Betty loved her father almost as much as humanly possible. At this moment, she thought the only way she could have loved him more would be if he’d just go to sleep already.
“The TV is so far away,” Dad complained as he adjusted the covers on his bed. “I can barely see my stories!”
“Dad, yesterday when we moved the TV closer, you said the glare burned your eyes.”
“So it doesn’t need to be that much forward. But does it have to be so far back?”
With a sigh, Betty readjusted the TV cart and sent mental signal for Elena to hurry up already. The only pharmacy open on a Saturday night was some distance away, but shouldn’t she have been back by now? Not that it mattered so much in the greater scheme of things; her father wouldn’t run out of his main medication until tomorrow. So there was no real rush there.
However, Daniel was currently downstairs, waiting for her – and for the first moment they would have truly spent alone since that amazing dance on Thursday night.
Betty was trying hard to show her father the impatience she felt, but it was hard remaining cheerful and kind when he was being almost deliberately cranky and her whole heart wanted to be downstairs, talking to Daniel.
They had a lot to talk about. Betty knew that their crush was as powerful as it was mutual; all day Friday, in the office, they’d gone completely goofy every single time they as much as caught each other’s eye in the hallway. Several texts had been exchanged about how amazing she had looked or how wonderfully he had danced. His hand had brushed along her back as they looked at the Book together, a moment that had made her flush so hot that her dress seemed to stick to her body.
But that wasn’t all they needed to know. Betty’s sensible side had already laid out a set of questions: How long had he been feeling this way? How serious were they? Was he really ready to move on after Molly? Was she just trying to replace the thrill that the prospect of London had so briefly raised in her life? How would they protect their friendship? So on and so forth. Yes, if this – whatever it was – if it was going to happen, they needed to get things straight as soon as possible. They needed to be smart about it. Not just … get carried away, like they would have if they could have been alone at the Met gala …
“Betty?” Papi folded his arms across his chest, clearly attempting to look extra-pitiful. Though she knew he was really sick, she also knew he loved playing up things like this for a bit of extra attention. “Won’t you find me the photo album from when Justin was little?”
“Of course, Dad.” She gritted her teeth and started looking.
And kept looking.
Victory came after nearly half an hour: Whose big idea had it been to store that photo album in the plastic box with the old Barbie dolls? She delivered the photo album to her father, who was now sufficiently interested in one of his telenovelas to only wave at it vaguely as she set it by his bedside. “Call me if you need anything, okay?” she said, hoping very much that he would be good for a half-hour or so, or at least until Elena’s return.
“I’m fine, mija. Go make sure Daniel hasn’t fallen asleep.”
Betty hurried downstairs. Poor Daniel – he’d already spent hours playing Clue with her, her father and Elena (Colonel Mustard, in the Library, with the Rope), then washing up the dinner dishes. By now he must be pacing the floor with impatience.
Instead, he was sitting in Papi’s recliner – more like lying, since the chair was at full recline – watching TV.
Whatever mild pique Betty might have felt about that dissolved as she realized what it was Daniel was watching. “Casablanca! I love that movie.”
He brightened as he looked at her. “Never seen it.”
“You’ve never seen Casablanca? Daniel, that’s crazy. It’s only the best movie ever.”
“I know! I mean, it only started however many minutes ago, and already – ” His gaze softened as he looked at her. Daniel looked amazing tonight; even though he was only wearing jeans and a black T-shirt, they both hugged the long, lean muscles of his frame in a way that made Betty feel, well, tingly. But the most delectable part was the warmth in his eyes. “You know, I can watch Casablanca anytime.”
As his hand moved toward the remote, Betty said, “Don’t you dare. Come on. We’ll watch it together.”
“Oh, okay. We could go to the sofa, or – ”
“Stay right there.”
Betty went to the side of the recliner and slid in beside him, so that she and Daniel lay side by side. She’d done this dozens of times – with her father, when she was little; with Justin when he was younger; and sometimes she and Hilda still did it when they were feeling especially cozy and sisterly, and nobody had borrowed anybody else’s earrings without asking for a while.
She’d meant to be cozy with Daniel. Even cuddly. But she hadn’t counted on how incredibly different it would be once their bodies finally touched.
Daniel’s body pressed against hers, calves to thighs to belly, and Betty was totally aware of the way her breasts brushed against his chest. She imagined he was even more aware of it than she was. The warmth of their skin seemed to cocoon them together, and she heard Daniel sigh softly as she snuggled against him, her head on his shoulder.
Weren’t we going to have a reasonable talk about this? Betty had meant to do that. She really had. It was a good idea. Necessary, even! And yet – and yet – the first moment she’d been able to lie in Daniel’s arms, she’d done so, and right now she couldn’t imagine ever pulling away.
He rested the side of his face against her forehead. As much as she wanted to speak, Betty thought if she did, her voice would tremble.
On the small TV screen in front of them, Ingrid Bergman, as Ilsa, was questioning Sam about Rick’s love life. Sam was trying to pretend that Rick didn’t love Ilsa anymore, but she just told him to sing their song again. Resigned, Sam began:
You must remember this
A kiss is still a kiss
A sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by
Daniel’s fingers stroked along her forearm. Betty closed her eyes, aware of nothing but the love song and his gentle touch.
And when two lovers woo
They still say I love you
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by
He took his hand away just long enough to hit pause on the remote. Opening her eyes, Betty looked up at Daniel to see a sheepish smile on his face. He said, “I’m – not exactly paying attention anymore.”
“Me either,” she whispered.
Daniel brought his hand back, but this time he stroked his fingers through her hair in a soft caress. “Thursday night – I guess I was hoping we’d end up, you know. Here.”
Betty couldn’t resist teasing him a bit. “In my dad’s ratty old La-Z-Boy?”
“Okay, not exactly here. But like this. Next to each other.”
“Well, we’re here now.” Her gaze kept drifting to his lips. How had she never paid much attention to his mouth before? Although his lips weren’t full, they were perfectly shaped, slightly parted … it seemed to her that she already knew how they would feel against hers …
The front door opened, and Daniel popped the recliner back into sitting position so fast that Betty spilled out of it onto the floor. He scooped her up immediately, but his apology was quickly drowned in Elena’s chatter.
“My God! The line at Duane Reade – it was like the line for the last helicopter out of Saigon.” Elena sagged against the banister, drugstore bags heavily laden in both her hands. “Is that reference too old for you two? Let’s say it was like the line for the last tickets to a Rihanna show.”
Though Betty’s heart was still pounding, she went to Elena immediately. Daniel, she realized, had angled himself to stand behind the recliner; realizing why he felt the need to do that made her blush. “Elena, wow, thank you so much for going out. You got everything okay?”
“Yeah, sure. No thanks to that lady behind the counter. She said she had to check in the back. So I’m figuring the back of the pharmacy must be in Wyoming. Seriously, how can that take so long?”
“No idea,” Daniel said. Though he was smiling, she could hear a slightly ragged edge to his voice. “It’s crazy.”
“Here, I’ll run al this up to him.” Elena started up the stairs, and as her footsteps became more distant, Betty edged back toward the chair.
“Sorry about the whole – dumping you on the floor thing,” Daniel began.
She had to grin. “It’s not like Elena would’ve freaked out if she’d seen us.”
“I know. It’s just – ”
“Yeah. I know.” No distractions. Nobody watching. Just the two of them – that was what he wanted, what she wanted too.
Betty knew there was this whole sensible discussion that she had another chance to begin, but instead she was walking around the back of the chair as Daniel was stepping from behind it, his hand stretching toward her –
Which was when the front door opened, and Justin stormed in. “This is unbelievable.”
“Justin?” Betty frowned. Next to her, she could hear Daniel making a sound not that far from a whimper. “What’s wrong?”
“Well, you remember how I asked Austin to break up with Lily and tell her the truth?” Justin raked one hand through his hair, clearly beside himself.
“What happened?” Betty asked.
“He broke up with Lily and told her the truth!” Justin flopped down onto the sofa. “Which – like, now I’m supposed to be all thrilled and take him back, but I still feel weird, and I feel weird about feeling weird, and – I don’t know.”
“Give it time,” Daniel said. “Think it over. I bet after a good night’s sleep – at, uh, Bobby and Hilda’s house – you’ll feel better.”
Rolling his eyes, Justin said, “They’re doing that thing where they listen to the Three Tenors and feed each other ravioli and laugh a lot. I mean, I’m happy for them, but it’s gross to watch. I thought I’d try escaping from the heterosexual mating dance for a while.”
Betty sighed. Daniel gave her a look that would have been hilariously over-the-top mournful if she hadn’t been feeling exactly the same way.
Justin’s frustration seemed to melt away as he saw the image of Ingrid Bergman freeze-framed on the TV screen. “Oh, my God, are you watching Casablanca? That movie is, like, medicine for my soul. I’m so glad I came over here.”
“Did someone say Casablanca?” What was Elena doing coming downstairs again already? “Ignacio’s napping, so – you know, I think a classic movie night sounds perfect.”
“After this – His Girl Friday!” Justin’s mood, at least, had done a 180 since he’d arrived. Maybe, Betty thought, he’d stolen all her excitement … and Daniel’s too. “This is going to be so awesome.”
Which it was, sort of. They popped popcorn, and Daniel turned out to love Casablanca, and it was all good, except for the part where Betty really would have preferred to be making out with him like crazy.
Around midnight, Elena – a night owl – showed no sign of slowing down, and Justin had proposed that their next film ought to be Now, Voyager. That was when Daniel, with obvious regret, decided to head back in to Manhattan.
“Sure you can’t stay?” Betty said to him at the front door, leaning against the doorjamb. “I wish we could have – I mean – I wish you could be here longer.”
Voice gentle, he said, “Me too.” Daniel reached for her, his fingers brushing against her wrist. Once they were hand in hand, he said, “Listen, it looks like your dad isn’t always going to be alone on weekends – ”
He grinned. “I know you want to be here most of the time, but next weekend is Memorial Day weekend, and since Tyler’s getting out of rehab on Monday, Mom wants to have a family getaway. Me and Tyler, Amanda probably, Mom, and maybe Mom’s friend Yoga … ”
“Yoga?” Betty remembered her very well. “Aren’t they, um, prison friends?”
“Yeah, and I’m trying really hard not to think about everything that might entail.” Daniel’s troubled expression shifted back into a hopeful smile. “Anyway, I was wondering if you wanted to come with us.”
Go away with Daniel for the weekend? They hadn’t even gone on a date yet! Unless the Met counted. Probably the Met counted. But – a whole weekend? It was simultaneously terrifying and thrilling. Betty blurted out the first thing that came to mind: “Isn’t that a lot of people in one house?”
“It’s a big house. Lots and lots of rooms. Whole wings to get lost in.” The way he said it turned every word into a delicious promise. “And a long stretch of beach that’s just ours. Mom always goes shopping, and Tyler and Amanda will probably want some time on their own. So we could, you know … get away.”
They really ought to talk before they took such a big step. She needed to know more about how he was feeling, what he wanted. He needed to know that she was planning to leave MODE, that she even had an interview at the NYRB, and how things might work for them after she set out on her own. So many important things to say – and Betty said only, “That sounds amazing.”
“Yeah?” Daniel looked so surprised, so relieved. Was he really as nervous as she was?
“Yeah. I mean, I need to talk to my family – straighten stuff out – but I’ll let you know soon, okay?”
“Okay.” He squeezed her hand briefly before letting go. “Good night, Betty.”
“Good night, Daniel.” Betty watched him walk all the way down the sidewalk, to the place around the corner where catching gypsy cabs was easiest. Daniel even knew her neighborhood by now.
She floated dreamily back into the living room, where Now, Voyager had begun playing on TV. Justin said, “I made more popcorn. Cheddar flavor.” As he thrust the bowl at her, he added, “So are we thanking Daniel or not?”
“Huh?” Betty licked a bit of the cheddar-flavored powder off one finger. “For leaving?”
“No, for the hospital bills. Didn’t Mom call you today?”
The hospital bills had been a source of anxiety for them all ever since Dad’s last heart attack. They’d been waiting to find out what they owed – and waiting, and waiting. Hilda had agreed to do the latest round of follow-up. “No, she didn’t call. What’s up?”
“Oh, an ‘anonymous benefactor’ paid Grandpa’s hospital expenses. Which of course means Daniel, but I guess we’re not allowed to thank him. Or can we?” Justin sighed. “See what ravioli and the Three Tenors do to Mom? They turn her into a woman who thinks of nothing but being a love machine.”
Elena laughed and swatted Justin on the shoulder. Betty pushed the popcorn away, no longer able to concentrate.
Daniel had paid Papi’s hospital bills. Given how crappy his medical coverage was, that probably came to tens of thousands of dollars. And Daniel had just – paid it. Without even letting her know.
She should have felt grateful. She did feel grateful. But she also felt … overwhelmed.
Frown lines appearing between her eyebrows, Betty sank back into the recliner, which now felt very big, and very empty, with her sitting in it alone.
Tyler managed to walk about three steps into the Horizons lobby before Amanda crashed into him. That was two steps farther than Daniel would have guessed.
“You look so good!” Amanda squealed, flinging her arms around his neck. This was a slight exaggeration, in Daniel’s opinion; Tyler’s hair was now cut so short that it made his own unfortunate haircut look hirsute, and he’d clearly lost a little weight he didn’t need to lose. But his gaze was clearer, and he was more relaxed than at any other time Daniel had ever seen him. “I missed you!”
“I missed you too.” Tyler kissed Amanda’s forehead tenderly before turning to Mom. “All of you.”
Mom wrapped her arms around him and rocked him back and forth, a gesture Daniel remembered well. It was reserved for extra-important cheering up, like after you didn’t make the lacrosse team. “Welcome home, sweetheart. We’re so happy to see you.”
“We all are,” Daniel said. He knew he was the one who had the most convincing to do on that score.
Tyler hugged him too, and Daniel returned it, but the touch was still slightly wary on both their sides. The smiles they exchanged were genuine, though. Maybe they’d get the hang of this yet. Maybe this weekend … well, no. This weekend he wanted to spend with Betty, every single second if possible. To judge by the way Amanda had snuggled up against Tyler, they probably had much the same idea. But hey, there was always the helicopter ride out to the private airstrip, and then the short flight to Newport; he and Tyler could talk then. Start the long road to really being brothers. Of course, Daniel’s one brother relationship so far had mostly been one long bitter rivalry from start to finish, i.e., when it became a sister relationship that was still mostly a bitter rivalry. Obviously he needed more practice at this than most.
“Come along,” Mom said, leading them all from the clinic. “I’ve taken the day off, so I can help you get settled back in at my house, Tyler – if that’s where you want to stay.”
“I want to get my own apartment soon.” Tyler sounded firm. Solid. That was reassuring. “But I need a place to start out, so, yeah, let’s give it a try for a while.”
“You can always stay with me!” Amanda chimed in. “It’s totally big enough for two people.”
Daniel frowned. “Did Marc move out?”
“No, but we can totally boot him if we need to.” She stared adoringly up at Tyler. “Marc’s a survivor.”
Tyler chuckled as he slung his arm around Amanda’s shoulders. “No need for that. So, Daniel, you helping me settle in?”
“I have to get into MODE.” Daniel shared a look with Mom; they were equally concerned about this. “Wilhelmina’s called in with a ‘family commitment’ for half of last week and today, too. Something’s up.”
“Don’t trust her,” Tyler said gravely, like that was some kind of news flash. Then again, he was new to Wilhelmina’s manipulations, while the rest of the Meade family were basically grizzled veterans of the war.
Daniel said only, “I don’t, believe me.”
They all rode in the limo together, though; the driver would drop everyone else off at Mom’s house before taking Daniel to the Meade Publications building. The limo had a television, of course, which was as usual tuned to Fashion TV.
This was why the boom was lowered by, of all people, Suzuki St. Pierre.
“Slater’s sexy sleazeball has slithered free!” Suzuki crowed, as an image of Connor Owens appeared on the screen. Daniel shared a shocked look with Mom before turning back to the news report. “That’s right – MODE creative director and fashion doyenne Wilhelmina Slater must have charmed the guards, because as of today, her thieving paramour Connor Owens can call his prison time as over as the pegged jeans trend! Word has it he informed on jailhouse colleagues, and now he’s footloose and fancy free. Fashion spotters in upstate New York – who turn out to exist, who knew? – saw Owens being whisked away by none other than Wilhelmina herself. What will the Divine Miss Slater’s employers think of her romancing the stone-cold thief who nearly sank their company last year? Only time, or Daniel Meade, will tell!”
“Son of a bitch!” Daniel could have ripped the stupid television out of the limo and thrown it out the window in frustration, but he didn’t, because he liked watching games in it sometimes while he was stuck in traffic. “Connor Owens? What the hell?”
“Stay calm,” Mom said, though the color in her cheeks was high. “It’s not as though there’s anything else he can do to us.”
“That we know about,” Amanda chimed in. “He was all up in the company’s money even before he got up in Wilhelmina’s business, so there’s no telling what all he might … should I maybe stop talking about this?”
“Yes,” Daniel and his mother said in unison.
Tyler cleared his throat. “Do I even want the details here?”
“In Newport.” Mom leaned back against the limo’s seat. “Where it’s quiet and peaceful, and Wilhelmina and Connor seem very far away.”
Daniel stewed over this the whole way into Meade Publications. He managed to run into Sofia Reyes yet again in the elevator, which he could’ve dealt with fine on any other morning but further disgruntled him this morning. Couldn’t just one damn thing go right?
Then he walked into his office to find Betty sitting on the chaise longue, waiting for him, and a shaft of light pierced his gloom. “Betty. God, am I glad to see you. Did you catch Fashion TV? The report about Connor?”
“Yeah, I did.” She didn’t rush to reassure him; she didn’t even rise from the chaise. “I’m sorry. I know that’s got to be weird.”
“Weird? That hardly even covers it. That jerk nearly cost my family the company my father spent his whole life building, and my grandfather before that – and for what?” For Molly, of course, and she’d been a woman worth fighting for. But Daniel had thought Connor happier with Wilhelmina until the moment he’d discovered he was, temporarily but terrifyingly, quite broke.
Betty, normally so quick to comfort and reassure him, remained seated, and she pushed her glasses up her nose in a gesture he recognized as a sign of an impending lecture. But why would she be lecturing him? “Daniel, we should talk.”
“Okay, sure.” What did I do this time?
“Hilda talked to the hospital. They told us Dad’s hospital costs were covered by someone anonymous, which of course means you.”
“You don’t know that,” he tried.
“Daniel, come on. Who else is going to pony up that kind of money to help us out? It could only have been you.”
Oh, it wasn’t a lecture. It was uncertain gratitude. He could use a little praise for something done right this morning. Daniel tried not to look too self-satisfied. “You got me.”
“I wish you hadn’t done that.”
It took him a couple of seconds to process what she’d said. “Wait, what?”
Betty made the little flappy hands that showed she was flustered. “That’s not what I mean – of course I’m grateful, we all are. That was very generous of you, and it means a lot to the whole family. But I just wish you had … talked about it with me, or something.”
“You would’ve told me not to. And I would have insisted, and we would’ve gone back and forth and back and forth, so I figured we’d just skip it.”
“It makes me feel weird, Daniel. With everything that’s – with you and me – and – do you get that it’s a little weird?”
He did not get that it was weird in any capacity. After a morning spent psyching himself up to welcome his brother, then picking up his mother in the limo only to see Yoga waving goodbye to her in a velvet bathrobe, then finding out that fucking Connor Owens was not only out of jail but also working with Wilhelmina again … well, he wanted a pat on the back. Or a smile. Something. Not Betty giving him a sour face for trying to do something kind.
“I guess I don’t see the problem,” Daniel said shortly.
“Daniel. It’s not that I’m not thankful. We all are.”
“Well, I didn’t do it to be thanked.”
They stared at each other. Daniel’s annoyance was already simmering down – it was Connor he was ticked off at, not Betty, and she had always said something about not relying on his money; he’d never gotten that, since he relied on it all the time, but it was kind of a thing for her, wasn’t it?
But it seemed too late to say anything else about it. He’d already snapped at her, and a heavy awkwardness had descended between them. Better to just leave it for now.
“Oh. Okay. I appreciate it anyway.” Betty shrugged. “Well. Glad we got that cleared up.”
Daniel had the distinct sense he’d handled that wrong. But how on earth was he supposed to handle it any other way? Couldn’t Betty at least, well, smile at him? A Betty smile would fix everything. “Yeah. All cleared up.”
“Well. All right. I have, um, work to do.” She finally rose, but only to walk out the door. Without looking back, she said, “See you later.”
He didn’t even answer.
What the hell had happened to his world this morning?
Oh happy day, that hath such HUDSON shoots in it!
Marc had gotten the word as soon as the photo crew entered the building, but there was still a certain thrill in walking into the shared studio space and seeing Cliff hard at work on an accessories shoot. As a hand model showed off a fine wristwatch and the lighting guys did their work, Marc dared to call, “Hello, stranger.”
“Hi, there.” Cliff still seemed more cool than friendly, but he was willing to talk. That was good! That was the only in Marc needed.
“So, how are you redefining masculinity for the straights this month?”
Cliff’s mouth quirked in a smile. He’d always been able to make Cliff laugh. “Deep-sea diving. Just so happens everything for this month’s accessories feature is waterproof. When we take this shot, he’ll be holding a harpoon gun.”
“What is he harpooning? Sharks? Manta rays?”
“I dunno. Moray eels. Ariel and Flounder. We’ll have to see what they Photoshop in.”
They shared their first laugh in way too long, and Marc felt the giddy swirl in his chest he’d once had back when they were first in love …
And his cell phone went off.
“Sorry, just a sec.” The ring tone was the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West,” as in, young man, so he knew who would be on the other line. “Justin! What’s up?”
“I don’t know whether or not to take Austin back,” Justin said in a quiet voice.
Marc half-turned, holding up his hand to ask for time away from Cliff. “Did he do what you needed him to do?”
“Yeah, but – I thought that would fix everything, and it doesn’t. I still feel like he lied to me. He did lie to Lily. Is he an honest person? Do I want to be in love with somebody who isn’t an honest person?”
Although Marc knew Cliff couldn’t actually hear Justin’s voice, it felt so – on the nose, for him to be standing there. Because in their relationship, he’d been the liar. And Cliff had made the decision to choose an honest person, i.e., someone else.
“Do you love him?” Marc said quietly. “Do you still love him, even though he wasn’t straight with you? – no pun intended.”
Justin sounded incredibly miserable for someone who answered, “I love him like crazy.”
“Then maybe it’s worth a shot. I mean, he came clean, right? Lily knows what’s what, now.”
Cliff had turned back to his work. No doubt he could still hear, but no doubt he didn’t care. Their moment had passed, but – well, he’d have to find another moment. His gay padawan needed him.
Marc continued, “Listen, you know how long it took me to come out to my mother and stop bearding. I mean, you were there, Justin. That’s how long it took.”
“You and Aunt Betty pretended to be in love!” Justin had started laughing now. “That was even less convincing than TomKat, and you know I wouldn’t say that lightly.”
His little chimichanga. Marc sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “All I’m saying is, it’s not easy. Maybe it’s easier for your generation than it was for mine, but coming out is still tough as hell.”
In a small voice, Justin said, “I know that. I mean, mine was pretty much ideal, and I was still so scared I wanted to vomit.”
“So can you really blame Austin if he was a little scared too? I’m not saying you should put up with anything and everything. But one more chance – that sounds reasonable, to me.”
“I’ll think about it.” Justin sounded better. Steadier, anyway. “Thanks, Marc. I owe you one.”
“You owe me a zillion. Don’t think I’m not going to collect. Seriously, you’re coughing up some movie tickets this summer, kid.”
“You’ve got it.” And there was a smile in Justin’s voice that helped restore Marc’s sense that this really could be a great day.
But when he hung up, Cliff was already hard at work once more, positioning the harpoon gun in the model’s hands. No doubt he hadn’t cared enough to listen … and so hadn’t heard anything about giving a lover one more chance.
“Christ, I missed this town.” Connor breathed in the stale air of New York City; Wilhelmina smiled, aware of just how sweet it could smell when you wanted it badly enough. “The energy of it. The pace. The sheer hate you feel anytime you nearly bump into someone. It’s everything it means to be alive.”
“It’s again our city to command,” she said, snuggling against his side as they walked along, arm in arm. “The only question is what we tackle next. The world of finance – the world of politics – or any number of industries – ”
Besides Meade, Wilhelmina meant, and she hoped that was understood. Connor’s criminal past would count against him anywhere, of course, but she could be the public face of their efforts. He could provide his own delicious combination of smarts and cunning behind the scenes. Together, what couldn’t they do?
She was finally returning to MODE … almost a week after she’d left, and in the afternoon at that, but what the hell. Danny Boy knew what she was worth, and if celebrating her beloved’s release from jail and return to her life wasn’t reason to take a few days off, then what was? May was her new favorite month; Tuesday was her new favorite day. It seemed as if all her plans were coming to fruition, and nothing could go wrong.
They were several blocks away from Meade Publications, still, but he paused. “I should let you go on alone after this, shouldn’t I?”
“Probably that’s for the best. But I won’t work late this evening.” Willie gave him a sloe-eyed look. “At least, not at the office.”
His sly grin was hotter than hell. “You angel.”
And then she felt the third party – the way she would’ve felt a cloud between her and the sunshine. She and Connor looked over at once to see Daniel Meade, who had picked one hell of a day to pick up his own lunch. Daniel’s rising indignation would’ve looked absurd had it not been matched by Connor. They were like two fighting cockerels placed in the same ring: strutting, ridiculous and yet utterly ready to kill.
“Who the hell did you bribe, Connor?” Daniel glared at him so fiercely that, for a moment, Wilhelmina could see the shadow of Bradford in him – long-buried, but capable of rising to the surface. “That’s all I want to know. Which law did you break this time to get your way?”
“Don’t come preaching to me about morality.” Connor led with his jaw, as if he were begging Daniel to take a punch and give him an excuse to fight dirty. “You’re no better than I am and you know it.”
“You were my friend. I trusted you with my company, and you stole me blind!”
“Only after you stole my fiancée!”
Good God. This was about Molly. Even now – all this time later – Connor was still furious about Molly.
Daniel’s blue eyes blazed with anger. Their confrontation was beginning to draw attention … and this on the streets of Manhattan, where the locals prided themselves on walking past virtually anything without turning their heads. “People can’t be stolen, Connor. Molly made a choice. She chose me. She loved me, and I loved her more than you can possibly imagine. Maybe more than a selfish bastard like you can love anyone.”
“And yet you’re the one who let her die.”
Wilhelmina sucked in a breath. “Connor,” she said sharply. “Don’t be absurd.”
Daniel was shaking his head slowly in disbelief. “I don’t even know you anymore.”
“I never knew you at all,” Connor shot back.
Sharply, she grabbed his arm. “Let it go, Connor. Or I’m letting you go. Here and now.”
Although Daniel’s eyes never left Connor, never broke that glare, he said, “Wilhelmina, I don’t know what the hell you’re doing with this guy, but I expect an explanation.”
“Sorry, Daniel. I don’t explain my love life to you. But I promise you this – Connor’s not coming anywhere near your company. Or anything else that’s yours, ever again.” She glared at her lover. “Not if he wants to come near me ever again.”
Connor’s anger was now divided between her and Daniel, she could tell; he looked down at the sidewalk, attempting with difficulty to control himself. When she was no longer looking at his face, she could see past him to a figure on the corner: Betty, standing there in a raspberry colored dress that was distinctly not horrible, and an expression that looked like the exact mirror of Wilhelmina’s distress.
In fact, Wilhelmina hadn’t realized how lost and sick this whole confrontation made her feel until she’d seen it mirrored on Betty’s face.
Betty clutched her yellow bag closer to her body and hurried off; odd, that she wouldn’t come rushing to her darling Daniel’s side right away, but that was the least of Wilhelmina’s concerns. She said to Daniel, “I’m headed into the office. We’ll meet about the cover this afternoon.”
“Nice of you to finally show up,” Daniel snarled, which was laughable coming from someone who had once regularly blown off editorial meetings during playoffs season. But he walked in another direction, not looking back, apparently willing to get something else for lunch.
That left her and Connor alone. He said, quietly, “I can’t believe you took that sniveling idiot’s side.”
“I can’t believe you’re still licking your wounds over Molly.”
Their eyes met. Nothing he could have said would have disturbed her as much as the fact that he said nothing.
Finally she asked, “You’ll be at home tonight?”
“Of course.” Then Connor kissed her so hard that for a moment Wilhelmina could pretend none of it had ever happened – that nothing had come between them, or could.
Betty’s “lunch” was her job interview at the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS. Her resume was even better than it had been last time, and they’d liked her last time, they said. They were in a hurry to find someone, too. Jodie’s lackluster work performance and increasingly erratic behavior meant whoever came in could expect to have to catch up on a lot of work in short order. Late-night research had told Betty what some of that work was likely to be, and so she was able to rattle off suggestions that impressed them.
Good thing she’d spent last night studying this so hard that she could do it cold. Because up until the moment she’d walked in to greet the editor, her mind had been far too focused on something else. Someone else. Daniel.
She knew she ought to have thanked him profusely for what he’d done for her father. Her gratitude was real, and deep … so deep it scared her.
And, horribly, made her resentful.
It was hard enough getting up the courage to leave MODE before this. Given how close she and Daniel had become, having him do this one more tremendous thing – it almost felt as if he were trying to buy her. That was absurd; she knew he had no intention of doing anything like that. And yet that was how it felt.
How dare she quit Meade Publications? How dare she think of walking away from MODE, when Daniel had been so boundlessly good to her? How dare she hesitate, even for a moment, when he wanted their friendship to become something more?
The poison of it had crept into her blood, into her heart. She doubted his sincerity. She doubted her own. What if all the warmth she felt toward him was because of the way he’d been so generous to her lately – staying with her at the hospital, coming over after the mugging, buying her the new necklace?
And then seeing him arguing with Connor had added a whole new level of uncertainty. I loved her more than you can possibly imagine, Daniel had shouted, every fiber of his being defending the marriage he’d had with Molly. That marriage had only ended because Molly had died. Hardly one year had passed since then. Was it absurd to expect him to love her … to love anyone the same way, so soon? And was anything less than that kind of love worth risking their friendship for?
The logical part of her was at war with the emotional part of her, but neither part was sure enough of itself to win.
Betty kept herself focused throughout the NYRB interview, but no sooner was she in the elevator on her way back down than the confusion flooded back in and took her mind over. She clutched her yellow bag (complete with idea folder) to her chest as she walked back toward the subway. On a park bench nearby sat Jodie Papadakis, hair unkempt and a bottle of vodka in her hand, making obscene gestures in her general direction. Betty tried to ignore her.
Her phone rang, and at first she welcomed it as a distraction – but then she saw it was Daniel. “Hello?”
“Hey, you.” His voice was like a shadow of his cheer over the past few weeks. “Missed you at lunch. You won’t believe who I ran into. Connor.”
So, he hadn’t seen her at all. He’d been so caught up in fighting about Molly that he hadn’t even glimpsed her standing not 15 feet away. “That had to suck, Daniel.”
“It seriously did. I don’t know what Wilhelmina’s thinking. She swears she’s keeping it all out of the office, but – I don’t know.” He sighed heavily. “So I was trying to think about more cheerful things, which made me think about Newport this weekend.”
“Of course! You invited me to Newport – for the weekend – where we take the helicopter out and all the – yeah.” Betty felt stupid repeating all of that, but it was the only way she could think to stall. “I still need to check with my family. Things have been kind of hectic for them with, you know, Justin’s whole romantic situation. And all of that.”
“And Bobby and Hilda romancing each other to the Three Tenors,” Daniel joked, but she could feel the tension beneath the surface. Obviously he didn’t understand why she hadn’t started talking about this right away with them; if she was excited, wouldn’t she have done that? And she’d meant to … up until the moment she heard about the paying of Papi’s bills. The weird awkwardness between them that had taken root Monday morning had only become stronger.
“I’ll let you know tomorrow! I promise!”
“Okay. Okay, then. Tomorrow. Fantastic.”
“Fabulous. See you this afternoon!” Betty knew she was chirping too brightly, but she didn’t know what else to do.
As she slipped her phone back into her bag, she decided to walk the rest of the way back to MODE. It was a long hike, and she was wearing her highest heels, but she needed time to clear her head.
More time, she decided, than a Memorial Day weekend allowed.
That evening, late enough that she knew Daniel had already left for the day, she finally got up the nerve to text him: I don’t think this weekend is going to work.
Really? You can’t get away?
I have responsibilities to my family, Daniel. You should remember that. And that was like scolding him, which was unfair; he’d understood the situation and asked if she could negotiate the time away. She could negotiate the time away. But her good sense just vanished when Daniel was too close to her.
Well, fine, he replied. Which was less than gracious. Betty wasn’t sure whether she blamed him for that or not. She wasn’t sure of anything.
Wearily she laid her head on her desk and hoped like hell she got that NYRB job.
What did I do wrong? Daniel wondered as he walked from the car to the heliport that Friday afternoon. Betty had gone from the warm, cuddly, affectionate woman he’d almost kissed a week ago to a distant stranger … and all because he’d done her family a favor? That didn’t make any sense.
He could have asked her about it, of course. Tried to talk directly about the distance between them and deal with it like an adult. But Daniel knew that wasn’t exactly his strong suit.
Now he was stuck spending Memorial Day weekend alone with his family. And Yoga.
“Yolanda Ribera’s what I go by these days,” she said, briefly flashing a Spanish passport laden with stamps and visas. “Born in upstate New York to a father from Madrid and a mother from the Bahamas. A Bahamas banking family, I usually add. Perks their ears up.”
“The fake documents are perfect.” Mom just seemed way too thrilled by Yoga’s ingenuity, given that it was being used to break the law. “But how do you manage the fake money?”
“The money’s not fake any longer.” Yoga strode along easily among them. Her hair was now cut only an inch long so that it grazed her scalp in a sophisticated short cut; her clothes could’ve been part of a MODE center spread. “That Madoff scam? Part of the reason it came to light is because I caught onto his game and scammed him right back. There’s as many crooks in high society as there are in the Bronx, Fish. The only difference is, most of you high society types are stupider about catching on. Basically, I’ve been doing a little Robin Hood action. Taking from the rich grifters to make sure this poor lady doesn’t have to grift any more. Formerly poor, I should say.”
“The Robin Hood of the hoi polloi,” Tyler said with a grin. Then again, he’d been wearing that grin all week, while being pretty much surgically attached to the besotted Amanda, so no wonder he was just eating up Yoga’s whole story. “I like it. Shows style.”
Yoga shrugged as she slipped on her oversized Chanel sunglasses. “It’s a living. And it beats the hell out of jail.”
“Well, you’ve been rich longer than me,” Tyler said, “so you can show me how to make the transition. Four months ago, I was tending bar. Now I’m walking to our private helipad.”
“Being rich rocks,” Amanda added. “I could so get used to this. Not that I love you for your money, honey. I mean, it does bring out your cheekbones. But that’s all.”
Tyler just squeezed her around the shoulders. “I know.”
So Amanda was happy. Tyler was happy. Yoga was happy. Mom was positively glowing. Daniel felt like the Memorial Day grinch, which was not even a real thing and thus doubly pathetic.
As they belted into the helicopter, he thought, Why didn’t I just try to talk to Betty? Even if she couldn’t come – even if she’s changed her mind about me – we could’ve talked it through. After a long weekend apart, it’s going to be harder. The thought of maybe losing Betty because of a three-day delay made his heart hurt.
His distraction continued until the helicopter rose into the air – and then he frowned. Daniel looked up quickly at his mother, who had tensed in his seat.
“Oh, my God, we can look down at all the little people,” Amanda said. “I wish I’d brought stuff to throw. Hey, why are you guys acting all weird?”
Tyler added, “Yeah, what’s up?”
“This feels … wrong.” Daniel didn’t know any better way to put it than that. It was like the helicopter wasn’t as steady as it ought to have been. As if they were fighting high winds, though it was a totally clear day. Then the entire copter shifted, sending them jerking hard to one side.
“Hey, up there, we okay?” Yoga shouted to the pilots, which was the first time any of them realized how busy the pilots were trying to stabilize the helicopter. And failing.
The helicopter began sloping forward, sharper and sharper. Amanda screamed, and his mother’s hand clutched his arm, and the Hudson River below them zoomed up faster and faster, until the smash that turned his world dark.
OK, Betty thought, I’ll just text Daniel that – I hope he’s having a good flight out to Newport. That’s okay, right?
No. That would just be a reminder than she hadn’t gone out there with him.
How about, Have a sensational weekend?
Without her. Did that sound like she hoped he wasn’t interested in her? Should it sound like that? It wasn’t true, but … God, when had it become so hard to just tell Daniel the truth?
“Aunt Betty!” Justin called from the front room. The entire family had gathered at Papi’s home for Memorial Day weekend for cookouts and game night and a whole lot of other stuff that would have sounded more fun if she hadn’t been comparing it to snuggling with Daniel on the beach. “Is there any salsa?”
“Let me check!” she called as she stopped standing in the kitchen, waiting for text-message inspiration to strike, and looked in the fridge. Yes on salsa. Betty walked toward the cabinets to find a bowl for it and jumped when her phone buzzed in her hand – which made her drop it in the sink.
The sink that was filled with water and soaking dishes, with her phone now drifting toward the bottom.
Groaning, Betty fished the phone out, but already the screen was filled with nonsense characters. She grabbed a bag of rice from the cupboards and quickly immersed her phone in it; that was supposed to work sometimes, absorbing all the moisture from the phone and restoring it, but she had a bad feeling about this. “Great,” she muttered.”
“Aunt Betty!” Justin called again.
“I’m still working on the salsa, okay?”
Hilda appeared in the kitchen doorway. “Betty?”
Betty turned. “Jeez, what is it with you guys and the munchies … today …” Her voice trailed off as she saw the expression Hilda wore. “Is Dad all right?”
“He’s fine. But – on the news – they’re talking about Daniel.”
Why would they be talking about Daniel? Betty’s mind initially turned to some kind of sex scandal – experience had taught her to go there first – but she knew that couldn’t be right, not least because of how pale Hilda’s face was.
She abandoned both rice and phone and ran to the front room, where, on Fashion TV, Suzuki St. Pierre was doing his best to look grave and serious while wearing a canary-yellow coat and fuchsia ascot.
“Although reports are still muddled, we have verified that the Meade family helicopter plunged into the Hudson River approximately half an hour ago. Confirmed to be among the passengers: HOT FLASH power-broker Claire Meade, MODE editor and playboy emeritus Daniel Meade, and recently discovered illegitimate spawn-slash-burgeoning male supermodel Tyler Hamill. Who else was aboard? Nobody knows! Nobody cares! No word on any survivors. Does this mean longtime editrix-in-waiting Wilhelmina Slater will be wearing black – sequins to her coronation as fashion’s new queen? Stay tuned!”
Betty clapped her hands to her mouth, holding back a cry. The pain was more than emotional; it was physical too, cramping her gut, making her knees watery and her throat tighten. Her father looked so shaken that she feared for his health, but he said only, “Oh, my God. Betty, is this true?”
“I don’t know! But – but they were going to Newport. They were taking the helicopter.” But it couldn’t be. Daniel couldn’t be gone, just like that. The last words they exchanged couldn’t be a few cranky test messages.
Yet – a helicopter falling into the Hudson – how could anyone survive that?
For one horrible moment she was overcome by a terrible image – Daniel trapped in his seat, water flooding up all around him, unable to escape, so scared, so doomed –
“I have to get out of here,” she said, grabbing her purse. “I’m going into MODE. They’ll know something there before anyone else.”
“Go on! Call us when you know something!” Hilda hugged Betty briefly, obviously not wanting to hold her sister back. “We’re all praying hard.”
Betty nodded, grateful, but what good could prayers do now? If Daniel had gone down in the crash … then by now, he was almost certainly dead.
On shaky legs, she ran to the corner with the gypsy cabs – but on a holiday weekend, they were all busy, and soon she gave up and dashed to the subway. Nobody would be able to call her there, but since her phone was sitting on Dad’s kitchen counter, ruined, it hardly mattered. Betty took her seat in a far corner and ignored the buskers, a mariachi band whose bright tunes seemed to be mocking her despair.
Daniel, lying next to her in the recliner while they listened to “As Time Goes By,” his body warm against hers.
Daniel, dancing with her at Hilda’s wedding,telling her to cherish the moments when everything seemed right in the world.
Daniel, joking around with her on the beach in the Bahamas, his white linen shirt sharp against the deep blue ocean beyond.
Daniel, comforting her after she’d found Jesse making out with Amanda, taking her into his arms and telling her she was beautiful.
Daniel, walking along the runway with her after Fashion Week’s show was done, their arms linked.
Daniel, standing with her on the Brooklyn Bridge as they gazed at the city lights side by side.
Daniel, coming to her house for the first time to humbly apologize and beg for a second chance.
A second chance. That was all she wanted. Just one more chance to tell him the truth, even just to see Daniel’s face once again.
“No, we have no comment at this time.” Marc hung up on the eighteenth reporter in three minutes. How did he end up with the job of press liaison? Probably by being the most senior person to get stuck working late on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend.
He’d only done it to have a better chance at some Cliff time; rumor had spread through the photo studio that HUDSON had to work extra hours to meet deadline, so Marc had made sure MODE would too. This hadn’t made him the most popular guy among the rest of the staffers, but he planned to buy a round of drinks for them all at the end, which would repair a lot of the damage. Up until thirty minutes ago, his plan had seemed foolproof. Cliff had in fact been working. They’d relaxed a little around each other, and chatted a bit about the latest HUDSON setup (fake coral reefs everywhere), and Marc was beginning to detect a definite thaw – and then someone had started screaming that the Meades had all been killed in a helicopter crash.
Bad enough. But Marc knew what Fashion TV didn’t: Amanda had been on the helicopter too.
So now he was using the photo studio as a kind of operations control center, fielding phone calls from reporters and worried staffers, and using three work laptops to watch the news and TMZ. He sort of wished he weren’t watching TMZ – they were now running a story about someone having found a “body part” in the river, which was so gruesome that Marc found it hard to remember that this sort of thing washed up in the Hudson all the time.
C’mon! he thought to himself. It could be a sloppier-than-usual mob hit! Doesn’t have to be from the helicopter crash.
Wilhelmina hadn’t called in yet, which was odd. Or maybe not so odd, given that she’d just gotten her favorite Australian back Down Under her. Marc knew he should tell her the news, but actually saying that they might be dead – that Amanda might be dead –
Well, he didn’t know anything solid yet. So he’d hang on for now.
A coffee cup appeared next to him, and Marc looked up to see Cliff standing there. Cliff shrugged. “Thought you could use it. Looks like you’re in a world of suck.”
“So that’s where I am. I thought it looked familiar.” Marc took a deep swallow of the latte – one sugar, just the way he liked it. He would have reveled in the fact that Cliff remembered if he’d felt any less miserable.
“You seem really torn up about this,” Cliff said, leaning against the desk. “I mean, yeah, this is terrible – but you never seemed to like the Meades all that much.”
Marc had become fond of Claire despite himself – anybody who could stand up to Wilhelmina like that had big brass ones that clanked together when she walked. A few months of working as Daniel’s assistant had convinced him that the guy was pretty deeply okay, if more decorative than functional. Tyler liked to get up early in the morning and make cinnamon rolls for everyone in Amanda’s apartment, which pretty much gave him the all-time favorite Meade award, hands down. But Marc didn’t feel so small and sick inside on their behalf, and he knew it.
“They’re good people, in their own demented way. But it wasn’t just the Meades on the trip. Amanda was with them.”
“Amanda?” Cliff’s eyes widened. “Your Amanda?”
Just the fact that he put it like that broke through Marc’s last defense. He put his head into his hand, struggling against the urge to cry. His Amanda. His giddy, silly, selfish, hilarious, beautiful, loving best friend in the whole world. Was she gone?
Cliff put one hand on Marc’s shoulder. “Hey. Hang in there. We don’t know anything yet, right?”
“Right.” His voice came out as a choked whisper, but Cliff must have understood, because his grip on Marc tightened.
Then someone across the studio screamed again, and Marc looked up in panic, expecting to see a news report declaring them all dead, or police officers seeking people to ID bodies, or something similarly grotesque.
Instead he saw Amanda, soaked and filthy, her sundress stained with god knew what and her damp hair plastered to her head. Mascara streaks lined both her cheeks.
She said, “The Hudson River is totally gross.”
Marc hadn’t known he could vault high enough to jump over a desk, but he could, and he did, and he didn’t stop running until he had Amanda in his arms again.
It turned out that helicopters could float, or at least they would float for a couple of minutes, which was long enough for seven extremely panicked people to get out. Daniel was pretty sure Amanda had stepped on his face once, but he didn’t blame her; he had been willing to stepon some faces too, and might have done.
He couldn’t be sure because he’d whacked his head when they hit the water – not hard enough to knock him unconscious, exactly, but everything had gone sort of dark and fuzzy there for a few seconds. The images all blurred together in his mind, in no particular order; it was like looking at a box of photographs with no captions and no clear narrative. Daniel remembered the cold water rushing over his legs – fumbling for his seat belt – the horrible jarring reverberation as the still-spinning rotors continued to thrash the water for a few seconds – his mother stroking through the river like a championship swimmer – Amanda shouting for Tyler – Yoga grabbing Daniel’s jacket by the collar and towing him from the chopper – the pilot’s hat bobbing on the waves.
Betty! Daniel had looked for her desperately, clinging to the chopper door until Yoga yanked him free. Only after that had he remembered she wasn’t with them, that she was safe and well and dry somewhere else. Then he had started swimming – or was that when he’d grabbed one of the seat cushions, which turned out to be just as good flotation devices as stewardesses had always claimed? He couldn’t be certain.
All of it was just that disjointed and confusing until the moment they’d been hauled up from the river by a tourist cruise boat that fortunately had been sailing only a few dozen feet away. Then Daniel had some very clear memories of lying on the deck, panting for breath, as a Japanese tour group took pictures of him.
As soon as he’d been able to sit upright, he’d insisted that they return to MODE.
“We need to go to a hospital,” Mom had said, stroking his wet hair back from his face. “You’re developing a black eye, which means you hit your head, which means doctor. Now. The rest of us could stand to get checked out too.”
“If it looks like we’re out of commission for even ten minutes, Wilhelmina’s going to make a power grab. Now that she’s got Connor – Mom, we have to get in there. Put in an appearance, put out a press statement. That’s all.”
Mentioning Connor Owens had darkened his mother’s expression, and now they were all back at MODE. Staffers crowded around, murmuring their relief, and Amanda and Marc were now even more connected at the hip than usual. Daniel knew he looked like hell; he knew this from seeing his mother’s muddy coif or Yoga’s ruined linen suit. Tyler had a nasty bruise along his jaw, plus a cut lip – but nobody was asking him how he was feeling. They were all asking Daniel instead. That meant he probably looked like he’d dug his way out of his own grave. Well, it felt that way too.
Mom decided to take charge of composing the press release along with Marc, and Daniel took the list of necessary media outlets to call. Almost on autopilot, he went into his office, not even bothering to turn on the lights.
He knew that Tyler was calling Alexis in France; it was late enough there that she and DJ were probably both asleep, but better to wake them with good news than let them hear internet rumors and freak out.
So first, before anyone else, he called Betty. Voicemail. “Hey. It’s me. Listen – we’re fine. Banged up, but fine. Call me when you get this, okay?” He hesitated, wanting to add so much more, but then he hung up. The rest could wait for when they spoke again. This time, he swore, he wasn’t wasting any time being awkward or working around the subject; when he and Betty next talked, he was telling her the truth.
Then – CNN. ABC. CBS. NBC. Fox. Daniel went through the spiel – mechanical error, pilots very brave and saved everyone, no major injuries, Meade Publications running as usual – over and over again. He didn’t even have to think about it after the first couple times; this left his mind free to wander. It went back and forth between that moment of confused terror when he’d thought Betty was in the water to the fact that Wilhelmina wasn’t here trying to take over.
Did that mean he could actually trust Wilhelmina, even if she had Connor in her life?
As he hung up the phone from the final call, Daniel rose from his chair, surprised at how much his body ached. Whiplash, he realized. And probably more bruises besides the black eye that made the whole side of his face tender. Mom’s idea about the hospital didn’t suck.
Then he heard a familiar voice calling out, “Anyone? Is anybody still here? Have you heard anything?”
“Betty!” Daniel called. “I’m here.”
A gasp so loud he could hear it from the hallway – then she appeared in the doorway of his darkened office, her jaw open, staring at him in clear disbelief. Voice trembling, she whispered, “Daniel?”
“Yeah. It’s okay. We’re okay.”
Betty ran toward him, crushing him in an embrace so tight it made his battered body hurt, but he didn’t care. Daniel wrapped his arms around her, kissed her forehead, breathed her in. He told himself was safe, now. With Betty here, he could never be anything but safe.
“Oh, my God. Daniel. I thought you were – the news reports said – ” She was sobbing now, the way she had at the hospital after her father’s heart attack. “You’re alive. You’re really alive.”
“I called you – I left a message – Jesus, Betty, I’m sorry; I didn’t want you to be afraid.”
“I didn’t get the message.” Her gulped breaths as she cried turned almost into a hiccup. “I dropped my phone in the dishwater.”
Daniel laughed once, knowing he was on the brink of tears himself. “Shhh. I’m all right. Everybody’s all right. Thank God you weren’t there.”
“I wanted to be with you – I should have come with you – ”
Betty was falling apart, and Daniel realized that seeing her fear was forcing him to confront his own. Shakily, he led her toward the chaise longue in his office so they could both sit. She wound herself around him – arms around his shoulders, knees in his lap, her face nestled in the curve of his neck – and Daniel hugged her tightly, trying to comfort her and take comfort from her at once.
“I looked for you,” he whispered. “In the water. I didn’t remember you weren’t with us, for a moment. Scared me worse than the crash.”
Betty wiped tears from her cheeks with her open palms, as guileless and endearing as a crying child. “The whole trip in from Queens, I was thinking – I’ve lost him, I’ve lost him, and I never even told him what he means to me.” Just hearing her say that much sent him reeling; Daniel kissed her temples, her hair – kissed the tearstains away from her cheeks. Every kiss made his lips ache – they must be bruised and swollen too – but he just didn’t care. She gasped as she brought two fingers up to the puffiness around his eye, and he winced. “Daniel, you’re hurt.”
“It’s just a bump.” As he brushed her hair back from her forehead, he smiled at her, almost weak with relief and love. “I’m fine. I have to be. I’m with you.”
And there was that glorious smile, the one that made the pain go away and the summer sunset turn into dawn. Slowly Betty lifted her face to his, tilting her head so that her lips pressed against the edge of his swollen black eye. The touch against such sensitive skin almost hurt, and yet he felt as if that kiss ought to have healed him.
It hadn’t, though, because a wave of dizziness swept through him, and he had to grip Betty’s shoulders tighter to remain upright.
“You’re not fine,” Betty said, and like that she was up from the chaise, out of his arms. “Hello? Someone? We need to get Daniel to a doctor!”
Mom appeared instantly. Sick children were to mothers what the Bat-Signal was to Bruce Wayne. “That’s it. We’re going to the hospital to get checked out. All of us.”
Betty hugged his mother, too, though only quickly. “Come on. I’ll help you walk him down. Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I broke the heels on my new Louboutins, and this blow-out was only hours old.” Mom gestured at her head as Betty helped Daniel rise to his feet. “Other than that, I’d have to say I came through fine.” She hesitated. “Peeing your pants in terror doesn’t count if you’re in the water at the time, right?”
“Right.” Betty nodded. “Absolutely.”
That’s a relief, Daniel thought.
He slid his arm around Betty’s shoulders and leaned against her the whole way along the Tube, only partly for support. Mostly he just liked the warmth of her against his chilled body, and the knowledge that he had her next to him at last.
They had one more chance; he wasn’t going to waste it.
Wilhelmina awoke splayed across the foot of her own bed, as naked as Connor, who still dozed upon the pillows. Unorthodox, yes – but not nearly as much as the position they’d been in not long before falling asleep. With a smile and a lazy stretch, she rose from her satin sheets and strolled toward the kitchen. She’d take the fresh strawberries from the fridge, open a bottle of champagne, and take them back in the bedroom to awaken Connor for a snack and round two. No, round three, if you counted lunchtime.
Good God, this man made her crazy, in good ways and in bad. As long as the good was this good, she intended to hang on tight.
When she walked into the kitchen, she glanced down at her countertop to see that she’d left her phone there … a sign of how deeply Connor had distracted her. Normally she kept it near her at all times, monitoring everything she could. But after all, it was the Friday evening of Memorial Day weekend. How many people could have urgent messages for her?
Wilhelmina picked up the phone to see that she had 187 new emails, mostly from news outlets, and that Marc had attempted to call her five times.
Shit. She hit dialback for Marc’s number immediately. What was it this time? Had their cover model for the latest issue been arrested? Had Daniel reacted to seeing her with Connor by firing her? Or – please, God, no – had something happened to Nico?
The moment Marc picked up, he said, “False alarm!”
“False alarm for what?”
“Have you not been near any media for the last few hours?”
“Unless my vibrator counts as media, no! Marc, what’s going on?”
“The Meades’ helicopter crashed on takeoff, but everyone’s okay. I mean, wet, and their hair was like, day-one-Betty bad, but they’re fine. Amanda and Tyler even want to go out for drinks tomorrow. I mean, they could probably use a stiff one after that, right?”
“Good Lord.” Wilhelmina took a deep breath. “I assume you’ve issued a statement in my name expressing my profound gratitude that none of those morons went to a watery grave?”
“Written up, going out as soon as you give the word.”
“It’s given. I don’t need to see it. You know how to make those things sound sincere.”
“Then consider it done! Want to send some flowers? I don’t know what’s appropriate for a congrats-on-not-dying gift.” Marc hesitated. “I’m sorry, but … vibrator? I thought you and Connor …”
“Real men aren’t afraid of technology, Marc. Send a plant over to Claire. Something enormous, extravagant and difficult to care for.” She grabbed the champagne, though it now felt less like a pleasure and more like a necessity. “Good work staying on top of this. Call me if you hear anything else.”
“What else would there be to hear?” He sounded puzzled. She didn’t blame him. It was hard for her to admit, even to herself, what she meant.
“It’s only Friday, Marc. From the looks of things, this Memorial Day weekend might be a long one.”
Wilhelmina hung up, opened the champagne, and took a swig straight out of the bottle. Then she walked back into the bedroom. “Connor. Wake up.”
He stirred drowsily. When he saw her, the grin that spread across his face was so loving, so incredibly hot, that she nearly lost her resolve. Any other woman would have.
But she was Wilhelmina Slater.
“The Meades’ helicopter crashed,” she said. “They’re all alive. I want to know if that’s no thanks to you.”
Connor frowned as he sat up. “What? Crash – Jesus. Wilhelmina, what are you asking me?”
“You know what I’m asking.” She planted the champagne bottle on the bedside table and folded her arms. “Was that helicopter accident really an accident?”
His expression darkened. “Are you accusing me of attempted murder?”
“Call it a conversation. It’s not an accusation if I brought you champagne.”
“You ought to have realized before now that I didn’t do it, Willie.” Connor took a swallow of the champagne, then finished, “If I wanted Daniel Meade dead, he would be.”
“Wrong answer.” Wilhelmina leaned over him; he might be a man, and a young, fit, dangerous one at that, but if he thought he was the most intimidating person in this relationship, it was high time he learned different. “I told you before: The Meades and I have come to a truce. They don’t plot against me; I don’t plot against them. I have higher ambitions than they’re going to fulfill, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to scheme my way to the top. I intend to find my own path. Are you with me? Or are you against them? Because you have to choose, Connor. One or the other. Now.”
For a long moment, he looked up at her, and it seemed to Wilhelmina that he was more vulnerable then than she’d ever seen him – except perhaps their first night, when he had come to her fresh from Molly’s abandonment, naked with pain and with desire for her. Revenge and love were warring inside him, she could tell, and she had no damn idea who the winner would be.
Finally, he said, “Willie – I’ll let it go.”
“And that means –?”
“I won’t act against the Meades again. I promise.”
“You’ve broken your word before.”
Connor rose from the bed and took her in his arms. His grip was fierce, his gaze intense. “On my love for you, Wilhelmina. I swear it.”
They kissed, long and deep, and Wilhelmina found herself pulling him down to the bed to cover her again. His touch blinded her to everything else in the world …
… and even the fact that he’d said he wouldn’t go after the Meades “again” soon felt very far away.
As the limo pulled up, Betty gazed again at Daniel; the bruising on his face had worsened, and tomorrow he’d probably look like the losing boxer in a prizefight.
He’d never been more beautiful to her. Daniel was here, alive, well; that second chance she’d prayed for had arrived. She was going to tell him everything, absolutely everything, and then they’d work it all out. It had been stupid to let awkwardness and uncertainty cost her even one second with him. At that moment, Betty felt like she would rather have taken her chances and plunged into the water along with Daniel than have been apart from him during something so terrifying.
Well, maybe that was taking it a bit far. Instead she’d wish that Daniel had stayed put in New York with her.
“Damn, that was worse than my last trip to Buenos Aires,” Yoga said as she wearily slid into the back seat. “Remind me to tell you about it, Fish. I barely got out of there with the emeralds.”
“You know how to get shiny things,” Amanda said as she crawled in behind Yoga. “I like you.”
Tyler hesitated. “You get in next, bro. You should face forward, because frankly, right now, it looks like you might hurl once we get moving.”
“I’m okay,” Daniel promised. His grip around Betty’s shoulders tightened, and she thought maybe he just didn’t want to let go of her. “Go ahead.”
Claire patted her son’s shoulder, but gingerly, clearly fearful of hurting him farther. “I think you got the worst of it, sweetheart.”
“A concussion. A black eye. I can deal.” Daniel was trying very hard, Betty could tell; Mr. Sickington would no doubt rather have been curled beneath a blanket whimpering around now, and she wouldn’t have blamed him.
As Claire got in, Betty took Daniel’s hands in hers. “I’m going to head over to your apartment. You’re still in the old place, right?”
“What? Yeah, the movers don’t come until next week.” Daniel smiled, then winced, no doubt from the bruises near his mouth. “Betty – as much as I like the idea of coming home to you – and I like it a lot – tonight I don’t know if I could, uh, do much.”
“Don’t get too excited … yet.” She stroked the less-injured side of his face tenderly. “You almost certainly have a concussion. That means somebody needs to stay at your place tonight and wake you up every two hours. So I’ll do that. In the morning, when you’re in the clear and feeling better, we’ll – talk.”
He looked boyishly happy. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Betty wanted to kiss him, but the first time shouldn’t be in a parking garage that smelled like motor oil, or when his face was so banged up her touch would hurt. Instead she lifted one of his hands to her mouth and pressed her lips to his palm. Daniel curved his fingers around her chin, almost a caress, and the look they shared then was gentler than most kisses she’d ever had.
Then she got him into the limo and watched them drive away for a long moment before heading to his place.
She went ahead and walked it; the night was nice, and this way she could check in with everyone at home. They’d already heard that the Meades were alive via Fashion TV, and Justin was positively gleeful as he described the media frenzy over a “body part” in the water that turned out to be a plastic arm from a mannequin. Everyone seemed to take it as a given that she’d return to Queens in the morning, rather than tonight. Nobody questioned why, exactly, which was good. Betty wanted to keep this close for a while yet. All the emotion in her heart she needed to pour out to Daniel – he should be the first one to hear it.
Daniel had given her spare keys to the apartment during Molly’s final illness; she’d picked up stuff for them and brought it to the hospital, sometimes. Surprisingly, for a guy who could afford to have others handle every aspect of his move, he’d packed several boxes, taken the pictures down from the walls. Betty couldn’t stifle a smile as she saw his writing on the cardboard, magic marker letters in a scrawl: Winter Coats. Cookware. Ski Gear.
Well, Betty already knew what was in that box; she’d helped him pack it months ago. Some cards her class had made – first get-well cards for Molly, then notes for Daniel about how much they had loved her. A bracelet he’d given Molly during their only Christmas together. The T-shirt she wore for Sunday morning crossword puzzles and a croissant.
It was stupid to be jealous of a dead woman, and she wasn’t, exactly – but Betty couldn’t forget the intensity in Daniel’s voice as he’d defended his love for her in that fight with Connor Owens.
We’ll talk about it, she reminded herself. We’re going to talk about everything in the morning. If there’s anything for me to worry about, I’ll know then. And I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. A small smile played at her lips as she thought, Seeing how much he loved Molly just shows me how much capacity he has to love.
A check of the fridge revealed he was well-stocked on food and drink. (Good stuff, too – actual vegetables and fruit, plus Greek yogurt: It was the kind of fridge that made Betty think guiltily of the Cheetohs and Cap’n Crunch back at her place.) His bed wasn’t made, but the sheets must have been fresh; they still smelled clean and bright.
For a moment she considered simply sliding between the covers to wait for him – but no. He was injured and no doubt exhausted. The time for … talking would be in the morning.
This meant that, despite her crazy need to be with Daniel, to do something for him right away, Betty really couldn’t act until he returned home. So she grabbed his laptop (of course he would leave his work laptop at home over Memorial Day Weekend) to catch up on Facebook or otherwise while away the time. She cruised by her email first – and sat upright on the sofa.
The first unread message was from the editor she’d interviewed with at the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS.
Hardly daring to breathe, Betty clicked the message and read:
Betty – tried to give you a ring early this evening but didn’t get through. Something about the phone being out of service? Anyway, as you must have realized during our interview, we’re in a terrible rush to get someone in place, which is why I’m reaching out to you even on Memorial Day Weekend.
The job is yours. We’re thrilled you’re joining us as an Associate Editor!
I recall that you said during your interview you would insist on a full two weeks’ notice for MODE, and your loyalty does you credit. But we do need you posthaste, so if you could give notice at the end of Memorial Day Weekend, that would be ideal. Stacy in HR will be sending you more information about our health plan, etc., but in the meantime I think all there is to say is, “Welcome Aboard!”
Jackson Noble, Managing Editor, NYRB
“I got the job,” Betty whispered. “I got the job!”
The future seemed to unfurl in front of her like a red carpet. The NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS would give her the challenging, intellectual work she’d always craved. Her career was taking a big step forward. And Daniel – he would no longer be her boss. That freed him up to play another role in her life. A much better role.
Betty fell back on the couch, staring up happily at the ceiling, trying to figure out any way she could be any more delighted that she was at the moment. Nothing was coming to mind.
What with the whole holy crap our bosses might be dead! fracas to deal with, photography on the MODE and HUDSON shoots ran well into the night. By the time they were wrapping up, Marc had abandoned the idea of buying everyone a round of drinks that night and instead promised to do it the following Friday.
Weary though he was, he brightened when Cliff strolled his way. “So, tonight was kind of a roller coaster, huh?”
“One of the really scary ones in Dubai,” Marc said. “Don’t they have roller coasters there that break Mach 1?”
Cliff laughed. “If not, they must be working on them.”
Maybe he wasn’t too tired for a drink that night. Maybe Cliff wasn’t averse to being asked out for one.
And then Marc’s phone rang – once again, “Go West.”
He looked up apologetically. “It’s Betty’s nephew. He’s fresh out of the closet.”
“Oh.” Cliff looked startled, as well he might be; he thought they’d only met once, back when Justin was the size of a Hershey’s Miniature. Sometimes even Marc found it hard to deal with the fact that Justin was now becoming a man. “Yeah, sure. Go ahead.”
As Cliff began to walk off, Marc sighed, but answered the phone. “Hello, you would not believe the nonstop night of horror we’ve had here.”
“I totally would,” Justin said. “Can you believe Perez reported that mannequin arm? Hilarious.”
“It’ll be funny tomorrow. Today was – I need a vacation from today. Anything up, or is this a sympathy call for being the bait in a media feeding frenzy?”
“It’s a sympathy call and something’s up.” After a long pause, Justin said, “In the middle of all this, I realized – the person I wanted to talk about it with the most was Austin. It’s still Austin. So I phoned him.”
Marc had to grin. “All is forgiven?”
“It’s like you said – this is tough. It takes a while. The people I loved gave me a chance to figure things out. So now I should give him a chance, right?”
“I think it’s worth a shot. Well, good for you, Malibu Skipper.”
“He’s coming over tomorrow. We’re going to find the most hilarious sentences from all the stories and put together a mock obituary for Daniel. Do you think he’ll think it’s funny?”
“Give it a week or two. Then, sure.”
“Hey, Marc?” Justin’s smile could be heard in his voice. “Thanks for talking me down.”
When he hung up, Marc turned to his stuff – only to see that Cliff hadn’t walked that far away after all. Cliff said, “You’re mentoring the kid?”
“Please spare me any commentary on my qualifications as a mentor.” With a sigh as he slid his iPad and folders into his case, Marc added, “But yeah. He’s a good kid, you know?”
“And tonight, you were really more afraid for Amanda than worried about yourself.” Cliff’s appraisal was warmer now than it had been since they split. “You’ve changed, Marc. In a good way. I don’t mean to be patronizing – crap, that was patronizing, huh?”
“Of course not,” Marc said blithely. “You can only be talking about those final five pounds I managed to lose.”
Cliff laughed as Marc strode off, trying not to let his delight radiate from him like sunbeams – and hoping Cliff would notice the five pounds, too, while he was getting a good look from behind.
Apparently this Heart of Kashmir thing worked differently than you expected … but it worked.
The emergency room took forever, and they didn’t tell Daniel anything he didn’t know already: concussion, wake up every two hours, whiplash, etc. Yoga turned out to need some stitches in her shoulder – she’d been so stoic throughout the whole thing that he’d hardly realized she was injured. Mom stayed behind with her as Tyler and Amanda went back to Mom’s house; as Amanda said, there was no way they were finishing that night by climbing the stairs to her walk-up.
The taxi got him home, though he was so drowsy the driver thought he was drunk and starting yelling at him not to vomit in the back seat. Daniel paid him, dragged his ass into the elevator, went through his front door –
--and saw Betty waiting for him, and then he was home.
“Daniel, you look exhausted.” She wrapped her arms around him, careful of his injuries, but he squeezed her tightly. So what if it hurt? He had Betty back, and this time everything was going to work out the way it should have from the start. Against his chest, she said, “Bed, now.”
“I like the way you think.”
Her grin was even better at making the pain go away than the Vicodin he’d been given – though the Vicodin was pretty awesome too, and was he starting to sway on his feet. “Let’s wait and get you a clean bill of health. Which means some rest, in bed, right away.”
“Shower,” he corrected her. “Right now I smell like the Hudson. Also I think my underwear might be growing to my skin.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Shower. Yes.”
Daniel had never been so aware of a woman while showering alone. The whole time he rinsed off in the steaming water – God, being clean had never felt so good – he kept thinking of Betty just outside the bathroom door, wishing she’d walk in, step into that shower with him, so he could touch her, feel her heart beat against his chest. Kiss her wet, open mouth.
But then he leaned his head against the tile wall for a second, realized he was dangerously close to falling asleep standing up, and decided Betty was right to wait for tomorrow.
That night was like the longest, strangest erotic dream he’d ever had. Betty walked him back to his bed, and he’d been this close to sitting up to kiss her – but then he’d fallen asleep harder and faster than the helicopter had fallen from the sky. He kept envisioning her near him, standing over him, leaning in for a kiss … and then she would be leaning down, but only to stir him awake.
Once he croaked, “You’re having to wake up every two hours too.”
“I don’t mind,” Betty said. “It’s enough to be here with you.”
Daniel took her hand then, so he could fall asleep holding it.
When he awoke again, he realized she was now lying next to him, only just stirring as the alarm on one of his watches went off. Betty wore one of his old T-shirts; her dark hair streamed across the pillow. She fumbled with the alarm, then looked over at him drowsily. “Still not dead?”
“That’s good.” Betty smiled as she sank back onto the pillow. He so seldom saw her without her glasses that for a moment Daniel could only stare at her beautiful face.
Then she was asleep once more – by now probably at least as tired as he had been – and Daniel contented himself with placing one hand on her back. Amazing, what the warmth of her skin and the sound of her breathing could do to him. Just sleeping next to Betty was hotter than sex with some other women had been.
When he awoke again, early morning sunlight was filtering through the windows, and he was in the bed alone. Daniel pushed himself out of bed and padded into the living room, where Betty was once again dressed – but becomingly disheveled – as she worked on his laptop. Of course Betty would still work on the laptop during Memorial Day Weekend. “Hey there.”
“You’re up!” Betty pushed the laptop side instantly and hurried to him. “How do you feel?”
“Better than ever,” Daniel swore – then winced. “Except my eye. It looks like hell, doesn’t it?”
“Like you went to Taylor Momsen’s makeup artist.”
“That bad? Yow.”
She glanced back toward the kitchen. “I could make us some cereal – scrambled eggs – maybe cinnamon toast.”
“I’m not hungry.” As if on cue, Daniel’s stomach growled, and they both smiled. “Okay, I’m hungry. But it’s not exactly the most important thing right now.”
“No. It’s not.”
Daniel filled his hands with her dark hair, looked down at Betty and said softly, “I’m crazy about you.”
It was amazing to actually see her melt a little, to know he could bowl her over the same way she did for him. “I’m crazy about you too.”
He leaned forward, brushing his thumbs against her cheeks. “So – where do we go from here?”
The ideal answer would’ve been “to bed.” The more likely answer, he figured, was a long talk about Relationships and Commitment and Understanding, all of which he was totally ready for, because it would give him the chance to tell Betty how much he adored her, from her boundlessly good heart down to her polka-dotted shoes.
Instead Betty said, “Well, first things first.” And then she smiled up at him and said, “I’m leaving MODE.”
And then the only thing Daniel could think was, Oh, shit.
Next time on Ugly Betty, Season Five: "Fireworks."
(Songs From This Episode: “Go West,” Pet Shop Boys; “He Touched Me,” Heather Headley; “Chocolate,” Snow Patrol.)