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"HAPPY FREAKIN' NEW YEAR," said Arianne Sorenson, raising a flute of champagne to no one in particular.
It was an hour past midnight and the annual New Year's Eve party at the home of famous shoe designer Rafe Monticello continued in full swing, but back here at the marble-and-gilt bar, there was only her, eleven empty bar stools and an Italian bartender who didn't speak much English.
"Back at you, girlfriend!"
Arianne was so surprised to hear another female answer her that she turned rather suddenly on her bar stool and nearly toppled off onto her Dolce-&-Gabbana-clad butt.
"Natalie Trent," the redhead said. "Mind if I join you?" Not waiting for an answer, she hoisted herself onto an adjacent stool and carefully set a signature gold shoe box on the bar.
Arianne supplied her name, deciding she liked her new friend's direct approach.
Natalie tugged the hem of her black sequined skirt down a notch. "What are we drinking to?" She signaled the bartender for another champagne.
Arianne considered the question seriously. Before she could come up with a toast that simultaneously expressed present misery but left the door open for future bliss, another female voice broke into her thoughts, this one pitched lower than the first.
"Are we all playing wallflower? Great. I need a breather." The third woman joined them, carelessly adjusting the plunging neckline of the unbuttoned man's dress shirt she wore tucked into a fringed miniskirt. Mascara was smudged beneath her exotic eyes and lipstick blurred the shape of her mouth.
It was clear she'd been involved in more than the ceremonial New Year's Eve kiss.
Arianne leaned closer and whispered, "You have a tuxedo shirt stud in your hair."
With a husky laugh, the woman flipped her dark hair over her face, shaking out the stud. It fell onto the bar and she gazed at it with a small smile playing over beestung lips. "I always like to keep a party memento."
"From a stud of a different kind, no doubt." Arianne suppressed a sigh.
Everyone else always seemed to get lucky on New Year's Eve.
"Pour another one, honey," the brunette said to the bartender, who obligingly filled a third flute with Rafe Monticello's vintage French champagne. As the bubbly liquid foamed, Natalie introduced herself and Arianne.
"Isabel Parisi," the third woman replied, popping the stud into her evening bag before accepting her own glass.
"Arianne was just making a toast," Natalie said.
The two women looked to Arianne expectantly, as though this were her bar and these her guests. Not wanting to appear like a lonely loser when they were both obviously having a much better time than she, Arianne skipped the present misery part and went straight for future bliss. "Here's to fulfilling our dreams," she said.
"Fulfilling our dreams," the others echoed as they clinked glasses.
Natalie and Arianne took ladylike sips.
Isabel drained her champagne in one long gulp. "We should smash our glasses against the fireplace to make our wishes come true."
"Oh, no. You can't!" Arianne cried. "These are stem crystal. Seventy-eight dollars a glass at Saks."
Because the other two were blinking at her as though she were under the illusion she was a contestant on The Price Is Right, she rapidly explained.
"I'm Rafe Monticello's accountant. I see all the bills."
"It must cost him a pretty penny to give away hundreds of pairs of Monticellos every year as party tokens," said Natalie.
Arianne shuddered. "You don't want to know."
In the past few years, Rafe had put his Harvard MBA to work launching his Italian mother's shoe designs in America. Since he became CEO, the company had gone from outrageous success to outrageous success. Blahnik, Choo and Monticello were the trio to make any shoe fetishist drool.
Natalie pointed to the pair of Monticellos on Arianne's feet - the ones from last year's party. "I saw those on Fifth Avenue for six hundred retail."
Arianne nodded. "Even the wholesale price is more than I would ever spend on shoes."
"I'd just as soon go barefoot." Isabel crossed her long bare legs, lounging against the bar. She wore simple beaded ballerina flats. "But if we must put on killer stilettos, why not do it in style, courtesy of Rafe? He can afford the indulgence."
"Beats going home alone." Natalie let out a weighty sigh. "Again."
They sipped for a while in silence.
"Well, aren't we the cliche," Isabel observed. "A blonde, a brunette and a redhead. Three single chicks, sitting at a bar."
"You're single?" Natalie blinked and then looked briefly at the bag containing the stud's stud.
Noticing the direction of her glance, Isabel said, "Are we talking tonight or for life?"
"Aren't they the same?"
"Uh-uh. I love being single. I came here for the fine selection of French champagne and Italian men. Bellissimo." Isabel kissed her fingertips at the bartender, who winked at her.
"Si, Bella," he replied.
She turned toward the other women. "How about you two?"
"Fashion reporter," Natalie explained. "I pretty much had to kill to get an invitation, but it was worth it. I get to hang out with people I want to interview, and take home a pair of Monticellos." She smoothed her hand adoringly over the gold box.
Arianne shrugged. "It's my job. Rafe is an important client. I come to make nice." She lifted a foot in the air and let the light catch the soft gleam of expensive leather. "And I come for the Monticellos."
"Don't tell me you both prefer the shoes to the men," Isabel teased.
"Hmm," Natalie murmured, then drained the last of her champagne. "At least shoes only hurt your feet."
Recognizing one another as veterans of the Manhattan dating wars, the three women shared looks of commiseration.
Isabel brightened her wry smile before their private party cycled downward into pity. "I'm in fashion, too." She preferred to stick to career talk rather than explain her colorful history with men. "Fabric designer. I've been working with the Monticellos on their spring line."
This spurred a lively discussion of who they knew in common, the upcoming Fashion Week and what was happening among the rich and famous fashionistas.
Excerpted from Stroke Of Midnight by Jamie Denton Carrie Alexander Nancy Warren Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted April 16, 2012
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