your old man? You know if you’d asked me, I could have told you. It’s never worth it, son.”
“Ted!” Mother’s sharp voice rattled the windows, silencing her husband, who took his chastisement like he always did—with a healthy slug of bourbon.
“It’s not too late to change your mind,” Mother said. She stood and approached him with her hands out. “We can think of another way out of this.”
Suddenly, it seemed as if their roles were reversed and he was the one steeling himself, holding himself away from her so as to not get dirty with her barely concealed emotion. Her messy desire for more of him than he was willing to give.
“There is no other way,” Harrison said.
“Well, in that case.” Dad stood up, bracing himself on the chair until his legs were steady. “Congratulations, son,” he said, toasting Harrison with his glass, and then turned to Ryan. He fought the desire to step in front of Ryan and shove his father back into his evil, dark little corner, but that would require acknowledging the man. “Welcome to the family. Welcome all to hell.”
“So romantic,” Ryan said, and all three Montgomerys turned to stare at her. “Really, how can a girl refuse?” She stood up, tucked her phone back in her purse, and approached all of them. Like Daniel sashaying into the lion’s den. “The contracts have been signed. I’m totally bought and paid for, and while I appreciate a good family fight before any wedding ceremony, I’ve been waiting for close to an hour to get married. I’m exhausted. Sick. And my feet are swelling. So, I’d like to get hitched.”
Everyone looked down at her feet. At her flip-flops.
“Harrison,” Mother moaned. “You cannot be serious about this.”
Ryan stood there looking exactly like what she was—beautiful, yes. Stunningly so. Sexy and lush and vibrant. But she was broke, desperate, and uneducated. In terms of improving her life, she’d hit the jackpot with him.
She wasn’t here because of any lingering emotional attachment he had to her from that night they’d shared. He didn’t share his sister’s romantic idealism, the desire to be anyone outside of his name.
Ryan was here because Harrison had been weak.
“Reverend Michaels,” he said. “If you would do the honors.”
Married. I am married.
She kept staring at the simple gold band on her finger, next to the very not simple diamond ring Harrison had slipped on with the band in a very slick sleight of hand that she doubted anyone had noticed. Engaged and married in one fell swoop.
The diamond was at least a carat and made the diamond chip Paul had given her a lifetime ago seem ridiculous.
“Where’d this come from?” she asked. “The diamond?”
“My aunt’s.” He didn’t look at her, barely acknowledged her. “You’ll give it back if you break the contract.”
She was married to a man who’d ignored her for the last hour. If he hadn’t said her name during the ceremony, someone watching the event would not have known whom he was marrying. The icy moat he’d dug around himself was impenetrable and despite the sticky heat of Atlanta in the summer, she was cold in his presence and felt naked in her dress.
As soon as Wallace had shut Harrison’s car door, Harrison had put up the privacy screen between the front and back seats and poured himself a scotch from the bar hidden in the seat between them. He’d given her a bottle of water, which sat in her lap, condensation making dark spots on her dress.
And then he’d pulled a stack of papers from the briefcase on the floor beside his outstretched legs and didn’t look at her again.
He was so big in the backseat, took up so much space. Air.
She tilted her head back so she could breathe.
“Are you going to be sick?” Harrison asked.
His electric-blue eyes watched her in the darkness. It was the first time he’d looked at her since getting in the car. It was shocking, that gaze in the half-dark.
That is my husband.
“I’m fine.” Her voice croaked from exhaustion and disuse.
The tinted windows made the dark outside seem darker, but it was obvious they were driving closer to the city.
“Where do you live?”
“A condo in midtown,” he said looking back down at the files in his lap. He took a sip of scotch.
“Is it nice?”
The silence was so thick she could scoop it up in her hands, like wet sand, and make a wall between them as real as the privacy screen between the front and back seats.
“What happens tomorrow?” she asked, because she was perverse and he so clearly wanted her to be silent.
“We’ll be giving a press conference at my campaign office. Before that there will be some people at my house to help us get ready.”
“Your mother is getting me clothes.”
He barely looked at her. “If that bothers you, tell her to stop. Eventually she listens.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “Noelle will probably have a better idea of what I need than I will.”
Harrison sighed. Ryan ran her hand over the water bottle in her lap, collecting moisture and then wiping it on her dress.
“I made her angry, and I did it on purpose. I probably shouldn’t have done that.”
“Everything makes her angry; don’t take it personally.”
“I’m going to need all the friends I can get.”
He huffed under his breath, giving her the impression that friendship and his mother were not going to happen. But she couldn’t stop thinking about the way Patty had taken her apart in the foyer. Obviously, Patty didn’t like her and that was fine, but that scene wasn’t just about not liking Ryan. It was about protecting her son. And Ryan had no clue what went into being a politician’s wife, but maybe that was part of it.
Part of her job was to keep the illusion alive. To protect Harrison’s reputation.
Any other time, she’d call bullshit on that. There were two people in that hotel room, and only one of them knew the whole story. But she’d taken the money. Signed the agreement.
She was a politician’s wife.
She thought of all the women standing next to disgraced politician husbands as they made their tearful apologies for screwing other women. Were they there out of love? Or because the heart of their relationship was much like the heart of Harrison’s parents’ marriage?
Or her own.
She’d survived physical science sophomore year at Flowers by cheating off of Denise Shimansky, so she would survive this by cheating off of Patty Montgomery.
Which meant she was going to have to make nice. Or at least nicer.
“Will someone be writing us a speech … or something?” she asked.
“Wallace will have some remarks for us.”
“Remarks—is that a fancy politician word for a speech?”
That made him smile, and she felt that same stupid shot of accomplishment that she’d felt that night in the bar. A sense of pride in making this very serious man smile.
Stupid, Ryan. Don’t be stupid.
“I suppose it is. Are you okay in front of an audience?” he asked, as if just figuring out that it could be a problem for a future congressman to have a wife who was terrified of public speaking.
“It makes me fart uncontrollably.”
His entire face fell in horror and she couldn’t help bursting into laughter.
“You’re joking,” he said, more demand than question.
“Sometimes I get so nervous I cry.”
“This isn’t funny, Ryan.”
“Oh, but it is.” She wiped at her streaming eyes. The tension of the day made her laugh even harder until she was doubled up on the seat. “Oh God, your face. So perfect.”
“Laugh it up,” he said dryly, but he started laughing, too. Well, not laughing, but smiling with his whole mouth, destroying just a bit of that icy chill around him, and it was such a wonderful release that she sort of stopped hating him. For just a minute.
This must be what Stockholm syndrome feels like.
“Seriously, though, are you going to be okay in front of cameras?”
“I’ve done some modeling work. I think I’ll be okay. I’m just going to pretend I’m playing a character. A love-struck woman ready to stand by her man and drink tea and wave at people.” She gave him a smile and wave that was part Queen of England, part Dolly Parton. Warmth and distance, all in one gesture.
“That’s … really good.”
“Why’d you stop modeling?”
“I don’t know,” she said with a shrug, though she did know. She knew exactly why the work stopped coming, why her agent found it harder and harder to book a job for her. “I’ve been told I am not always the easiest to work with.”
In the reflection of the window she could see him watching her. If she closed her eyes she imagined she would be able to actually feel the heat and weight of his gaze; that was how hard he was staring.
“Doesn’t bode well for us, does it?”
“I’m not sure anything bodes well for us.”
He went back to his files and she went back to looking out the dark window at the interstate lights, and the silence went back to being uncomfortable.
Part of what she liked about being a bartender was being able to read people. Being able to take all the clues they left in their body language and tone of voice, the way they held their drink or talked to their friends, and add all those things up into an impression. An idea of what they were like, what they wanted, what they were scared of.
Usually within ten minutes of serving someone a drink, she knew why that person was drinking. And sometimes, what the person was thinking.
But Harrison was utterly blank to her. Not only couldn’t she figure out what he wanted or what he thought, but he didn’t leave her any clues to even try to figure him out. He was a slick, handsome rich surface upon which she could get no footing.
Tonight, however, his family had given her plenty of clues. Plenty of tells. And the story his family told was not a nice one.
He’d grown up in a bowl, he’d said that night in the hotel. Without air.
She wondered, watching him with narrowed eyes, if he was truly this nonchalant. This cool in the face of marrying a stranger. Or if it was a show. After watching his parents in action, she was leaning toward show. Because underneath Harrison’s calm surface she would never have guessed he had parents like that.
Ted was a drunk. A bad one. Barely kept in line by his wife.
And all they cared about was what the other was doing that might impact them.
The only thing the Montgomerys seemed to do together was stare daggers into her flesh. How wonderful that loathing her was what they could agree on.
I am the tie that binds.
She traced a drop of water down the plastic side of her bottle and watched him from the corner of her eye.
“That was quite a scene in there,” she said. “At the mansion.”
He flipped over a page of his file. “Not quite how you imagined your wedding?”
“I never imagined myself getting married again, but that wasn’t what I was talking about.”
His icy blue eyes met hers, wide with surprise, but then he glanced away, hiding himself again. She’d hit a nerve, she thought.
Smarter women might leave him alone. Go back to staring out the window and gathering reserves for the coming weeks. Smarter women would shut up and not poke at the man in his cage.
She’d never been very smart.
“I was talking about your parents.”
He didn’t pause, didn’t look up. She wouldn’t have known he’d heard her if it weren’t for the muscle flexing hard in his jaw.
“Complaining about the in-laws already?” He flipped a page so hard it sounded like the paper tore.
“Has it always been like that?”
“What? Dad drunk and Mom furious? Yes. It has always been like that.”
“Do you hate them both equally?” she asked. “Or are you saving something special for your father?”
Slowly, so slowly, like the earth turning, he lifted his eyes toward her. “What makes you say that?”
“You barely looked at him.”
“I only had eyes for you.” His smile was a cold, hard slice in his face. The most ineffective smile ever smiled.
“Why do you hate your dad so much?” she asked. “Is it the drinking?” Honestly, she didn’t expect him to answer. There was no precedent set between her and Harrison. Or even Harry, really, who’d managed to tell her very little about himself, all while she was falling headfirst into his bed.
“I don’t hate him,” he lied, and she laughed.
“Your mother you talked to—not kindly, but you answered her questions. You did her the honor of argument. But your father …” She shook her head. “That was a heavy-duty freeze-out. Top notch, really, because you were smiling the whole time.”
He shifted in his seat as if he were sitting on nettles. “My father and I disagree on a lot of things politically.”
“What was happening during that ceremony wasn’t political, Harrison. I may not be smart. But I’m not dumb.”
“This whole thing is political. The marriage, you being here. None of this would be happening if I weren’t in politics.”
She shook her head, enjoying his discomfort, his angry clinging to lies and defenses he’d already created in regard to how he dealt with his family. She wondered when he’d done that, how he’d learned it. Was it something that happened to Montgomerys at birth? Alcoholics were thick on the ground back home and she’d watched plenty of families get destroyed, plenty of husbands and wives and kids turn themselves inside out pretending there was nothing wrong in their homes.
Well, that nonsense would end with her baby. Her baby wouldn’t lie to keep the family skeletons in their closets.
“But for your family politics is personal, and I must say, that heavy-duty anger toward your dad, it felt pretty personal.”
“Plenty of fathers and sons don’t get along. I can’t imagine what your father thinks of your brother?” He lifted an eyebrow, sending her what she imagined was usually a cutting glance, but she had nothing to lose. Nothing left to cut. He could not touch her with his poor efforts.
“My father would lie down in traffic for all of us,” she said. Or he would have, once upon a time. Now, she couldn’t be sure.
“And your dad, would he do that for you?”
Harrison laughed. “He would only lie down in traffic if it got him good publicity.”
“Is that why you hate him?”
“No, Ryan,” he snapped. “I hate him because he’s weak. He abuses his power. He pretends to be something he’s not.”
“Oh,” she breathed, sort of stunned that he’d actually answered. Sort of stunned that dishonor was at the heart of his dislike for his father. She’d believed that dishonor was part of the political package. The Montgomery reality.
“Why haven’t you talked to your sister in six years?” he asked, turning the interrogation over onto her.
She barely controlled the flinch, the instinctive recoil, because that was what he wanted. She’d played this game of polite torture, delicate cruelty, before with her sister and it was poisonous and destructive. But she was very, very good at it.
“That’s not true,” she said. “She called me just the other morning to tell me not to screw up our little sister’s life any more than I have.”
“And that’s something you’ve done?”
I screw up everyone’s life, she thought.Just watch.
“It’s why I am marrying you, you know. If it were just me, I wouldn’t give a shit about the press. But my sisters.My dad. My brother. This baby. Marrying you and your money will change everyone’s lives.”
And maybe … maybe it will let me back in.
“Why did you marry me?” she asked.
Harrison shook his head and reached back into the small hidden compartment in the seat between them for the scotch. “We’ve covered this, haven’t we? A sex scandal would ruin my career.”
“I know what you told me, Harrison. But what your mother said tonight is true—there were other ways to handle this. So why marriage? And I’ll remind you I’ll know if you’re lying.”
“Yes, the human lie detector claim. Did you learn that from your years behind the bar or those psychology books in your apartment?” His eyes glittered from under his lashes.
“Oh no,” she laughed, fairly convincingly if she did say so herself. “I just look at the pictures in those books.”
“Now who is lying?” he asked, his voice a quiet whisper before he took a sip of the scotch.
Oh, he was far better at this game than she was.
Because he’d seen the secrets, the small desires she kept in her apartment, those stupid books. That stupid dream to go back to school. And he would mock it. Diminish it. Just to hurt her, because that was the awful game she’d started.
And she knew nothing of him. Nothing at all.
I can’t do this, she thought.I can’t spend every minute of my life playing some kind of chess match with this man, wondering what is real and what isn’t.
She hated the very thought of it, a future spent on high alert, looking for weaknesses to exploit just to wound him. Just to find the human being beneath that façade of his—it made her feel like she was drowning.
Tears burned behind her eyes and she looked away from his sharp gaze.
The wheels hummed along the highway, the world a blur outside the window. “If this is going to work,” she said, pressing her hand against the cool glass and then her forehead, “to the world outside, we’ll lie our faces off. But you and I …”
The wordsLet’s be kind. We’ve both been hurt enoughwouldn’t come out of her mouth into the horrible coldness between them.
“No lies between us?” he supplied.
She nodded and whispered, feeling more painfully vulnerable than she had all night, “No lies between us.”
“I married you because I am not my father. I may make his mistakes, but I am not my father.”
“Mistakes?” she asked, his words slipping down along her neck, through the skin down to her bones. Where it hurt.
Me, she thought.He means me.
She thought of that girl nearly dead in a car crash and how she’d been pushed aside until she vanished.
“You wanted honesty,” he said.
“Yeah, that will teach me, won’t it?” She curled away from him, staring out the window at a world rushing by.
Harrison bought his loft a few years ago in one of his early efforts to prove he wasn’t his parents. He used every scrap of his meager savings, collected over the years from his stipend as director of VetAid. He’d also used the trust his grandfather had set up in his name.
Just about everything he had except this loft had been eaten by the campaign. Until the election was over and he was back to earning a living in some capacity, he was as broke as he’d ever been. As he ever wanted to be.
The contract for his driver was paid for.
The jet belonged to his parents, and he was stupidly grateful for it.
The unit he bought was in an old cotton factory, part of the revitalization of unused urban spaces. It was in direct contrast to the home he grew up in on Clifton Road overlooking Druid Hills Golf Club in a leafy neighborhood off of Ponce de Leon Ave.
“You live in a factory?” Ryan stared up at the old brick building.
“Not what you expected?” he asked, leading her into the building.
He took no small amount of pleasure in surprising her. He was still sore from the way she’d slowly pulled him open inside the car, as if all his carefully kept secrets, all those things the Montgomerys hid away so well, were just readily available to her. As if she couldjust reach into his chest and play tic-tac-toe with what hurt him the most.
He’d hurt her, too, in the car. It had seemed like the only way to get her to back off.
Another reason to stay removed from her. So they could come through this without tearing each other apart.
“You can use the second bedroom,” he said as they walked in, and he flipped on the lights. He pointed down the hall toward his guest room, which had a bed shoved into the corner surrounded by boxes and a treadmill he didn’t use enough. But it was clean and the sheets were fresh. “It’s a little cluttered, but it should work.”
“I’m sure it’s fine,” she said, polite and subdued, which was kind of terrifying in her.
“There’s a bathroom right beside it,” he said. “Are you hungry?”
His entire floor plan was open concept, and he’d bought the furnished showroom with its modern furniture. The sleek leather sectional and the dining set next to the floor-to-ceiling windows faced a neon downtown.
A metal spiral staircase led up to his bedroom, bathroom, and a small study. The walls were brick and the metal beams across the ceiling were original, and he remembered once upon a time liking that. Liking how different it was from anything he grew up in. How independent it had made him feel.
His sister was halfway around the world saving lives and defying their parents by living in poverty, and he showed his rebellion by buying an industrial loft.
Sometimes he didn’t know what the hell he was doing.
In the corner the kitchen was an eat-in counter, and he paid his assistant to grab groceries every week. Most of which piled up in his fridge until he threw them out,but he was glad at the moment to have food he could offer the pale woman still standing at the door.
“Would you like a sandwich?”
Her face tightened. “No thanks.”
“You should eat something.” He hadn’t noticed it until now, but she looked much thinner than she had that night at the hotel. As if something had been slowly whittling her down to bone and muscle.
“Not unless you want me to throw up all over your floor.”
He paused while pulling ham out of his fridge. “Is that something you do a lot of?”
Hollow-eyed and exhausted, she looked at him, and he could tell that she was figuring out the distinction between no lies between them and keeping parts of herself safe.
He’d done the same thing in the car, figuring out just how much truth to give this stranger he’d married. It was cold. Calculating. And the only way to get through the next few weeks. To say nothing of the next two years.
Then it occurred to him that marrying her had been his biggest rebellion, and he didn’t know how he felt about that. He’d spent so many years putting distance between himself and his family, storing away parts of himself like he was hoarding it. But for what? For whom?
To be his own man. To distinguish himself from the long line of Montgomerys who’d squandered and abused every single advantage they’d had.
He’d spent so much time—every minute of every day since he’d been twenty-two—deciding who he wasn’t while still measuring himself with their yardstick. He envied his sister and her clean break from the family, but he could not get where he needed to go without them.
Simultaneously he cared about none of it and too much about all of it.
He felt sometimes that he’d spent so much time polishing all the wrong things about himself, leaving too much of real value to be forgotten, grown over with weeds and rust.
It is the job you’ve chosen, he told himself.It’s the role you play. You want to be in politics. All those things you don’t care about, or don’t want to care about—they matter.
He looked at her, this fierce woman, perhaps liar, he’d married who seemed somehow so rooted in her flip-flops and shabby green dress, who despite all but selling herself to him managed to stand there defiant and totally her own person.
And he was envious of her. Envious of her singularity. Of the way she didn’t care about the yardsticks he cared about. He wanted to ask her how she did it.
“I’m going to bed.” She grabbed her purse and her beat-up duffel bag and walked down the hall toward his spare bedroom.
Harrison watched her go and then made a sandwich, which he ate standing up. The milk was still good, so he poured himself a glass and stood at his window, watched the headlights on I-75, and toasted his wedding night.
Monday, August 26
Before dawn, Harrison woke up to the sound of someone being violently, wretchedly ill.
All of it coming back to him in that confusing place between dream and reality.
He threw pants on and hustled down the metal steps to the bathroom next to the guest room.
Inside it was eerily silent. He knocked quietly on the door.
“You sound … really sick.”
“Iamreally sick. Now go away.”
He stepped back from the door, feeling helpless, but then the door opened, revealing Ryan.
Dawn light, rosy and creamy, covered her pale, perfect skin. She wore short cotton shorts that revealed the muscled length of her legs and a thin, tight black tank top like the one from the night in the hotel.
“Hey,” he said, blindsided by the reality of her, sick and beautiful in his loft. “Everything … okay?”
“Fine.” She pushed past him toward the kitchen. The tattoo on her back peeked over the tank top’s black edge. The woman’s hands, wrapped in seaweed and flowers, her blond hair a cloud around her face. Her eyes closed in some kind of surrender.
She was drowning.
My wife has a tattoo of a drowning woman on her back.
Ryan stopped, turned around, and went back to her room only to come out with a red teacup that he recognized from her apartment cradled in her hands.
As he watched, she got herself a glass of water and took a pill.
My pregnant wife.
“I have teacups,” he said. “You didn’t need to bring your own.”
“I like my own.”
“Can I get you something?”
“I’m fine.” She sat at one of the high stools that in his memory no one had ever sat on. Ever.
His parents had barely been to his home. Wallace came once to watch a Braves game when his cable got blown out in a storm—which had been an oddly satisfying experience, despite the fact that he didn’t care much for baseball. He’d never had a party. The few women he’d dated hadn’t been over. If pressed, he would say that he would rather sleep on the couch in his campaign office than upstairs in the bedroom.
What does that say about me?
“What happened to no lies between us?” He stepped around her and into the kitchen to start coffee.
“I have bad morning sickness.” She gave him a wan smile before putting her head back in her hands. “I took a pill, but it just takes a while.”
He checked his watch. “Are you sure you’re up for this?” he asked, taking in her utterly defeated posture. “Because in a half hour most of my staff is going to be here to get us ready for the press conference.”
“You bought a wife.” She shook back her hair, her smile not quite up to full wattage, but he gave her points for trying. “You’ll get a wife.”
“We can postpone—”
She stood, uncoiling her body one long, lithe muscle at a time from his stool. “I’m going to take a shower.”
His team was good, his mother perhaps the best player of the political game in the world, but he had serious doubts that they were going to pull this off. She looked ill, the distance between them was vast and hurtful, and he felt oddly off center. Aware too clearly of the lies he’d been telling his whole life. Not big ones, not terrible ones like his father, but dozens of little ones, about his family. About happiness. And he wasn’t entirely sure of his own ability to carry off another series of lies.
And the pale, sick, and angry woman who was supposedto help him tell those lies seemed completely incapable of looking him in the eyes, much less pretending to be in love.
This, he thought,is going to be a disaster.
Wallace arrived full of ebullient congratulations in a hideous purple tie. Jill brought donuts and a marginally better outlook than yesterday. Dave, his assistant, silent and steadfast, made coffee.
“Where’s Ryan?” Wallace asked.
“Getting ready.” It was on the tip of his tongue to tell Wallace that this was never going to work. The press conference, the sham marriage—they should just quit while they were ahead.
But then Mother arrived with Noelle in tow, carrying armfuls of shopping bags. And he would not admit his misgivings in front of his mother.
“Where is she?” Patty asked, sniffing the air for Ryan. “I have her wardrobe.”
And as if the sound of her voice had been the starting bell in a boxing match, Ryan came out of the guest room, wearing a denim skirt and a faded blue Pabst Blue Ribbon beer tee shirt.
“She wore that just to piss off your mother, didn’t she?” Wallace whispered, biting into a second glazed donut. The remnants of his first were all over his tie.
Harrison didn’t answer, but he imagined that Ryan smiled when she’d put on that shirt, thinking about Patty’s reaction.
“Good morning,” Ryan said, looking oddly meek with her wet hair unbound, her face pink and freshly scrubbed.
It was weird. He’d seen her sad, horny, angry, scared, and worried. Never meek.
He put a hand against the small of her back, feeling through her shirt the tension of her muscles, the heat of her skin. “Let me introduce you to my team. You remember Wallace?”
“Of course.” She deliberately sidestepped his touch and he dropped his hand. The smile she gave Wallace was enviously genuine. “Nice tie.”
“Thanks,” Wallace said. “Nice shirt.”
She tugged on it, suddenly self-conscious, as he introduced her to everyone else.
“I want to thank you in advance,” she said, shaking hands with Jill and Dave. “For how much patience you’re going to need with me. I’m not familiar with any of this and I’m probably going to need more help than anyone knows, but I promise, I’m taking it seriously.”
“That’s … very good to hear,” Jill said, clearly still skeptical, but that was Jill’s natural state.
“Cool,” Dave added, unable to stop staring at Ryan, who even without makeup, the bright sunlight washing over her through the windows making her seem pale and fragile and thin, was shockingly beautiful.
When Ryan saw the shopping bags on the couch where Noelle had put them, her eyes lit up.
“For me?” she asked, and Noelle nodded.
Without another word, Ryan grabbed the bags against her chest and vanished back into the bedroom, without once looking at him.
“Well, that’s a good start,” Wallace said, looking over at Jill and Dave, who both nodded. Harrison had to admit she had a way about her that could be really disarming when she tried.
“A good start?” Patty scoffed as she settled into an armchair beside the television. “You honestly believe she can make a room full of journalists believe you’re in love. She’s acting like a kicked dog who won’t even look at you. She won’t let you touch her.”
“We’ll be fine.” He pushed aside his mother’s worries because they so mirrored his own. “Wallace? Let’s see your remarks.”
Dave handed out coffee to everyone and Wallace passed out copies of his remarks.
“No one will believe you met at an art gallery,” Mother said, crossing out a line.
“We need to decide how much truth we can tell and how far we can stretch a lie,” Wallace said.
“I can’t imagine she’s been in an art gallery in her life,” Patty said. “She looks like a woman begging for change outside—”
“How about we just say New York,” Harrison said.
“You can’t talk about any of her background,” Mother continued. “Or her family. No education, no—”
Ryan emerged from the bedroom, her heels a steady, strong click on the hardwood of the hallway. She came to stand in the wide doorway, an eye-searing vision in a scarlet suit that hugged her body, ending in a flared skirt at her knees. A pair of dark heels made the most of her already extraordinary legs. Everywhere Harrison looked—her hair in a tight bun, her lips stained with color, her eyelashes dark and sooty, the fit of her suit, the red covered buttons marching down her chest and narrow waist—everywhere he looked she was perfect.
“Isn’t it rude to talk about someone when they’re not in the room?” she asked.
He was on his feet and Wallace, next to him, was, too.
It wasn’t that her beauty had altered. The rawness of her looks, the sexuality that could so easily blind a person from seeing anything else about her, was muted. Secondary. This woman in front of him with the perfect makeup and hair and sharp suit—she looked smart and focused. She glowed with a sly light. A warmth and an intelligence.
“Holy shit,” Wallace said.
“You look beautiful,” Harrison said, and her eyes sliced through him.
“What did you say once?” she asked, stepping farther into the room, made of confidence and swagger. She was a flame—all of them, with the exception of Mother, helpless moths. “This is the least of what I can do?”
He tipped his head, caught in the edges of her bewitching smile.
“A suit is easy,” Mother said, picking up a cup of coffee from the edge of the television table. “Let’s talk about what we’re going to do with your background.”
Ryan sat down on the arm of the sofa, close to Harrison but still somehow very far away, in a perfect imitation of Mother’s posture. Her distance.
“What would you like to know?” she asked, and even her voice was different. Slower, the consonants rounder. Not quite Atlanta proper, but not quite Queens anymore, either.
Mother leaned forward and as he watched, Ryan cataloged all of his mother’s nuances, what she did with her hands, how she cocked her head. The position of her feet. Ryan made dozens of minute changes, but the effect was huge.
She transformed herself.
Harrison allowed himself to feel just the smallest amount of hope that maybe they could pull this off.
But Mother’s smile was cruel. “Let’s talk about your first marriage.”
Either they’d pull this off or Ryan and Mother would get into a fight on the coffee table. At this point it could go either way.
Ryan had met more than her fair share of mean girls. Bitches, who thought that because they had money, or bigger tits, or lived on the other side of town, or hadfucked her boyfriend at one time or another, had one up on her.
Patty Montgomery was just another mean girl.
And Ryan was here to prove that she could do this. She could dress up and play the part of Mrs. Harrison Montgomery, despite being wildly unprepared for the role.
But it was a pretty good bet that Mrs. Harrison Montgomery shouldn’t hit her mother-in-law with her teacup, so she swallowed the urge and renewed her promise to play nice.
Though flashing the scars left by her marriage in a room full of strangers made her feel painfully exposed. Harrison’s staffers, she could feel them all watching her. So, she adopted some of her mother-in-law’s icy distance. Those hooded eyes, the clenched jaw.
And the chill felt good. Like insulation a foot thick between herself and the past and everyone in this room.
She wasn’t sure there was enough insulation in the world to make her forget he was there.
“His name was Paul,” she said. “We got married when I was twenty and it lasted for four years.”
“How did you meet?”
“Paul was dating my sister.”
“Your sister? And you—”
“Stole him? I guess you could say that, though he wasn’t much of a prize. My sister was in nursing school and when I got the contract for Lip Girl, he became very interested in me. I thought we were in love, but he was far more interested in the money I was making.”
“How charming.” Patty’s sarcasm was a sharp blade and Ryan was not totally impervious. She shifted in her seat, trying not to lose her temper. This was part of it, wasn’t it? Part of what she’d signed on for. The teadrinking and waving and getting browbeaten by her mother-in-law.
“I hardly see how this is relevant?” Wallace asked, but Patty held up a hand, silencing him. Ryan realized that Patty wasn’t going to stop this little interview until she was chewing on Ryan’s bones.
Just another mean girl, she told herself when she felt herself wobble.And not even the worst you’ve ever seen.
“How did this fairy tale end?” Patty asked.
“Mother—” Harrison tried to step in and Ryan appreciated it. She did. But this was her fight.
“No, it’s okay.” Ryan looked over at him, standing with his arms crossed over his chest, the city through the window behind him. If she had her choice, he’d never know this. She’d never talk about it. “Things with Paul were fine for two years, rough for another. Terrible … really, really terrible for one more.”
She thought of her hospital record, the clinical description of broken bones and black eyes. Scrapes and cuts. A woman thrown down stairs and punched in the face.
Harrison had seen those hospital records. Understood that she’d been beaten up and still went back to the guy, and she was as aware as anybody else that blaming the victim was ludicrous, but it didn’t quite stop her from hating herself.
Her skin prickled with heat, all along the side of her face and down her neck.
She cleared her throat. “I had told Paul, stupidly, that my father had saved scrupulously over the years five thousand dollars for each of his kids. Which was hard, miraculous really, considering his salary. He gave it to us when we turned eighteen to use however we wanted. Nora, Wes, and I all got our money, but he still had Olivia’s. Kept it in a safe in the attic.” She ran a thumbover the hem of her skirt. Over and over again. As if the past were a smudge there and she could just rub it off. “Paul had expensive habits, and the money I made with Lip Girl was gone. All of it, everything we had was gone, and one night, Paul … Paul got a gun from some friend of his and he drove us home to my father’s house, where he forced … he forced my father to give us all of his money, including my youngest sister’s five thousand dollars.”
“And you were an accomplice to this?”
“You could say that.”
“And what would you say?”
“I thought …” Again the thumb over the edge of her skirt. A nervous tic. A tell.Stop it, Ryan. Stop. But she couldn’t. She could sit here and talk about this, but she couldn’t totally pretend it was easy. Harrison was watching her, and she wanted to look at him, gauge how he felt about the woman he’d married. But she knew that if she looked, she’d never be able to tell. And that was in so many ways more devastating than his mother’s outright disdain. “I thought if I wasn’t there someone would get killed. Either Paul or my father. Nora, if she decided to be brave.”
“You were protecting your family?” Patty asked, clearly not believing her.
“That’s something you understand, isn’t it?” she snapped, because yes, that was what she’d thought, and how dare this woman who had done her own damage to her family judge her? “Our methods might be different, but our goals are the same.”
“You and I are not at all alike,” Harrison’s mother spat.
“Let’s talk about education,” Wallace jumped in as if to rescue her.
“What education?” Patty put out her claws. “She’s a high school dropout!”
It stung. It shouldn’t, it was somehow the least of her sins, but it still stung. “Well, I had at the time gotten a fairly substantial modeling contract.”
“And that worked out so well for you, didn’t it? The horrid Lip Girl thing.”
“Enough,” Harrison snapped, sounding almost exactly the way Patty had sounded last night talking to her drunk husband.
Are we all just doomed to step in our parents’ footprints?
“It’s fine,” Ryan said. Her pride couldn’t change the facts. “She’s right. My modeling career failed. My marriage failed. Not much has worked out the way it was supposed to.”
“Except for seducing my son, you mean?” Patty asked. “That has worked out perfectly for you.”
“She didn’t seduce me, Mother.”
Oh, but I did seduce you. I just thought you were seducing me right back.
“You honestly believe she didn’t know who you were?”
“It doesn’t matter!” he snapped and Ryan jumped, strung so tight she felt she might crack like ice.
“Harrison,” Ryan murmured. “Don’t get mad. It’s okay.”
“No. It’s not!” Harrison surged forward into her line of sight so she turned away slightly, so she couldn’t see him again. For some reason, all of this was possible only if she wasn’t looking at him. “Mother, you can leave.”
Ryan gaped at him.
Patty gaped at him.
“I’m not joking. We’ve got to work together, and all you’re interested in is tearing her apart. It’s not going to work if you’re here.”
The room pounded with silence.
“What happened to your fine speech?” his motherasked, coming slowly to her feet. “About needing my help to make everyone believe you’re in love.”
“If this is your ‘help,’ we can manage without it.”
Patty gathered her purse, the air thick and awful.
As much as Ryan would love having Patty gone, it had been made pretty clear to her that she needed Patty. That of everyone in this room, Patty was the most likely to make them convincing.
Ryan reached for Harrison, touching, just barely, the edge of his coat jacket. As if that was all she could bear.
“It’s okay,” she breathed. “You don’t have to—”
“I do,” Harrison said, glancing at her and away.God. He was really angry.
“But what if we do need her help? It’s kind of an all-hands-on-deck sort of situation.”
“You’ll be fine. Better than if she’s here constantly rattling your cage.” He lifted his hand to touch her shoulder, but she flinched away from him before he could. It had been instinctive. Uncontrollable. A safety measure.
Well, that’s a problem.
In the doorway, Patty saw how she’d flinched, and paused. “You have to touch him,” she said. Her eyes were bright, and if Patty were a different kind of woman, Ryan might think she had tears in her eyes. “If you want people to believe you love him, then you have to touch him. You have to smile and hold his hand no matter how you feel about him. Or what he’s done.” She swallowed, her hand at her stomach. A strange moment of weakness. “Or how he’s hurt you.”
The words cracked through the air and Ryan came to her feet as if she might say something, but then Patty was gone, Noelle behind her, and the door closed. The moment over.
Harrison stared at the door. Ryan stared at Harrison.
“Well,” Wallace said, into the uncomfortable silence that followed. “Let’s get back to work.”
Slowly, everyone sat back down. Dave filled up everyone’s coffee cups.
“Would you like some?” Dave asked her, and because she was giddy with stress and would gladly kill someone for a cup of coffee, Ryan laughed. She laughed so hard she slipped sideways off the arm of the chair right up against Harrison.
The laughter clogged her throat and stopped.
The feel of him warm and alive filled her with a painful want. A shocking need. Not for sex, but for comfort. For him to put that arm around her and tell her they would be okay.
She would be okay.
But that wasn’t in the agreement.
And so she couldn’t have it.
She got to her feet and crossed the room, sitting in Patty’s chair by the television. With great care and effort, she pulled her arms and legs back into the position she’d copied from Patty.
She lifted her chin, folded her hands over her knee, and smiled at the room as if just a little bit interested in whatever they had to say.
“It’s eerie,” Wallace whispered, watching her.
Harrison turned away, as if what she’d transformed herself into held no more interest for him than what she’d been before.
Ryan was back in that damn car, sitting beside her husband, who wore a handsome summer-weight suit that fit him like a dream. The safety pin holding up her skirt bit into her back and she shifted to try to get away from it. Outside the world was hot and bright, the concrete city just coming to life. Commuters in bus shelters, pedestrians waiting on corners for the lights to change.
It could have been New York in some ways. The trees were different. The street signs. But it could have been a corner in Brooklyn, or Queens. Manhattan.
Cities were cities, she thought.
She looked down at this suit she wore, the shoes, the sleek black bag.
Women are women, she reminded herself.This is just a costume. You are still you.
Though suddenly on the edge of this press conference she wondered, bleakly, which woman she was beneath this dress. Which version of herself. The world-weary and judgmental bartender? The brash and angry model? The selfish girl? The terrible sister? The worse daughter?
The terrified mother, going to extreme measures for her child?
She pressed a hand to her nervous stomach.
“Are you all right?”
“You keep asking that,” she said, trying to find the right kind of distance between them. She was thrownoff by him tossing his mother out of the house. No one had jumped to her defense in many long years. And she’d thought herself well past the point of wanting some man to step in.
And she hated that he’d done it.
And she kind of loved it, too.
He touched her hand, his fingertips warm over her knuckles. She bit back the gasp that rose in her throat. Of surprise. Of pleasure. Of a sort of dismay at her own weakness.
Nora would be laughing right now. Sitting back with a cigarette and that knowing look on her face. Boydesperate, her sister had always called her. As if crazy was never enough. Not for Ryan.
The minute Ryan got boobs, she’d fallen in love with the effect they had on men. She’d loved the way men looked at her, the way they fell so frantically in lust with her. Like getting up her shirt and into her pants was the most important thing they’d ever do in their sad lives. She’d let her boobs and the men they’d brought around her door become paramount in her life. Sacrificing her family. Her career. Her well-being.
Boy-stupidwas really more like it.
And then she’d found Paul, or Nora had, actually; Ryan just plucked him out of her sister’s hands and then let him run right over her. Let him run all over her whole family. All because she’d been so crazy for him. So hot-headed and lusty.
Because the way they fought and the way they fucked—in her young mind, that had to be love. As if only the most dangerous emotions, those feelings bordering on out-of-control, could mean something.
And here she sat in a beautiful suit, living a lie, beside a man who hated her and she wanted him to touch her. Wanted a distraction from the nerves and doubt in herstomach. Wanted to feel, just for a moment, like she was important and capable.
All you’ve ever been good at is sex, her sister had said the night she found out about her and Paul.It’s all you’ll ever be good at.
She tucked her hands into her lap, making fists so hard the knuckles showed white under her skin.
“Are you nervous?” he asked.
“Piece of cake.” She waved her hand, making a joke. Clinging to her bravado. She’d said no lies between them, but this—her fear, his misgivings, her mistakes—they were hers and hers alone.
The car pulled to a stop outside of a storefront property done up with red, white, and blue bunting. Posters that said “Montgomery, a New Hope” in the windows.
Wallace stood out front, checking his watch.
“Where does he get his ties?” she asked.
Harrison looked up and smiled. Actually smiled.
“No idea,” he said. “You ready?”
No. No, I’m not.
“As I’ll ever be.”
Wallace opened the door, and she took a deep breath of the hot air laced with the smell of asphalt and sugar and grease from the donut shop on the corner. As if to prove to herself that it was happening, that she was doing it, she watched herself slide her hand over Harrison’s. Putting together the heat and touch of him with the sight of her small, pale hand on his. She remembered them with a sort of breathy lightness in that mirror that night, the sight of his body behind hers, her breasts pulled out of her shirt. His hands at her waist.
She shook inside her skin.
Oh, his hands.
He glanced back, surprised at her touch. His eyes first on their hands and then her face, and she could tell he was pleased in some way and that there was a crack inhis icy demeanor and she saw, deep down, that he was nervous, too. She saw deep down a glimpse of what she’d seen in him that night in the bar. The messy reality, the frail humanity.
Oh, she thought, her heart hammering into her throat.Oh, you are there.
She squeezed his hand like she had that moment at the bar when she’d reached through the barrier between them. Starting that night, this whole arrangement, in motion. Had she never done that, she wondered if they would have ended up in bed.
Not that it matters, she thought, and was surprised to realize that she wouldn’t take it back. If not touching him that night meant that they would not be here, she wouldn’t change what happened.
Because of the baby. Because for better or worse, her life had finally changed. She’d finally found the guts to stop floating.
“We can do this,” she whispered.
“Fake it till you make it, right?”
“Our family motto.”
“Harrison,” Wallace said, leaning into the car. “We need to get going.” And just like that the crack in him disappeared. He was once again smooth and perfect and without failing.
He nodded and stepped out of the car, pulling her with him. You’d think it would be harder, or perhaps require something superhuman on her part to take this last step, but in the end it was simple.
She just followed him.
Wallace introduced them and Harrison, more rattled by this morning’s events than he really wanted to admit, led Ryan by the hand through the front doors and to thesmall podium with the microphone the team had set up early this morning. There were ten journalists in the room, and as soon as he and Ryan came to a stop behind the podium still hand in hand, flashes started going off.
“Thank you, everyone, for coming today,” he said, once the original flurry of photos were taken. “I’m sorry for the short notice, but things have been moving pretty quickly and now that everything is official, I’d like to introduce you to Ryan Montgomery. My wife.”
A general gasp, and then an explosion of questions and flashes.
He expected Ryan to cower away from the sudden high-voltage attention, but all she did was laugh as if she were delighted by the surprise they’d given the journalists.
Harrison gave all the journalists the order in which he’d answer their questions and Ryan stepped in closer, until they were touching from shoulder to hip.
In his life he’d done plenty of press conferences. He’d given speeches, won debates, argued in front of the State Congress. Hell, he’d even negotiated with Somali pirates. But he’d always done it alone. All alone, never with anyone by his side.
It was disconcerting having her there.
It was disastrous having her there.
“Phil,” he said, pointing to the reporter from the AP. “Go ahead.”
“What do you say to critics who believe this is all a press stunt?” he asked.
“I don’t think of marriage as a press stunt,” he said, and pointed to a woman in the back row. “Agnes, go ahead.”
In the back row Wallace lifted his hands to his head, the first indication that Harrison had answered the question wrong. Three questions later Wallace was allbut imploding in the back, and for the first time in his career Harrison felt a press conference get away from him.
All because Ryan was standing too close. Her hand in his was sweaty and kind of cold. She was pressed right up against his side and he could feel her breast against his arm. Her hip against his. Her other hand crossed in front of her body, holding onto his elbow.
Like they were in love and she was thrilled to be at his side.
She leaned in closer to him, her mouth behind his ear. “You all right?” she breathed.
Great. Even she knew he was bombing.
She lifted a hand to tuck a piece of hair off his forehead, a tender moment that the photographers captured in full.
Her smile was full of secrets, of inside jokes. It was the most intimate thing he’d ever experienced in a room full of strangers. Horrifyingly, he felt his body react as if they were alone. As if that smile were real.
It’s an act, he told himself.Just an act. But it didn’t seem to do any good.
His brain buzzed, empty and useless.
“Where did you meet?” Bill Maynard, the journalist from theJournal-Constitution, was a big man with a gray beard and a hard-on for bringing down the Montgomery family.
“An art gallery,” he said, and then realized that wasn’t quite the lie they’d agreed on. And his brain was blank; he couldn’t remember what lies he was supposed to tell and what truths. What questions they’d decided to deflect and which to answer.
“Harrison is not quite telling the truth,” Ryan said, stepping up to the microphone, giving him a wink over her shoulder. “We met outside an art gallery. I was on my way to work and we ran into each other.”
“You were working at a bar?” another journalist asked, and he could feel the temperature in the room change. Grow feverish. This was going to be one of the details they avoided. They’d agreed on that back in his loft.
“I was,” she agreed with a smile. “I worked as a bartender and modeled when I could get the work.”
“You were the Lip Girl, weren’t you?” Maynard shouted, and in the back Wallace thumped his head against the wall, his eyes closed.
“A child of the eighties, I take it,” she said brightly, flirting slightly with the uncharmable journalist. To Harrison’s surprise, the guy actually smiled. “I was the Lip Girl. And no, I won’t do the slogan.” A few of the journalists groaned. “And yes. I was seventeen.”
Oh God, she wasn’t supposed to say that. They had agreed not to bring up the Lip Girl thing. “I was at a Philadelphia Eagles game with my family, and a casting director saw me on the Jumbotron and offered me an audition. I grew up in North Philly and the opportunity to go to New York, to see some of the world, to make money—it was a thrilling experience for a girl like me.”
“A girl like you?” one of the journalists asked. “What do you mean?”
“I’m a high school dropout.”
All the journalists dropped their heads, scribbling away.
She glanced back at Harrison like this was a sore spot between them and he squeezed her hand, trying to convey to her how badly they needed her to get back on script. “I have my GED and I’ve taken a few college courses, but after the Lip Girl campaign I got married, too young as it happened, and when I got divorced I was too busy trying to make a living to go back to school. But I plan on changing that as soon as possible.”
They had not discussed that in his loft, and he wondered if it was true or not.
“Why get married?” another journalist asked. “Why now?”
“Because we’re not children,” she said. “We’re adults and we know what we want. I know our marriage is not what anyone would expect. We’re vastly different. But …” She looked down at their hands, switching the grip so their fingers were intertwined, and the sensitive skin between his fingers grew hot. “I think that’s what is so amazing about Harrison.” She gave him a shy smile and then swerved back toward the script. “He doesn’t see the differences between people. He sees what we share; he sees the things in all of us that make us human. That bind us together. That’s what matters to him. Those are the things that I love about him. There are plenty of people out there who think he’s far too good for me. And there might be a few people back in my neighborhood who think he doesn’t deserve me. But that doesn’t matter. Not to him. And not to me. I look forward to helping his work with the campaign. With VetAid, with school reform. I look forward to being his wife.”
Oh God, it was such a speech. He glanced over at Wallace, who was staring, mouth open, eyes wide with delight. He might have written some of those words, but never had anyone dreamed she’d deliver them like that.
“Are you pregnant?” Maynard asked.
She looked at Harrison with such fondness, he couldn’t help for one starstruck moment to believe her words.
“I sure hope so.”
And then she leaned in and pressed her lips—dry and trembling—to his.
The room exploded in more flashbulbs and she broke away, smiling and blushing, and he put his arm around her shoulders, curling her into his chest.
“That’s all the time we have,” Harrison said. “We’ve got an appointment later today at the Carthright School to see how their charter program can be adopted statewide and possibly nationwide. Thank you for your time.”
There were more questions and more flashes fired off, but Harrison slowly led her through the door into his office, where they would stay until the journalists filed out.
The moment the door closed behind them, he grabbed her hands.
“You … you were amazing.”
“I need to sit down.”
“Sit. I need to sit.”
He realized she was shaking, her skin clammy and pale. “God. Okay.” He helped her down on the couch and she immediately put her head between her knees.
Quickly, he grabbed the garbage can by his desk and brought it over to her. Unsure of what to do but feeling outrageously grateful and in awe, he sat beside her and slowly rubbed her back until she sat up again.
“You went off script,” he said.
“I couldn’t remember what we’d agreed on,” she said. “My mind went blank.”
Mine too, because you were holding my hand. Because you are so beautiful in that suit. Because no one—not ever—has stood by my side.
“So I just 8 Miled it.”
“That movie with Eminem? He’s doing this rap battle and before anyone can use his past against him, he just admits to all of it.”
“You got that from a movie?”
“You’ve never seen it?” She sat up, her color returned.“You should—it’s a good one. I’m guessing you don’t see a lot of movies?”
She laughed. “Of course you did.”
How in the hell did they start talking about this?
“Whatever your inspiration was, you did an amazing job.” He still stroked her back, because it felt good and she was letting him. But then suddenly, they both seemed to realize he was touching her. And there was no one in the room to witness it, to make it count toward anything.
Let me touch you, he thought, stunned by how badly he wanted to.Let me just touch you.
She smiled slightly and shrugged away. “It was good, wasn’t it?”
“I’m not sure I have words to convey how great it was.” He walked to his desk, searching for distance.
“Well, you were going down the tubes.”
“I thought you were supposed to be the pro.”
“I am. I just … I’ve never had someone by my side before.” As soon as the words came out they seemed too important. Too large a confession, as if he’d just shown her something he meant to keep secret. He checked his cell phone just to have something to do, to seem busy.
She was looking at him as if she could sense beneath his Montgomery persona that absolute ache of loneliness. The rot of distrust.
The door was flung open and Wallace came in, beaming and starry-eyed. “I’m going to kiss you,” he said to Ryan. “I’m going to kiss you right on your smart mouth.”
Her laughter was bright and perfect, and Harrison felt himself on edge at the sound of it. At the merry reality of their relationship.
He hated you, he wanted to say.Just a few days ago.
“Is that okay, Harrison?” Wallace asked, shutting the door behind him. “That won’t be weird, will it?”
“Not any weirder than the rest of our lives,” he said, pretending to still be absorbed with his messages, when in truth he wasn’t really seeing any of it.
“Let’s settle on a high-five.” She lifted her hand for Wallace to smack.
“We can do better than that,” Wallace said, and he pulled her from her seat and hugged her. “You were something else out there. I can practically hear our poll numbers skyrocketing.”
Ryan relaxed into the hug with a laugh and a sigh, as if somehow Wallace had known just what she needed.
Shame pierced him and spread through his body, pumped right along with his blood. And with it came jealousy.
“Come on,” he said, putting his phone away. “We need to get to the Carthright School. The show is not over.”
Stupid Ryan. Stupid, stupid Ryan.
She’d thought this would be so easy—to keep the private and public personas separate. Touch in public. Truth in private. Lie in public. Silence in private. One touch from him and she was a mess. One whole-hearted smile in her direction and she felt giddy. She felt stupidly welcome.
That press conference had been more difficult than she’d imagined, owning up to those things in her past that brought her such embarrassment, that despite the years between now and then she couldn’t quite shrug away and say, “Well, I was just a kid.”
And then afterward, in his office.
I’ve never had anyone by my side before.
He’d said that and she knew it was the truth of him. But then he had to run away behind his wall of cold indifference.
They stopped in front of a small two-story building that was obviously old but had been refurbished lately. The front steps were painted white. The red brick had been blasted clean. The sign out front covered in bright-colored children’s handprints said “The Carthright School.”
“What are we doing here?” she asked. Beside her, Harrison was back to being cold. Indifferent. Glued to his phone.
“We’re going to visit the kindergarten class. It’s a new full-day program that the charter school is trying out,and we’re hoping it might be a viable program for public schools.”
She nodded. “Will there be press?”
“A few.” He really wasn’t giving her anything to work with.
“What should I do?” she asked, pointedly. Finally, he looked up from his phone.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “We’ll see the classroom. I’ll talk to the principal and the teacher, and the kids will probably give us some kind of program.”
How hard could it be?she wondered.Tour a school. Watch some kids do … whatever kids did.
“That should be easy.”
The kindergarten room was chaos. Even worse than happy hour that day when the Yankees won the Series and the refrigeration unit went on the fritz.
Those CNN shots of Oklahoma after that tornado—the kindergarten room kind of looked like that. Debris. Lots of debris.
And it was loud. All the kids in the room were yelling at the top of their voices. The kind of loud that pierced her eardrums and pounded behind her brain.
One boy ran past in a dragon costume, another behind him with a fake wooden sword over his head like he was going to bring it down and cleave the kid in half.
Mrs. Tellier, the principal, a small black woman with thin braids and serious eyes who had been giving them a tour and explaining the program of child-directed, play-based learning, plucked the sword from the boy’s hand.
“As you can see, the kids go from station to station at their own discretion.”
Discretion, she thought, watching kids dumping water from a bucket into a table filled with sand, creating an ungodly mess.What discretion?
Mrs. Sawicki, her kindergarten teacher at All Saints Catholic School, who used to make her sit in the corner when she refused to color inside the lines, would have had someone’s hide for that.
After the quiet of the hallways and the other classrooms, where kids were studiously bent over desks, raising their hands to ask questions, the bright, sunny kindergarten room seemed like total anarchy.
A tower of blocks collapsed to the floor with a loud rattle and bang.
“Oh my God,” she breathed before she could stop herself. And that earned her a surprised look from Mrs. Tellier.
“Is it always like this?” Ryan asked, her nerves fraying.
“Some days more than others,” Mrs. Tellier said with a nod and stepped farther into the room where a woman—the teacher, Ryan guessed, or perhaps warden? Or prisoner?—was sitting at a table with three children working on … Ryan couldn’t even tell what they were working on. Writing their names? In Greek?
Beside her a boy dumped out a bin of Legos, the sound making her jump. There were now roughly seven thousand pieces of Lego on the floor.
Who is going to clean that up?
In the corner there were two girls standing next to a garbage can filled with shredded tissue paper. They were putting it on each other’s head, handfuls of the stuff falling down on the floor.
A boy walked out of the bathroom, pulling up his pants. His hands dripping wet.
Please let that be water.
Was this the kind of stuff kids did? She realized sheactually didn’t know any children. Not one. When Olivia was born she’d been too wrapped up in her own life to give a shit. Nora had been the babysitter. The one who cared.
“You all right?” Harrison asked.
“Fine,” she lied. She thought she might pass out.
Mrs. Tellier caught the teacher’s eye, and the young teacher managed to get all the kids over onto the carpet by singing a little song about putting their hands on top of their heads and being quiet.
There was a reporter with them—Maynard, the guy from theJournal-Constitution—and a photographer who was on Harrison’s payroll, who took pictures of Harrison and Mrs. Tellier, talking about how full-day kindergarten helped mothers get back into the workforce. Ryan crept closer to the carpet, fascinated by the scene as all the kids listened to Mrs. Knight telling a story.
How did she get all of them to listen? To sit still? It was like watching someone tame lions.
Half of them had their fingers in their noses, but at least they were quiet.
“Hello, Mrs. Montgomery,” Mrs. Knight said when Ryan got close enough. Mrs. Knight had the whole teacher thing down pat. Kind-seeming and borderline frumpy, she wore sensible shoes and a cardigan sweater with lambs’ heads as pockets. She was the sort of person Ryan imagined that kids liked. That they felt comfortable around. The kind of woman that kids threw their arms around because they could.
No kids had ever thrown their arms around Ryan.
In fact, every kid on that carpet was staring at Ryan like she was an alien right off the ship.
“Hi,” Ryan said, giving the blinking, gaping children a sort of half-wave.
“Who are you?” one kid asked.
“I’m Ryan,” she said.
“That’s a boy’s name.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“Is that your husband?” A girl pointed toward Harrison behind her.
“He is.” She barely managed not to say,Can you freaking believe it?
The look on the little girl’s face was far from impressed. In fact, she looked like Harrison gave off a stink.
“We’re readingThe Kissing Hand,” Mrs. Knight said, “about a raccoon who is going to school for the first time and is a little scared and misses spending the day with his mom.”
Looking into the crowd of kids, she could practically tell who the book was supposed to help. The girl with her thumb in her mouth, the boy with the red-rimmed eyes, and another boy sitting far away from the group in the corner pulling strings from the edge of the carpet.
“Would you like to read it?” Mrs. Knight asked. Her expression had grown more baffled than friendly, and Ryan realized she was just standing there, not saying anything.
Because she didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know how to do any of this. How to be a politician’s wife on a tour of a school and more terrifyingly, how to be around kids.
And she was going to have one.
Behind her, Harrison was still deep in conversation with Mrs. Tellier, and Ryan thought,Why the hell not?
“I’d love to,” she said, and Mrs. Knight handed her the book, standing up from her seat so Ryan could sit down.
“I don’t want her to read the story,” a boy complained.
“Me neither,” another kid agreed.
“Too bad,” Ryan said on instinct, which made them open their eyes real wide, but they shut up.
Ryan tried to situate herself in the chair, which was too sloped, and her skirt was too short, and the whole thing was unbelievably awkward.
“I can see your underwear,” a girl in front said, and Ryan snapped her legs closed and tried to tuck her knees sort of under her while sitting on the very front of the seat. “They’re blue.”
One little boy put his hand—sticky and hot, and she wondered where the hell he’d had it that it was so sticky and hot—on her leg. “I can’t see the picture,” he said.
“I haven’t started yet,” she said with a wide fake smile.
What a super idea, Ryan. Just super.
“The Kissing Hand,”she read, and opened the first page.
“You have to say who wrote it,” a little girl took her thumb out of her mouth long enough to say.
“Because it’s important,” a little redheaded boy nearly yelled at her. “Mrs. Knight always reads who wrote it.”
“Okay, okay,” she breathed, and started again.
By page three most of the kids had crept closer, and the kids in the back had gotten up on their knees so they could see.
“I can’t see,” one kid whined.
“Everyone needs to sit on their butts.”
As a unit they gasped. “You said ‘butt,’ ” the peeping Tomette in the front row whispered, scandalized down to her Barbie shoes.
“I meant …” What was an acceptable butt substitute? “Tush.”
She started reading again, but by page five she’dlost them and she glanced up to see what they were looking at.
Harrison, standing at her shoulder, smiling.
Not real, she told herself, because she wanted so badly to bask in the false warmth of that smile. She wanted to smile back and maybe even reach up to touch his hand, lace their fingers together.
“Sorry to interrupt,” he murmured.
“It’s okay,” she said.
“I saw her underwear!” shouted the girl in the front row.
The corners of Harrison’s mouth flattened with suppressed laughter and she felt herself blushing.
“Keep reading,” a chorus of kids chimed in.
“Jonah’s touching me!” one kid shouted.
“Jonah,” she said. “Stop touching people. Where I’m from you get arrested for that.”
The little boy Jonah pulled his hand back into his lap.
“Go ahead,” Harrison said. “I’ll just listen.”
And then, to her amazement and dismay, he sat down right next to the boy who was plucking at the corner of the carpet. Harrison stretched out his legs and leaned back against the wall, all of his attention on Ryan, but the boy next to him was staring at Harrison.
Ryan kept reading, but she was distracted by Harrison. Two kids fell away from the group to pick up other books from the shelf, but Mrs. Knight herded them back toward her.
One boy in back lay down and fell asleep.
I am going to be a great mother, she thought sarcastically.
In the back row, Harrison was leaning over so the boy could whisper in his ear. Whatever it was, it seemed serious, and Ryan put more effort into reading so no one else would look back there.
When she finally closed the book, Ryan was relieved.She’d never expected reading to twenty kindergarten kids would be so stressful. She was sweating a little.
And how discouraging that she was so bad at it.
“Let’s say thank you to Mrs. Montgomery,” Mrs. Knight said, stepping in.
“Show us your underwear again!” one of the kids yelled, and Ryan gratefully jumped up from the wooden chair and gave Mrs. Knight her spot back. Ryan retreated to the back of the room to stand next to Mrs. Tellier.
Harrison put his hand on the little boy’s head he’d been talking to and gave it a little shake. Which made the boy laugh. Beside her, Mrs. Tellier made a low noise of surprise.
“Michael has had a rough time of it lately,” she whispered. “His father is still in Iraq, and home life has been difficult.”
Harrison approached and Ryan forced herself not to take a step back, not to keep the distance between them that would give her the illusion of emotional safety. Instead she reached for his elbow, tucking her hand inside, smiling as he pulled her closer.
“Give this to Michael’s mother, would you?” Harrison asked, giving Mrs. Tellier a business card. “VetAid helps the families of military personnel in these situations. I think we can help with the custody arrangement.”
“I’m sure that would be a relief,” she said. They left the classroom to a chorus of kids saying goodbye.
“I’ll send you our enrollment numbers,” Mrs. Tellier said. “And we can discuss the ramifications of a charter school in Fulton.”
There were a few more pictures, and then Ryan and Harrison were back in the car.
As soon as they were pulling away from the curb,Ryan undid the top few buttons of her suit and kicked off her shoes.
“Oh my God,” she said. “That was so … loud.”
“I didn’t think it was that bad,” Harrison said.
“Not that bad? It was like a war zone. Did you see that mess? That teacher is going to be there for hours trying to clean up that sand table. Who gives kids sand? And water! Indoors? That’s nuts!”
“I’ll drop you at home,” Harrison said, chuckling, “and then head back to the office.”
Exhausted, Ryan nodded and leaned her head back against the headrest.
“You did a great job,” he said.
“I showed them my underwear.”
“Well, they seemed to like it.”
“They were just so … intense.”
“I understand that’s generally the way kids are.”
She swung her head sideways to look at him. “Do you like kids?”
He shrugged, which was a terrible answer, and she knew it was a terrible answer because if asked three months ago if she liked kids, she would have done the same thing.
“We’re going to have one,” she whispered.