(Missed some? Read chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13.)
Q: Where does a penguin keep his money?
A: A snow bank.
— Laffy Taffy Joke #165
"I mean try it on," I quickly retreated. "You try it on."
Jeez, some people just have a one track mind. Usually men. And usually the same track.
"You're welcome to join me." He flashed that cocky grin as he slipped past me, grabbing the coat and heading for the three-way mirror.
"Just try the coat on, Elliot."
I just managed to twist out of the way as he reached to pinch my backside. I was getting faster.
"You know," he said as he shrugged the coat onto his broad shoulders, "I've always had a trench coat fantasy. It just never involved a credit card."
He tightened the belt around his lean waist, tugging it into a knot and turning for inspection.
"As a matter of fact, it never involved me wearing the coat." His smile turned seductive. "But I'm always open to adaptation."
Stepping closer, I brushed at the shoulders of the coat, smoothing out the wrinkles across the yoke and down the arms. Phelps was only inches away, smelling like Contradiction and being endearingly philanthropic to children.
Before I could stop myself, I stood on my tip-toes and pressed my lips to the corner of his mouth. "You're a good guy, Phelps Elliot," I whispered before pulling back and proclaiming, "The coat looks good."
"I'm not that good," he returned. His hands gripped my shoulders and crushed me to him in a heart-stopping kiss.
I was instantly on fire and devouring. His mouth opened, urging mine open to let him in. As his hot, hard lips pressed furiously into mine, I clutched at him, slipping my hands beneath the brushed canvas trench to sculpt his muscles with my palms.
One masculine hand pressed into my lower back, sending my body into full contact with his. I felt something cold at my back and distantly registered that he had backed me up against a mirror.
Unfortunately it was a freestanding mirror that started to topple the instant I leaned back.
With quicker reaction time than mine, Phelps wrapped one arm around my waist to hold me up while catching the tumbling mirror with the other.
"That was fast," I breathed.
"Too fast," he answered, dipping his head to resume our interrupted kiss.
But sanity returned. We were in the middle of Bradford's outerwear, shopping for business—to some extent—and he was not only my hire-a-date, but was also several years my junior. One lapse in judgment with dismissible. Two would be a pattern. Three was a habit.
I held him off with a hand to his chest. "We'd better pay for this and get out of here. I need to get to work."
Not that I had any duties to take care of. Ferrero was busy this week with preparations for Milan. Kelly had my job and with it all my responsibilities. Still, I felt I should make a showing, just to make sure everyone knew I still worked there.
The last thing I needed at this point was someone cleaning out my desk.
"You can't hide forever, Lyd." His voice purred as he caressed a finger down my cheek. "There's a heat between us and someday we will find out how hot we are."
My mouth went dry.
I backed away slowly, my eyes locked on his, unable to look away.
"Lydia," he began and reached out, "don't—"
I hastily stepped back.
Right into the mirror.
The elegant gilded frame fell to the floor with and echoing crash.
And I tumbled down right on top of it.
Before Phelps could stoop to help me up I rolled to the side and climbed to my feet. Thankfully my stomach had cushioned Dyllie's doggie tote in the fall, but my stomach learned that even a tiny little puppy can pack a punch with enough velocity.
"Here, let me—"
"Don't." I shrugged off his offer of help, not because I didn't want or need the help. Because I was afraid of his touch.
I was afraid to find out he was right.
That we would be scorching together.
"Let's just get the coat and go." I tried for a steady, unaffected voice, but knew that my fears quavered through.
In the tote, Dyllie whimpered and I reached in to sooth her fears. Too bad no one could sooth mine.
My desk was completely obscured by the piles of shopping bags from Puppy Love. Ferrero was in the construction studio, overseeing the final details of the Fall collection, so I had my office to myself for the first time all week.
In less than ten minutes I had checked my email, voicemail, and snail mail, thus exhausting all my current duties. I had two choices: Stay at the office trying to look busy and bored to tears, or go home and set up Dyllie's new possessions. Perky had told me the most important thing you could do for a new dog was make them feel at home, give them their own space.
I had already decided to give her a corner of my bedroom.
Decision made—there was only so much solitaire a girl could play—I lifted Dyllie into her tote and began gathering the bags.
When the phone rang I knew who it was before I answered.
"Hello," I reached into my replenished drawer and found a bag of Bon Bons.
"Yeah, I know."
I started to unwrap a shiny pineapple, but his words stopped me.
"Can we meet somewhere?"
I told myself it would be better to talk in person. "The café around the corner?"
"I'll be there in five."
The phone clicked dead in my ear. He must have been nearby, far from his Wall Street office.
"Come on, Dyllie-girl," I slung the tote over my shoulder and slipped my hand through all the handles. "Let's go have the talk."
Gavin was waiting in the café when I got there. With a cup of coffee in front of him and a frothy drink at the place opposite him at the small metal table.
"Hi," he greeted and stood as I approached. He even took the bags from my aching wrist and set them in the corner of the terrace barrier. Always the gentleman. "You look good."
I almost said, "I look haggard," but thought better of it. Let him think I looked good.
Because he damn well looked good enough to eat on a stick.
His dark blonde hair—full of the kind of highlights women paid hundreds for—brushed neatly, as always, but one runaway lock curled across his forehead. Soft brown eyes smiling in anticipation or expectation, with little crinkles at the corners that befit a man of thirty-five.
When I didn't say anything, he tried to start the conversation. "So, you wanted to—"
"Why did you cheat on me?"
"—talk," he finished lamely. "Why did I what?"
"Cheat. Sleep around. Two-time. Cuckold." I didn't know if cuckolding applied to women, but it sounded good.
He looked shocked. Genuinely shocked. Maybe he never knew I found out. But why else would he think I broke off our engagement and never returned any calls or emails? I mean, I know adulterers never expect to get caught, but they should realize when they are.
"Lydia, what are you talking about? I never—"
"Don't deny it, Gavin, I don't have the energy." I swirled the froth on top of my drink with a spoon, too emotionally tired to look him in the eyes. "I just want to know why."
"Look at me," he commanded.
I resolutely stirred the coffee until the froth melted into the creamy drink.
"Look at me." He slammed his fist on the table when I still refused. "Damn it, look at me."
Blinking away the thin sheen of tears, I lifted my head and met his burning gaze. His eyes were open and honest and intent on me. In complete opposition to his lies.
"I never cheated on you." He enunciated each word with specific clarity. "I was unwaveringly faithful."
"Ha!" The shocked laugh burst out before I could stop it. "Then we must have a different definition of faithful. Let me clue you in: mine does not dismiss a hook-up with a secretary as a business meeting."
He closed his eyes and shook his head, as if he could not comprehend what I was talking about. Man, he was good.
Must have a lot of experience.
"I don't know what you're—"
"Let me refresh your memory, just so you know exactly which time I caught you." I gripped the edge of the table, seeking an anchor before my hands started shaking. "It was the night before our anniversary and you were working late. I decided to surprise you with Chinese take-out, but when I showed up I found Rhonda on her knees at your feet and your pants around your ankles. There was nothing to misinterpret."
You would think that after two years, I would have these emotions under control. But when you loved someone that much— this was a result of lack of closure.
Which made it all the more imperative he tell me why. I had to understand what drove him to cheat. Was it me? Had I done something wrong? Not done enough?
Or was it him?
That was what I'd been telling myself for two years, but what if I was wrong. What if I was delusional, and it was really a deficiency in my makeup that drove him to the arms—or rather the bed—of another woman.
"I don't know—" His eyes widened suddenly. "Jesus, I remember."
Well that was good news. At least there hadn't been so many that he couldn't recall them all.
"Lydia, what you saw wasn't... Jesus, it wasn't a hook-up."
I snorted. He must have thought I was born without the capacity for direct observation.
"Listen, I want you to listen to me very carefully." He spoke softly, as if speaking to a distraught child. "And keep in mind the picture of what you saw."
"As if I could forget," I snapped. As if I didn't see that mental picture every single day.
"Rhonda and I were working on a presentation for the Kleinfitch meeting. We had to finalize everything and make copies for all fifty attendees."
Not that it made a difference, but I did remember how stressed he had been about that meeting. It was the meeting that could make his career. And had.
"She got back fifteen minutes before the meeting with the copies and coffee. I took one sip and spilled the scalding coffee in my lap. Not only was it burning my thighs, but my pants were stained with coffee. When you must have walked in, Rhonda was dabbing at the coffee on my thighs and I was getting my pants off so I could rinse them in the sink. Jesus, that's all that happened."
"That," I bit out when he finished his tale, "is the most ridiculous story I've ever heard."
Gavin looked taken aback that I didn't believe him. He had truly thought I would accept that fabrication as an explanation of what happened. And why did he insist on lying? It's not as if he had anything to prove with me. I just wanted the truth. For my own mental health.
For several long, uncomfortable moments he just looked at me. Watched me. Assessed me.
"You never knew me at all," he finally said. "You couldn't have understood the depth of my love, or you never could have believed I would do such a thing." He ran his hands roughly through his hair, sending the neat locks in every direction.
I hadn't wanted to, that was for sure. It broke my heart into a million little pieces, leaving a box of Nerds rattling around in my chest.
Was it any wonder I hadn't dated anyone since we broke up.
When his eyes met mine, they shone with wetness.
"The truth is," he sounded resigned, deflated, "you never really loved me. Because love is trust, and you clearly didn't trust me."
My mouth dropped open.
His lies were impressively elaborate. Who but a pathological liar could turn his own adultery into an accusation that I'd never loved him? I had loved him more than I thought possible, and I got a great big dose of heartbreak for it.
This was not how I expected this conversation to turn out.
I wanted answers, not blame.
Gavin was not the injured party in this failed relationship.
"Tell yourself whatever you want," I said airily, shrugging Dyllie onto my shoulder with an indignant huff. "We both know what really happened."
"No, we don't—" He frowned. "Is your bag whining?"
I looked down to find Dyllie struggling to peek out of the tote, probably curious to see who I was talking to.
"It's nothing." Reaching into the tote, I tried to settle her back into her nap, but she was apparently up and ready for action. Faster than I could think, let alone react, she pulled herself up over the edge of the bag and let out a friendly yip.
"When did you get a dog?" Gavin sounded like it was beyond the realm of comprehension that I would have a pet. Guess he hadn't noticed all the puppy-covered shopping bags.
"Last night," I answered sweetly. "Phelps gave her to me."
The perfect opportunity for my exit.
I tried to sound decisive. Final. But he stood and collected the shopping bags from the corner.
"I'll walk you home." He waved off my protest. "I can't let you struggle to carry all these home. Especially this one," he hoisted the bag containing the food, "it weighs a ton."
As I left the café, Gavin on my heels with my shopping bags, I wondered how the conversation that had gone so wrong had ended with him helping me home.
"He even had the nerve to question the validity of my love for him." Swirling the ice in my Lemon Drop, I wondered how I had ever believed Gavin Fairchild was the picture perfect prince of my dreams.
He was a cad and a liar and I was well rid of him.
Bethany tapped a preoccupied finger on the bar. "I still can't believe Phelps gave you a puppy."
"A puppy is serious business," Fiona added. "Giving a girl a puppy is practically a billboard announcing he wants to be around at least as long as the dog."
From her sleek black tote, Dyllie whined at the sound of conversation she innately knew was about her. As much as I was growing to love her, and wondered what had prompted Phelps to think I needed or wanted a dog, my mind was preoccupied with the late afternoon conversation with Gavin.
"I still can't believe," I announced in a loud and authoritative and conversation-redirecting voice, "Gavin denies having an affair. And that he walked me home."
"Maybe he thinks you're lonely," Bethany mused. "It has been over two years since you... you know."
"Yes I do know, thank you. But Gavin doesn’t." Really, at the moment a nonexistent sex life was the least of my problems. "And I am not lonely. I am very satisfied."
Next to me Fiona sputtered pink drink all over the bar. "So you have been using your Christmas gift." As she dabbed at the mess with a cocktail napkin she threw me a conspiratorial smile. "The reviewers at thehotteststuffaround.com gave it a top rating for ease of use and explosive org—"
"That was not what I meant!" Sometimes I felt like life was one big joke at my expense. "I am not lonely and I don't need a man to—"
"A man?" Bethany's brow furrowed in puzzlement. "I thought we were talking about a dog."
"Both," Fiona added.
That was enough! "Neither."
Slamming a ten on the bar, I shoved my stool back and tried to stand so I could stalk out of the bar. I was not in the mood for Bethany's single-minded focus on the dog and Fiona's single-minded focus on sex. There were more important things going on, like, say, a weekend with my parents, a trip to Milan, and a lying late-fiancé.
Unfortunately, as the Fates looked down on me with malicious hoots of laughter, the stool caught on the sticky floor and I went flying. Landing on my back on a bar floor with a stool between my legs was not the indignant exit I was going for.
Bethany and Fiona leapt into action, Bethany lifting the stool out of the way and Fiona pulling me upright.
In some ways this was all too familiar. Only unlike the first time I had to been pulled upright from a sticky bar surface—first the counter, now the floor—my problem was no man in my life. Now I had two, and I kind of missed having a short list of zero.
"What was that about?" Fi asked as she dusted some questionable material off my gray cashmere cardigan.
"Nothing," I mumbled. Humiliation was bad enough without having to explain your motivation after the fact.
"Has Gavin really upset you that much?"
Leave it to Bethany to see past the muck and get right to the point.
"I just—" I frowned, trying to figure out to put into words why the conversation with Gavin had gotten me into such a know. "I just wanted him to admit it, that's all. Just a simple, 'Yeah, I was a letch.' so I can forget about it and move on."
So much for that much needed closure.
Fiona assessed me with her soul-exposing brown eyes. "You wanted him to say it wasn't your fault."
"You know it wasn't, sugar." Bethany laid a reassuring hand on my arm.
"I know, I know," I agreed.
We had been through this merry-go-round right after it happened, trying to snap my out of my self-pity and restore my confidence. But something about this conversation brought back all the fears and insecurities and—great—the tears.
"Dubble Bubble damn." With a sniff I reached for a cocktail napkin to mop up the tears.
Fiona beat me to it. She gently patted at my cheeks until they were dry. Then, looking me square in the eyes, she said, "But there's something else you're afraid of. You—" She squinted, as if trying to see deeper into my psyche. "—are afraid it wasn't a lie."
"What?" Bethany and I said at the same time—although mine was more like a high-pitched squeal.
Roused by the excited pitch, Dyllie roused from her nap and poked her head out to look around. I was too taken aback to shoo her back down, even though animals were not allowed in Sweet Stuff. Or any New York bar, for that matter.
No, I was entirely focused on Fiona's outrageous proclamation.
"Are you crazy?" I demanded. "I saw them, Fi. With my own eyes. In flagrante delicto. "
"I don't doubt that." Her voice was calm and soothing, and my hackles dropped enough to listen to what she said. "But somewhere, deep inside, you are afraid that maybe you were wrong. Maybe what you thought you saw wasn't precisely what happened, and now Gavin has dredged up those old self-doubts. You are afraid you made a huge mistake."
By the time she was done tears ran rivers down my cheeks, wetting the soft cashmere of my sweater into spots of steel gray.
Was she right? Was I afraid that Gavin hadn't really cheated on me and that I broke off the engagement based on nothing but my own insecurities and misguided assumptions?
"Did I ruin it all for nothing?" My words came out choked with tears and heavy on the sniffles. I dropped my head in my hands as I relived with absolute clarity ever second of that night at Gavin's office.
He stood there with an expression on his face that I interpreted as ecstasy, but could have just as easily been pain. Rhonda was on her knees, fully clothed, and from the doorway I couldn't make out what she was doing. From the movement, I had imagined the worst. But could she have been hastily wiping scalding coffee of his skin?
A cry escaped me as I realized what a horrible mistake I had made.
Instantly, Bethany and Fiona were there, soothing me.
"No, not for nothing," Bethany said.
"There had to be a reason. Even if it wasn't cheating."
"Sugar, your subconscious knew something was wrong."
Fiona wrapped an arm around my shoulder and hugged me close, even as my sobs shook us all. "The affair was only an easy excuse to do something you knew you needed to do anyway."
Several cocktail napkins and wrenching sobs later, what they said finally penetrated.
And it made sense.
For weeks before that night, I had worried that Gavin was having an affair. That he was being distant. That something about our relationship was not right.
Then I had caught him with Rhonda and I felt relieved. Because that became the reason that our relationship was failing. It wasn't my fault—because he was having an affair. It wasn't cold feet—because he was having an affair. It wasn't a fear of commitment—because he was having an affair. That became my excuse for everything.
Most people even bought it.
But the fact that I went two years without even speaking to him, without seeking the closure we both needed, should have been the big clue that all was not right with how things ended.
"Order me another," I asked before downing the remains of my Lemon Drop. Sliding off the stool, I grabbed my purse for a much needed trip to the powder room. "I think I'm gonna need it."
Because whether it was cause for celebration or despair, I was facing the cold, hard truth that I had never been in love with Gavin Fairchild.
The drive to Westchester took ninety minutes. About three times as long as usual, and not just because of the road construction and three traffic accidents on the New York State Thruway.
About halfway there Ferrero decided that he needed to see Phelps in his trench coat. Immediately.
The trench coat was, of course, in the trunk.
Ferrero instructed his driver to pull the limo over at the next possible stop. Which turned out to be a Shell station with an inviting patch of grass.
As Phelps dug through the suitcases in the trunk to find his trusty duffel bag, I snapped Dyllie's leash on and pranced her over to do her business.
You know how sometimes you turn your back for a second and all hell breaks loose?
This was hell and all its suburbs.