(Missed some? Read chapter 1, 2, 3.)
Q: What do you get when you cross an elephant with a fish?
A: Swimming trunks.
— Laffy Taffy Joke #4
The Summer Sail Away is not just any party. It is an all-out, all weekend, all of society swank that puts other bashes—Hamptons and otherwise—to shame.
Now I had been to plenty of society functions before. Our neighbors were Getty and Kennedy cousins, for Good&Plenty's sake. But nothing had prepared me for the extravaganza that awaited me in Jawbreaker's mansion.
She hosted over 200 guests. And provided a guest room for anyone who didn't already have a residence somewhere between Westhampton and East Hampton.
That was where the trouble began.
Jawbreaker's butler showed us to our room—singular, of course, since we were so very in love—and dumped our luggage on the double bed. Again singular.
"If we weren't intimate before," Phelps boasted, "we will be now."
Counting to ten in all seven languages at my disposal, I managed to keep from telling him to shove it. But it was a near thing.
"We will just have to deal with this later." I yanked my Louis Vuitton to the edge and unzipped it. Sixteen layers of carefully folded weekend wear bounced up like towels in a Downy commercial. "Right now we have to get ready for dinner."
At the top of one pile was my gunmetal-gray halter dress that I adore because the swishy matte jersey accentuates my less-than-generous curves. It ties behind the neck so I could adjust the height of the v-neck depending on my courage level. Tonight it was going to be tied up tight.
I grabbed the matching pair of Stuart Weitzman sandals—the ones with the dangly Swarovski crystals that made them sparkle when I walked.
Phelps meandered over to the window, drawing open the ivory jacquard drapes in a manly survey of the new environment.
"Wow, you must really rate."
I tried to turn off my hearing, I really did. But that didn't stop him.
"Who'd you piss off to get this view?"
Succumbing to curiosity of the purely idle sort, I looked up to follow his gaze out the window. At a brick wall.
My shoulders slumped and I dropped the dream dress back onto the pile. "My boss," I replied, darn tired of trying so hard for zero results. "If you hadn't already guessed, she hates me."
I braced myself for the smart-ass comment.
He crossed the room to my side and placed his hand gently on my shoulder. "She's just jealous." Then, before I had a chance to even consider a response, he added, "So get yourself gussied up so we can give 'em all something to really be jealous about."
And pinched my ass.
"Why you—" I turned to slap him—an instinctual response I had never had to use before—but he was already halfway out the door.
"Find me downstairs when you're ready."
My Stuart Weitzman hit the solid wood door with a thunk.
"Aaargh!" I screamed to no one in particular. Which was good, because no one else was in the room.
Because Phelps was on the loose with Jawbreakers and KYs to contend with.
I donned the dress and shoes and touched up my makeup with a little smoky gray shadow and extra blush—and consumed the remains of a package of cherry Nibs—and was out the door in a record twelve minutes and thirty-two seconds.
Downstairs I found Phelps surrounded by all three KYs in the great room.
The room was a marvel of architectural and decoration styles. Elegant beams graced the high ceilings but had been painted white to diminish their presence. In fact, the entire room had been painted stark white, beautiful wooden floor to beautiful beamed cathedral ceiling.
Not that it lacked for color.
There was black and chrome silver and blood red.
Lots of red.
Along with innumerable textures and patterns. The once elegant entertaining space resembled more a contemporary art gallery than a home. There was even an original—or excellent reproduction—Warhol on the wall above the zebra-print bar.
The KYs had Phelps cornered between the bar and a pair of red leather sofas. Three matching blond heads tilted at a vacant-but-attentive angle above matching Wonderbra-enhanced cleavage. If breast augmentation weren't so taboo right now, I was sure they would have matching silicone implants. Maybe they could get a bulk discount.
Phelps said something and they all twittered in hair-raising girlish laughter.
And the most disappointing part was, he didn't look too unhappy about the situation.
Maybe he didn't quite understand the game plan.
"Phelps," I called across the cavern, hoping my bitter jealousy didn't show, "there you are, Sweet Tooth."
He turned to me with the kind of smile a girl wants to see at the other end of the aisle.
Like I was the sun in his dark, bleak world.
On the inside I melted like cotton candy.
I tried to remind myself that I had bought that smile, but the bliss just wouldn't go away and I beamed in return. My smile only grew when the KYs threw me identical scowls.
Rather than reply, he crossed the fluffy, sheepskin area rug, wrapped his arms around my waist, and drew me into a seductive embrace. His back to the room, he winked at me before leaning forward to whisper, "You look radiant."
Shivery goosebumps spread all over my body at the compliment. I couldn't answer.
"Show them you love me more than your lipstick," he teased. His teeth grazed my earlobe. "Kiss me."
"I-I can't," I stammered.
A fiery flush burned my cheeks and I wished I had skipped the extra blush. This was more boldness in one day than I had experienced in a whole lifetime.
He smiled against my temple. "At least grab my ass."
His arms tightened around me and my entire body pressed into his—separated by only the thin layer of gunmetal jersey and my flesh-tone thong. I felt every inch of his muscular form. My goosebumps got goosebumps.
I gathered every last ounce of courage and raised my hands to his hips. Resting just below his belt. Slowly, I started to slide them back—
"May I have everyone's attention please," Jawbreaker's booming voice thankfully stopped me before I lost all sense of public propriety. "If you would all adjourn to the dining room, dinner is ready."
The dozens of other people in the room—none of whom I had noticed in my fixation on Phelps and the KYs—started shuffling off in the direction of the palatial dining room.
Phelps held me captive.
"Grab my ass," he demanded.
"No," I countered, watching warily as the KYs slithered out of the room. "We have to go in to dinner."
"Grab my ass," he commanded.
"Phelps, really. No one's even here—"
"If you want this scam to work," he interrupted, "we have to act like a couple in love, right?"
I nodded—anything to get him to release me from the captivity of his arms and his attraction. His sweet compliments were weakening me, and he was starting to look far too Bubblicious for my health.
"I can tell you right now, I'm a very physical person and it's not going to look the part if we're not comfortable with each other's bodies." He sounded so logical. So clinical. So businesslike. "Suck it up and grab my ass."
I was almost relieved by the return of the smart-ass.
Reaching around with both hands, I forcibly grabbed his cheeks—"How's that?"—and clenched.
Unfortunately, so did he.
My mind, which had not yet had the opportunity to appraise his derriere, came up with a very vivid image of the flesh in my palms. Holy Hot Tamales!
As if caught suddenly holding a flaming pineapple, I released him and stepped back. Two steps.
"Perfect," he drawled. "Now let's go in to dinner."
He held out one perfectly angled arm which I took out of habit. But my mind burned with the memory of his tight behind. And fantasizing about seeing it in the flesh— er, in person very soon.
I might have walked into the dining room with my shoulders drooped in resignation if he hadn't pinched my butt again.
The hallmark of the first night of the Summer Sail Away is the beach bonfire. Twenty foot flames I was sure could be seen all the way from the Montauk lighthouse, generous amounts of champagne, and a club DJ spinning techno, jazz, and dance music.
Though I would have loved nothing more than to doff my heels and wade into the moonlit surf, I had to use this opportunity to network. Only about one-third of the guests were here, and I had better odds at face time than I would for the next two days.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Phelps dancing with one of the VPs wives. Typical middle-aged, upper class housewife, starved for the thrill of dancing with a gorgeous man young enough to be her son.
For an instant, I saw a reflection of what my life might have been if I hadn't found Gavin between his secretary's thighs.
I shuddered at the thought and again counted my blessings that I got to the sour center of that sucker before the wedding.
Too many women don't find out until it's too late for even pre-nups to help.
Turning from the sight of my future in an alternate universe, I found my first target. Alberto Vermicelli, VP of European Sales.
In the ten-year plan I devised when I came on board at Ferrero, his job was year nine. Currently in year six, I should already have Jawbreaker's job—or at least be junior VP of Something—but I hoped to make that goal soon.
Pulling off my heels to make my way across the sand, I let them dangle from one hand as I approached Alberto.
"Alberto, how nice to see you." I kissed both his cheeks in the Italian tradition and he took my hands in his.
"Caro, I am so happy you are here." He smiled, cosmetically whitened teeth bright against his swarthy complexion.
Alberto is the sort of man women crush on. He is tall and athletically built, with thick black hair and dignified creases in his handsome face. If I didn't know he was devoutly loyal to his wife of nearly thirty years, I would think he had affairs with every woman under thirty that crossed his path.
He was an old friend of my father's and the main reason I got my job. It takes good connections to get work in the fashion world. The KYs had Jawbreaker. I had Alberto.
And he brought me into the fold with the promise that he would retire in ten years and, if I worked hard enough to get myself into a promotable position, he would name me his successor.
One more step and I'd be there.
Hopefully, he could help with that one more step.
"It has been too many years you have not been invited." He swung my arms out wide and appraised me. "You are the most beautiful woman here."
"Except for your wife," I countered.
"Well, a man must protect his loyalties, yes?"
I smiled. Alberto is a kind man with a flair for fashions—as exemplified by his green and yellow silk shirt and elegantly tied white ascot. He also knows the ins-and-outs of the fashion business like no other and can read people like a book.
"But you do not seek out your old friend for compliments, I think." He looked at me thoughtfully and nodded in approval. "You are looking for a little push in the direction of promotion."
"Yes," I answered. After thirty-three years, I was used to his uncanny assessments. "If the rumor about Jaw— Janice's promotion is true, I want to be in line for her job."
His gaze sharpened and scanned the guests littering the beach. "Then, caro, you should not waste time on an old man stuck behind a desk." Mischief sparkled in his light brown eyes. "Aim higher."
Following the direction of his gaze, I saw Jawbreaker—shudder—talking to none other than Ferrero himself.
I groaned. "Franco never remembers me. We've been introduced sixteen times, and if I go over there right now we'll have to be introduced again."
Alberto smiled like an indulgent father. "Then make him remember."
"Who is this enchanting creature?"
If Alberto had come with me to schmooze Ferrero, I would have turned and said, "I told you so."
But how could a man who worked with supermodels on a daily basis be expected to remember an admittedly scrawny, unadorned me?
As it was, I smiled blankly and said, "Mr. Ferrero, I'm Lydia Vanderwalk. Senior Account Executive for the Western US." And silently added, we've met about a thousand times before.
Ferrero stood out amongst the sea of navy and khaki sportcoats and black dresses in a white linen suit—to match his head of white hair—and bright orange silk shirt. He also stood barefoot on the sand.
"All that business makes my head hurt," Ferrero complained in a lilting—and I've always suspected fake since it sounds nothing like Alberto's—Italian accent. "If only I could just make my fabulous creations without having to worry about numbers and reports and sales."
I pasted on my best yes-I-understand-you-temperamental-artistic-types smile. Curbing the desire to explain that without all those numbers and reports and sales he would be penniless, living in a cardboard box, and fashioning chic outerwear from garbage bags. Not a disgustingly wealthy millionaire with his gowns fought over by all the best starlets.
"But this weekend is for fun, not for business," he said with a dismissive wave of his perfectly manicured hands. "What do you do for fun, Lydia Vandowelk."
"Van-der-walk," I enunciated. The chances of him actually remembering my name were slimmer than the chances of the strawberry-banana Starburst in my purse making it through the night.
But Alberto had said "make him remember."
Ferrero was the epitome of artiste. A man who thrived on creativity. And, if Marlene's gossip was right—and it usually was—flesh.
Deciding to hit both birds with one stone, I leaned forward to reveal a little deeper cleavage and draw attention to the pear-shaped pendant dangling therein and confessed, "I design jewelry."
"Jewelry," he exclaimed. "Such a fascinating field. What sort of pieces do you design?"
"Pieces like this." I did my best to drawl—imagining how Fiona would make a man remember her through body language and tone of voice.
She always said men needed to be hit over the head with the obvious, so I took one French-manicured finger and trailed it along the invisible wire of the necklace to the dangling pendant. Ferrero's pale blue eyes followed every inch of the way, alight with interest and—
"Who's the guy ogling your breasts?" Phelps asked conversationally as he came up on my left and slipped an arm around my waist.
I elbowed him in the ribs. My face burned with embarrassment.
Ferrero recovered admirably—surely he had yards of experience being caught ogling other men's women—and grinned at Phelps. "I was just admiring your young woman's work of art."
"That's one I never heard."
"I was showing Mr. Ferrero"—I pulled out of his grasp and lifted the pendant to his view—"my jewelry design."
Phelps examined the necklace closely—though I'm not sure he wasn't copping an ogle, too. "It's beautiful," he decreed. Then remembered that he should have already seen all my jewelry. "As always. But all the more beautiful because it has such a lovely canvas."
He took the hand that held the necklace and pressed a kiss to the back.
I was not appeased by the sweet gesture. Or the genuine admiration in his voice. Or the apologetic smile.
"Dance with me?" he asked as a slow song played out across the beach.
Alright, I was appeased.
But not because he obviously realized his mistake and was trying to make up for it, but because Ferrero was taking this all in with rapt attention. Ha, let's see him forget me next time we meet.
"Go, go," he said. "Dance with your young man beneath the stars. Tomorrow, we must speak more about your designs."
"Yes!" I screamed. On the inside.
On the outside, I said, "Of course, Mr. Ferrero."
"Please," he argued as Phelps took my hand and led me away, "you must call me Franco."
I smiled like a kid presented with a 5-lb bag of Brach's Fun Mix. I hardly noticed as Phelps led me toward the surf, out of the circle of light thrown by the bonfire.
Ferre— Franco was definitely going to remember me.
I looked at Phelps, a look of pure contrition on his handsome face. Hmmm, this night was getting better and better.
"I had no idea that was your boss," he apologized.
He looked really sorry. And I was a little amazed that this cocky, arrogant man—whom I had only known a few hours—had a remorseful bone in his body.
Rather than give in to the impulse to berate him, I let him pull me into a slow dance.
"You know, I should be mad." The wet sand felt cool beneath my feet. "I really should. But I'm not."
"You're not?" he asked, incredulous.
Maybe I had been a little high strung all evening. No wonder he expected me to rail him for embarrassing me.
His arms encircled my waist and I let him lead our sway to the soft jazz. This had to be the most incredibly romantic moment of my life—if only I weren't sharing it with a guy who was being paid to be here.
But I guess I could have a romantic moment of my own.
"I wanted to make an impression." I laid my head on his shoulder, closing my eyes and absorbing the moment with all my senses.
The smell of the sea—a little salty, a little fishy—and Calvin Klein Contradiction filled my nostrils. Small waves broke upon the sand with a rhythmic roar, somehow in tune with the rhythm of Norah Jones. Phelps held me close, but not tight. One broad hand flat across my lower back, the other smoothing circles along my spine.
I felt hypnotized.
When he turned his head to whisper, "Everyone's watching," I barely noticed.
One hand left my back to lift my chin. "Everyone's watching," he repeated. "Let's give 'em a show."
He smiled softly as his head dipped.
This kiss was nothing like the passionate one on the front porch.
His lips moved softly over mine. Tasting. Nibbling. Exploring. His hand, still cupping my chin, drew my mouth open. And I complied.
When his tongue slipped between my lips, I groaned. I was lost in the moment. My imaginary romantic moment had become a reality. And, if the bulge pressing against my abdomen were any indication, this was just as real for Phelps.
A piercing scream rent the air, followed by a deafening explosion. We leapt apart as a second explosion burst directly above us.
"Fireworks," I explained unnecessarily, as a sparkle of embers rained down around us.
Looking back toward the bonfire, I saw Jawbreaker standing between Ferrero and the KYs, delightful malice in her eyes.
Phelps jerked me into a run as the next string of fireworks burst over our heads. He didn't stop until we were at the picket fence—white of course—separating the manicured lawn from the beach.
"She did that on purpose," I complained. "She could have warned us or—"
"Are you all right?"
"—delayed the start or—"
"Lydia!" Phelps shook me.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes, of course." I was fine, but he looked awfully shaken. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, yes, it's just—" He looked warily back down the beach. "I don't... I don't like fireworks."
This looked like more than just dislike. This looked a little like fear.
And rather than gloat, I found myself wanting to sooth his fears. It takes a lot of courage for a man as arrogantly masculine as Phelps Elliot to own up to a fear.
"Let's go inside," I offered.
Away from the fireworks. Away from bosses, scheming and lecherous alike. Away from—I shivered at the thought—those few interrupted moments on the beach.
My heart hardened against Jawbreaker and her scheming triplets. "This," I announced, "is war."
(Ready for the next installment? Read chapter 5.)