Read an Excerpt
He's breaking up with me.
Rachel Frye took a swig of champagne. No longer the appropriate drink for the occasion, but she needed something to do with her hands. Something other than clasping them together on the table while she begged Piers not to end it.
Given they were sitting in one of Manhattan's coolest bars, a little dignity was called for.
"Don't get me wrong, you're really attractive and smart. I enjoy spending time with you." Piers leaned forward with the earnestness that Rachel found ninety-nine percent charming and one percent temptation to tell an off-color joke. "But, you know Oyster?" He pushed the silver plate they were sharing across the highly varnished table for two.
"Thanks," Rachel muttered, as her mind scrambled for compelling arguments as to why they shouldn't break up just yet. She picked up one of the mollusks remaining from the dozen they'd ordered. She'd suggested Crush, a new champagne and oyster bar, for this date because she'd been considering sleeping with Piers tonight.
Also because it was around the corner from her Madison Avenue office, but still. When a woman suggests to her boyfriend of three months that they start their evening at a place serving well-known aphrodisiacs, the last thing she expects is to get dumped.
She'd unbuttoned two buttons of her blouse, for goodness' sake!
"It's just, I get the feeling we're not on the same page," Piers said.
Rachel realized too late that slurping an oyster from its shell wasn't dignified. She swallowed hastily, the salty mass gliding past the lump in her throat.
Was this about sex? Piers had wanted to sleep with her on the first date, something Rachel would never contemplate. Nor the second. Nor the third. Was it unreasonable to want to believe they might have a future together before she jumped into bed?
"Actually, I think we have a lot in common," she said, as she set the empty shell back on its bed of crushed ice. They were both hardworking, capable people. And Piers had the kind of family she'd like to have come from: his father was the second-generation owner of an upstate accounting firm, and his mother ruled the local bridge club with an iron, yet friendly, grip.
"You glanced at your watch when I walked in tonight," he said. It sounded like an accusation.
"I was checking the time," she said uncertainly. She dabbed at a drop of oyster juice on her chin with her napkin.
"Rachel, I was two minutes late. It's not a crime."
"I never said it was. I never even thought it. That's why you're dumping me? Because I looked at my watch?" Ugh, she needed to rein in that shrillness.
She turned away from Piers's concerned gaze to take a deep breath.
And encountered another gaze, this one altogether unsympathetic.
Garrett Calder, her fellow creative director at Key Bowen Crane, New York's largest independent advertising agency, was watching her from his black leather bar stool.
Rachel had noticed him at the bar when she walked in, noticed the bottle of Dom Perignon champagnewhich would set him back at least two hundred bucks in a place like thisin front of him. She'd assumed he was waiting for someone, but he was still alone and she realized there was only one glass on the bar.
She knew the guy was a lonersmall wonder, with that scowl on his facebut drinking a bottle of champagne by himself?
"and it feels like you're clinging." Piers said, finishing a sentence she'd failed to hear.
She jerked back to face him. "I don't cling!" She was loyal and committed, sure. But those were good things. "I admit, punctuality is important to me, but I never meant to make you feel, uh, pressured."
What was wrong with him, that a glance at her watch could terrify him into thinking she wanted a pledge of undying love?
Which she didn't. Not yet. She just wanted to be certain the relationship would last more than five minutes.
"We shouldn't rush to break up at the first obstacle," she said, "when there's every chance we can get past it."
Piers was an actuary, a man who calculated risk to the nth degree, and she liked the way his analytical approach spilled over into his personality. There was a lot she liked about him, frankly. His low-key sense of humor, his easy conversation. She was attracted to him physically, and they'd done some serious making out to prove it.
Though now, when she eyed his receding hairline, she saw it for what it was. Imminent baldness, not a sign of dependability.
Nothing wrong with bald. Hair was unarguably a nice-to-have, but it was nowhere near the top of the list.
"When I'm late," Piers said, "I get the feeling that you worry I'm not going to show up. When we're together, I feel like you're always watching me, to make sure I'm still interested. That's a lot of pressure, Rachel."
She forced a laugh. "Piers, I'm a businesswoman with a high-level job and an excellent salary." She felt as if she was interviewing for the role of Steady, Nonclinging Girlfriend. "I hardly think I'm that insecure."
She didn't assume a guy was a no-show after five minutes. It was more that she started to wonder just how reliable he was. She knew it was illogical, so she tried not to let Piers's occasional tardiness color her opinion of him.
She reached across the table for his hand. A nice hand. Neatly squared fingernails. Pale, but that was okay. "I don't think we should be too quick to end a good thing. How about," she continued, lowering her voice to what she hoped was husky, "we go back to my place and work this out."
Wariness flickered in his eyes. Then his gaze dropped to those two buttons she'd undoneabout timeand the hint of black bra she knew he'd see there.
Rachel wriggled her shoulders just a little.
He let out a sigh. "You are a very special woman, Rachel," he admitted.
That was more like it! He'd simply had cold feet. Rachel pushed her chair back. It scraped loudly on the wooden floorboards. "Let's go," she said.
Piers stood. "Just so you know, I have an early start tomorrow. I won't be able to stay the night."
She paused as she reached for the jacket she'd slung over the back of her chair. "That's okay, I have a meeting first thing, too." The most important meeting of her life, in fact. But was now the time to be discussing work? "We can do dinner tomorrow, instead of breakfast."
If her meeting went the way she anticipated, they'd be celebrating her inevitable promotion come dinnertime. She grinned at the thought, and her worries about her love life eased.
Piers helped her into her jacket, then pulled some bills from his wallet. When he frowned, Rachel knew he was calculating the seventeen-and-a-half percent tip he liked to leave.
Shouldn't he be tossing money onto the table willy-nilly, in his haste to get out of here and into her bed?
Rachel turned away. And once again met Garrett Calder's gaze. His scowl had gone. He raised his glass to her in a toast that was intended to be ironic, if the tiny, mocking curve to his lips was anything to go by.
What was that about? She didn't know Garrett wellno one didbut he always managed to unsettle her, even when she was at her most together. Not because of the stupid nickname they gave him in the office: The Shark. That little piece of hyperbole didn't bother her at all. What disturbed her was the blend of intelligence and aloofness in his eyes, the suggestion that he knew everything and he didn't give a damn.
Now he looked as if he knew exactly what had just transpired between her and Piers. Knew they were headed to her bed.
She willed the sudden heat in her cheeks to subside. There was no way Garrett could have overheard their conversation. None.
At last, Piers wedged some neatly folded bills beneath the pepper grinder, and they could leave. The bar's layout and teeming Thursday night crowd meant they had to walk past Garrett. As she drew level with him, she gave him a polite nod.
"Let it go, Rachel," he said.
She stopped, unsure if she'd heard him correctly over the hubbub of reveling office workers. "Excuse me?"
Piers bumped into her, jolting her toward Garrett. Who leaned back against the bar, as if he didn't want her in his space.
"Begging never works," he said, his enunciation careful and unfortunately crystal clear to both her and, she was certain, Piers.
Her heart lurched in her chest. Mortification and fear.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she said. "You're drunk."
An exaggeration, maybe, but he sure wasn't sober. The bottle next to him was empty.
"Who is this guy?" Piers asked.
"No one. A colleague." She tugged the lapels of her jacket together, because Garrett's eyes were definitely straying in that direction. Maybe, when she got her promotion, she could fire him.
The delightful fantasy didn't last more than a moment. Garrett was too good at his job. Which was how he got away with acting like a jerk.
The bartender removed Garrett's empty Dom Perignon bottle and began peeling the foil from around the cork of a second bottle.
"Oh, look, Garrett, your date's arrived," Rachel said. "Let's go, honey."
Piers looked startled at the endearment, but he took her elbow.
"Just so you know," Garrett said, "offering a guy sex so he won't break up with you smacks of desperation." The bartender paused in his loosening of the wire cage around the champagne cork and looked Rachel up and down. Was it her imagination, or did he register the black bra and give her a knowing look? Piers let go of her.
"Whatever's driving you to drink alone, Garrett" her voice shook "keep it to yourself." That was the way he usually operated. Could he have picked a worse time to attempt something resembling a conversation?
"Sleep with him, by all means," Garrett said, with a generous, alcohol-fueled sweep of his arm toward Piers. "Though, personally, I think you could get a guy with more hair."
Piers's hand went protectively to his head.
"But whatever you do, do it on your terms," Garrett said. "Not his."
"Uh, Rachel, I'm going to take a rain check," Piers said. "My early meeting " He kissed her cheekwere his lips always that dry?and was gone.
"Wait!" she called.
The champagne cork popped; the barman poured the first gush of frothing liquid into Garrett's glass.
Garrett picked up the glass and raised it, once again, to Rachel. "You'll thank me in the morning."