Tucked in among the junk mail, a catalog partially wrapped around it, the heavy ivory envelope is still unmistakable. The return address written in careful calligraphy across the envelope flap is in Bayport, New York.
Nancy's stomach sinks. She leaves the handful of junk mail on the small table beside the door and flinches when her keys hit the kitchen table, missing her purse by inches. Her apartment is cluttered, every surface smeared with a fine layer of dust. When she opens her refrigerator, she finds only two already-opened bottles of water and a tub of diet margarine. Her freezer is crammed with low-calorie microwave meals she can't bring herself to eat.
The view, though... She picks up one of the bottles and strolls to the window, leaving her heels behind her as she uncaps the water. The layout of her apartment is good, but the view is why she chose it. Below her, headlights blur and streetlights glow orange. She can see the shadowy border of the park. It's true; New York City never sleeps.
For the first time in a long time, she feels the ghost of arms around her, the memory of an embrace. The apartment clean for fear he would comment on it; the scent of freshly brewed coffee in the air, and golden sunlight warm against her skin, her heart warmed by his proximity.
She's not shocked to receive the wedding invitation, just a little surprised. As far as he's concerned, maybe there's no reason to be self-conscious about it. They're still friends; that was part of the deal. But so much has changed for her.
She can say no. Make up some excuse. Anything other than the truth. She just doesn't think her heart can take seeing him again. She spent so long breaking herself of him, rearranging her life to fill the hole he left behind. Seeing him again, she's almost sure, will rip the wound wide open again.
She would rather do almost anything else.
Melanie Harris gives her the idea, in a way.
"Girl. You need to get fucked."
Nancy glances down at her martini glass, the delicate frost of condensation cold against her fingertips, before she chuckles. Mel's lashes are dark, fringing intelligent emerald-green eyes. Her slate-gray dress is form-fitting, leaving her cream-smooth muscular arms and legs on display. On a less vivacious woman, the outfit would be unremarkable. Instead, the dress emphasizes the woman beneath, her shining auburn hair and confident smile.
If anyone is catching admiring glances in the crowded bar, she knows it's Mel. Nancy wears a black satin sheath dress, the skirt sewn with sequins. Her shoes are strappy high heels, and diamonds sparkle from her earlobes. Her heart is too shamefully bruised to let her notice anyone around them, much less flirt.
"Is that an offer?"
Mel's earnest expression becomes a thousand-watt grin. "Don't tell me. One more martini and you might be open to a little experimentation?"
Nancy chuckles. "Not that desperate, Mel. Not yet, anyway."
"So get back on the horse. I'll play wingman. We'll get some hot guy over here and offer him a threesome. By the time he realizes it's just you, you'll be on top of him, getting the ride of your life."
Nancy takes a long sip of her martini. "Good try."
Mel sighs. "How long's it been? Two years, now?"
Two years, three months. Nancy just shrugs in agreement. "So I just need to get back on the horse, huh. Literally."
Mel nods. "I know you've been on dates..."
"And it just didn't work." It will never be the way it was with him. She might find someone else, but it just hasn't been important.
"Tell me he wasn't the last guy you slept with."
"Practically," Nancy admits.
Mel gesticulates, releasing a dramatic sigh, tipping her head back. "Oooh, that reminds me. Speaking of people who can't get laid... no offense."
"None taken." Well, a little taken. She could get laid; she just doesn't see the point.
"Nat was having trouble getting back on the horse after J.J. left her--"
Of course she had. Natalie had been married for eight years, and her husband had left her for a tanned secretary five years younger than she was.
"--and she hired this amazing escort. Like, incredible, apparently."
Nancy's eyebrows rise. "She's switched teams?"
"No, no. Male escort. Expensive and very exclusive. He even said that he had to meet with her before he'd agree to a 'session.' That's what Nat told me."
Nancy finishes her martini in a long gulp, a faint grimace twisting her lips at the end. "I'm kind of shocked she would even talk about it," she admits.
"It was that great, apparently. Nat said she asked for the 'boyfriend experience,' and he did everything. Not just the sex part, which was apparently fucking fantastic--talking to her, complimenting her, making her feel good. And then it's done. He walks away with some cash and you walk away knowing you didn't break some pathetic nice guy's heart with rebound sex." Mel dunks a tempura-fried mushroom in sauce and pops it into her mouth, licking her fingertip in a way that would spike a guy's internal temperature at least ten degrees.
"'You'?" Nancy repeats.
Mel shrugs. "Anyone. But it sounds like just what you need." Mel lowers her voice. "He was an asshole, girl. After what he did to you..."
Nancy glances down at the table. She can't count the number of times she's heard some version of this. "Yeah," she murmurs. It's not that she doesn't know; it's that her heart apparently hasn't caught up with her head.
"So hire some fancy escort, the kind of guy who won't give you chlamydia. Let him shower you with affection and fuck you senseless. It'll be like an exorcism or something." Mel waves a slender hand.
"Of my vagina."
"Exactly." Mel grins. "Just what Dr. Harris orders."
Nancy doesn't think about it again until the next time she's home for more than twelve hours. Her hair's tied back, the music's turned up, and she's determined to make a clean sweep of it, of everything. Including that drawer where she threw everything right after the breakup. Under the credit card offers and sales flyers so old their edges are curling and discolored, she finds the invitation again.
We request the favor of a response. Let us know if you will be accompanied by a guest.
A guest. She snickers at the idea. Going alone is bad; going with a sympathetic friend seems worse. Yeah, I've never gotten over you. How's the shrimp cocktail? That suit looks great on you, by the way.
There was a time when she would have taken him back in a heartbeat. She's spent so long breaking that part of herself, but she knows it's still there. She just has to see that handsome smile and those gorgeous eyes gazing with love at another woman, or opening wide with recognition when he sees her, and she fears all that time will melt away and her heart will be freshly broken again.
It would be easier if she could go with a date. Thanks for breaking up with me--it left me free to find the love of my life. Who is better than you in every conceivable way. Oh, how perfect, to show up with a handsome man, hinting that they're thinking of making it permanent soon too, letting a suggestive palm linger on her belly as they murmur about how much they love each other.
It's part of what she does, in her job. She consults with security firms, partners with private investigators, takes on some smaller cases. Half the time she's using a cover identity, pretending she's someone else. For a split second, she thinks of the guys she's worked with in the past, guys who do well undercover--and then she snickers again at how foolish she's being. She would be mortified to ask one of them to be her pity date. For her, it won't be an identity, a persona she can take off. Because he knew her. As thoroughly as that breaks her heart, he knew her, and maybe in some way he still does. He'll see her misery and her longing.
And he'll never come back to her. She can throw herself at him, but it's done. And she can't rewrite the past. She knows herself, and she wouldn't feel comfortable taking a guy she had only dated a few times to the wedding. She has no time, no time to find anyone. To find a boyfriend.
Mel's words come back to her. Maybe she does need a night of crazy no-strings-attached sex. A night of the boyfriend experience, as Nat apparently rhapsodized over.
Or a weekend of it. Once she actually opens the invitation, she finds a smaller card inside. The honor of her presence is also requested at the rehearsal dinner, and at a cookout for close friends and family two days before that.
An entire weekend--half a week, almost--of being around him, hoping the ground will swallow her up before he meets her eyes again. It's a nightmare. It's more than she can possibly endure.
The boyfriend experience.
The idea is even more ludicrous than the last. Hiring some smug, self-satisfied pretty boy who sees himself as God's gift to women to accompany her to the wedding. Her ex seeing through it, and looking at her with even more pity, knowing she's had to pay someone to come with her. It is mortifying. The idea is stupid.
And yet she can't stop thinking about it, worrying it, studying every facet when she's trying to sleep, while she's waiting for water to boil--she's trying to eat healthier, cook at home more often without letting it all go bad--or while she's waiting for a message to come through. A man who will give her everything she asks for, everything she needs--and of course at least a decent fuck; she would be disappointed otherwise. It would be getting back on the horse, in a way. Maybe it would inspire her to find someone else, to finally move on. That, if nothing else, seems worth it.
She can't believe she's considering hiring an escort. She just can't believe it.
When she was eighteen, still living at her father's house in River Heights, all of this would have seemed impossible. All her life had been in front of her, and she had wanted all it could offer: she had wanted a grand romance, a man to sweep her off her feet, who wanted to build a life with her, who could accept her. She moved to New York to pursue her dreams, to solve mysteries and help people, and for a little while, she had been able to imagine how it might be. With him.
In her big, silent bed, with her eyes closed, she can still feel his arms around her, his breath against her hair. She can feel the echo of perfect joy, so exhilarating and pure. That feeling of being home. She hasn't felt it in so long. Hiring a skilled liar won't change anything.
Then why can't she let it go? She remembers Mel's words, that Nat had needed to pass a preliminary meeting before she could even have her "session." To be rejected by a man of negotiable affection seems worse than any other possible rejection.
The sex was fucking fantastic.
Nancy rolls onto her side, closing her eyes. Fantastic sex. It's been so damn long.
It can't hurt to contact whoever Nat had so glowingly recommended. With her luck, the guy will be booked that weekend, and that's that. She'll reply to the invitation with a heartfelt thanks and an excuse. And she will continue pointedly not thinking of him, just as she's done so many nights before.
Maybe it would be good to see him. See if there's anything left. Walk away.
Without someone to pull her back, though, she knows she will drown.
Strike one: The guy Nat apparently rhapsodized over is unavailable.
Once Nancy screwed up her courage enough--and had enough to drink--to ask Mel to find out the name, she had been disappointed to find out that the glowing recommendation had been for nothing. The escort had recommended someone else, though, and that particular one was available to meet with her.
That set off warning bells. At least she could have, maybe, if drunk enough, talked to Nat about her experience. Now she can't. That fractional reassurance is gone. She hadn't even been conscious that anything could change how completely unreal and reckless this feels.
Strike two: The restaurant is La Comtesse.
She knows why he picked it, and she agreed, but she's also tense as soon as she walks in. The last time she was here, it was with her Aunt Eloise and Eloise's husband Seth, her father and her stepmother Avery, and--her ex. He had fed her bites of his entree and they had split a dessert. Her father had made a comment after that when they were alone, about how the next gift her boyfriend gave her might be a diamond.
It's strange. Now that he's no longer in her life, the loneliness is acute, almost physically painful, but it's given her more time to devote to her career and everything else she loves. Her life swells to fill the space. After years of setting her own schedule, making her own choices without having to consider anyone else... oh, maybe it's cold comfort, but it is comforting.
Sometimes, for a second or two, she can convince herself that it would never have lasted between them. There was no diamond in their future, no commitment to bind them. Else they would still be together. This has to be for the best.
It's when she's winding down in her bed at night that she's sure it's not. They should still be together. Everything would feel right if he was still sharing her bed and her life. In the morning that weakness passes, but for those fragile hours, she's someone else, someone who misses him more than words.
She arrives three minutes early, not wanting to seem too eager for this. She wanted to go home and change, but she wears what she wore to work: black pants, sensible heels, a jewel-toned turquoise button-down in a satiny fabric. She wears no jewelry other than small diamond studs, and she refreshed her makeup a little during the cab ride, but this is who she is. And if she can't be herself when hiring a prostitute, when can she?
"Ah, yes. Right this way." The hostess smiles and leads Nancy to one of the curtained booths, the murmur of conversation, clink of glasses and silverware, and laughter all around them. She smells cream sauce, garlic, seared meat.
She's three minutes early. He was early enough to already be seated.
Their walk is all too short and then the hostess is pulling back the curtain to allow Nancy in, and her heart skips a beat. Escort, escort, she reminds herself. She can't call him a prostitute.
Dark hair, head down, bespoke suit--and she's surprised, but what was she expecting, a mesh shirt and leather pants, gold chains and an almost visible cloud of cheap cologne? She's ashamed to admit to herself that she was, a little. The candlelight flickers golden off his heavy, tasteful watch. A small black notebook is open in front of him on the table, neat slanted handwriting in flowing black strokes. She takes her seat, but not before he brings his head up and rises. It reminds Nancy of when her father pulls her seat out for her, making sure she's seated before he is. Her eyebrows rise slightly, but she tries to make her face impassive when he sits down and looks into her eyes.
Her lips part. Her eyes widen. All thought of looking like a sophisticated, unflappable woman negotiating a somewhat distasteful business transaction goes out the window.
No wonder he's--in this profession. He is the most gorgeous man she has ever seen. There's no contest.
His eyes are a deep, rich brown, long-lashed, observant and intelligent. His nose is perfect, with no telltale bump or ridge. His cheekbones are high, his jawline strong. He looks like he's four or five years older than she is, confident and at home in his own skin, unashamed and at peace with himself. He's classically handsome, and yet it's more than that. He's just--
Her body hums. There's no other word for it.
He reaches for her hand and she shakes it. At the touch of his skin against hers--fuck, do all his clients feel this? This sheer, almost terrifying animal magnetism. She doesn't know him, and she's felt attracted to strangers before, but nothing of this magnitude. Nothing so immediate, so undeniable.
And his poker face is complete. Or that unspeakably handsome, impassive expression really does represent his true feelings.
"It's a pleasure to meet you."
She nods. "You too," she says, somehow keeping her voice even.
He smiles, then grins. Straight white teeth. Her knees would buckle if she were standing.
If she wants, if her entire goal is to make her ex jealous, he's perfect.
Their server arrives, and the impossibly handsome man across from her asks with his eyebrows if she's interested in a bottle of wine, as a few are suggested. She agrees, hoping it will help her relax. They spend the next few minutes in silence, looking over the menu and deciding on their meals. She's relieved to place her order, so they can get down to business.
It's not that she's afraid of him, not exactly. She's just overwhelmed by what he provokes in her; she hopes it will be different next time, that she'll be herself again. She hasn't felt like a lovestruck teenager since she actually was one.
The wine, once it arrives, is sublime. She's not surprised that his taste is this good. His entire demeanor, his outfit, his perfect but not overfussed hair... he's an entire package, and the presentation is flawless.
"So tell me the situation. I understand that you're looking for the boyfriend experience?"
She fights the ridiculous urge to glance at the curtain. The server is putting in their entree orders, and won't be back for a while. No one can see them, and as long as their voices are even and conversational, no one is going to overhear them or be curious about what they're discussing. She knows well how a whisper can be just as obvious as a shout.
"Yes," she says. She glances down, clears her throat; she's not quite wringing her hands under the table surface, but almost. This is ridiculous. I'm hiring him. It's a business transaction.
But she's only hiring him if he agrees to it. He can turn her down. Reject her.
And she has no idea how to impress him. She doesn't know what's important to him. What will make him say yes. She's frightened by how much she wants him to say yes. To cover, she takes a long sip of wine and feels a shallow wave of warmth slide down her chest.
"Um. My ex--he'll be at a wedding I'm invited to. I... I'm not with anyone." She shrugs, a sardonic expression on her face as she puts her glass down. Obviously she's not, or they wouldn't be here. "I don't want to go alone."
"So we're talking about the wedding..."
"The wedding and reception after. The rehearsal dinner. A cookout two days before that."
"Three or four days."
"Four. It's in New York state, but I'll be expected to stay around the family... I mean, unless you have--something going on, we could say that you have a work emergency..." She realizes that she's babbling and takes another sip of wine.
And then his dark, incredibly gorgeous eyes fix on hers, searching hers. "Would you prefer I accompany you for all four days?"
She swallows and nods. God. She hasn't felt this unsettled or out of her comfort zone in quite some time. She would almost feel some grudging respect for him, if she wasn't so disturbed.
"June seventh through tenth. Although I don't know how long the reception will be. Maybe I need to--" She falters, not sure how to say it.
"Noon on the seventh through noon on the eleventh?" A faint smile curves the corners of his mouth. He has full, handsome lips. She wonders about how they taste, how they will feel--how they might feel. He'll be her date for the wedding, but that doesn't mean more.
He makes a notation on the off-white page. "Tell me about your ex."
Nancy swallows. "He's a detective, like me," she says. "Um... he's my age. Handsome. What is it that you want to know?"
"How did it end between the two of you? How did it begin? How long was the relationship? What was his favorite position in bed? Did you two have special places, a special song, other sentimentally important events?"
She flushes when he mentions sex, even so politely, and crosses her arms. "You haven't said yet that you'll accept this," she says, searching his serene expression. "And those questions are very..."
He lets her trail off without saving her, taking his own sip of wine. He's far more comfortable in the silence than she is. "If it helps, as long as you're amenable to the terms, I'll take the job," he says. "We have good chemistry; I don't think we'd have any problem convincing anyone we're attracted to each other. But giving you that kind of experience when it's just the two of us, spending a slow lazy weekend in your apartment, is different. Convincing not just you, not just your ex, but his family too--if you're invited to a wedding, we're talking about people who know you and the two of you, and they're supposed to believe that we're in a relationship. We can talk about this later, but trust me, sooner is better." He smiles, and the smile reaches his eyes. "Unless he's a terrible detective."
"He's a very good one," she says, almost grudgingly. "The terms?"
"The agreement is that I accompany you, that I'm your escort at social functions. We don't have to share a room, but it sounds like the scenario you describe would be better served that way. You tell me how you want me to act: solicitous and eager to please, possessive and jealous, macho and borderline alcoholic. If you want me to be paying attention just to other women, or only and always to you.
"If we're convincing your ex that we're really a couple... then we need to go on dates before the wedding. Have some fun experiences together that we can take pictures of and talk about, post online like a trail of proof. We'll each pay our own way, so it's not part of what you're hiring me for, specifically. Just preparation. A kind of rehearsal. It's not required, but I'd recommend it.
"For those four days, at the wedding, you have me entirely. When we're alone together and when we're around other people. Four whole days. We can share the bed if you want."
He leans forward, pausing, making sure her attention is entirely on him. When he speaks again, his voice is still even and conversational, though she hears a quiet edge in it. "Sex isn't included in our agreement. If we sleep together, the decision to do that will be consensual and protected. And if we decide to have sex, I will do absolutely everything in my power to make sure you enjoy it."
The blush that has been heating her chest rises in her face. He has to give her that disclaimer; she understands that. Telling her that she's paying him for sex would break the rules they both know they're skirting.
He's searching her eyes again. "But if you want me to do a good job, I need to know your history with him. If the point is to make him jealous, there are definitely ways I can do that. But imagine how embarrassing it would be if I slipped and brought you--a dish of black olives, and your ex knows you hate them."
He shrugs, and in a flash she knows it. "Just an example," he says.
He hates black olives. She makes a mental note.
We have good chemistry. Recalling his words sends an anxious feeling through her belly, anxious and stupidly hopeful. Maybe that electricity she felt when he touched her hand wasn't just on her end.
What does it matter? I'm being ridiculous.
"Okay," she admits, hoping her blush is fading some. It seems mortifying to be self-conscious about sex in front of someone in his line of work. "So if I'm gonna be filling out some exhaustive inventory of likes and dislikes, you'll be doing that too, right?"
He smiles. "It's incredibly unlikely that anyone there will know me," he points out. "It won't matter if you slip."
"You're that good an actor."
"Of course." His smile comes back. "It's part of the job."
"So it's like undercover work," she says, and she doesn't even realize that she relaxes a little. "You just kind of lose yourself in the role. Make yourself into--the person you're asked to be."
"Do you do undercover work?"
She nods before realizing it might be a double entendre, but his gaze seems open and sincere, not mocking. "It is fun, to pretend to be someone else for a little while. You'd probably make a great operative..."
She sees his expression relax slightly. "Oh?"
"Well... except... no. The best operative is a guy--or woman--who can fade into a crowd without anyone noticing. Someone with a forgettable face. And that, you definitely don't have."
His grin returns. "Then you must have the same problem."
She chuckles. "Definitely not."
The server arrives with their salads, and Nancy is grateful; she needs something in her stomach besides the wine. Her date offers her the bread basket before selecting his own roll and buttering it.
"Part of dating before the wedding will be getting comfortable with each other. Some women need that... and it will make it easier for both of us. You'll already be under stress."
She tilts her head, swallowing a bite of bread as he forks up a bite of salad. It's hard to turn off the part of her mind that evaluates the people around her, trying to judge when they're lying, if they're revealing something sensitive or useful. She can see that he's right; if they're going to convince her ex and his family that she's really dating this man, they need to be comfortable and relatively relaxed around each other.
A silence falls over them as they eat their salads; she finds that she's famished suddenly. He's pushed his small notebook to the side, the cover closed, and she wonders what's inside. Notes about all his clients, maybe... although it reminds her of something. She's kept similar notebooks herself, on cases.
He's still chasing a bite of tomato around the bowl when Nancy puts her fork down and pushes the finished plate to the side. "So, the notebook?"
He smiles slightly, waiting until he's swallowed the bite of tomato to answer her. "Just to keep everything straight in my head. I doubt I'll have any trouble remembering anything about you, but it's good to have."
"I knew a few people who kept notebooks like that. They made notes about people they watched... studying for roles."
Something shifts very slightly in his eyes, something wary and watchful. "Which is pretty much what I'm doing," he admits. "It's a role."
"Some of my clients--don't quite get that. For as long as I'm on the job--under contract, on the clock, however you want to think of it--I play the role. I try to do a good job of it. The second the clock strikes midnight--or whatever time--" He snaps his fingers. "Cinderella's coach is a pumpkin. I'm off the clock."
"So you're a little too persuasive and convincing, sometimes?"
He shrugs. "I know many lonely women," he says, reaching for his wine glass. "It feels good to be around someone who seems to genuinely care. I understand that. This, what you want... it may be more like a game. Pulling one over on a guy who would naturally be suspicious. I like the challenge of it. And once the wedding's over..."
"We go back to our lives." How pathetic, how lonely those women's lives must be, that they can find no one else. That they have to pay for companionship.
"So that's why you wanted to meet with me? To see if it would just be a variation on a theme, or something that would pique your interest?"
His smile becomes a grin again. "To be completely honest with you... I have a full slate right now. Regulars and the equivalent of a waiting list. I'm not looking for any new... 'business,' as it were. In fact..."
She raises her eyebrow, taking another bite of bread.
"I've been made a very generous offer. To be exclusive with one client."
"Sounds like a relationship." Why is my heart pounding? Why?
He shrugs. "It's hard to have a relationship where money's changing hands," he says, but he doesn't sound bitter or frustrated by it.
"Wouldn't you want to have one, though? A real one?"
His lips quirk up again. "Just a few minutes ago you were accusing me of asking impertinent questions... which you still haven't answered."
"Touche." She doesn't want to enjoy their repartee as much as she does. "All right. If I'd just wanted a night of crazy sex that wouldn't have been interesting to you. Got it."
"Depends on your definition of 'crazy.'"
Then they're both grinning, and that fascinating, disturbing electricity is back.
For the rest of their meal, they dance around the topics they don't want to discuss. She wonders if he thinks she's being coy or just a prude, when she doesn't want to share her sexual history with him. She wonders if he's intentionally trying to pique her interest, by revealing only tidbits about himself, tantalizingly brief glimpses. Maybe the man behind the facade isn't all that interesting, but he wants to be, and this mystery is all he truly has to keep him that way. But she doubts it.
Once they've signed their checks and she's strangely dreading the end of their time together, he glances up at her, fixing that intense dark-eyed gaze on her face. "Do you need a ride home?"
"I'll just get a cab. No problem."
He nods, still studying her. "All right. As to our first... practice date. Two Saturdays from now, are you free?"
She pulls her cell phone out of her bag, checking her calendar. "Um... all day, or...?"
"Mmm--brunch to early afternoon. If you're free we could meet, grab a meal, do something fun. Start getting to know each other."
"I take it Saturday night..."
"I won't be available."
Sleeping with someone else. This Saturday and next Saturday night, he will be in someone else's arms. Giving another woman the boyfriend experience, then walking out a cypher.
She feels mingled pity, disgust, and awe. She can't imagine living a life like that. Of course she slips into and out of undercover roles all the time, but she's not giving her body. She's not sharing that kind of intimacy with--a stranger.
He'll always be a stranger to her. Just like she shares so little of herself with the people she dupes on her cases. She shares enough of herself to make it seem genuine, but that's all.
He's an escort and this is a game. She doesn't know why it seems so hard to remember that.
"Two Saturdays from now, it is."
He reaches for her hand and brushes a kiss against her knuckles, then releases it. Oh, she knows the magnetism, the pure unadulterated attraction she feels to him is all part of the role he's playing, but it feels real. So fucking real.
"Until I see you again. Nancy."