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MODE: Final Issue!

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1. mid-April 2010

"That guy who plays the evil doctor and the really evil doctor?" Betty's eyes go so wide Daniel has to laugh. "Oh, my God. That's amazing. She must be so thrilled. Why didn't she tell me at the farewell party?"

"Apparently Amanda and her father ran out of the party so she could get a matching tattoo that very night," Daniel says. "But it turns out choosing a tattoo artist at the last minute on impulse isn't necessarily the way to go." When Betty raises an eyebrow, he elaborates: "Remember the time Tweety took those pills that turned him into giant evil Tweety? Marc says it looks more like that."

"Oh, no," Betty says, but she's laughing too. "Wow. I just remembered that clip that went viral a couple years ago – you know, the one where the really evil doctor pushes his twin off a cliff before setting the reception tent on fire? It's so … Amanda."

"I know. Looking back, I can't believe we didn't figure it out just from that." He's only half-joking.

They're at a Moroccan restaurant near Covent Garden, sitting on cushions, scooping up lamb and rice with torn bits of bread. Betty's as smooth at it as Daniel, if not more so. For a moment he remembers the Betty of four years ago, who hid her mussels in a napkin rather than try to eat them. He took her out for pizza after, and they drank cheap red wine and sang karaoke. They ended up on the Queensborough Bridge in the wee hours of the morning, looking out on the quiet city and promising to meet each other one day at dawn – something that never happened. Why didn't he make that happen? In retrospect, he can't believe he didn't know even then.

But that Betty is gone. If that's the person he's come across the Atlantic to find, Daniel reminds himself – he's out of luck. He has to find out how he and this Betty fit together, if they still fit at all.

He hopes they do.

"You know, I mentioned to Lindsey Dunne that you were in town for a while." The expression on her face is so familiar that he takes heart – her hopeful good-sense look. "He says the two of you should have lunch. Talk some things over."

"Is he personally interviewing candidates to be your assistant?"

"Ha ha. Seriously, Daniel, he owns as many publications as Meade does. Maybe more. Meade Publications doesn't compete with his stuff in Great Britain. If you're still interested in editing--"

"I'm not." He glances upward at the multicolored lanterns overhead, trying to find the right words. "I don't know what I am interested in, exactly. But something different. Something new."

Betty frowns a little. "So, for the foreseeable future, you're just – hanging out?"

He's thankful that he has an answer. "No. There's this course starting up through the University of London – it's for professionals looking at career changes. Three days a week for the next couple of months, intense business education stuff. They bill it as being for people who don't want to get a second MBA. Hopefully you don't have to have a first MBA to get in."

"Come on. You know you'll get in. You graduated from Harvard."

"After six years."

"Still!"

"Hope you're right," Daniel says. "I applied at the last minute. Seems like a good place to start looking." In truth, this is the only educational experience he's ever signed himself up for, an "intense" one at that, and it freaks him out a little. He's not sure if he can do it. But he means to find out.

"I'm proud of you." Betty smiles brilliantly, although there's still something between them – a wariness in her. How do they get past it? Daniel doesn't know.

He takes a deep drink of his wine, trying to bathe the uncertainty into silence. But he can't get drunk, not even tipsy, because, wow, that is not going to win him any points. Daniel feels he needs points right around now.

"So," she says, in a way that makes it clear she felt the awkward pause as heavily as he did. "Wilhelmina must have been thrilled with your decision."

"She took it with uncharacteristically good grace," Daniel says. "Mom says she's been in a wonderful mood. When her new assistant messed up her lunch order the other day, she still threw it at him, but everyone's pretty sure she meant to miss."

"Do you trust her?"

"I trust her to do a good job with the magazine and make it profitable, or as profitable as it can be in this market. As long as that's the only relationship we have to have, we ought to be okay. Besides – she has her moments."

"Wilhelmina came to the farewell party." Betty's voice is a bit too bright. "She said I had really big balls, which means something coming from her."

Daniel nods, but he finally knows what's shadowing her smile. "I was there, you know." She stares at him, and he takes a deep breath. "I watched you dancing from the hallway. You looked so – happy to be leaving. I couldn't be happy for you, and I hated feeling like that."

"I kept leaving you voicemails." Her voice wavers at the end. "If you couldn't do anything else, you could have called me back. Or texted. Something."

"No, I should have come into the party. I should've danced with you. I should've sucked it up enough to tell you goodbye." Daniel had known he'd screwed up, but he hadn't realized how badly it hurt her until now. Until this second, he's been afraid that he hadn't mattered to her as much as she matters to him – but he can't take any reassurance from seeing her in pain. "I'm truly sorry, Betty. There aren't even words for how much I owe you, but – I know I at least owed you that."

She nods. It's not all right again, but it's better; her even letting him see this much vulnerability is a step forward. "Thank you for telling me. I needed to hear it, you know? Why you couldn't say goodbye."

"That's not why I couldn't say goodbye," he says slowly. "It's why I couldn't come to the party."

Betty's eyes meet his. Moment of truth. It's important to get this right – it can't sound like he's throwing this back at her. He just wants her to see how they're the same. Or how he hopes they're the same.

"I didn't tell you goodbye for the same reason you didn't tell me you were taking the job in London," Daniel finally says. "Neither of us could say we were ready to let each other go. Because we aren't."

She blinks, obviously more startled than moved. Not the reception he was hoping for.

Tentatively, he asks, "… are we?"

Betty looks down at the patterned tablecloth, thick dark hair falling in front of her face, and for a moment Daniel's heart plunges to an area somewhere around his socks.

Without looking up, she says, "No. We're not."

Then she lifts her head, and when their eyes make contact, he feels it in his gut, in his heart, all along his skin.

"I missed you," he said.

"I missed you too. I'm glad you're here." Betty tucks a bit of hair behind her ear and laughs – almost nervous, Daniel thinks, but in a good way. He knows because he feels it too. "I want to show you London. But – you must have been here before, right? Probably lots of times."

"A few times," Daniel concedes. "But I want to see your London."

"And find your own."

"And find my own."

**

2. Late April 2010

 

"So, are you anxious about your big lunch?" Daniel says.

"Nah." Tyler walks along 57th Street, just in front of Carnegie Hall. Carnegie Hall! Technically he's a New Yorker now, but he's still new enough to marvel at it. Sometimes Tyler thinks he's wandered into a film set instead of his new life. It's eventful enough to be a movie, that's for sure. "After you and Alexis, I figure meeting my one remaining sibling should be easy."

"Matt Hartley's a nice guy," Daniel says. The transatlantic connection is so clear that Tyler almost wants to turn his head and see if Daniel's following him. Or is that paranoia? With the Meades, family feeling and paranoia seem to go hand in hand. "A writer, a painter – he's talented. You'll get along."

"Hope so."

"Listen," Daniel says, and there's a new weight to it. Whatever Daniel's about to say, it's important to him. Tyler braces himself: Does he have other siblings he hasn't been told about yet? These days, anything seems possible. He just hopes it isn't an evil twin. Please, no evil twin. "Can you maybe give me a heads-up about something?"

"Yeahhh--" Tyler draws it out cautiously. "What is it?"

"If Matt's coming to London to see Betty, could you let me know?"

Tyler has a vague memory of Betty as a nice sort of girl who wore glasses. "Were they friends?"

"They were actually an item for quite a while there."

"Oh, I get it." Mom's hints about Daniel's sudden move to London come together, and Tyler starts to grin. He should've taken a closer look at Betty Suarez. "You're going to outmaneuver the competition?"

"I just want to know. That's it. No scheming," Daniel says firmly. "After MODE, seriously, I'm done for a lifetime."

"Where's the fun in that?"

It's only a joke, but Daniel says, "And there's the Meade in you. I was starting to wonder."

Tyler weighs it and shrugs. "Can I tell Matt I'm telling you?"

"Sure, if you want to."

"That's not a scheme at all."

"You sound disappointed."

"Now that I'm in this family? I feel like I need some practice."

"You're not wrong," Daniel says, and Tyler can hear the smile in his voice.

"Hey, speaking of competition …" Tyler would definitely prefer to bring this up while they're in a good place. "Now that I've finished the rehab, and I'm feeling okay, I was thinking of, well, getting back out there. Dating."

"Amanda, huh?" Thankfully, the smile's still. "No competition, trust me. Go for it."

"Thanks. I will."

As Tyler disconnects the call, he reflects that asking permission to date his brother's ex isn't a very Meade thing to do. But he's not wholly a Meade, and he doesn't want this romance to start out with any drama – or, he muses, without any more drama than Amanda's likely to bring to the table on her own. As much as he's enjoying getting to know Mom, Daniel and Alexis, he needs something in his life that isn't a total soap opera.

**

Matt is not a character in a soap opera. The first thing Tyler says to him is, "Thank God. I was starting to think I was the only person in New York who owns a flannel shirt."

"There are at least three of us," Matt says. "You, me, and the remaining hipster who hasn't received the memo about Western shirts being the next big thing."

They share a grin, kindred spirits at once.

The conversation swiftly goes from polite to easy to fun to intimate; within half an hour, Tyler's spilling about how much it sucks to be an alcoholic when your main job skills are in bartending. Matt turns out to be a big believer in starting over, and he's full of ideas – from delving into the art world to volunteering in Africa. As the meal goes on, Tyler feels a deep sense of relief. He's become fond of Daniel and Alexis, but Matt feels like his sibling, immediately, in a way the others won't for a long time to come. It's nice to know that at least one part of this is going to be simple.

They even get down to the money.

"Claim your shares," Matt says with total conviction. "They're worth millions, they're rightfully yours, and honestly, hitting Dad in the pocketbook is sometimes the only way to get his attention."

Tyler doesn't know if he wants Cal Hartley's attention or his money. "Those millions – it's half of what would otherwise be yours. Only yours. You honestly don't care?"

"It's only money." Matt says this in the way that only people with money can. Tyler appreciates it anyway.

"Maybe. I have to think about it."

"Don't think too long. Hesitation – it can cost you." Matt's face takes on a wistful look. "When I took off for Africa – don't get me wrong, I don't regret it, but I left someone behind. Someone I never should've left behind."

Uhoh, Tyler thinks. Red alert, Daniel. "You mean Betty?"

"You met Betty?"

"Yeah, she was still at MODE when I got here."

"She's great," Matt says, his smile fond. "God, I was crazy about her."

"… was?"

"Some things happened before I left that convinced me – convinced us, I think – we just weren't right. Being in Africa only strengthened that for me."

Tyler smiles. Daniel doesn't have to worry about competition after all. "So who's the lucky girl?"

"She used to work at MODE too – I've still got to look her up." Matt's voice has become almost dreamy. "Did you meet a girl named Amanda Tanen?"

So much for any of this being easy.

3. early May 2010

"Reinvention," Betty says. As she presses a button on her laptop, the projected image changes from one of a downbeat woman to one who is happy and energized. She's not photoshopped to be thinner or more glamorous – she's just more excited about her life. And, well, with no more blue colorwash like in the "depressed" photo; in magazines, subtlety doesn't pay. "Virtually every lifestyle magazine plays with this theme, but usually in very superficial ways. Before and after photos, that kind of thing. I'm suggesting an issue about reinvention from the inside out."

"I like it," purrs Lindsey Dunne. "Edgy and yet upbeat. Rather like Oprah before she became an oligarch."

In the world of media, being compared to Oprah is always a good thing. "I'm not saying we can't tie wardrobe updates into this." FM is not going to be a fashion magazine – it's about ideas, careers, life-work balance, stuff that matters – but no lifestyle magazine can afford to ignore fashion entirely, and these days, Betty gets why. "But pieces always claim that if you change the outside, you can magically change the inside. I want to write something that shows you how you have to change from within first. It's kind of important to me."

"And why is that?"

Betty stops. She doesn't have an answer; it's too obvious for words. Or it would be to anyone who had known her for more than six months.

But here, in London, nobody knows she's reinvented herself. This Betty – sleek and successful – is the only one they know.

She says only, "I think, down deep, we all see ourselves as works in progress. Don't you?"

Dunne chuckles softly, admitting it without words. "A universal theme, indeed. Well done, Betty."

For one instant, she feels as though her former self has ceased to exist. Like there's no floor beneath her, only sky. It's too early to tell if she's falling or flying.

**

The feeling stays with Betty for hours, ambiguous and overwhelming, until dinner, when she is more pleasantly distracted.

"The concept is called Covet," Daniel explains over Chinese food and beer. "Basically, take the iPhone app for identifying a song and automatically buying it, and apply that to consumer goods."

"How is your phone supposed to identify a sweater or a car?" Betty scoops rice onto her chopsticks.

"Forget cars. They're too large for impulse purchases," says Daniel, apparently forgetting that Betty knows about the Ferrari he bought on a dare when he was 23. Then again, he's not exactly the average consumer. "Ailes' idea was to convince manufacturers to implant info chips in everything they sell. Some manufacturers are already doing this, and that number is probably only going to increase--"

"But right now, it's not enough people to be viable. And nobody's going to add security chips just to fit in with an untried app."

"Which is why I told him we should roll it out with the one segment of clothing manufacturers who are already using the chips."

Betty sees the genius of it, and Daniel starts grinning even before she speaks. "Designer couture. The anti-counterfeiting tags--"

"The designers will share the information. They want people to be able to tell the genuine article from the knockoffs on sight. And if we introduce Covet as something high-end, luxurious, exclusive--"

"Then everyone else will want in on it. It's an amazing concept, Daniel. How did you meet this Roland Ailes guy again?"

"Since I was kind of assistant-less after Amanda left, I actually went through my own mail for a while, and this press release caught my attention. Ailes sent it to MODE during my last month there – pretty amateur stuff. He might be a great software designer, but he doesn't have any idea how to present himself. It's no wonder nobody else bit. But I figured as long as I was moving to London, I should talk with him." Daniel looks a bit sheepish. "I admit, I don't get the tech side of it at all."

"No, really?"

"Yeah, okay, I suppose I don't have to tell that to the person who taught me how to send a fax. But Ailes can handle the science if I provide the financing and the contacts. We've had a few good ideas already."

Betty parses what he's said. "You keep saying 'we.' You're going after this, aren't you?"

Daniel wards off speculation by holding up his chopsticks. "He's got a lot more development to do. And I have to survive this course. But – you know, I think it's solid. Worth investing in."

"And you have the connections to make it work." She's almost absurdly proud of him. He ducks his head, bashful at the praise, and once again she feels the frisson of – whatever this new thing is between them.

And she's still not sure if it's flying or falling.

Ever since Claire hinted around at the big farewell party, Betty's been turning the idea of her and Daniel – something she can't even say out loud, me and Daniel – over and over in her head. At first it was a curiosity, so wrong it was almost funny.

And then, on her last day in New York, when Betty realized he really wasn't going to come by or call, she started to realize how not-wrong it might be – and not just for Daniel. She remembered how she'd felt about Trista, how her mere existence had grated on Betty's nerves: This despite the fact that Trista, dim as she appeared to be, was a kind-hearted, friendly girl. She'd gone into her phone's memory to see just how many times she'd called Daniel's voicemail in the previous few days; her need to see him was there, over and over, ten digits repeating themselves with no answer. Even at the airport, she'd found herself looking for him, like he was going to emerge from the crowd with flowers like some character in an Anne Hathaway movie.

She knew she wasn't in love with him. But in those few hours, she'd wondered if she could be. Whether, if she hadn't gotten the job offer, she might have been within a few months. If he was in love with her. The questions unsettled her so that she was almost relieved when the plane took off and the ocean slipped between them, with no movie endings in sight.

Of course, then Daniel showed up in Trafalgar Square, three blocks from her new office, just like a character in an Anne Hathaway movie, and now –

Now they've already slipped into spending a lot of their free time together. Five dinners and two lunches in two weeks, and text messaging is sharply on the rise. They're telling each other as much about their thoughts as they did when they worked together, facing one another through a glass wall for eight hours in a row, five days a week. It feels natural – enjoyable – to talk to Daniel about everything in the world.

Except one subject, the one that is rapidly becoming the elephant in the room.

But when they crack open their fortune cookies tonight, hers reads, THERE IS A TIME FOR STILLNESS AND A TIME FOR ACTION. Is that a sign that it's okay to remain silent right now? To let this simply be whatever it is for a few days more? Betty thinks it might be. Maybe it's just the beer at the end of a long day, but it feels right to just … relax into the moment.

She unfolds her message for Daniel, who nods. "Good one. Cryptic enough to mean anything, but definitely seems to mean something."

"The fortune cookie ideal."

"Exactly." Then he reads his own and his eyes go wide.

"Daniel? What is it?"

He holds up the paper, which reads, LOOK OUT FOR MRS. MAGGI.

"Whoa!"

"Is that the creepiest fortune ever?"

"Yeah, I think it is. Do we know a Mrs. Maggi?"

"No, but I'm going to keep an eye out." Daniel starts laughing only a couple moments before Betty does. "Jesus, that is weird."

They cab it back to her place, speculating the whole while. "Maybe she was one of the guy's teachers back in school," Betty says. Rain splatters down outside, and the windshield wipers keep time with their conversation. "A really mean one. He was so scared in her classes that he blanked on the tests, and he failed to graduate, so now the only job he can get is writing fortunes."

"Maybe it's his mom. Maybe this is Junior Maggi, tired of being nagged about getting married."

They're sitting very close to one another, even though it's a big cab. Their knees are angled toward each other, so they slide together for a moment every time they take a turn. Betty notices how Daniel has arranged this – or is it her? Probably it's them. But right now, it seems less dangerous to figure out the secret of Mrs. Maggi.

She gasps. "I've got it! She's an evil supervisor at the fortune-cookie company."

"Gotta be." Daniel smiles in satisfaction. "You're brilliant."

"Yeah, well, we knew that."

The cab reaches its destination, and they hug goodbye in the backseat. Daniel squeezes her hand. "Good night, Betty. See you Friday?"

"Friday," she says. The anticipation she already feels must be in her voice, because his smile broadens. Daniel doesn't let go of her hand, and she doesn't pull away. The only sounds are the idling motor and the slap of windshield wipers. There's a moment's hesitation between them – a moment when something could happen – but that's when an idea decides to be born. "Not Covet."

"What?"

"The business. You shouldn't call it Covet."

"Uh, okay." Daniel looks a little dazed, as well he might. "Why not?"

"The ten commandments," she says. "Do you really want your business to be named after something the Bible says thou shalt not do?"

He weighs this for a second. "You're probably right. But Covet has the right feel – short, to the point, suggests desire. It should be something like that." An almost boyish disappointment creeps into his voice. "We'd even worked out this really cool C logo. For the little app thing on the iPhone, you know?"

Betty considers. Then a slow smile spreads across her face as it comes to her. "Crave."

"Crave," he repeats, and they grin like co-conspirators. He squeezes her hand again, and it's the only goodbye they need. She dashes through the rain to the front steps of her building, and there, under the small green awning, she turns to see the taxi drive away, until it's only a few red lights among all the rest.

Tonight, she doesn't have to define who Daniel is in her life. She only has to be glad he's back in it.

4. Late May 2010

"How much for this thing?" Hilda holds up a stuffed leather burro one of the girls bought in Mexico. "You think we could get $10 for it?"

"I don't care how much we get," Ignacio says, for about the twentieth time that morning. Madre de Dios, he loves his family, but not one of them has the slightest idea how to handle a yard sale. "We want it out. Price it to move."

"Somebody might pay $10," Hilda insists. When he stares at her, she adds, "Well, somebody crazy might. And we have plenty of crazies in this neighborhood."

Ignacio shrugs. She's got a point.

"You're really getting rid of a lot of stuff, Grandpa." Justin emerges from the laundry room with a newly dried pile of Betty's old Disney sheets. It hurts to throw those out; Ignacio even kept one set, and he has to hope they'll go to a good home. Somebody should buy those for their own little girl, who loves princesses and dreams of a fairy tale of her own. "Are you sure that's okay? I mean, nobody respects minimalist chic more than I do – well, more than Oshi and I do – but won't the house look kind of empty?"

"I'll fill it back up," Ignacio says. "And faster than you think. Get cracking, will you? The bargain hunters get started by 6 a.m."

In truth, Ignacio isn't sure how the house will ever feel full again. Betty already gone, Hilda, Justin and Bobby only a few days from walking out the door: Within a week, he'll be as alone as he's been since he moved out of his parents' house as a boy. Even then, within a year, he'd met his wife and fled with her to the United States. What will his life be like in a year? He can't imagine.

Austin has turned out to be the kind of kid who will show up at 4:30 in the morning to help with his boyfriend's grandfather's yard sale. Good thing, too, as he's the only one who seems to have any idea how to put the household goods in an order that might sell. Ignacio adds another item to his new, ever-increasing list: The gays are good at organizing. After Austin opens a box from the attic, he holds up something glittery. "Are these ... Christmas ornaments?"

"Don't you dare sell those!" Hilda vaults over a pile of old clothes, like Austin could dispose of the ornaments that instant if she didn't stop him. "Papi, you can't get rid of our homemade decorations. I'll take them if you don't want them."

"I want them," Ignacio says. But then his eyes meet Hilda's, and he knows they're both seeing the dilemma for the first time. Where will they spend Christmas this year? Who gets the ornaments they all made together, as a family? Even the most constant parts of his life are now subject to doubt.

Shut up, old man, he tells himself. What kind of a father keeps his daughters in his home with him forever? A failure of a father, that's what kind. You did your job. They are in the world and doing well, and you can ask for nothing better than that.

Except, perhaps, some idea of his own place in the world now.

**

By 9 a.m., the kitchen implements and linens have been thoroughly picked over; the leather burro, repriced at $2, remains standing guard over some old shoes. Although they won't close up until after noon, Ignacio is willing to bet that they've made all the profit they're going to – until a cab pulls up and Amanda bursts out, Marc right behind.

"Oh, my God, you started without me!" She clatters along the sidewalk on high heels – really, women wear those at 9 a.m. on a Saturday? – and half-falls, half-pounces on the clothing rack. "If people have pawed through the racks and taken all the good Bettywear, I will hunt them down and scalp them."

"I'm willing to wager it's on the rack unpawed and untouched, just as it was when she wore it," Marc says. He's wearing a royal blue trenchcoat and an ascot. "Morning, Mr. Suarez. Hey, Justin!"

Justin beams. "Hey, Marc. I've figured out how to make a mochaccino. Want one?"

"And betray the frappuccino? Never." Marc flinches from the burro. "Please tell me that was never alive."

"The Flower Skirt of a Thousand Deaths!" Amanda pulls it from the rack and stuffs it into her oversized metallic handbag. "The Dumpy Sweater, Blue Version! The Dumpy Sweater, Yellow Version! Hellbelt! The Dumpy Sweater, Red Version! Mark, look. It's the whole greatest hits collection, just here waiting for us."

"We should build a shrine," Marc says. "And set it on fire."

She smacks him. "If you burn my precious collection of Bettywear, I'll – I'll – let's just say I know where you keep your porn, and there is NOTHING to stop me from replacing it with DVDs of 'Ghost Whisperer.'"

Ignacio would like to be offended on his daughter's behalf, but after being surrounded by issues of MODE for the past four years, he feels fashion-conscious enough to agree that, yes, that belt was from hell. "What do you plan to do with all this?"

"I'm going to create a massive work of performance art," Amanda says dreamily. "Or a shrine. Or maybe I'll mail them to Betty, one by one, like they're trying to sneak up on her. Like they're haunting her."

"Ghosts of ghastly outfits past," Marc says. "I like it." Justin elbows him, but affectionately.

"Well, don't send them to Betty if you want them preserved forever," Ignacio says. "She says she's got no closet space in London. Apparently her apartment makes even the places in Manhattan look roomy."

Marc and Amanda stare, aghast. "I just felt an icy shiver down my spine," Marc says.

"Like biting into a York Peppermint Patty," Amanda says. "But evil."

Hilda sticks her head from the front door. "Hey, you guys! You know we're about to be neighbors, right?"

"Are you moving into Betty's old place?" Amanda chews her lower lip and looks weirdly guilty. "Give me a chance to scrub out the freezer first, okay?"

"No, silly! We're moving to our own little corner of Manhattan. Inwood. You know it?"

Marc and Amanda stare at Hilda blankly, and Ignacio has to stifle a smile.

Hilda repeats, "Inwood. You know. Way up there? North of 200th Street?"

"I don't think Manhattan has a 200th Street," Marc says.

"It so does," Justin says. "You know, the Dominican Day Parade? Always starts up there."

Amanda squeezes Ignacio's shoulder. "It's a Dominican neighborhood? Then you'll feel right at home!"

Ignacio would like to point out that he's not moving, but there's something more important to clear up: "Dominican is not the same as Mexican."

Amanda frowns suspiciously. "Then how come Dominicans speak Mexican?"

"You got me there." Ignacio sighs and pats her on the arm as she returns to shopping

"Come on and get something to eat, Marc," Hilda says. "You're too thin. And you gotta tell us all about how it's going with Troy!"

"Too thin," Marc muses. "It's one of those phrases in English that ought to make sense, but is essentially meaningless." But when Justin starts pushing him up the steps, he goes.

"Is this for sale too?" Amanda says, pointing at a laundry basket. When Ignacio nods, she starts grabbing Betty's old clothes off the rack by the armful and tossing them in. Without stopping, she says, "Mr. Suarez? You're good at, like, advice, right? I mean, I have my own dad now, and he's great, but he's still kind of new at this whole fatherly business."

Ignacio braces himself. "Out with it. What's troubling you?"

She never looks away from the clothing rack. He wonders if she really thinks she's fooling anyone with that bravado. "OK, I used to have a thing for Matt, Betty's Matt, though it never turned into anything. Except now he's back and it maybe could turn into something."

"I'm sure Betty wouldn't mind if you went out with him now." Betty no doubt is meeting new men in London. Maybe Daniel can introduce her to some friends, as long as he's over there.

"Right, but see, while Matt was off in Africa doing African stuff, I got to know Tyler – Daniel's secret brother? And he's awesome, and he wants to go out with me too. If I liked one of them more, I would know what to do, but I want both. And they're not open to that. I asked." Finally Amanda glances over her shoulder, expression as uncertain as a child's. "My whole life, I never even met one guy who really seemed to like me for me. And now there are two of them at once. Why couldn't they space themselves out?"

"Life doesn't work that way," Ignacio says. "Listen. It doesn't only matter how you feel about a person. It matters who you are when you're with them. When I met my wife, I knew I was becoming a better man. Who makes you the better woman? Ask yourself that, and you'll know the answer."

"That's how I pick?" Amanda frowns. "Reality TV is so wrong about that."

"I'm shocked."

"Thank you," she whispers, before diving back into shopping with even more gusto than before. "You solve everyone's problems!"

That's the moment that makes Ignacio realize – he can solve his own problems too.

Heck, what problems? For the first time in a long time – too long – his life is going to change. Why has he been spending the last few weeks feeling old? Change is something that happens to young people. It won't be easy, but who is it easy for? Not his Beatriz, making a new home for herself half a world away. Not Justin, daring to stand up and say who he is even if the world wants to disapprove. Not even Hilda, who has to learn how to run a home instead of live in it.

Maybe he can put his own touches on the house. Maybe he can travel. Hey – Elena was talking about how much she liked that summer she worked in Florida. Ignacio wonders if he could surf places like Hotwire and Priceline, maybe get a deal on a weekend getaway for the two of them. Now, that's the kind of change he could use more of in his life.

As he grins, Amanda points at the burro. "If I give you $50 for all these clothes, will you throw him in? I think he could wear some of Halston's old outfits."

"Deal," Ignacio says. Yep, someone crazy took it.

 

5. A couple days later in late May 2010

 

Tonight's the night.

Daniel came to London with the understanding that he wasn't going to rush things with Betty, that he'd probably have some persuasion to do, but he hadn't counted on how hard it would be to wait. After years of seeing Betty as adorable only in a very abstract way, it's almost humiliating to find himself in thrall to her. Three weeks in and already he can't stand not touching her. It's time to make his move.

He's never been very patient, romantically speaking. In part, this is because for years he mostly dated girls who had only a passing acquaintance with the concept of wearing underwear. Even as Daniel has become more discerning, though, he's remained bad at waiting. Anticipation makes him crazy; it's a turn-on in itself.

As he dresses for the evening – black shirt, just dressy enough; good jeans, just casual enough; those shoes she found for him years ago, so maybe she'll remember – Daniel decides: We've known each other for four years. Haven't we waited long enough?

She must be as eager as he is.

**

Three hours later, in Betty's apartment – after an abortive kiss that had Betty bending away from him so fast she banged her head against the brick wall outside her door – Daniel is holding an ice bag to her temple and wondering whether he'll simply be able to sweep the remains of his ego from the floor, or whether this task will require a mop.

"Look at it this way," Betty says, after way too many seconds of silence. "We've been in more embarrassing situations."

"None are coming to mind."

"When you lied about saving that Girl Scout from drowning? The time I did the motorcycle stunt for PLAYER? That oompa-loompa tan you bought to convince everyone you'd been to Rio? Tornado Girl?"

"You know, all of that is true, and none of it is helping."

"Daniel, we're okay. Aren't we?" Betty clearly wants to be careful here. Like she's the one who might have offended him, instead of the one who got rushed at by her best friend who clearly didn't know what the hell he was doing.

Worst of all: On one small, bitter, petty level, he feels offended. His imagination hadn't really encompassed the idea that he might want Betty when she didn't want him. The part of him who thinks this isn't the way things should be is the part of himself he hates the most, and yet, it's there.

"We're okay," he says. "I have to admit, I was hoping the first time I came up to your apartment wouldn't be to make sure you didn't need stitches."

It's a feeble joke, but it seems to affect her. "Ever since you got to London, I can't tell if we're – hanging out or flirting or, or … what."

He's still holding the bag against her head as they sit on her tiny loveseat, with only one lamp on. Someone across the room would probably assume they were lovers, Daniel thinks, with her only an arm's length away, and him leaning close enough to kiss. "I thought maybe we could figure that out together."

"But you're not figuring it out. Are you? It feels like it's only me."

She feels like he's being evasive, still, only minutes after the most embarrassing non-kiss since he unknowingly hit on Alexis. Daniel wants nothing so much as to laugh it off and come up with some silly lie that gets him off the hook. He knows Betty well enough to know she'd let it slide. Probably she wants to escape from this moment as badly as he does. But letting this go means letting her go, and he can't.

"Those last few days you were in New York – when I couldn't tell you goodbye – I guess it hit me. Yeah, it's a really stupid time to figure out you're in love with somebody -- right before they're leaving the country. So I asked myself if I wanted to be with you badly enough to change my whole life for it. And I did."

Betty's face flushes somewhere around the words "in love." It hasn't made her happy; it's flustered her. "But you came here for the University of London course. Not for me."

"They have those courses in New York. Boston. Sydney. Lots of places. I wanted to do it, but – you're the reason I'm in London. I want more. I want you."

Silence. Betty couldn't look blanker if she were trying; Daniel really hopes that's from shock and not dismay. She hasn't pulled back. That's got to be a good sign, right? Or maybe it's just that her head still hurts.

She finally says, "I have to think about this."

"Yeah. Absolutely."

"You mean a lot to me, Daniel. I don't want to change our relationship if it's only going to mess us up."

"I know."

"And – it's like you said in New York – I don't want to go backwards."

It's karma in action for his interference with Betty and Henry, sending his own words back at him like a boomerang. And its aim is true: The worst thing Daniel can say about his misspent years is that they mean Betty might not be wrong. "Okay."

"You don't need to go backwards either!" Betty wraps his free hand in both of hers, and her touch almost deafens him to the harder reality of what she's saying. "We have these patterns, you know? You take risks you shouldn't, and I –"

"You clean up the mess."

"We both want to break out of that, right? I don't want us to trip each other up."

He feels as though he could wither on the spot, like some dead thing. "So," he says. "That's … a no."

But Betty shakes her head. "It's a maybe."

"Maybe," Daniel repeats.

"Are you okay with that?" She genuinely looks frightened that he'll walk out the door.

Be a man, he tells himself. "I'm not giving up my best friend, no matter what."

Betty relaxes slightly, and he knows he's said the right thing. It helps.

And yet he stays awake for hours after he goes home, wondering if he's been on a fool's errand after all.

**

Daniel spends the next day at home on his sofa, in his boxers and an old T-shirt, alternating between eating his way through a packet of HobNobs and watching ITV. It's hard to say which of the two is more pathetic, at least until evening, when he begins to form opinions about Audrey on "Coronation Street" and gets his answer.

He gets exactly three messages the entire day. One is from his mother, which Daniel doesn't open; she'll be asking how things are with Betty, and he wants to lie to her about it only slightly less than he wants to tell her the truth. The second is from Alexis, who turns out to be headed to London and thinks they should get together. Daniel wonders if Alexis would even bother coming if he wrote back that his soul is already as crushed as it can get, thus depriving his sister of her favorite sport. The final one is from Ailes, asking if they're still on for the Monday meeting about Crave. It takes him longer than it should to say yes.

Conspicuous by their absence are any messages from Betty. They'd been texting or emailing each other about once every hour or two; now, neither of them knows what to say.

The next morning is the first day of his University of London course. Daniel sets the alarm, but for ten minutes in the morning lies in bed, motionless. He considers going back to New York. He considers going somewhere else entirely – Milan, maybe, or Rio for real this time. He considers catching up with back episodes of "Coronation Street" on the ITV website.

And then he gets out of bed and goes to class.

It's terrifying. Almost everyone else in the class has a solid decade or two of real business experience, and they don't seem daunted remotely by the prospect of spending eight solid hours a day, three days a week, delving into corporate structures. Daniel knows must look like a deer in the headlights, but he listens, and he types notes furiously, and he hopes he's following some of this.

Come lunchtime, everyone starts introducing themselves and setting up power lunches, and Daniel plays the game, but he feels like he's faking it until halfway through the meal, when he looks down at his phone and sees a message from Betty.

"How's your first day?"

"Confusion and flop sweat. But hanging in there. How's your head?"

"Better. Are we still up for a drink after?"

Daniel had hoped their plans for a drink tonight would be romantic – that by now he'd be in a position to kiss her hello, and goodbye, or ideally good morning – but mostly he just wants to see her. "Absolutely."

**

So he stops hanging on to Betty's hand and finally starts finding his London. He keeps going to class, even if, at the end of the day, he often feels like his head's been repeatedly slammed into a brick wall. Some of what they cover – way too much of it – is totally alien territory. And yet every once in a while they hit upon something he learned from his four years at MODE: distribution of goods, refinancing, marketing. When that happens, he goes from treading water to swimming. It feels kind of amazing.

He hears about a crewing team that's looking for a rower. Crew was just about the only thing Daniel liked about Andover. A couple of emails, a talk on the phone, and the next thing Daniel knows, he's spending his Saturday mornings on the Thames. The guys are mostly just people he says generic hellos to, then drinks beer and jokes around with after. But a couple of them seem interesting, and one burly fellow, Gareth, might actually turn into a friend.

And he works his contacts. Although Daniel profoundly hopes he has written his last editorial letter about swimwear, he knows he'd be stupid to burn the bridges MODE built for him. Stella McCartney is free for lunch; he flies to Paris one morning to spend the day at Chanel before returning that same night. Right now this is mostly schmoozing, but if and when Crave goes from theory to reality, these meetings will pay off.

So a lot of the time – most of the time, really – Daniel focuses on building a new life for himself, as himself.

But then he and Betty get together, and he sees her smile, and it feels like everything else he does is just a way of killing time until he can be with her again.

 

6. Early June 2010

Alexis dislikes London, because they know her here.

It's not that the French don't have tabloids, but their privacy laws are stricter – enough to shelter her, at least. But in the U.K., she can still attract paparazzi, and stories in the Sun with headlines that include slurs like "she-male." Her appetite for media attention was satiated a long time ago, but the tabloids' hunger never wanes. So she wears her sunglasses, tells Daniel to arrange a lunch reservation someplace quiet and hopes to lay low for one weekend. She tries not to have any expectations for her trip beyond that.

What she doesn't expect is to arrive at the address Daniel gave her and find him in jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, standing in front of some hole-in-the-wall Indian place that has linoleum flooring and colored-foil lanterns dangling from the ceiling.

"I know it doesn't look like much," Daniel says, "but wait 'til you taste the shrimp biryani."

Alexis is wearing Oscar de la Renta. "I said quiet, Daniel. Not condemned for health code violations."

These are the first words they've spoken face to face since she left the country years ago, days after she claimed the son he'd thought was his. While she didn't expect him to be thrilled to see her again, Alexis had thought Daniel would at least treat it as an event – good or bad.

A furrow of irritation appears between Daniel's brows, but he erases it in an instant, obviously determined to make the best of this. "C'mon, Alexis. Give it a shot. You'll like it."

She wants to taunt him for his lack of sophistication. To ask him if he thinks seeing his only sister after two years isn't a special enough occasion to put on a damned pair of slacks. She wants to simply walk away.

But Alexis is also aware that the main reason she's always so angry with Daniel is just because he had the dumb luck to be born in his own skin, while she had to shape hers for herself.

Which is really a pretty stupid reason. And yet it's the one that never fades.

"Okay," she says. "Giving it a shot."

Of course, Alexis has other, much more valid reasons for being annoyed with Daniel, and she doesn't wait long after being seated at a tin-topped table that wobbles before coming out with it. "You don't even call me before you turn daily operations of the company over to Wilhelmina?"

"You gave up all control of Meade before you left. Remember? Can we just eat some naan for a couple seconds and catch up?"

"This is catching up. Seriously, Daniel, you threw our company out the window because you decided you wanted to party in London for a change?"

Daniel takes a deep breath. Then he takes another. Once it was gratifying to watch him struggle to stay calm, but he's gotten too good at it. "Okay, Alexis. Tell me now. Are you interested in having a real conversation about this? Because we can do that. What we're not going to do is our usual – whatever the hell it is."

Alexis doesn't say yes or no, but she changes tack. "I bet you didn't talk about it with Tyler, either."

"Tyler has his own reasons for distrusting Wilhelmina, but he doesn't want to get involved with the business." Already Daniel is dropping his guard; he wouldn't be such an inviting target if he didn't make it so damned easy. "I still can't believe we have another brother."

"He seems – nice. Sort of earthy and sensible, which is weird, given that he's Mom's."

"Yeah. Tyler said you guys hit it off." Daniel's expression is hard to read – is it amused or resentful? Somewhere in between, probably.

"We did." Tyler is not Bradford Meade's son. Alexis finds it easier to love him. "Our family reunions get weirder all the time. I guess London counts as 'the middle,' now, so maybe we'll have our next one here. Why did you move to London, anyway?"

"Betty's here."

That doesn't originally compute. "You brought her over to work for you? I thought Mom said you were taking some time off."

"No, Betty's editing her own magazine."

Daniel doesn't say the rest, but it hits Alexis, the punchline to the funniest joke she's ever heard. "You are not screwing Betty Suarez. You ARE. Jesus Christ."

"I'm not sleeping with her," Daniel says, but in a tone of voice that adds the unspoken yet.

"Well, everybody said Dad hired her because she was the only woman on earth you wouldn't fuck. Good for you for proving him wrong."

He takes a 10-pound note out of his wallet and drops it on the table. "Go to hell, Alexis." Then Daniel walks out the door.

Alexis doesn't know how she feels about what just happened, but she doesn't feel like following him. If she did that, he would see that she's even more upset than he is, and she never, ever shows Daniel the chinks in her armor. So she stays for lunch. The shrimp biryani turns out to be terrific.

**

Calling ahead will only result in his hanging up, so Alexis goes straight to Daniel's apartment that night. Somebody's coming out as she's coming in, so she doesn't have to ring the intercom and face being turned away. Although Daniel has clearly grown a pair since the last time they met, Alexis is betting that he can't bring himself to shut her down cold twice in one day.

She knocks on the door, and Betty answers.

"Oh! Alexis!" Betty clearly has some idea of what's been going down. "Sorry. I thought you were the guy with the Thai food."

"No Thai food. And no guy." In the background, Alexis sees Daniel, who looks horrified – not to see her, Alexis realizes, but in fear that she's going to say something cruel to Betty. But she came here planning to be good, and besides, seeing Betty Suarez for the first time in a couple years makes the differences clear. Above all else, Alexis respects transformation. "You look terrific."

"Thanks." Betty flushes with pleasure, and across the room, Daniel's shoulders relax. He doesn't exactly smile, but Alexis knows she's welcome to come in.

The delivery guy isn't four minutes behind her, and Betty insists they ordered enough for three, so Alexis stays to dinner. Inexplicably, Daniel has rented a dinky apartment – one bedroom and an office, with the only dining area a small table against one wall. Just two chairs, so Daniel sits cross-legged on an ottoman and balances his plate on his knee. Mostly the conversation is between Betty and Alexis – Alexis asking about the new magazine, and Betty burbling on happily. The tension between Daniel and Alexis remains a presence in the room, but a muted one.

Betty excuses herself early with vague excuses that all boil down to You Two Need To Talk. Alexis pretends not to watch them hug goodbye – affectionate, but no kiss. Daniel seems to have forgotten how to seal the deal.

As soon as she's gone, Daniel says, "Thanks."

"For not being an asshole?"

"Basically."

"Sorry to screw up your date."

"It wasn't a date, exactly." Daniel looks so downcast that Alexis wants to laugh, but she keeps it to herself. She thinks, Well played, Betty. You've practically got him on a leash. "Okay, you want to talk about Wilhelmina."

"Forget Wilhelmina," Alexis says. "I don't care about Meade Publications anymore. I never did."

"You acted like you cared during paintball." She glances up to see that he's smiling, which is encouraging. "If you're not here about the business, why are you here?"

"It's DJ."

Daniel sits down heavily. "Oh, my God. Is he all right?"

"He's fine. Got great grades in school this year. As far as I can tell, he mostly thinks about skateboarding, although he also has a poster of Kristen Stewart on his wall. So either he's into vampires or he's straight. One or the other. I'm not sure both things can be true."

"Sounds like he's doing well. That's – really good to know." It's hard to see how much Daniel still loves DJ; Alexis feels as though she truly stole something from him. "So what's up?"

"I'm spending the summer at the house in Provence, and I want you to visit. If you come, then DJ will too."

Her son still thinks of Daniel as his father. DJ wants to love Alexis, and sometimes she knows that he does, but he wants a dad. That's something she can't be, something she never wanted to be to anyone. The idea of being a mother is unexpectedly inviting, but DJ had a mom he loved dearly. They're still figuring out how Alexis fits in his life. With Daniel to bait the hook this summer, she can arrange for DJ to spend more time with her, because he'll expect to have more fun. Then he'll have fun with her, too, and – maybe it will help.

Daniel studies her face. He seems more than two years older. Perhaps losing his wife did it to him, or ditching Meade Publications, or whatever is going on with Betty Suarez. Alexis wonders what he sees when he looks back at her.

Finally he says, "You're really trying hard with DJ."

"Are you going to come?"

"Yeah, sure. I can clear a couple of weeks."

Alexis wants to say thank you, but the words won't come out. She does the best she can: "I knew you'd come through. For DJ."

Daniel's shoulders sag, the slightest hint of disappointment. "I wish you'd understand –"

"What?"

"Alexis, I'd come just for you."

She nods, and neither of them can quite meet the other's eyes. But she leans against his shoulder for a moment and allows herself to remember that she loves her little brother.

 

7. Late June 2009

 

"Hey, I hear the Picasso exhibition at the Tate is excellent," Christina says as she squirts more vinegar onto her chips. "I always get a creative charge out of his seeing his colors, you know? Maybe I'm going through my own blue period. Or maybe I'm going to design a bunch of dresses with pictures of people who have penises on their faces. Could go either way. I want to catch it this weekend while Stuart's taken William to visit his mum in Edinburgh."

The crowd in the pub cheers – Man U has scored a goal. To her father's despair, Betty has never cared about soccer, but it's worth braving game night for fish and chips this good. "You don't get along with Stuart's mother?"

"She fondly refers to me as the 'whore of Babylon,' so you could say there's some room for improvement in our relationship. And our move to London hasn't exactly made her year. But to hell with her! Business is booming, and you can only go so far in fashion in Scotland, unless you're willing to heavily commit to tweeds. What do you think about the show?"

"Actually, I went last weekend." Betty takes a sip of her beer before adding, as if it's an afterthought, "With Daniel. Really, it's amazing. I'd go again, if you want."

Like she could ever slip that past Christina. "Daniel again, eh? Been a bit of a change there, sounds like."

"He's a good friend. We have a good time together." Which isn't the whole truth. Not even close. But Betty isn't ready to discuss this with Christina; she hardly knows what to think of it herself.

Christina mops a couple of the soggier chips in the vinegar, soaking them further. "Betty – you know I'm only asking because I love you--"

Betty braces herself.

"-you haven't fallen into a wee bit of a crush, have you?"

"That's not what's going on," Betty says.

"Not that Daniel doesn't have his charms. Handsome fella. A millionaire, and while money's not everything, it doesn't exactly take the bloom off the rose, does it? And more besides." When Betty stares at her, Christina leans across the table conspiratorially. "Remember, I used to be his tailor. A man has no secrets from she who measures his inseam."

"Christina!"

Christina holds up her hands in surrender. "If you say it's just friendship, I believe you. You know your own heart, Betty. Besides, you've got more sense than that anyway, haven't you?"

Betty wants to defend Daniel, but that would reveal too much that she's not ready to show to anyone yet. Instead she says, "Seriously, I'd go to the Picasso show again. What about Sunday afternoon?"

"You wouldn't rather go Saturday?" Christina's attention is half on the game.

"Saturday night is the first FM talk, remember? You promised. You know I need you there."

"Yes, of course! Can't miss it!" Christina grins. "So, this Saturday night, we go to the very illustrious talk with the very illustrious author for the very illustrious new magazine FM--"

Betty takes a mock bow over the table.

"—and Sunday we go see pictures of people with penises on their faces."

"Ahh, high culture."

**

"Mr. Peck, it's such an honor that you're here," Betty says as she ushers in the guest for the very first FM talk – Alistair Peck, THE Alistair Peck, the most brilliant and reclusive novelist in Britain in the past half-century. He's very old, very tiny and extremely nervous; the legends about his stage fright appear to be true. "It was good of you to come so early."

"To make sure I wasn't a no-show again, hmm?" His eyes are kindly beneath his spectacles. "I've bolted many a time, dear. But I'd never do that to you. You've a sweetness to you so few people have. Not a false bone in your body. With you, I hope I'll finally be able to speak my mind – and I've waited a long time for that. But please tell me you've brought a little liquid courage to help me along."

Betty, glowing from the praise and the sheer relief that he's shown up, leads him into the auditorium's green room. "Absolutely. But you won't have too much, will you?"

"Cross my heart and hope to die." He cackles. "At my age, a vow I do not take lightly."

"The most important thing is that London hears what you have to say, at last." She pours him a glass of the wine she brought – the only request he made – and makes sure he's comfortable. Getting him here was the hard part. At this point, Betty's main concern is drawing him out enough during the interview, but she's prepped for two solid weeks. "Do you want me to stay back here with you until curtain time?"

Peck pets her arm. "No need, dear. A few moments to collect my thoughts would do me good."

"Okay. I'll be right back."

Betty hurries out into the auditorium itself to see if people are coming – and they are. Already there's a crowd, and she can't resist a smile. FM launches next month, and this is just the kind of event to help put them on the map. Because of Peck's notorious habit of announcing public engagements and then failing to show, Betty made the invitations cryptic – nobody knows who the guest for the talk will be. Most of them are probably there for the free cocktails. But when they leave talking about Alastair Peck, FM will be the toast of London. She starts working the crowd, trying to know and be known by everyone.

Not long before the talk is due to start, she glances across the room at the moment Daniel walks in. After years of looking at him without a second thought for hours a day, almost every day, a mere glimpse of him now makes her, well, melty. Like the warm fudge center of Death by Chocolate. Betty knows she's falling for him, on the verge of falling hard. What she doesn't know is whether or not that's a good thing – whether or not she's going to let it keep happening.

Can she recreate herself as someone new when Daniel's always reminding her of what used to be?

Then he glimpses her and smiles. Almost despite herself, she waves him closer.

They embrace hello – great, now she's even noticing how good he smells – and Daniel whispers into her ear, "Did Peck show?"

"Come help me show him out to the stage." The crowd is murmuring loudly now; it's almost time to roll.

"You realize Peck is the most amazing get ever, don't you?" Daniel says as they head behind the scenes. "This will make headlines in New York, too."

"I admit, I may be feeling fairly awesome right around now." They go back into the green room to see Peck sitting in the same rolling chair where she left him. "Hello there!" Betty waves. "Are you about ready?"

"Ready? I'm more than ready." It comes out as a snarl. Peck leans over his empty wineglass like he thinks someone might try to take it from him.

Daniel and Betty share a look. Betty says, "… you're, um, okay?"

"I'm ready to tell those bastards what I think of them," Peck says. "Pathetic, bourgeois thugs, the lot."

Betty looks at the bottle on the table; he's had more than one glass. In fact, he's drunk about half the bottle. "Mr. Peck, you promised not to have too much!"

"I had just enough. Just enough to finally get up and speak the truth for once in my life. All these years of cowering behind stage fright – they're over! Believe me, tonight's a night your guests will never forget."

Daniel's eyes go wide as he picks up the bottle. "Betty, where did you get this?"

"I saw it in the store – all the old novels I used to read talked about port wine, so I thought it would be nice to get – you know, kind of English –"

"Port wine is stronger than regular wine, Betty! It's been fortified with brandy."

"What?" They never said that in the old novels. "Why would anybody make alcohol – more alcoholic?"

"… no idea. But it doesn't matter. Your author's toasted."

Betty mentally calculates the effect of that much brandy, versus the similar amount of wine, and her heart sinks. "This is bad. This is seriously bad."

How could she screw this up? She'd started to believe anything like – like this – was far behind her. Like every awkward moment she could ever have had been left on the other side of the Atlantic. But it's caught up with her all the same.

Just when she thinks she can't feel any worse, Peck lifts his head, smiles evilly and says, "You know what? I'm going to tell them about the time I fucked Maggie Thatcher."

"Oh, please no," Betty breathes. Daniel's jaw hangs slightly open.

"She can't sic her bomb squads on me now!" Peck bellows, waving his fist in the air. "Can you, Maggie? Toothless old cow!"

Betty's cell rings, and she grabs it, as though hoping help will miraculously be on the other line. Instead, it's Lindsey Dunne. "Betty, just to let you know we're headed backstage," he says cheerily. "Can't wait to meet Peck!"

He hangs up, and she stares at the phone in horror. "My publisher will be here any second," Betty says. "And he's going to see that I got the author drunk and wrecked the event. Oh, my God."

"Tell him Peck didn't show," Daniel says. "Go with your Plan B."

"But Peck's here and Dunne is –"

Betty's voice trails off as Daniel charges at Peck's rolling chair and pushes it at high speed, Peck along for the ride. "Aaaaaaaaagh!" Peck screams, clinging onto the arms of the chair for dear life as he and Daniel hit the swinging door and keep on going. All the way down the long hallway to the back, Betty can hear "aaaaaaaaaa" – until another door thuds shut and there is silence.

Quickly she grabs the wineglass and bottle and throws them both into the trash, a split second before Lindsey Dunne and his friends come through the door. As Dunne's face falls, Betty gives him her best sad-but-in-control expression. "It looks like Peck's a no-show again," she says firmly, "but we've got a great Plan B."

Plan B, who is named Christina, is swiftly fetched from her place near the free cocktails. She is far, far better at holding her liquor than Alistair Peck. The first FM talk is about the cutting edge of London fashion, and given the expertise of both guest and moderator, and their natural warmth with each other, the crowd laughs and asks questions and has a terrific time. No, it's not the groundbreaking event Betty had hoped for – but it's a solid beginning, and Christina's quotable enough to ensure them quality media attention tomorrow. Dunne congratulates her effusively before he leaves midway through the after-party.

As soon as he's gone, Betty hurries backstage. She finds them in a small room at the very rear of the building, some sort of janitor's office: Peck is passed out on a filthy old sofa, and Daniel looks like he's been in a hurricane.

When Betty stares at him, Daniel says, "Peck really, really wanted to get out there and talk. At length. He wanted to share his thoughts on Thatcher, and bourgeois pigs, and also Doctor Who. He is not happy about where that show is going."

"Did you have to wrestle him?" Betty covers her mouth with her hand.

Straightening his tie, Daniel pulls himself up to look as dignified as possible. "He's spry, okay?"

Betty tries hard not to laugh at him, but she can't help it – and neither can he.

They pour Peck into a cab and walk to her apartment. It's not especially close, maybe half an hour, but it's a pleasant night and Betty feels like she could use some air after that. Daniel offers her his hand to help her over a large puddle; once she's past it, neither of them lets go.

"I know this is strange," she says, "but I almost feel … relieved."

"About tonight? This I've got to hear."

"Everything here has been so ... perfect. Except my apartment being the size of a postage stamp, but that hardly counts." Betty leans her head against Daniel's shoulder. "I felt like I was turning into some completely different person that nothing bad ever happened to. Which – I mean, I like feeling free to change, but I liked who I was to start with, you know? I don't want to lose myself."

"And an author getting drunk on port means you're not losing yourself?"

Betty considers that. "Weirdly, yes." It means things are going to stay interesting.

"You've always been the most centered person I've ever known, Betty." Daniel's voice can sound deliciously soft, when he chooses. The words seem to flow over her. "You could never lose who you are."

She smiles, feeling the smooth fabric of his jacket against her cheek. "You completely saved the day."

"I just shoved him in the back," Daniel corrects her. "You saved the day by having a Plan B."

"Still, that was kind of amazing."

"As many times as you saved my bacon, I owed you." Daniel's hand tightens around hers. "That's how I got in the business program, you know. I told them I was a graduate of Harvard University and the Betty Suarez School of Crisis Management. They were much more impressed by the second one."

As Betty laughs, she sees they've reached her building, and she feels a quiver of disappointment. Even though her feet are aching, she could walk another mile with Daniel tonight.

And just like that, she knows herself.

"Can I see you tomorrow?" Daniel asks. He always sounds a little unsure, like each time might be the time she says no.

"Tomorrow I'm hanging out with Christina. But what about Monday night? We can go to that awesome Indian place near your apartment, the one with the little foil lanterns."

"Sounds good."

He relinquishes her hand. Betty takes the first step up, then stops. They're face to face now. As their eyes meet, she presses her hands against his chest, then circles him in her arms. Daniel returns the embrace, one of his hands nestling in her hair. Betty feels warmth sweeping through her and closes her eyes. She breathes him in.

Daniel's lips brush against her cheek, then her jawline, then – slowly, after a long breath -- the very corner of her mouth. He is whisper-gentle. Still giving her an out.

Betty takes his face in her hands and kisses him deeply. It takes a very long while, and nobody's leading anymore, nobody's following, because they're tangled up in each other.

When their lips part, Daniel has the most amazed smile, and she knows she must too. "So," he says. To her satisfaction, his voice is slightly shaky. "Maybe is becoming a yes?"

"Yes," she repeats, and they kiss again, a shorter, harder kiss, sharpened by desire.

For a moment she thinks he'll ask to come up, and she thinks she'll let him. But he steps back, giving them time. It's the right decision, she knows – this is too important to rush -- and yet she also knows she won't be able to sleep for hours.

Daniel says only, "Monday?"

"Monday."

He squeezes her hands, then lifts one palm to his lips and kisses it. "Good night, Betty."

"Good night." She goes inside to daydream and rest her feet and figure out whether to write a note to Alistair Peck and whether to tell Hilda what's happening and to wonder what it will be like to kiss Daniel on Monday, and for once all the different people she could be truly feel like just one person.

8. Early July 2010

 

It ought to be a pleasant afternoon. Claire lounges poolside in the New Mexico sun, swaddled in the spa's luxury robe. Daniel has informed her that he and Betty are becoming an item, which is all the more satisfying for her having predicted it. And yet she's unsettled.

Tyler's birth certificate – something's just not right –

Claire's phone begins playing "The Bitch is Back." Without removing the cucumber slices over her eyes, she answers. "What is it, Wilhelmina?"

"And good afternoon to you too. How's the post-surgical recovery going?"

"For the last time, I haven't had surgery. I'm merely relaxing."

"Please, Claire. If you have another facelift, you'll be wearing a goatee."

"I take it you haven't called only in an attempt to pierce my eardrums with your screeching, so, out with it."

"We have the second quarter numbers in, and they're drooping lower than your upper arms."

Claire peels off the cucumber slices and leans her head forward into her hand. As much as she'd like to pin this on Wilhelmina's management, she knows it's not her fault. Magazine ad revenue is down. Sales are down. Subscriptions are down – across the entire industry. The trend is more than the recession; it's the future, looming larger on the horizon all the time.

Owning a chunk of Meade Publications used to be like owning a chunk of General Motors. Unfortunately, it still is.

"Fill me in on the details," Claire says.

"Don't you already know? Behind on your own business, Claire. Tsk, tsk."

"We don't all have crystal balls and winged monkeys to bring us the news, Wilhelmina. Spit it out. Which magazines are still strong for us?"

"MODE, naturally. PSYCHOLOGY NOW. Most of the regionals. NYW, despite the odds. And HOT FLASH, though I suppose you realized that, unless Alzheimer's has already set in."

"What's sinking?"

"PLAYER is played out. HUDSON's never been the same since Alexis left. THE CUP had a few good months, but they're fading as fast as the Tiger Woods scandal. Everything else falls in the middle. The next year or so – it's sink or swim, for them."

"We'll have to trim the fat," Claire says. "You should handle it, Wilhelmina. Anybody who's had as much liposuction as you have ought to be good at it."

"Leaving me with all your dirty work? How typical."

Claire thinks of the empty floors that will result on the Meade building, and how hard it will be to fill them with new tenants. She can't let herself think about the people who are going to be out of work. But they've held on longer than decency would demand. If the stronger magazines are going to survive, their meager profits have to go towards something besides propping the weaker magazines up. "Please. You love firing people."

"True. But we all have our little hobbies."

"Run a list by me, Daniel and Alexis at the end of the next quarter. Unless something dramatic changes, I can't see us taking action before the end of this year." 2010 will be a watershed for this business. Afterwards, Meade will be half of what it was when Bradford died. Claire's grateful he never had to see this. It's not easy for her to see this happen; it won't be easy for Daniel and Alexis, either. But as much as they care about this business, it was always fundamentally a business for them. To Bradford, it had been more.

"Will do. Ta, Claire. I hope the stitches don't show."

"Take care, Wilhelmina. Sleep well in your vat of formaldehyde." Claire hangs up and thinks, That went well.

 

9. Late July 2010

 

Sunday night. They're lying on Daniel's couch, one of her jean-clad legs between his. They've been making out so long Betty's lips are swollen and tender, but she can't bring herself to stop.

What she doesn't understand is why she can't bring herself to move forward, either.

"This must be driving you crazy," Betty whispers into his ear.

"You are definitely driving me crazy." His lips press against the side of her throat.

"That's not what I meant. You aren't, you know … frustrated?"

"Nope." When she gives him a skeptical look, he sighs and leans back just far enough to flop onto the cushions. "Maybe a little sexually frustrated. But not emotionally. Betty, honestly, this is fun. You know? Necking like teenagers in the front seat of the car."

"That wasn't exactly my teenage experience," Betty says. "High school involved less kissing cute boys, more afternoons after school participating in the Model U.N."

"Because boys are stupid." Daniel's fingertips brush along the curves of her cheeks, framing her face. "You need to make up for lost time."

"Definitely," she murmurs before his mouth covers hers again. The moment is so right to take his hand and lead him back to the bedroom, and yet she doesn't.

It's not that she questions whether or not she's falling in love with Daniel; she finally figured that out. Betty told him so one night as they were sipping cocktails on the South Bank. The way he kissed her then – if she hadn't chosen to tell him in public, she's pretty sure that would've been their first night together.

How she wishes she hadn't told him in public.

Because something is holding her back. It's hard to know what, because the closer they get, the more she wants him. Betty likes the way he smells. Likes the way he feels in her arms. She's learned the muscles and planes of his body through T-shirts, dress shirts, slacks, jeans, the grubby sweaty stuff he wears to crew in. Betty's always believed there are no such people as "good kissers," just couples whose kissing fits together well, but wow, are they apparently in that category. And he pays attention.

For instance, even now, as she shifts herself closer to him, his lips capture her earlobe for just a moment, and how did she never know how sexy that could feel?

When Betty shivers, Daniel says, his voice low, "You like that."

"I'm sensitive there."

"I'll keep that in mind."

Betty kisses him, wild with impatience – with him, with herself, with whatever it is that won't let her go to bed with him. She's made herself ready; there's a box of condoms in her purse. It's been there for a couple of weeks. One day she even browsed around Victoria's Secret for something besides her usual colorful cotton underwear. The racy stuff all seemed like it was trying too hard, but she's currently wearing a red satin bra and bikini that she thought Daniel would like.

He will like them, a lot, when he finally gets to see them.

Daniel murmurs, "You know, you could stay over tonight, and we could just – fool around. Have fun."

Everything but sex, he means, and it sounds amazing – if not quite as amazing as sex itself – and yet the thought awakens as much unease as desire. She sighs heavily and leans away from him. "I don't know. I should know. What is my problem?"

"You don't have a problem," he insists. "You don't rush into bed at the drop of a hat. It's not a bad thing. It's just how you are."

"It's also why I've only slept with three guys in my entire life."

Obviously this is a highly foreign concept in Danielworld. "Three? Really?"

"How many people have you slept with? Do you even know exactly?"

Now he looks slightly seasick. "Betty, do you seriously want me to tell you that number?"

"Withdrawn."

"I wish it were three."

She gives him a look.

"Okay, I'm not sorry it's higher than three, but still: I'd take a lot of it back if I could."

"I doubt you'd take back any of the supermodels. Or Angelina Jolie," Betty says. And that, to her chagrin, strikes down to the core. She doesn't like this truth about herself, but she's never been very good at long-term denial. "I guess I'm feeling insecure."

Daniel seems more amazed by this than she would have expected. "But you – you're more sure of yourself than anybody else I've ever known. You know what you're worth. It's more than any model. I told you that a long time ago. Remember that night on the bridge?

That was such an incredible night, and she wants to reminisce with him about it – singing karaoke, crashing the wedding, everything. But she doesn't get distracted. "You're doing that thing."

"Which one of my things am I doing?"

"The thing where you put me up on a pedestal and it's unrealistic. Trust me, I can be insecure."

He studies her so intently that she feels herself warming from the inside out. "Even now?"

"Even now."

Daniel laces her fingers with his and leans in close. "You have to understand this. You have to believe it." His voice drops to hardly more than a whisper. "I want you more than I've ever wanted anyone."

As much as she loves that he said it – that he feels it – he didn't have to. Betty, having recognized the enemy within herself, doesn't intend to be cowed any longer. She kisses Daniel again, finding her courage within herself and within the heat of his response.

"Come on," she says as she rises from the couch. Betty takes his hand in hers, expecting him to follow, but Daniel holds her fast.

"Are you sure?" He frames her face in his hands. It ought to make her feel like a child, like he's sheltering her too much, but it doesn't; it makes her see, for the first time, that he's a little nervous too.

"Yeah. Are you?"

Daniel doesn't deny what she's glimpsed in him, yet he hesitates a moment before answering. "I don't want to put pressure on you, but –"

Putting pressure on her is so exactly the opposite of what he's been doing that Betty isn't sure where this might be going

"—I guess I was thinking – I want this to be the last first time." His smile is almost bashful. "You know?"

Okay, Betty thinks, that's scary-wonderful. But more wonderful.

"I know," she says, and this time when she pulls him toward the bedroom, he doesn't resist.

10. August 2010

Amanda charges out of the Meade Building elevators toward her old desk. The new receptionist, who has already learned to fear her, immediately ducks beneath the counter.

"Outta my way, bee-yotches!" Amanda prances through the hallway, one hand at her hip. An underling accidentally gets in her way, but Amanda simply shoves her aside, ignoring the scattering of papers flying through the air in her wake.

She's all the way to Wilhelmina's office before she remembers that Marc's not her assistant anymore; however, he's in there talking with Wilhelmina. The new assistant stands, as if to stop Amanda, but she shoots him a withering look that makes him freeze. Oooh, that's a good one. She'll have to try that look more often.

"You're telling me the hot shoe for winter is a boot that's … completely comfortable?" Wilhelmina picks up the offending boot by two fingers, as though it smelled bad. "And is affordable?"

"Disgraceful," Marc affirms. "Positively anti-fashion. But we have to face facts. The mukluk is the biggest thing since the Ugg. If we don't feature its loathsome, fringed image, we look like we're out of the loop."

"Out of the loop is exactly where you are," Amanda announces.

Wilhemina scowls. "You again. How long is it going to take security to confiscate your pass?"

"I dunno," Amanda says, inwardly glad she made so many dupes back in the days when they let her run the laminating machine. "Listen: I'm here with scoop. Hot scoop. Scalding hot. Scoop like you have never scooped before. Scoop I got from my sexy-ass boyfriend, who by the way is mega-rich, and his dad not only could buy this whole place but kinda did once –"

Marc and Wilhelmina wave her on: They've heard all this before. And they'll hear it again. But right now, Amanda wants to get to the good stuff. "I just found out the real reason Daniel quit MODE and left New York."

"It's a scheme after all," Wilhelmina says, nostrils flaring. It's weird, seeing her face move that much. "I knew it."

"Nope, not a scheme. WAY better than that."

Marc folds his arms. "Spill, Jill!"

"Wait a second." Amanda pulls out her cell phone and starts recording the movie of this. "OK, the real reason Daniel left New York was to move to London. To be with Betty. Because he is TOTALLY IN LOVE WITH HER and now they're dating."

The expressions on their faces are everything Amanda could have hoped for. She intends to watch this movie a hillion jillion times.

"Shut up," Marc says in that way that means, Keep talking. "Shut UP."

"It's 100% true," Amanda says. "Daniel told Claire, and Claire told Tyler, and Tyler told me. Plus Tyler said he knew Daniel wanted to get with Betty from, like, the day he moved out there." What kind of boyfriend holds out with gossip like that? Tyler is so awesome in so many ways, but he needs some serious reeducation in the concept of "need to know."

After a moment of silence, Marc says, "I know that, for the sake of my pride, I'm supposed to say something snarky now, but … I kind of think that's awesome."

"Me too!" Amanda squeals, hopping up and down as she claps her hands.

"Daniel Meade and Betty Suarez," Wilhelmina says. "The mukluk is in for winter. What had happened to today? Did the world turn inside out while I wasn't watching? Have the laws of physics been reversed? Are things going to start falling upwards?"

"Admit it," Marc says. "You think it's awesome too."

"I admit nothing." But Wilhelmina's face moves enough for Amanda to see the smile.

**

Together, Amanda and Marc decide the only thing to do is call Betty and grill her immediately, or at least during the workday so Meade Publications has to pay the long-distance bill. They get her at home alone, since apparently Daniel's at a meeting about dealing with his cravings or something like that.

Amanda clutches the receiver tightly, swatting off Marc's attempts to grab it. "You know, Betty, I had sex with Daniel first."

"Thanks for the reminder."

"They say when you have sex with somebody, it's like you're having sex with every single person that person had sex with. So since you had sex with Daniel, it's just like you had sex with me."

"… I don't think it's actually just like that."

"Isn't it?"

"It's not at all like that."

"Isn't it?"

"Put Marc on the line."

Marc, overhearing, makes another grab for the phone, but Amanda points to her hipbone, her by-now-familiar threat to show him the Giant Evil Tweety tattoo again, which will bring the nightmares back. He cowers like Igor from torchlight.

"Betty?" she says. The words come out all quiet, because when she's trying to be serious, sometimes her throat does this thing where it closes up. "Be so, so happy."

"I am. We both are. Amanda – thanks." She can hear Betty's smile over the phone. Weird: She can still hear the braces. "And hey, I hear you have something good going on with Tyler."

"I think so. I haven't scared him off yet." So far she's making a point of wearing lingerie that covers Giant Evil Tweety. "He's sweet to me."

"You deserve that."

"It was tough, though. Because there was this whole thing where I had to choose between Tyler and Matt. Choosing between two guys wasn't as much fun as it always looks like. It kind of made me sad for a while, which was weird. But now Tyler and I are solid. Oh, hey, if I'd picked Matt, you and I would totally have been man-swapping with each other." Amanda grins in satisfaction. "I always knew you were the freaky kind."

"Put Marc on. Now."

While Marc takes his turn quizzing Betty, Amanda sends the movie to the MODE MAGAZINE: ALL list that she copied back in the day. They'll be so glad she helped spread the news.

 

11. From August to November 2010

The morning that Daniel wakes up next to Betty for the first time is, probably, the single best hour of his life to date. He snuggles her until she stirs, and for a while they talk drowsily about being together and listen to the rain outside, until they start making love again. It feels like the world contains exactly two people, and neither of them could ever want anyone else.

… and then Betty has to get up and go to work, and he has to run across the street in the rain to Boots to buy her a toothbrush. The business of fitting their lives together goes from the blissful to the prosaic. Somehow, the prosaic is even better. Daniel thinks that's what makes it real.

Keys to each other's apartments: made.

Discussion about her moving into his apartment: Trending positive, but tabled until Betty's lease is up.

Birth control: His place, bedside table; her place, the little box on the windowsill.

Telling friends they're a couple: Usually the easiest part, but not this time.

Hilda calls him directly one day when he's on his way to a big meeting with Ailes. "So, my sister tells me you guys are an item now."

"Absolutely true. But you knew that."

"Gotta tell you, none of us saw it coming. Wait – I take that back. Justin swears that at the wedding, when you guys were dancing, there was 'a vibe.' But he might just be pretending to be a few steps ahead of us."

"There was definite vibe. Justin's a perceptive kid."

"Betty says you're making her really happy."

"Hope so. She definitely makes me happy."

"Of course she does. Because she is a wonderful human being. Which is why I have to tell you that if you hurt my baby sister, I will rip your fucking head off."

"Hilda, that's the last thing I want to do. And not only because I like my head attached to my body."

"She's about the best person on this earth. You get that, right? She deserves to be with someone who gets that."

"Don't worry. I know I got lucky. I'm not going to blow it."

"You better not. And you guys better come home at Christmas." Hilda's casual assumption that they will still be together come wintertime makes it clear that her threat was almost a blessing; from her, that's about the same as "welcome to the family."

Not all such threats are as easy to deal with. The worst warning, by far – the one that makes Daniel feel like absolute shit – is a one-line message he gets on Facebook the day after Betty gets around to changing her relationship status. The note from Henry Grubstick reads only, "Treat her right."

Daniel responds with a fairly long message apologizing profusely for his nasty trick with the law firm when Henry was interviewing there. He writes several different paragraphs about Betty – that she's happy, that she's wonderful, that Henry doesn't have to worry about her – but he erases them all before he sends, because it just feels too weird talking about her with him. There's no response.

"I guess he's still angry," Daniel says that night, as they sit among the dummy pages for a spring issue of FM, laid out on his living room floor. "I can't blame him."

"You made it right and you apologized. That's as much as you can do. Give him time." Betty switches two ad pages and frowns before switching them back.

"I wasn't talking about the non-recommendation I gave the law firm. I meant, he's angry about losing you."

"I doubt it. Henry and I left it in a good place, you know?" She looks up at him, suddenly bright. "Oh, my God. I can't believe I just realized this."

"That you need to reverse the order of your stories in the feature well?"

"No, the real reason you did that to Henry. You were jealous."

"I didn't realize it right away either," Daniel confesses. "But – yeah, that played a pretty big part in it. Not exactly my finest hour."

"Everything worked out for the best," she says, but he still doesn't feel great about it. Then she leans forward over her pages. "Huh. You know, I think you're right about the feature well."

"Just try it."

**

Crave gets its first corporate office – a couple rooms, more of a place to receive mail than anything else – next to Trafalgar Square, which is as good a location as any and also makes it possible for Betty and Daniel to do lunch.

This location also happens to be within striking distance of the brand-new London office of McKinney Designs, which is how, on his second week in business, Christina barges in unannounced. "Right, you," she says instead of hello. "Out with it."

"Uh – Christina. Hi. Haven't seen you since the night of Peck's no-show—"

"Spare me the niceties. We're talking Betty now."

The receptionist, who is a couple hours into her new job, looks at him panic-stricken, but Daniel waves her off as he leads Christina into his office. It's still mostly a lot of cardboard boxes, but they can at least sit down and shut the door. "Okay, Christina. What's up?"

She's more flushed than he's ever seen her on a non-Drambuie-related occasion. "I demand to know your intentions."

"With Betty?"

"Yes, with Betty! Did you think I'd come traipsing in here to ask you what your intentions are for teatime? If you've hooked up with her because you think she'll adore you and pet you and take care of all your messes like she used to do and look the other way while you go tomcatting around, I can tell you right now, plenty of her friends will see to it that this tomcat gets spayed." She frowns. "Or neutered. Whichever you do to a boy. I can never remember."

"Dammit, why does everyone assume that I'm going to take advantage of Betty?"

"Because you've proved you're pretty good at it," Christina shoots back.

Daniel takes a couple of deep breaths, but it doesn't calm him down much. "One. I love Betty. I only want to make her happy, and I'm going to do everything in my power to take care of her. Two. I know I've made some mistakes. I earned every bit of my reputation. But I'm not that guy anymore. Betty knows it, and someday the rest of you are going to see it too. Three. I'm getting sick and tired of everyone acting like Betty is too stupid or too defenseless to know what she's getting into. If you really believe she's so easy to push around, then, excuse me, but you don't know her as well as you think."

After several silent seconds, Christina smiles. "Do you know, that's as much sense as I've ever heard out of you?"

"And here I thought Wilhelmina was the master of the backhanded compliment."

"You're getting some real backbone to you. I like it." More quietly, she says, "And Betty's positively glowing these days. Must be more to that than your inseam."

"Huh?"

"Never mind. Now, talk to me about Crave. You're not going live without the boldest new designer out of Scotland included, are you?"

Daniel's remaining temper does battle with the fact that, really, Christina and some other up-and-comers would be good targets; business wins.

**

Among their projects as a couple is learning to cook, because London is expensive enough without eating out or getting delivery food every day. Neither of them is starting with a lot of knowledge, which leads to some non-meals.

"How can meatloaf be green?" Betty prods the middle with a wooden spoon; it seems to quiver.

"That can't be right."

"If this is right, I'd hate to see what wrong looked like."

"Maybe we should go back to basics. Soup. Spaghetti sauce. That stuff."

"How can we go back to basics when we're still there?"

"We've made a lot of progress," Daniel insists. "Two months ago, our combined culinary skills were just enough to keep us from burning toast."

This gets him an all-judging butterfly look from Betty.

He sighs. "Okay, this morning the toast didn't turn out so great, but we're getting better."

"We're getting better generally," Betty says as she dumps the still-steaming meatloaf into the trash. "Tonight? We're getting takeout."

Unfortunately, Betty chooses to order some scallops that may have been out of the sea too long, and the rest of their weekend is spent with her ill in his bed. Daniel provides ginger ale service and rubs her back when she thinks it will help.

Sunday afternoon, as she sleeps fitfully in his bed, Daniel hears her cell ring and elects to answer it. "Betty's phone."

"Daniel?"

"Mr. Suarez! Hi. How's it going?" Where was it Betty said he'd visited? "Did you have a good time in Florida?"

"You better believe it. But where's Betty?" When Daniel explains the situation, Ignacio immediately becomes very businesslike. "She needs to keep something down. A nice rich chicken broth is the best. That will put her right in no time."

"Can I get that at the store?"

"Not the good stuff. That has to be homemade. You got a pencil?"

Daniel jots down the recipe for Ignacio's special chicken broth, which seems to involve using and then throwing away a whole chicken, but, okay. This is one cooking job he'll just have to get right the first time. Ignacio talks him through the whole process, including a couple of things that can go wrong, so he's feeling good about it.

Once they're done, Ignacio says, "Tell my mija that I love her and she should call me when she's feeling better, okay?"

"Will do." Daniel hesitates. "Mr. Suarez – ah, we haven't talked since before Betty and I –"

"Not since Hilda's wedding," Ignacio says easily. "But sounds like we'll be talking a lot more from now on."

"I hope so."

"Remember the day I met you?"

Inwardly, Daniel groans. He was hung over as all hell that day. Within five minutes of meeting Ignacio Suarez, he'd thrown up in front of him. Not exactly the ideal first impression. "… yeah."

"You were a mess. But you showed me that day you had a kind heart. Buying us that Christmas tree, helping Justin with the decorations, defending him when he caught all that crap from Santos, God rest his soul. I always remember that."

Daniel always forgets how loving they are, that Betty's immense goodness isn't something she made up all by herself. "I still think that's the best Christmas celebration I've ever had."

"Well, we've still got your stocking ornament. Maybe next month you'll hang it up with us again, hmm?"

"I'm planning on it."

"Then that's all I needed to hear. Now – get cooking."

**

He gets the chicken broth right, or close enough, because Betty's able to have a whole cup at lunchtime the next day. Daniel works from the apartment just to keep an eye out. Although Betty called in sick and didn't bring any work home with her, she's bored after three days in bed and wants to talk with him about Crave. Good thing, too: He's at a point where he needs to bounce some ideas off her.

"The weak link in our whole model? The chips. Right now, they're not a significant factor – the designers buy them and that's the end of it, but you know the manufacturer is going to try to get a piece of this." Daniel's been puzzling over this for a couple weeks now; he keeps thinking of new options, each worse than the last. "They could try to license them as intellectual property. They could come up with a new chip that we're not allowed to use without a fee. Gareth's firm says we could structure our contracts to get the designers to absorb any costs there, but that's going to lose us some of the up and comers."

Betty leans back on a pile of pillows, still pale and weak, but her focus is sharp. "Honestly? You're thinking too small."

"What do you mean?"

"Buy the chip company. There's only the single main one, you said. And it's not a huge business. So, buy it. Then you're in control of both sides of the equation. And when they come up with the next technology, you'll own that, too."

"God, that would be brilliant." Daniel squeezes her foot. "But that company won't go cheap."

"Daniel, you're a millionaire. A multimillionaire. You're rich enough to do stuff like that, right?"

"Barely. Meade's not what it used to be." He does a very rough version of the math. "We could get it, but – if Crave doesn't take off, I'll be broke. For real, this time."

"There are worse things than broke. I should know." Quickly, however, she becomes more serious. "It depends on how big a risk you think you'd be taking. Whatever it is, I know you'll make the right decision."

This show of faith, however unwarranted, straightens his spine. Daniel says, "No more thinking small." Betty grins, and his choice is made.

 

12. December 2010

 

Wilhelmina is in the Christmas spirit. Although she has reasons enough to celebrate, mass firings just add that extra little sparkle to the season.

She hums "Silver and Gold" as her car drives southward along Eighth Avenue. A light, fine snow is falling – not enough to snarl traffic, just enough to look pretty when it dusts her sable coat. A set decorator couldn't have presented the scene any more perfectly.

Her phone buzzes in her pocket, and she withdraws it. "Daniel, darling. Welcome back."

"Since when did I become darling?"

"Since you gave me the control of Meade I so long deserved and got the hell out of my way."

"Fair enough. Listen, we need to coordinate the layoffs day; both of us are going to have to speak to the press, so we should present a united front. Final deadline here. Does January 3 work for you?"

"You insisted we wait until after the holidays," Wilhelmina points out. "That's barely after New Year's. Are you sure that's enough to placate your conscience?"

"Gawker and Mediabistro are already sniffing around. If tomorrow weren't Christmas Eve, we'd be in danger of it getting out ahead of time. The quicker we act, the more we beat the rumors, the kinder it will be."

"Very well. January 3. I take it you and Betty will be returning to England immediately afterward?"

"A couple of days later, yeah." Daniel pauses, as if expecting her to say something. When she doesn't, he says, "Okay, out with it."

"Out with what?"

"Whatever tacky thing you're going to say about me and Betty. You've had a few months to sharpen your barbs; they ought to be razorlike by now."

On a lesser day, this reaction might rub Wilhelmina the wrong way. As it is, she snuggles farther down into her fur and smiles. "Oh, ye of little faith. Listen, Daniel, I ought to know: The hardest thing to find in this world is a person who will always have your back. With Betty, you've got that, don't you?"

"Yeah." Daniel sounds bewildered. Maybe he still can't believe she's no longer angry, or maybe the Queens air is starting to affect his brain. "Niceness is a really good look for you, Wilhelmina."

"It's like you said in your farewell letter as editor: Love is the only attitude that never goes out of fashion."

His laughter sounds like amazement. "Did you just quote me?"

"Don't get cocky."

She disconnects and considers shutting off the phone. Interruptions are about to become even more annoying than usual. But she scrolls through once, checking despite herself to see if maybe, just maybe, Nico has called or texted.

Of course, she hasn't.

Wilhelmina snaps it off and tucks it in the pocket of her sable. Someday she and her daughter will face one another again; as long as Wilhelmina allows herself to believe that it could be a happy occasion, that keeps it possible. That's all she asks, at this point, for it to be possible that one day Nico will come back home.

At least this year Wilhelmina won't have to spend Christmas alone.

Outside the correctional facility stand half-a-dozen women. They range in age from an elderly grandmother who stands with a cane to the jailbait who probably got her man thrown in here in the first place. Wilhelmina is the only one wearing a fur coat and black pearls. None of them stare at her, though; she's become a regular fixture in the waiting rooms.

Then the Christmas releases start to filter out. She peers impatiently past their weary, relieved, overjoyed faces until she spies the one she wants. "Connor!"

He runs to her – as hard and fast as he can – and there's nothing sweeter than the way they collide.

**

A couple of hours later, they lie unwrapped beneath her tree. The holiday decorations glitter in green and crimson, and the fireplace bathes them in warmth. Wilhelmina stretches luxuriously on the white rug beneath them. "Obviously we've taken care of the first thing you wanted to do when you got out of jail. So, what's the second thing?"

"The exact same, but with me on top this time." Connor nuzzles her neck. "And if you think you'll enjoy that, just wait until we get to the third thing."

"I like the way you think." She kisses him deeply, then strolls across the room to pour them a little more champagne. "But I had some plans of my own for our Christmas Day."

"Name it, love."

"We'll sleep late. Open gifts – and don't worry, I already bought my presents from you. It turns out you have impeccable taste. Then we lunch on roast pheasant. Attend the Handel concert at St. Patrick's in the afternoon. Afterwards, I thought we'd drive to Queens to talk with Daniel Meade."

Connor's smile slowly fades. "That took a weird left turn."

"Towards Queens? Yes, I know."

He sits up, and for the first time she notices how much weight he's lost in prison – earlier, she was distracted. His thinness brings out his vulnerability as he sits naked on her floor, and yet outlines the whipcord muscles he's retained, reminding her that he can be a ruthless, dangerous man. "Why the hell would I want to talk to Daniel?"

"Are you still upset about Molly?" she asks quietly.

Connor considers that for a moment. "I'm still upset that Daniel lied to me about their romance," he finally says. "But he's not the reason Molly and I ended. From the moment I met you – Willie, it was only a matter of time."

That's more like it. "You certainly matched Daniel lie for lie before the end. So let it go, will you? I'm hoping he can."

"Is this your version of a Christmas miracle or something?"

"Excuse me, have we met?" She gives him a mock-scowl as she strolls back toward him, champagne fizzing in the flutes she carries. "Listen. Eventually you're going to want to do something other than make love. Granted, it may be a while – and that's fine by me – but you're a dynamic man with a lot to offer. And I think you should return to Meade Publications."

"Oh, my God." Connor's face pales. "The coma. They said you'd made a full recovery, but – love, you're not thinking clearly –"

"I'm as clear as Oshi's Plexiglass corset for spring. Connor, you're an expert in the very fields where we need help. No, they're never going to give you full access to the accounts again, but that doesn't mean we can't call on your considerable skills. I was thinking perhaps an advisory role."

He studies her as though he's able to see through her; he's not the only man who's ever done that, but he's the only one who ever made her like it. "Is this part of a larger plan?"

"Believe it or not, no. Meade Publications is my baby now, as much as it is Daniel's." She knows the Meades understand that; if they don't trust Connor's intentions towards them, maybe they will trust his love for her.

"What makes you think the Meades would even listen to this?"

"Daniel handed the reins over to me, and I've framed members of his family for murder. I'm fulfilling my end of the bargain, even though I got shot by that youngest Meade, whatshisname. We're getting pretty good at bygones."

He doesn't look convinced. "That's between you and them. Not between Daniel and me."

"Then we'll just have to give him a chance," Wilhelmina says. "Or, if you prefer, you take part in one of the 're-entry' employment programs. What was it the parole paperwork said? There are usually offerings in custodial services."

"I suppose we could talk to Daniel." Connor looks more cornered than convinced; either will do, as long as he falls in line. "If Santa was especially good to him, maybe he won't punch me out, at least. Wait – you said Queens. Why would we be going to Queens?"

"That's where Daniel is spending Christmas with his new girlfriend. You remember Betty Suarez, right?"

He considers, remembers, and obviously talks himself out of it. "I'm thinking of someone else."

"His assistant?"

"The pudgy one with the insane outfits and the glasses? You've got to be kidding me." When Wilhelmina shakes her head no, she's on the level, Connor has to take a deep quaff of the champagne. "God. It's got to be like making love to Carmen Miranda's hat."

"The heart has its reasons, which reason cannot know." To her astonishment, Wilhelmina feels the need to stand up for Betty. Thank God nobody but Connor will ever hear it. "And Carmen Miranda's hat has a very soft heart – which means if you win her over, you're halfway back to Meade."

"She's the way in, huh?"

"And she won't be faked or bought," Wilhelmina says firmly as she kneels by his side. "You've got to mean it. So you're walking into her home on Christmas afternoon with a flan and a smile."

Connor sighs in wonder as he clinks his champagne glass against hers. "Feliz Navidad."

 

13. March 2011

 

It's natural, Daniel tells himself, for any relationship to hit a rough patch, particularly when you first move in together. Becoming a couple isn't easy. It takes work. He's willing to work.

But ever since Betty gave up her own place and moved in with him, it has definitely felt like work. They're tripping over each other constantly, and little habits that used to be cute are less so when you see them eight times a day.

She feels the same way; he can tell. And naturally, this has hit right when his real work, and hers, have both gone insane.

"Dunne wants to have another budget meeting," Betty says as they walk along the street with a shopping bag each, with more errands yet to run. "This is only six weeks after I thought we had it nailed down for a while."

"Don't freak out," Daniel begins, but then his cell starts chiming with the ringtone that means Ailes. "Dammit. Hang on."

Betty shoots him a look, but she lets him take the call. The first month after Crave launched, the app hardly twitched, and non-Meade fashion magazines left it severely alone in revenge for the exclusive MODE and FM tie-ins. Then it hit. Crave lit up over the holidays, and now they don't have to beg for coverage anymore. It's only March 15, and they've already beaten Daniel's optimistic growth projections for the year. The larger online accessory stores, rather than get beaten at their own game, want to partner up – which will give Crave a worldwide delivery network. Interest from bargain stores like Target has been avid; instead of giving them time to come up with their own version, or of removing Crave's luster by going downmarket too early, they're going to launch a low-cost sister app this summer. ("Grab.") Of course, at this point, they don't have nearly enough users to actually turn a profit; they're still more of a catchword than an enterprise. With the huge amount of money Daniel staked on this bet, he can't swear that they're out of the woods yet – but the future looks bright.

All of this is awesome. Better than awesome. Daniel knows he's going to feel incredibly proud of himself as soon as he has ten damn seconds to sit down and think about his life, which right now seems like it's due to happen exactly around never.

While Ailes talks technical mumbo-jumbo about the Amazon algorithm, and Daniel questions whether the company's just too weird to partner with anyway, Betty walks alongside him, either drooping or fuming. Daniel's scared to find out which. These have been her default moods lately. She's no longer bringing her usual verve to – anything, really. Their sex life is at a lull, she hasn't wanted to get together with their friends for weeks now, and when she gets dressed in the morning … well, there's been some backsliding. Take for instance today's sweater. For the most part, Daniel gets pleasantly nostalgic when she wears something "offbeat" again, but he's pretty sure this yellow and blue sweater, like Mary Hart's voice, could induce seizures in the vulnerable.

Obviously his mood's not the best either. He can see it, but he can't seem to change it. In part he thinks he's irritated with her for talking him into letting Connor Owens back into Meade – Betty is enormously persuasive when she wants to be – but that's not enough to explain the rift that's opened between them since the start of the year.

At last he hangs up. Betty says, "I used to get that many calls a day. My sources have gone really quiet lately."

"It's not your fault FM's struggling."

"I'm the editor. How is it not my fault?"

"You've noticed what's happening to print, right? The number of magazines that we torched just two months ago? Honestly, I—" Pull it back, Daniel, don't say it, do not say it –

Her eyes narrow. "What were you going to say?"

This is not going to be good. "I told you leaving MODE was a bad idea."

"When you burned my release." Betty's cheeks flush with long-denied anger, and he could kick himself a dozen times for going here. "When you tried to keep me there regardless of what I wanted."

"MODE is the Meade flagship! As long as we're publishing any magazines, we're publishing MODE, and there would've been a place for you there forever. You had to know that a startup was a risk."

"Yes. I took a risk. I took a chance on something I believed in, and it's blowing up in my face, and you're acting completely self-satisfied about it."

Is he being a jerk, or is she being oversensitive? Daniel's uncomfortably aware that both possibilities can be true.

"FM means so much in my life," she says, and her voice wavers. "I wish you could see what this is doing to me."

"Betty—" And then his damned cell goes off, again, and it's Wilhelmina, which means it's not a social call. Daniel answers it, but after seeing the look in Betty's eyes, he wishes he hadn't.

When he hangs up this time, Betty isn't speaking to him. Not in a passive-aggressive way, in a too-depressed-to-talk way. Daniel feels like an ass.

How can he make this better? He ventures, "You know – if Dunne's not backing FM the way he should – Meade Publications could buy it. FM's already sort of like the British version of NYW, so it's a natural fit."

"I don't need your charity," Betty says, in a tone of voice that could bring the glaciers back down for a new Ice Age.

Just as they reach the next store on their list, a group of small children on some kind of outing cut in front of them. They're all holding hands while a few frazzled parents try to keep everyone more or less in place. At the front of this silly conga line of kids is a young teacher who looks like she loves every second of it.

The last time he saw a teacher leading her class around this way, it was Molly, and she wore brilliantly colored construction-paper chains around her neck. The past slams into the present so hard it almost knocks the breath out of him. Daniel can smell her perfume, hear her laughter, and for an instant it's as though he could save her if he just grabbed on to her tightly enough right this second.

"Are you just going to stand there and wait for your phone to ring again?" Betty snaps. Then her eyes widen as she recognizes the scene too. "Oh, Daniel. Molly – I'm sorry. Are you okay?"

She lays a soft hand on his arm, but he's too irritated and unhappy to be grateful. "You know what, you just – head on in. I'll catch up. All right?"

They look at each other as if from across a great distance. Betty opens her mouth to speak, but then she turns and goes in alone.

Daniel leans against a nearby lamppost and tries to figure out what the hell is happening. He can't save Betty's magazine for her, and he doesn't know any other way to make her not be miserable right now. She'd never ask him to quit Crave, and there's no chance he's going to abandon the one thing he's ever built for himself just as it's taking off, but at the moment it's swinging through their life together like a wrecking ball. For the first time since he bought a one-way ticket from JFK to Heathrow, Daniel thinks they're not going to make it.

Just as he knows there is no way on earth he can feel worse, a woman's voice says, "Daniel?" And he looks up to see Sofia Reyes.

I'm in hell, he thinks. I died in my sleep, and this – Betty's moods, Sofia, that sweater – this is all hell. It makes so much sense.

Sofia looks uneasy, as well she might, but she's smiling. She's as gorgeous and chic as ever in a silver trenchcoat and a bouncy bob. "Well," she says. "You haven't thrown a punch yet. I think that counts as being happy to see me."

"I guess." This is not exactly the kind of withering comment he wanted to have ready when they met again. "What – what are you doing in London?"

"Pleasure, not business. My husband surprised me with a weekend away. It's our first time alone since the … I don't know if you knew that we—"

"I read about the twins in the papers," he says heavily. "Congratulations."

"You're doing big things yourself. Everyone in New York is talking about whether a Crave IPO is the next step. But don't tell me. Insider trading charges are so 2007."

And then Betty emerges, bags in hand. Daniel has almost never been so glad to see her. Betty's attention, at first, is only on the shopping. "They were totally out of – Sofia!"

"Betty!" Sofia lights up, more genuinely happy to have run into her than into Daniel. If he felt any more confident in her presence, he'd swear Sofia looked relieved not to be alone with him any longer. "Are you in London too? Don't tell me you're still working for this one."

"Uh, no." Betty gives him a look he can read perfectly: What are the odds?

I know, right? he sends back. "Actually, Sofia, Betty and I live together now."

Sofia stands there, hands in pockets, weighing that for a second – as if she has to translate it from some other language. Finally she says, "You mean, like roommates?"

Betty frowns. "We're dating. If you can still call it that after you move in together."

"Sure," Daniel says. "Why not?"

"… living together!" Sofia looks less convinced than before. "Forgive me – Daniel, I honestly never thought you'd have it in you."

"To move in with someone? Really commit?"

"To appreciate Betty."

Which translates to her believing that Betty is ugly, or that he's a dimwit, or both. Daniel turns to Betty. "Which one of us should be more offended?"

"It's a toss-up," Betty says, and there's the glacier voice again. It sounds a lot better directed at someone else.

But Sofia looks so stung – not by his disapproval, but by Betty's – that Daniel remembers how she did appreciate Betty's intelligence and drive, a long time before he did. She'd tried to provide a meaningful boost for Betty's career within weeks of their meeting, something Daniel himself took way the hell too long to do.

It's reason enough to let her off the hook.

"Let's be fair, Betty," Daniel says, feeling the tension melt from his body as he finally sets that old weight down. "This kind of caught us by surprise too."

Slowly, Betty relaxes. "I guess it did."

Sofia looks almost as relieved as Daniel feels. "I'm very happy for you both. I mean it."

"Thanks," Betty said. "And congratulations on the twins."

"The reason I said hello – I wanted to thank you, Daniel. For keeping NYW off the chopping block. Before the last round of layoffs, my staff was truly frightened. Poor Ruthie was using her entire lunch hour to cry in the restrooms. It was such a gift to tell them everyone could stay."

"No thanks necessary. You guys are staying afloat on your own."

Betty interjects, "How are you doing that, by the way?"

They make plans to talk, and Sofia gives Betty her card, and they all wave politely as she walks away. As soon as Sofia's out of earshot, Betty turns to Daniel, still disbelieving. "There are eight million people in London at any given moment, and you run into—"

His cell goes off.

Just as Betty's face falls, Daniel pulls out his phone, drops it onto the ground and stomps it until it breaks into so much metal and plastic. A few passers-by gawp, but to hell with them. Betty stares at him – more delighted than astonished – and Daniel says, "I'll get another one on Monday."

They go home, make dinner, make love. Daniel's not sure exactly why things are so much better all of a sudden, but he thinks running into Sofia reminded them of how far they'd already come. Whatever it was, he'll take it.

Afterwards, as they lie in bed together, Daniel says, "I was thinking – probably the last thing you want to do is move again so soon, but this place isn't working for us. When my lease ends, we should rent another flat. One that's not mine, you know? One that's ours from the get-go."

"You called it a flat! I get one more square on assimilation bingo."

Daniel laughs. "Seriously, what do you think?"

"It's a good idea. A new place would give us a fresh start." She wrinkles her nose. "Also, honestly, I never knew why you picked this place. It's pretty small."

"It's bigger than your old place."

"So are some handbags.Seriously, Daniel, why here? You could have moved into a mansion."

"I didn't want a mansion. I thought – you know, you wouldn't be impressed if I was just living off my family money. I wanted to be more down to earth."

Even before he's done speaking, Betty's entire body is shaking with laughter. "You got this place to impress me?"

"It's not so bad," he protests, but he starts to laugh too.

"No girl is ever impressed by a guy taking his clothes to the Laundromat! I would have been a lot more impressed if I could have brought my laundry over here."

"It's -- honest and – authentic." Daniel manages to get all of this out before losing it completely.

Betty shoves at him with her feet. "You dork."

He has to wipe tears of laughter from his cheeks before he's composed again. By then, she's looking more serious.

For a few moments, the only sound is the rustle of sheets as she props herself up on one arm. Betty covers his heart with one hand, as if to shield it. "I'm sorry that you – that you still miss Molly so much."

"You know it doesn't mean I love you any less."

She nods. "Just like I know loving me doesn't make losing her hurt any less."

Daniel combs his fingers through her dark hair. "She wanted me to find somebody else. Somebody like you. Wherever Molly is now – she's happy about this."

"I'm glad." She kisses him, and even before their lips part, he can feel Betty start to smile again. "God, I feel so much better than I did this morning. When I woke up, I hardly wanted to get out of bed. I even put on my sunshine sweater to try making myself less gloomy."

"Sunshine sweater?" It has a name.

She points to it on the chair by the door. "The yellow and blue diamonds sort of look like sunshine in the sky, see?"

"Yeah." Daniel presses his lips against her hairline, mostly to keep himself from laughing. "It's beautiful."

"You really think so?"

"Really." And somehow, he does.

 

14. August 2011

 

Hilda heads for the last seat on the A train, but a teenaged boy plops down in it the second before she gets there. "Excuse me, I was going for that," she says.

The kid obviously can't hear her over his headphones, but he gets her drift; he shrugs, an exaggerated move, so there's no way she can miss how much he doesn't care.

In response, Hilda pulls her floaty shirt flat over her belly so he can see the baby bump. It's still small, but it's finally past that stage where it just looks like a few double cheeseburgers too many. "You're gonna steal a seat from a pregnant lady? Not THIS pregnant lady, buddy. Move it!"

He shambles off – less out of shame, Hilda thinks, than out of the fear that she would otherwise rant at him for the rest of the half-hour trip to Midtown. Well, he's not wrong. Hilda plops down and stows her heavy-ass backpack under the seat. Sure, it's touching the train floor, but it can be disinfected later.

**

"I'm here!" she calls at the photo studio. "I know I'm kinda early – the A ran on time for once."

"No problemo!" Amanda is going through racks of clothes for the shoot. "See, I'm learning your Mexican language."

"That's very impressive. Miss Thing here yet?"

"Please. Once they win a Grammy or two, they never show up early for anything ever again." Amanda sounds as jaded as if this were her thousandth superstar client instead of her first.

"Good. Gives me a chance to rest." Hilda dumps her backpack and collapses into the nearest chair. "Ay, I'm getting too pregnant for this."

"Speaking of? I went into a Barnes & Noble to use the bathroom and I snuck a baby-names book in there with me. Wanted to pick out some hot, edgy names, so this kid will be even sassier than her Aunt Mandy. If that's possible. Which it isn't. Anyway, I think you should go with Veronique, Nash or Dresden."

Hilda wrinkles her nose. "I was thinking maybe Stephanie."

"Throwback chic. Huh. It could work."

Back aching, Hilda leans forward in the chair to try and stretch those muscles. She should've rented a salon back when they first moved to Manhattan. But then Marc offered her a gig doing hair for a MODE shoot, and the photographer liked her work and called her for other stuff, and now she's all Have Brush, Will Travel. It's good money, and she likes the variety; the flexibility will help, too, after the baby's born. But this thing where she's hefting around 30 pounds of styling crap? That's got to change.

An idea comes to her – one that, to anyone but a native New Yorker, would seem obvious, but breaks over her like a revelation. "We should – Bobby and I should buy a car."

Also a New Yorker, Amanda stares at her, not comprehending. "Buy a car," she repeats, as if sounding it out phonetically. "Like – a taxi that's just for one person?"

"Yeah. Up where we live, you can actually find parking. Austin seems to get a good spot every time he comes in from Jersey to see Justin—"

At the door, they hear an ear-splitting scream. Hilda and Amanda leap up to see Miss Thing's manager stumbling in the door, clutching her heart, face so pale that Hilda's first thought is to wonder if she's been stabbed.

"She told me," the manager gasps, "she told me to meet her here, and she didn't say – she never said –"

Miss Thing walks in, her trademark golden curls uneven. Specifically, they're now only a couple of inches long on one side. The other side is untouched. Her steps are unsteady, and she doesn't seem to remember how to stop; instead she simply runs smack into one of the walls. "I mighta had too much tequila last night," she slurs. "I just wanted to give it a li'l trim."

"A wig," Hilda says. "I don't have one in my bag, but I know where we can get some Sheinharts out in Queens. I'll just call Papi –"

"No." Amanda stands up slowly, a look of wonder dawning on her face. "We don't need a wig. You want edge? I'll give you edge." Amanda grabs one of the shirts off the rack and rips it in half. Then she whispers, "You can sew, right? I should've asked that first."

"Yeah, I sew, but – what about her hair?"

Amanda flips her head around dramatically. "Got a razor?"

**

A week later, Justin has all the magazines spread out on their living room floor. "People AND Us Weekly AND inTouch, and you can believe the major fashion mags will have it next month. Amanda's the new Rachel Zoe, and you're totally her guardian angel."

The headlines all talk about "The New Asymmetry," and the photos each show Miss Thing with half her head shaved, half fluffed up more than ever – backcombing like Hilda's never done before, nor even seen except on the likes of Gina Gambarro. Every one of the outfits are amalgamations of two or more pieces of fashion thrown together, breaking sharply in the middle. Kinda like those dancers in "Victor Victoria," Hilda thinks, but apparently it's the look of the moment.

"I got jobs booked out the yin-yang because of this," she says, carefully lowering herself onto the hardwood beside her son. "At this rate, we'll have a down payment on some wheels before August."

"You better. If this family is finally buying a car, I want to ride in it at least once before I move out."

Hilda leans her head onto Justin's shoulder. "How am I gonna deal without having my little boy at home?"

"My little sister is going to keep you plenty busy."

"One in college, one in diapers. I must be nuts."

"You're not nuts. Not in a bad sense, anyway."

Nobody says anything for a few seconds. She's missing him before he's even gone, and though she knows he'll never admit it, he's feeling the same way. Hilda's proud of him, getting the credits together to go to college early. He hated high school so much; the change can only help. Her son is racing toward the future as fast as he can, and she wants that for him. But it was hard enough having Betty move to England. Now Justin's going to California? It's going to be much too quiet in her life.

Well, she thinks, putting one hand on her belly, not too quiet. At least not for long.

The moment passes. As she sits up, Justin seizes another of the magazines, the better to examine his mother's handiwork. "Do you think Amanda will get her own reality show? If she does, Marc and I should be, like, the gay Greek chorus."

"Beats anything they got on cable."

 

15. October 2011

 

"You're finally going to let me make you a dress." Christina beams at Betty like she's just seen the Christ child. Her design studio, a whirl of activity, seems to slow as seamstresses and tailors look up at their visibly energized boss. "Took you long enough to get around to it."

"I didn't want to take advantage."

"You'd think we'd never worked at MODE. The fashion industry is built on taking advantage, my dear. What's the occasion?"

"It's our friend Gareth's sister's birthday, so obviously we all have to get together." When Christina gives her an odd look, Betty says, "Okay, Gareth is from Daniel's rowing club, and his sister Fiona turned out to be friendly with Billie from FM, who I was already starting to hang out with, and then we fixed up Billie with Maureen from Daniel's business class. Now Maureen wants to fix up Fiona with her best friend, Clive."

Christina holds up her hands in surrender. "Tell me all this again when you have the flow chart. I still don't see where the dress is coming into it, though you're welcome to it even for a Tesco's run."

"Well." Betty feels a little awkward mentioning it. "Somehow we've already got too many friends to fit in any of our apartments, and everybody else thought it would be a great idea to go clubbing –"

"—and you feel like you're venturing into alien territory."

"Nightclubs aren't usually my scene. Sometimes that kind of thing can make me … let's say defensive. So at first I was feeling weird about it, but then I thought – you know, I'm going to wear something awesome and dance all night and have fun."

"Tackle it head-on. A very Betty solution if I ever heard one." Christina takes up her tape measure. "Right, then. Let's see what we're dealing with."

As she shimmies out of her clothes in the changing tent, Betty thinks again about the phrase "tackle it head-on" and smiles. It turned out to be the very Betty solution for FM, too. Aggressively expanding their nightlife presence, the way Sofia Reyes did with NYW, helped a great deal; moving more and more content to the online portal, Betty's own idea, did more. FM is now a more-uplifting mixture of Jezebel and HuffPo through a British lens, but with increasing worldwide reach.

This means her magazine isn't exactly a magazine anymore. But that's the way media is moving, and Betty means to move with it. FM hasn't undergone a total financial turnaround yet, but signs are good. She's saved her baby. She's making it, on her own.

"Coming in!" Christina announces, not even a second before walking in on Betty in her undies. Then she blinks. "Good Lord, why have you been hiding that this entire time?"

Two years ago – before Daniel – Betty would have been covering herself with her hands, and apologizing for the 20 pounds she's apparently never going to lose. But Daniel's ridiculously excessive sexual history stopped making her feel insecure a while ago and started having the exact opposite effect. Hers is still not the body most designers work for, but she revels in it like she never did before. "I was thinking – I was thinking maybe something red."

"I'm thinking something Marilyn Monroe," Christina says with a wicked sparkle in her eyes.

"I don't have those kind of legs." Banishing the old insecurity is a job that's never quite done.

Christina nods, admitting it, but she adds, "However, you do have those kind of breasts, and trust me, in that case, most men won't look any lower."

**

Daniel's working late as usual, as are a couple of the others, so on Fiona's birthday they all agree to meet up at the club itself. Betty feels almost naked in the taxi – this dress exposes much more of her body than she usually shows in public – but she's determined. Tonight she's going to fit in with the club scene. She's not going to apologize for herself. She not only looks beautiful, she's going to feel beautiful. The second one is harder.

As she steps into the club, she takes off her glasses and drops them in her evening bag. This completes the look, but makes the room fairly murky. Betty realizes belatedly that it might have been a better idea to do that after she'd found someone from her party –

"Betty?"

She turns, and even through myopic haze, she recognizes Daniel. "You made it here on time."

"Yeah, I – yeah. Betty. Wow."

"Christina made this for me." Red satin, halter top, bare back, and a middle that hugs her waist before flowing freely down into a wide skirt. "So … you like it."

"I'm standing here like some stupefied idiot in a ZZ Top video. Any second they're going to show up and give me the keys to the Eliminator." Betty starts laughing, and he pulls her possessively close. Daniel whispers into her ear, "The best part of this will be going home afterwards."

"I'll hold you to that."

Daniel finds the gathering, more people marvel over her dress, and yet – none of them are shocked to see her looking so glammed up. Their lack of astonishment is more gratifying than astonishment could ever be.

"Marvelous dress," purrs Fiona, sleek in a pencil skirt and a chic asymmetrical haircut. "Wherever did you get it?"

"A McKinney original," Betty says, trying to sound offhand.

"Love it."

"Me too," interjects Clive, who comes across as well-meaning but absolutely too eager to get near Fiona. "McKinney's a master. Love him."

"You follow design, do you?" Fiona crosses her arms. "I thought they said you were straight."

"It's not going well, is it?" whispers Maureen. "I knew it wouldn't go well."

The only person who worries more than Maureen is her partner, Billie. "Shush. Give them a chance!"

"Enough chattering," Gareth says. He's a big, broad guy, more muscular than heavy, with reddish hair and an open smile. "Not enough dancing. Come on, you lot, let's go!" Daniel grabs Betty's hand, and then she's out on the floor, part of the crowd. Before long, Betty's starting to see the appeal of this whole clubbing thing. Yeah, as a lifestyle, it would be shallow and meaningless – but as a night out with friends and the guy she loves, it's actually kind of fun. Really fun, as a matter of fact.

"The nightlife in London is fabulous," Fiona says, as they're sitting around drinking cocktails. "Compared to Paris, anyway. If I never spend another work assignment there, it will be too soon. Don't you agree, Betty?"

Fiona thinks she's someone who knows about international nightlife! Betty feels she is totally pulling this off. "Oh, absolutely. Though of course we miss Manhattan, don't we, darling?"

"We do, darling." Daniel's tone of voice tells her he's in on the joke.

Then the DJ puts on something with a fast-paced Latin beat, and Betty feels the need to salsa so desperately that she practically springs up. "Daniel, tell me you remember how to salsa."

"It's been four years since you taught me," he says, adding, "over the phone."

She could just teach him all over again, but surprisingly, Gareth offers his hand. "I can salsa. Do you mind, Daniel?'

"Not at all. Enjoy yourselves."

Betty's just tipsy enough to feel like the lights and the beat are becoming a part of her, and it's a joy to dance with Gareth; Daniel can acquit himself well enough, but surprisingly given his size, Gareth has moves, and Betty can more than keep up. She's aware of other people on the dance floor watching them – admiring them – and she feels like the pretty dress and the jewelry and the smile are shining armor that can keep her safe forever. It's an illusion, and she's aware of that, but this is the first time she's ever felt it. Nobody ever told her it was so exhilarating.

"Do you think Fiona and Clive are hitting it off any better?" Gareth shouts over the music as he twirls her.

"Clive's practically drooling. Fiona – I can't tell. What do you think?"

"I think she's mostly here for the free cocktails. But perhaps she'll eventually get drunk enough to stop seeing Clive's bald spot."

"Don't be mean. He's sweet," Betty says, and it feels delicious to be defending someone else's appearance for a change.

At the end of the song, they make their way toward the edge of the dance floor, and Gareth heads toward the bar to grab club soda. "Lime in mine, okay?" Betty says.

"You got it. Be right back."

Betty props herself against one of the carved gilt columns in the club and tries to make out what's happening on the dance floor. She's pretty sure that Billie is now dancing with Clive (whose bald spot is unfortunately extra-visible under blacklight), and that Daniel's dancing with Fiona. It doesn't really matter as long as they're all having fun.

As she reaches out for the club soda, she says, "I can't believe I'm enjoying myself at a nightclub. I mean, they're supposed to be fun, but until now, I always thought they were more like – black holes of fun. The event horizon of fun. Where fun went to die."

"You've obviously been to the wrong nightclubs," says someone who, although similar in height, build and coloring, is not Gareth.

"Oh!" Betty hands him back the club soda. "I'm sorry. I thought you were someone else. I usually don't steal drinks from strangers."

"Feel free to make an exception in this case," he says, giving her the club soda again. "After this, perhaps I can bring you a drink on purpose. "

"My date might object. Though of course he's currently dancing with a redhead."

"Then I chose the right time to walk by. Alan Smythe."

"Betty Suarez." Is he actually flirting with her? Apparently so. But before she can decide whether this is more flattering or inconvenient, she recognizes the name. "You're a producer with the BBC. We profiled one of your trend specials for women last week."

"On FM. My goodness. Your editor's picture doesn't do you justice."

"That special didn't do you justice." She gentles the words with a smile. "Honestly, you're still assuming that women are mostly interested in shoes and handbags. Aren't we a little past that? And if we aren't, can't you at least feature better handbags?"

He studies her, though her vision is too blurry to read his expression. Then he says, "You know, I also produce The Longest Week."

The Longest Week is one of those unfathomable British shows that has a lot of people sitting around, watching something else on video, then talking about it. It's one of the ones she's gotten to like, though. "Fast. Funny. And a lot better than specials about shoes."

"You should come on as a guest sometime."

Surely that's the cocktails talking. "What?"

"We're always looking for fresh voices. You're smart, you're witty, and you're not afraid to speak your mind."

"Me. On television."

"Why? Does it sound so far-fetched?"

Her first instinct is to demur, but then Betty realizes – it's not so far-fetched anymore.

"They only had lemon," Gareth announces, walking up to them. "This guy giving you trouble?"

"It's fine," Betty hastens to say. She wants to take the drink Gareth is holding out to her, but she still has Alan's. "This is Alan Smythe, a producer for the BBC. Alan, this is my friend Gareth."

"I thought you said your date was on the dance floor."

Betty knows she should explain, but she's never had the chance to be coy and flirtatious before. She feels like a cat with a piece of string, unable to resist the urge to pounce. "I brought a spare."

Alan's smile is evident even through the blur of the club. "Very prudent."

"Well. I plan ahead." When Alan laughs, Gareth gives her a look that, myopia or no, she gets as You're not trying to pull a fast one, are you? And for one instant she feels as if she is perhaps not entirely being herself. But the sensation is fleeting. Betty asks Alan for his card and returns to Daniel's side, which is all she needed to make the evening perfect.

**

As they stumble into their building at the end of the night, Daniel says, "You've got to call this Smythe guy. Seriously. The exposure would be amazing."

"Even though he's flirting with me?"

"Let him flirt." His arm wraps firmly around her shoulders, and he kisses her along her hairline. "I can't blame a guy for having a crush on you."

"You're not even a little bit jealous?"

"Do you want me to be?" As the elevator doors close behind them, he puts his hands on either side of her waist and leans in close. "If you want – upstairs, I can go crazy. Demand that you're mine. Push you up against the wall."

Betty never quite saw the thrill of role-playing until now, when she definitely, definitely gets it. She whispers, "Just don't rip my dress."

Daniel kisses her bare shoulder. "You're keeping it on."

 


16. December 2011

The Meade Publications holiday party isn't the grand affair it was even when he worked there, Matt thinks. Everything has been scaled down now, even the tree in the lobby. But even off-brand champagne sparkles, and everybody just looks happy to still have jobs. Wilhelmina Slater, resplendent in red, leans on the arm of Connor Owens – the company's unexpected financial savior -- as they chat with Marc St. James. They're all laughing as though they have no problems in the world.

Can some of that rub off on me? Matt wishes.

Since his return from Africa, his parents have made it clear that he has a choice: He can be their son, or he can be Tyler's brother. Matt has chosen Tyler, mostly to piss them off, but also because there's no way he's walking away from the only brother he'll ever have. If anybody's doing any walking away, it will have to be his parents – and so far, they're okay with that. While he can live with his choice, it's not always easy, especially around this time of year.

For instance, walking across the room toward him – wearing a short spangled gold gown – is his sister-in-law. "Amanda. You look beautiful."

"Well, duh. Isn't this dress awesome? I Craved it last week. Speaking of which, check it out!" Amanda says, holding up several copies of a magazine – not one of Meade's. It's FORBES, with Daniel staring out from beneath the title; the cover line reads The New Moguls. "Claire's having me put it all around. I think she's just proud that he got on the cover of a magazine for something besides his sexcapades."

"It wasn't always Daniel's sex life they wrote about," Matt says. "Remember that time he got caught eating at a four-star restaurant the night before asking for a government bailout?"

"Oh, yeah, right!" She plops the stack of magazines down on a table so that she can grab the whole snack tray from a waiter. "So, are you having a good time?"

"As good as can be expected."

Their eyes meet, and he knows she can see the old longing that hasn't entirely died away. She does him the courtesy of pretending not to understand. "Your parents suck."

"They do. Someday, though, I have to believe Dad will at least want to get to know Tyler. He's too good a guy for Dad to ignore forever."

"Whatevs. Daniel's super-mega-rich now, and you can bet Cal Hartley's going to want a piece of that action, so sooner or later, he'll come sucking up to Tyler as a way to try and get to Daniel. Because God knows Daniel hates his ass so much that your dad won't get through any other way."

"Whoa." Matt blinks, then grabs a sustaining hors d'oeuvre from her snack tray. "That's totally how it's going to play out, isn't it?"

She shrugs. "You hang around the Meades long enough, you start to get wise. Speaking of which, Claire's acting weird tonight. She got a call right after she gave me the magazines and skulked off. Seriously, it reminded me of how she was acting after she murdered my mom."

"Wait – Claire murdered your mother?"

"Just my birth mother. Mom mom is fine," Amanda says blithely. "Oh, look, there's Sofia Reyes. She looks awesome, but I think I'm going to ask her when she's going to lose the baby weight. That can be my Christmas present to Daniel." She walks off. "Later, skater!"

Meades, Matt thinks. And I believed the Hartleys were bad.

He flips through FORBES to scan Daniel's article. Generic photos, generic story about seizing opportunity, but in one corner is a small picture from some fancy charity bash. It's captioned: "With girlfriend Beatriz U. Suarez, British media personality." Betty looks good – looks happy, anyway – though in Matt's opinion, without the braces she loses a certain something.

What is it he's looking for, anyway? Matt's never been entirely sure. Workwise, at least, he's figured it out; in retrospect, it seems obvious that he was going to open a gallery of African art and publish a blog on the subject. But with women, he doesn't know. He just feels the empty space where love ought to be, and nothing else is ever going to fill it.

"Hey, bro," Tyler says, before frowning. "Okay, I'm never saying 'bro' again."

"I prefer 'blood.' So, what's happening Christmas Day?"

"Holiday at Meade Manor. In addition to me and Amanda and Spencer, and maybe Alexis and DJ, the whole Suarez clan is coming in from Queens on Christmas night, including the Betty and Daniel Transatlantic Express. You okay with that?"

"I am if they are." He realizes how nice it would be to see Betty again, actually, but just as he begins to say so, Claire hurries to Tyler's side. She looks haggard. Worse than haggard. Ghostly. Members of the Addams Family would say she looked pale. "Claire, are you all right?"

"We have to talk. This instant." Matt starts to excuse himself, but she clutches at his arm. "This concerns you too, Matt. You should stay."

Tyler leans in. "Mom, what's the matter? Amanda mentioned you were –"

"Skulking around like I did after I killed Fey." When Matt's eyes widen, she says, "Perfume-induced psychosis. Long story. Stick to patchouli. Listen, Tyler – several months ago I became aware that there were … irregularities with your birth certificate."

She's not his mother, Matt thinks. Dad's not his father. The sense of loss is so immediate, so sickening, that for the first time he realizes how deeply he's come to love Tyler. But somehow he senses that's not the right answer.

For his part, Tyler looks as horrorstruck as Matt feels. "Tell me."

"When I gave birth to you, I asked for drugs. Lots and lots and lots of drugs," Claire says. "I was blurry on the details, and in fact for several days after, which is why I never realized –"

"All right!" yells a man striding into the center of the party. "Which one of you bitches is my mother?"

The man looks exactly like Tyler.

"An evil twin," Tyler whispers. "I always knew it was gonna be an evil twin."

Said evil twin – Matt's other brother, who seems to be named Jason – has had a great deal to drink, and he does NOT want to be quiet, and he is not nearly as psychologically prepared for a twin as Tyler seems to be. Which is why, within seconds, Tyler and Jason are fighting it out in the middle of the party.

"Oh, my God," Amanda says as she and Matt make their way toward the edge of the room. "It's like Tyler times two. Do you think if they ever make it up, they could be sharesies?"

"Please tell me you're not suggesting what I think you're suggesting."

"Like you've never wished your sex partner had double the appendages. I mean, his twin is just another him, so it wouldn't be like cheating, right? Not if he was there, anyway. "

Matt is about to say that they should probably try to look after Claire when the twins crash into the 30-foot holiday tree. It sways precariously from side to side, and the crowd begins to scream as it starts to topple to the floor. One woman is right in its path, about to get crushed –

He dashes toward her, tackles her around the waist and takes them down to the floor and safety just before the tree collapses right next to them. Broken plastic from the ornaments sprays his back and arms, but it doesn't hurt, just stings.

"Are you okay?" Matt says, looking down at her, which is when his heart flip-flops in his chest.

This woman – there's something about her, something he recognizes on first sight. He can't define it, but it's like the best of what he'd loved in Amanda's spirit and in Betty's, all wrapped into one person. She's skinny to the point of awkwardness, dressed in a jumper that says she doesn't give a damn about fashion, and just inexplicably perfect.

"Yeah," she whispers. There's a slight lisp to her voice, which only makes her more adorable. "Wow. One minute I was hanging out with the rest of the NYW girls, and the next, you saved my life."

Nothing like a good first impression, he decides. "I'm Matt."

"Ruthie." And just like that, Christmas doesn't seem as lonely anymore.

 

17. February 2012

Betty's whole body hurts from crying. Her ribs ache. Her throat is sore. Her head throbs with a dull wet headache that seems to weigh a hundred pounds. Every muscle has been tense for so long that she's started to tremble.

"Have another," Christina says, pouring two more fingers of Scotch into Betty's glass. "After what you've been through, nobody could blame you for downing the whole bottle."

What you've been through. How uncharacteristically tactful of Christina to put it that way. What she means is, After Daniel cheated on you.

Everything came crashing down several hours ago. She'd planned to have a lengthy business lunch with Alan to discuss a potential TV show of her own, but he'd had to cancel, and with that unexpected long window in the middle of the day, she'd decided to do a little shopping. It would be fun, and maybe she could console herself for Daniel's absence on yet another business trip, this time to an investor's meeting in a posh hotel in Oxford.

That was when her phone rang, and it was Billie and Maureen on the other line.

"Betty, we're only telling you this because, if it were one of us, we'd want to know—"

"Not that it would ever be, love."

"Yes, that's sweet, Maureen, but the point is we hate to gossip and maybe it's none of our business and yet we should so regret not telling you something that you need to be aware of – "

"And you do need to be aware, because I for one wouldn't put up with it for a second, but you have to decide what's right for you, and we won't judge –"

"Guys!" Betty had broken in. "What is it?"

A pause. "Well, we're out to Oxford for a gathering of Maureen's old school friends –"

"—and it so happens we're at the Malmaison, which turns out to be the same place as Daniel's meeting, and so that's how – oh, this is harder than I thought it would be when you get down to it—"

"Betty, dearest, I'm sorry. Daniel's not here alone. A rather bombshell blonde dined with him last night and – and she breakfasted with him this morning, and we hid behind the potted palms so he wouldn't see us, which meant we couldn't really see that much either, but there's no question she's rather more than an investor. Oh, were we right to tell you? We shouldn't have told, should we?"

"You did right," Betty had managed to say, before disconnecting the call and slumping against the nearest streetlamp. The rest is all a blur, though she knows she got on the Tube, vomited once in a station bin, and somehow got herself to Christina's.

Now, her phone is off, because she doesn't want to talk to anyone except Christina. Besides, she's already made the only call she needed to. Assuming Daniel is not "too busy" to check his voicemail, he knows by now that she knows, and exactly what she thinks of him.

You haven't changed at all. You're still the stupid, shallow, womanizing boy I met six years ago. You're just better at pretending that you're different. I guess you were always going to use someone, but why did you have to use me? Why wasn't being my friend enough for you? I wish you'd never come to London. No – I wish I'd never known you.

"We're supposed to go home to New York in three days," she croaks. Her voice is hollow, and it feels like she's swallowed sandpaper. "I guess I'm going alone."

"You need your sister at a time like this," Christina says, rubbing her back. "Your father. It'll do you good."

But Hilda and Papi will be so crushed. And Claire – but will Betty ever even speak to Claire again? She's become a second mother in the past two years, and it's just one more reminder of everything Betty has lost.

Daniel, she thinks, how could you? We built all this together. You had to know what it would do to me. Are you still incapable of thinking with anything but your –

"Hello there!" Stuart calls as he comes in the door, little William behind him. "We did what you said and had a lovely long afternoon at the arcade –"

"And now you're taking William out for pizza," Christina says firmly.

"Pizza!" William holds up his hands in sheer victory. He is probably the only person this situation is working out for.

Stuart opens his mouth to object, but then he sees Betty, and she must look even more miserable than she feels, because he immediately says, "I've never heard such a good idea as pizza. We'll go – clear across the city. Probably won't get back until after William's bedtime."

"Marvelous. Now off with you." Christina waves as they depart.

Betty tries to imagine what she'll do next, and there are no shortage of possibilities. While she doesn't have anything like Daniel's wealth, the media hub known as FM means she can more than take care of herself. There are other neighborhoods of London, new places that won't have as many memories. She has always been aware that her relationship with Alan could take on a new dimension if she wished it; the idea has never had any appeal before this moment, when it takes on the dark, oil-slick luster of revenge.

Gareth and Fiona eventually appear, having heard the news from Billie and Maureen, who seem to have gotten over their reluctance to gossip. Fiona clearly feels awkward – they've never really made friends – but Gareth wants to help, just hasn't a clue how.

"It's okay, Gareth," Betty says between sniffles. "You're Daniel's friend as much as mine. You don't have to take sides."

"I'm not taking sides. I'm merely offering to buy you massive quantities of gin."

"It's a good offer," Christina points out. "Don't sneer at it."

Betty doesn't want to ask this, and yet she wants to know desperately. "Have you talked to Daniel?"

"Tried to reach him, but couldn't," Gareth says. "Perhaps, given the situation, he's – lying low."

"Low as a snake," Christina adds, and while Betty knows she's only saying this as a sign of solidarity, she wishes everyone would shut up and go away. Including Christina, even though this is her house, which makes that kind of unlikely.

Then there's a car door slamming in the driveway. Great, more people, Betty thinks, fresh tears springing to her eyes – but even through the blur, she recognizes who's come to the door. "Alexis?" What is she doing in London?

"Good lord!" Christina lets her in. "Alexis! Been ages. Framed anyone for murder lately?"

"How could I, without you to help me?" Alexis replies smoothly, never looking away from Betty. She looks more annoyed than relieved to have found her. "Daniel sent me out as a search party this afternoon, but he won't talk about what's going on. Do you mind explaining why I just had to search your office, your old neighborhood, and the fish and chips place on game night?"

Betty shoots back, "Ask Daniel. He's the one our friends saw having dinner and breakfast with some blonde in Oxford – " Her voice trails off as Alexis' eyes widen, and the truth is suddenly there, so obvious it hurts.

"That was me," Alexis says. "I finally bought into Crave, so I flew in for the investors' meeting last-minute. People thought I was sleeping with Daniel? Oh, eww."

"Well, weren't you?" Fiona challenges her.

Alexis draws herself up to her full height, which is considerable, even without the tall heels she always wears. "He's my brother. And believe me, my family is screwed up, but not that screwed up."

Confusion darkens Fiona's features. "But – I thought Daniel's sister was somebody who'd been born a man. That can't be you, can it?"

Gareth interjects, "Don't be a dope, Fiona. Of course Alexis was born a woman. Just in an inconvenient package for the first couple of decades, there."

"Thank you," Alexis says with satisfaction.

Grinning, Gareth says, "No need to thank me for pointing out the obvious. Nobody looking at you could doubt this result was God's intent. So – do you come to Britain often?"

Betty says, slowly, "It was you in Oxford. You're the woman Billie and Maureen saw."

Alexis nods. "No other blondes, Betty. I swear." Though she has been known to bend the truth – slightly – on occasion, it's obvious that this time she's being honest.

All of this was for nothing.

"Well!" Christina says brightly. "That puts rather a new spin on things. Excuse me a mo." She picks up her cell and hits redial. "Thank God, it's his voicemail again. Daniel! Christina here. Sorry about before. It's all straightened out now. I won't be taking my pinking shears to you after all. You can keep your nuts. See you around!"

Fiona comes to sit by Betty's side at the kitchen table. "Are you all right?"

"I – yeah." Betty knows she ought to feel relieved. Overjoyed, even. But instead that call she made to Daniel earlier is looming larger and larger in her mind. She chose her words to hurt. There's no taking that acid back. "Oh, my God. How's Daniel?"

"Not so good." Betty would be grateful to hear, in her tone of voice, that Alexis cares so much about Daniel if the situation were any less dire.

"Not so good upset or not so good angry?"

Sighing, Alexis says, "It's really not an either/or situation."

"I feel like an idiot," Betty says.

"Don't you dare!" Christina says. "You had the information from people who made an understandable mistake."

"But I should have asked him about it. Heard him out. Some of the things I said to Daniel –"

Gareth hugs her around the shoulders. "Go home. Talk it through with him. Like as not, he'll be so relieved to see you that the rest won't matter."

Betty wishes that were true, but she knows it's not.

**

She opens her own door with hesitation. Daniel's sitting on the couch, still in his business suit, though it's disheveled, a glass of something amber in both hands. There's a sad greasy bag of takeout on the far end of the coffee table. When she walks in, he breathes out heavily; it's both relief and resignation.

"Okay," she says. "I – jumped to conclusions."

"You listened to Billie and Maureen," he says. "They're the ones who said Iceland set off the volcano a couple years ago on purpose. And now you're taking their word for everything?"

Betty sits on the couch too, but at the far end. It would be a mistake to pretend there's no new distance between them. "I should've had more faith in you," she said. "I should have at least asked you what was going on before I – before I said some of the things I've said."

"Who could blame you? Everybody knows my reputation."

There's real acid in his words. Betty never realized it before, but now she knows: Between them, refusing to admit that the other has changed is the greatest sin. "Daniel, I'm sorry. I was angry; I didn't mean it."

"You really don't think I'm any different than I used to be." Daniel's still looking down at his ice cubes, not at her. "You think now that I'm – on top of the world again, I'm going to go right back to using people as playthings."

She weighs her answer, trying hard to hew close to the truth. "The reason I thought you could be like that – that the money and everything could have affected you – sometimes I think they're getting to me. Being on TV and looking glamorous and having money: It's all great and it's fun but – there are days I don't recognize myself. And then they said they saw you with some beautiful woman, and it was like I went right back to being that girl who was stuck at home the night of the prom." The perfect storm of the worst of before and after, and she doesn't know which she hates more.

Daniel finally looks at her, but he appears so beat-up, so bruised, that she wishes he hadn't. "The past six years, I've counted on you to keep me centered. I never even asked myself if I needed to do that in return. Maybe you're right, Betty. I haven't changed. I'm still leaning on you."

"I was wrong. Completely wrong. I just wish we could – forget this whole thing ever happened."

"Okay." He's not angry any longer. He's depressed. Daniel still has this tendency to put her on a pedestal, to take her failings as catastrophic and her criticism as being twice as harsh as she meant it. And this time, she meant to be harsh. The weight of what she said isn't going to lift in an evening. She wishes he'd fly off the handle, the way he used to; their fight would be terrible, but at least it would all be out there, not bleeding them both from the inside. But she dreads starting fights, and Daniel doesn't freak out as much anymore. He's trying – in his wrongheaded but sincere way – to put it behind them. "Honestly, Billie and Maureen. I know they meant well, but –"

"Someone should take away their mobile," Betty offers.

"Mobile instead of cell phone." A corner of Daniel's mouth lifts, not quite a smile. "I get the center square on assimilation bingo."

The old joke lifts a little of the tension, and he saved her some takeout food. Neither of them wants to talk any more about it tonight, so they watch a dumb movie with a lot of explosions and go to bed early. There's no question of making love, but when she spoons around Daniel, he doesn't push her away. Instead he grasps her hand so that he won't let go even in sleep.

**

They return to New York as scheduled, and the familiarity helps somewhat. Stephanie is a beautiful baby – Hilda all over again, according to her father – and Betty gets to revel in being an aunt. It's a more uncomplicated reaction than she had when she was ten, and Justin initially seemed to be nothing more than a squalling lump that demanded everyone's attention. On that first afternoon, Claire comes by too, purportedly to welcome Daniel and Betty back – but there's no missing how friendly she is with Ignacio, or her genuine affection toward the baby. She wants to hold her every second Bobby can be convinced to put her down.

Justin calls from L.A. in the middle of the afternoon to say hello. After the initial passing around of the phone, Betty gets him to herself and wanders onto the back stoop.

"What's the matter, Aunt Betty?"

Even when he was hardly more than a baby, Justin was somebody who could hear the real truth. "I'm standing here looking into the house, and Hilda's nursing Stephanie, and Daniel is showing her and Bobby some of my TV clips, and I think Papi is trying to teach Claire how to make cupcakes, which … is not going to work out, but that's beside the point. And somehow – despite the evidence in front of my eyes, despite everything that's happened to me in the past few years – I still can't believe it's all changed so much."

Justin is quiet for a few moments, enough so that she can hear kids laughing and carrying on elsewhere in his dorm. "I was talking about this with Marc the other day. Well, not this specific situation, but transformation generally."

Marc St. James has remained on-call for a Mexican kid from Queens for six solid years. It's a good reminder that people really do change. "How's he doing?"

"Rumor is Wilhelmina's going to make him creative director at MODE, though of course she won't tell him until the last minute. And he's still blue about his breakup with Troy. I keep telling him that there's a person out there who will love him forever, but he doesn't believe me yet. Well, someday."

Poor Marc. "So, transformation. What did you guys decide?"

"You can't let go of the past. It makes you what you are. But you can't let it lock you in, either. You have to take the best parts of what was and carry it forward into what will be." He pauses. "Actually, now that I think about it, I'm not positive I didn't get that from a Sondheim lyric, but nonetheless, it remains true."

Betty isn't sure how to weave that into her life, but she knows Justin's right. "When did you get so wise, huh?"

"Second grade, remember? When I sensed the exact day and hour Britney Spears peaked?"

"Of course."

**

They decide that Betty will stay in Queens tonight while Daniel goes into Manhattan to stay at his mother's and have dinner with her, Tyler and Amanda, and maybe Jason if his meds are especially effective today. This isn't that unusual – they often split a night or two when they come back to New York City – but Betty can detect some hesitation from Daniel. Things are improving between them, but the wounds she tore are still open.

She sits up late with Papi, watching his latest favorite telenovela. "Neighbours" is no substitute for the really good Colombian serials, in Betty's opinion. This one is set in some vaguely colonial past, who knows when, so the actresses can wear elaborate dresses, and the men's shirts can all be open to the waist.

"I wish they told you exactly when these things were set," she says between bites of cupcake. "Gave you a little more information, you know?"

"I just wish they would tell us if Eduardo pulled through." Papi's focus is unwavering.

A new idea, fuzzy and indistinct, rolls through Betty's mind – the idea of somehow digitally inserting more information into a TV show. Instead of building websites with extra info, why not encode purchase information for songs and fashion and technology in a program straight into the digital download? And why not more, besides? This telenovela could include bios of the actors, historical articles about the time period, everything.

It's such a whim that she would forget about it, if it weren't for the villainess' appearance at that moment. "Who is this?" she idly asks her father. She already knows this character is evil, just because of the eye makeup.

"Oh, she's a piece of work. Mrs. Maggi, the Italian widow who wants the estate."

"Did you say Mrs. Maggi?" Betty sits bolt upright on the sofa. "Oh, my God!"

"You gotta look out for that one," Papi says.

She makes a mental note to tell Daniel about all this later – but thinking of Daniel reminds her of the uncertainty between them.

Or, as Betty has come to realize is closer to the mark, the uncertainty within herself that is affecting them.

Betty goes to sleep in her old room, in her old bed. Her dad saved one set of Disney sheets for her: Beauty and the Beast. She traces the outlines of the sparkling rose the same way she used to when she was 20. Peel away her naivety and add eight years of experience, and she still thinks the rose is beautiful.

She doesn't have to set everything from her past aside. But she has to hold close to what counts.

An empty bed feels strange to her now, and she wakes every couple of hours, expecting to find Daniel by her side. He's across the city – which in New York can feel like it's across the world. He, too, is asleep in his childhood bedroom, directly above a foyer with marble floors, 30-foot ceilings and a chandelier. And she knows him well enough to know that he's tossing and turning as well, looking for her even in sleep.

At one point, Betty looks at the clock: it's not long past four. Then she realizes exactly what she wants to do.

She grabs her cell phone. On the third ring, Daniel groggily says, "Hello?"

"Remember that night six years ago?" she says. "When I stood in for Gisele, and we crashed that wedding and went out to the Queensborough bridge?"

"Uhm. Yeah? Yeah." He struggles toward wakefulness. "Betty, are you okay?"

"Better than okay." She cradles the phone to her cheek almost lovingly. "I said I was going to go out to the bridge at 5 a.m. to see the city at its quietest. Remember what you said?"

"That you should call me, and I would meet you."

"Tonight's the night."

"All right," he says, and even though he must be as jet-lag weary as she is, she can hear the smile in his voice. "I'm on my way."

Betty dresses warmly – it's snowing lightly – and leaves a note for Papi, in case he rises before she gets back. Hailing a cab in their neighborhood is never easy, especially at this hour, so she calls a car service and manages to beat Daniel there. For a few moments she stands alone, watching the soft glow of the city through the haze of glittering snow. A flake lands on the corner of one lens of her glasses, briefly giving the world a border of lace. It's chilly enough that, for a moment, she misses her old sky-blue parka.

At long last she sees Daniel walking toward her on the bridge. Betty waits for him with her arms on the rail. "Hi," she says, once he's close enough.

"I could see your smile 30 feet away." Daniel wraps his arms around her, leather-gloved hands in her hair, and for a long while they simply stand in each other's embrace. Here, more than anywhere else, she can feel the difference between then and now – and feel how much is still the same. The dissonance doesn't bother Betty any longer.

Finally, Daniel says, "I always hated that we never did this before. We should have a long time ago."

"Yeah, we should. But we're here now." Betty looks up at him and takes his hands in hers. "I believe in you. I believe in how you've changed, and who you've become. But I also believe that the best part of you – that's always been there, and always will be."

It moves him more than she would have expected. "You know I feel the same, right?"

The past presents the future. You carry the best of what was into what will be. "I know. And that's why I want you to marry me."

Daniel's face lights up in both joy and disbelief. "You're proposing?"

"Women can propose, you know. It's the 21st century." Betty feels like she's nothing but her smile. "Welcome to the future."

 

18. Epilogue – December 2019

 

"Tonight, on Fashion TV, a special retrospective on the final print issue of style icon MODE magazine! Suzuki St. Pierre here to relive the ups and the downs – and we're not just talking about hemlines!

"Doyennes and denizens of fashion enclaves around the globe crashed harder than a runway model on a pair of nine-inch heels when Meade Publications announced that MODE would go flexview only after the historic 2019 Holiday Issue. MODE editor Marc St. James proclaimed that this the next great step in the magazine's evolution."

A clip of Marc appears on-screen. At 39, he's still handsome, perhaps even more so. "Flexview is the future. And what is fashion – and MODE magazine – if not a look toward the future?" His face dissolves back into Suzuki's, whose hair is as spiked as ever, though now pure white.

"Ironically, the flexview innovator, instashopping titan Daniel Meade, is himself a part owner of Meade Publications and a former editor in chief. Once, he was among fashion's original bad boys." The screen shows file footage from 2005 of Daniel stumbling out of a nightclub with inebriated, anorexic models on each arm, then walking straight into a streetlamp and falling onto the pavement. "But now he's a manwhore no more! For the better part of a decade, he's reshaped the retail scene with his visionary Crave, Grab and Clutch applications. Flexview, his company's radical multimedia fusion of television, print and interactivity, looks likely to do the same thing to entertainment. And he gives the credit for this brainchild to his wife of six years, Betty Suarez Meade, aka the British Oprah, but without all the weird stuff!"

An icon zooms toward the viewer, reading FUN TRIVIA FACT! "Did you know Mrs. Meade is believed to be a distant relative of none other than Tornado Girl?" A split screen shows Betty on a BBC set, and Betty at the ghastly post-tornado press conference. "I don't see the resemblance, but stranger branches have showed up on the Meade family tree. Take for example Jason Meade, long-lost son of Claire Meade and financier Cal Hartley – who has been in hiding with his wife ever since Jason's attempt to firebomb his mansion. Currently in psychiatric rehabilitation at the same maximum-security facility holding Suri Cruise, Jason's apparently persona non grata with his family these days, but who can say when he'll get back in their good graces? Remember when retired editor Wilhelmina Slater and Daniel Meade were doing battle for control of the magazine? Now she's the head of operations for Meade Publications worldwide, and rumor has it she's an honored guest at the Meade family Christmas celebration next week!"

**

Marc walks into the Meade mansion alone. There have been guys since Troy, even guys who stuck around a long time, but at this point he accepts that this is the way his life is going to be. A single orchid in a Waterford vase. A Soho studio. Table for one. But at least he always has someplace to spend the holidays.

"Marc!" Amanda comes dashing toward him and literally jumps on him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and her legs around his knees. It's not as easy for them to do this as it was a decade ago, but he'll take this greeting as long as she can give it. "Where have you been? You're totally late. I'm mad at you. Okay, I'm over it. There are all these little chocolate things on the trays; you have to try one."

"I'll smell them. You know I have to watch my calories when I'm on the prowl."

"Stop prowling for boys and start eating." Amanda has been living by this credo for a few years now; she's pleasantly rounded after several years of marriage to Tyler, in a way that makes it clear how secure – and happy – she feels. "I'm going to find us the chicken kabobs guy. Be right back!"

Apparently, according to Daniel, the Meade mansion was a forbidding place when they were growing up in it – back when Bradford ruled them with an iron fist, and Claire was still on the sauce. But it's warm now, welcoming: despite the building's grandeur, it is obviously a home.

Ruthie Hartley is chatting with Claire Meade and Ignacio Suarez, both of whom are edging from older to elderly, but they're as energetic as ever tonight. Although they've never had any romantic connection – at least, so far as Marc knows and devoutly hopes, because, dear God, the mental images are terrifying – they've become the mother and father of this annual gathering, and everyone who comes to it.

A little farther away, Matt is talking with Hilda and DJ. Hilda is perhaps describing one of the elaborate hairstyles she's designed for Miss Thing, because her hands are making broad swirls around her head, and the guys are laughing hard.

Tyler is drinking icewater while Spencer sips something harder. "Evil twins are tough to handle," Spencer says. "The best thing to do is drive off a bridge and vanish until the next sweeps period." Tyler sighs heavily.

Then there's Daniel – slightly gray at the temples, now, and wearing a pair of glasses not unlike Betty's – standing next to Connor. Marc's close enough to overhear a bit of their conversation. Connor says, "The blue lights on the tree – they remind me –"

"Molly's favorite." Daniel's voice is fond. "Like the ones she always wanted when she was a little girl."

"If I were a believing man, I'd say she had them now."

"I'm enough of a believing man to say that she does."

Connor smiles. "Hope you're right." They toast Molly with their champagne.

Stephanie comes running through in her green velvet party dress, until Bobby grabs her by the elbow. "How many times do I have to tell you, princess, no running in the house! Especially not the house with lots of expensive breakable things in it! Oh, hey, Marc. Catch me in a minute, huh?" He then twirls his daughter around, as if she were a ballerina, and she giggles.

Although there's soft music playing, only one couple is dancing: Alexis and Gareth, who don't seem to notice anybody else is in the room. Alexis is three inches taller than him – even without the heels she's refused to give up wearing – but Gareth has apparently never cared.

And then there's Betty. She's out and out glamorous now, albeit in her own way; Marc privately considers her style of dress "fabu-horrible," a bizarre mixture of the ridiculous and the sublime. But it's become a trademark of hers, so much so that there are people in Britain who actually try to copy it. Tonight she's in a zebra-striped wrap dress and brilliant red shoes, which in Marc's opinion is stronger on the "fabu" half. At the moment, she only has eyes for the boy in her lap.

"Roberto, sit still for just one second," she admonishes her squirming three-year-old as she smoothes his hair. "We're going to take a picture in a few minutes. Don't you want to look nice in your picture?" Roberto, who obviously could not care less, happily munches on a Christmas cookie. Then she sees Marc. "Hey! Where have you been? Justin's been asking for you."

"Transitioning to your crazy brainchild of the future, of course. Also waiting for gift wrapping at Bloomie's, which, my God, I should've gotten in line last July." He looks down at the small boy in her lap, who grins up at him in return. "Gorgeous kid you have there. He looks just like Daniel."

"You always say that."

"That's a relief, huh?"

"You always say that too." Betty smiles and pats Marc on the arm. The old barbs are just a game between them now, have been for years.

"Finally," says Justin.

Marc looks over to see him – 25 years old now. He's a handsome guy, slim and dark, as anybody would have predicted, but he's also a happy one, which Marc had been worried about once upon a time. Instead, confidence shines from him – a young gay man who's flourished in the love he's been given, and suffered from less hate than Marc once would ever have thought possible. Sometimes seeing Justin's good fortune awakens Marc's self-pity – why couldn't he have had a tenth of that? – but mostly, he's just grateful. He thinks Justin's happiness means more to him than his own. "Well, hold me closer, tiny dancer. How are you?"

"I'm not so tiny, and I'm a featured dancer, thank you very much. When are you coming to see the show? You're not allowed to miss my Broadway debut."

"As soon as I can get a date. Although that might be never." Marc sighs. "So I'll suck it up and get my butt there next week."

"Still worried about your love life! It's past time for some crisis counseling. Come on, let's get a drink."

"Don't take too long." There's a glint in Betty's eyes as she says it, one Marc can't quite decipher – mischief, perhaps. "We need you two in the photo."

They bypass the bartenders and venture into the wine cellar, which is a bit odd, but after all these years, Marc figures Justin's got access. Justin selects a bottle but doesn't immediately head back upstairs. "I haven't seen enough of you since I got back to New York."

"Blame your aunt and uncle. This Flexview thing has destroyed my soul, my relationship with Gregg and my schedule. Well, destroyed my schedule. My relationship with Gregg died of the usual causes, and my soul's existence has never been proved."

Something in the tilt of Justin's head makes it clear that he found that particularly interesting, though Marc can't guess why. "So, you're single again."

"Again. No need to be surprised, since this is the same place I always end up."

"Not always," Justin says. "There's someone in the world who's going to love you for the rest of your life. Forever."

"You always say that, and he's never shown up."

Justin steps a little closer. "I always say that, because I've been here the whole time."

It's like that trick in cartoons, where the coyote keeps running across thin air until he realizes the rock isn't beneath him any longer. Marc feels like he's stuck in the moment where the coyote holds up the sign that says OOPS! "Justin – I – you're not serious."

"When I was a kid, I figured it was a crush," Justin says. "Also, you know, you were an adult and I wasn't, so, seriously not right. I never said anything."

"I knew you when you were practically fetal. This is impossible."

"I'm an adult now. We're about the same difference in age as Uncle Daniel and Aunt Betty. And I've learned the difference between a crush and love. This is love. I just have to prove it to you."

Marc can't wrap his mind around it. This is the single most staggering thing that's happened in his life since he came out to his mother, although this feels like that in reverse: Shock shifting not into horror, but into wonder. But no, no, he can't let himself be happy about this. "Justin, you know how much I care about you. How much I'm always going to care about you."

"Which is part of my point."

"And you know that I always screw it up. Even if – even if I got there, even if we became involved, I'd find a way to ruin it. Don't ask me to ruin what I have with you." Marc realized a long time ago that his relationship with Justin is the healthiest in his whole life.

Justin takes Marc's hand in his, the touch charged in a way it never was before. "You'll try to ruin it, but you won't be able to. Because I know you, Marc. I know your petty side and your bitchy side and just how hard you're going to fight this. And I also know that underneath, you have the most amazingly good heart. I've held on for that heart for about a decade now. I know how to hold on tight." Their eyes meet, and Justin lifts his chin, defiant. "Go ahead. Try to resist me. You don't stand a chance."

There's a moment's silence, and Marc feels as though his entire life up to this point might only have been prelude.

Then Justin grins as he starts pulling Marc up the stairs. "Come on. They're calling us for the photo."

Still in a daze, Marc flows back into the throng. Everyone's getting adjusted, grabbing their kids, choosing their place. Alexis and Tyler, the tallest, head toward the middle, while the kids are shepherded in the front. Gareth and DJ start horsing around and have to be shushed by Stephanie, who can be a very prim young lady when she wants. Daniel starts to take off his glasses, but Betty stops him. "Don't you dare," she says. "We finally match."

"When you put it that way, I like them better." Daniel smiles at her as if matching Betty could possibly be a good thing. Then again, Marc reasons, time Bettyfies us all.

Wilhelmina takes Marc's arm. "You. Next to me. You always set off my profile well." Then she frowns. "Have you switched to a lighter foundation? You're looking pale."

"I just had one of the strangest experiences of my life." He can't believe he's saying this, but who can he tell if not Willie? "Also possibly one of the best."

"Funny how those sometimes go together." She holds another hand out to Connor as he joins her.

They're almost assembled by the time Amanda takes her place on his other side. "Thank God you're here," she says. "I mean, I love my long tall hubby, and believe me, the emphasis is on long, but next to him I look like some stunted elf person."

"I feel weird," he confesses. "Why am I even in this photo?"

"Dumbass. This is a family portrait," Amanda says. "Where else would you be?"

Across the gathering, Justin smiles at him.

And flash.

 

THE END