One of O, The Oprah Magazine's “22 Romance Novels That Are Set to Be the Best of 2020” and one of Goodreads’s “28 of the Hottest Romances of 2020”
From New York Times bestselling author Lauren Layne, the “queen of witty dialogue” (Rachel Van Dyken, New York Times bestselling author), comes the final installment of the Central Park Pact series, a heartfelt and laugh-out-loud romantic comedy that’s perfect for fans of Sally Thorne and Christina Lauren.
Can guys and girls ever be just friends? According to Audrey Tate and Clarke West, absolutely. After all, they’ve been best friends since childhood without a single romantic entanglement. Clarke is the charming playboy Audrey can always count on, and he knows that the ever-loyal Audrey will never not play along with his strategy for dodging his matchmaking mother—announcing he’s already engaged…to Audrey.
But what starts out as a playful game between two best friends turns into something infinitely more complicated, as just-for-show kisses begin to stir up forbidden feelings. As the faux wedding date looms closer, Audrey and Clarke realize that they can never go back to the way things were, but deep down, do they really want to?
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SATURDAY, JULY 21
Audrey Tate had dreamed about this moment dozens of times. Maybe hundreds.
Standing outside a church? Check.
A little breathless? Definitely.
A bit shaky? Yup.
Her heart pounding as she prepared to walk up the steps and down the aisle toward the man who’d determinedly swept her off her feet and stolen her heart? Absolutely.
But in her dreams, she’d been wearing white. In her dreams, the man she was walking toward hadn’t been someone else’s husband.
In her dreams, he hadn’t been dead.
Audrey felt someone give her arm a comforting squeeze as they passed, and another kissed her cheek. She forced an absent smile, even though she didn’t bother to look at the well-wishers. She was too busy trying to do what they were all doing: walking up those steps to say a final farewell to Brayden Hayes.
Audrey took a deep breath and ordered her right foot to move.
And it did. But not in the way she intended. Before Audrey could think through the consequences, she started walking, not into the church, but away from it. Away from him. Away from his wife.
Away from her dreams.
She barely noticed when she reached Central Park, and when she veered mindlessly to the left, she didn’t register that her four-inch Louboutins were hardly suited for the dirt path.
She angrily wiped away her tears. She’d always been a crier, but this was a whole new level. Her eyes had been in a chronic state of leaking ever since she’d gotten the news.
Brayden was dead. Brayden was married.
Had been married.
Audrey was so focused on trying to get a grip on the warring grief and anger that she didn’t realize what she was inadvertently walking toward. She halted in her tracks, blinking rapidly as she waited for her imagination to get a freaking grip. But no matter how long and hard she stared, the women sitting on the bench were real.
And one was the very woman who’d haunted Audrey’s every waking hour since she’d learned that her boyfriend had drunkenly fallen off his sailboat and drowned.
She blinked again, but there was no doubt about it. Audrey was staring directly at Brayden Hayes’s widow. The other woman, a stunning redhead, was a stranger—maybe vaguely familiar, but Audrey lacked the mental or emotional energy to sort out how or if she knew her.
What do I do?
Audrey’s self-preservation instincts instructed her to run, even as her conscience demanded she do what needed to be done and walk forward. In the end, it wasn’t her decision. As Audrey stood there debating her next move, Claire Hayes turned her head, and though she wore sunglasses, Audrey could feel her gaze boring into her.
She felt her eyes widen. “You know who I am?”
The blond woman gave a short nod. “You’re Audrey Tate. I did a little digging after you called the house that night.” There was a lengthy pause before she spoke again, her voice soft. “I know you were sleeping with my husband.”
The redhead whipped her head toward her companion, then looked back at Audrey. She too was wearing sunglasses, but Audrey sensed she was just as shocked by Claire’s pronouncement.
Brayden’s wife knew.
Audrey let out a hiccupping sob and walked to the bench, sitting down, mainly because she wasn’t sure her shaky legs would support her much longer. She looked at Claire Hayes, and then the words started tumbling out. “I didn’t know,” Audrey pleaded. “I didn’t know until you picked up the phone that night that he was married. I swear to you, he told me his wife had left him, that he was separated... I never would have— You have to believe me. I didn’t know—”
“Oh, honey,” the red-haired woman interrupted, sounding horrified by Audrey’s verbal diarrhea. “You’ve got to get it together.”
Irritation wriggled its way through Audrey’s misery, and she glared at the interloper. “Respectfully, you don’t know the first thing about what’s going on here.”
“Well now, that’s the thing,” the redhead said, looking down at her manicure. “I sort of do.”
Claire jolted in surprise, looking as shocked as Audrey felt. These two women didn’t know each other, Audrey realized. Whatever she’d walked in on, it hadn’t been one friend comforting another, but two strangers.
Claire’s next words confirmed it. “Who are you?” she asked the redhead.
Instead of answering Claire, the redhead studied Audrey, and though she wasn’t usually so bold, this time, she studied her right back. Even with the oversize sunglasses, she could tell the other woman was gorgeous, and not just because of the vibrant red hair. The woman herself was vibrant—seemingly crackling with an energy and confidence that was perfectly suited to the designer dress, flawless makeup, and not-so-tiny diamond studs in her ears that Audrey would bet her favorite Chanel bag on were real. Again, she was struck with the sense that there was something familiar about her...
The redhead pushed her sunglasses on top of her head, her gaze steady on Claire. “I’m Naomi Powell. The other other woman.”
Audrey felt her mouth drop open in surprise, both at the woman’s identity and her bombshell. Brayden Hayes hadn’t just been cheating on his wife with Audrey. He’d also, apparently, been sleeping with one of New York’s most well-known female entrepreneurs. The ultimate girl boss.
Audrey had never been introduced to Naomi Powell personally, but anyone who was anyone in Manhattan recognized the name of the Bronx-born up-and-comer who’d built a wildly successful jewelry empire.
Claire, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have the same recognition. That, or she was too stunned that her husband had been sleeping with two women. Who were now sitting with her on a park bench. On the day of his funeral.
Audrey resisted the urge to giggle at the absurdity of it.
Claire continued to stare at Naomi. “What?”
The redhead sighed. “Your husband was putting his pickle into one too many sandwiches. Well, two too many if you count her.” She jerked her chin toward Audrey.
Audrey did giggle this time, lifting a hand to her forehead, trying to sort out her thoughts. “Did you just compare... pickle... oh my God, sandwiches.”
Claire’s head dropped forward, her chin resting on her chest, and Audrey’s laughter faded, replaced by shame. What kind of woman laughed when a funeral was happening just a few blocks away from where she sat beside the widow? Instinctively, she started to reach for Claire’s hand, but she stopped when she realized that Audrey was probably the last person Claire wanted to comfort her.
Well, it was a tie, perhaps, Audrey thought with a quick glance at Naomi. There were, after all, two other women.
Naomi looked as alarmed as Audrey felt when she realized Claire’s shoulders were shaking, not with silent sobs, but amusement. Claire’s head fell back, tilting her face to the sky as she let out an audible laugh.
Good. Good. Not broken then. Just a little cracked.
“I hate to be the one to tell you this,” Audrey told Claire, “but I don’t think he’s up there.”
Naomi let out a startled chuckle, and they exchanged a tentative smile. This had to be one of the weirdest moments of Audrey’s life. Of anyone’s life. And yet somehow it didn’t feel nearly as odd as it should have.
“Shouldn’t we be at the funeral?” Claire asked quietly, still looking at the sky.
“Nah,” Naomi said, waving her hand. “I mostly showed up to tell God not to allow that one through the pearly gates, and as Audrey pointed out, I think He probably already figured that one out.”
“I never thought I’d be here,” Claire said, sounding exhausted. Audrey wondered if Claire’s nights had been as sleepless as her own. The way Claire’s fingers lifted to her temples confirmed that she was definitely suffering the same grief-induced headaches as Audrey.
Or perhaps they were anger-induced headaches. Truth be told, Audrey was still trying to figure out how she felt. She grieved. Obviously. A man had died. A man she loved had died, and far too young.
And yet. If she were really honest with herself, she was mad, too. At Brayden, for the lies, obviously. But also at herself. So angry at herself.
“You mean sitting on a park bench with your husband’s mistresses while his funeral goes down just a couple blocks over?” Naomi asked.
Claire laughed, oblivious to Audrey’s turmoil beside her. “Yes. That. I just keep thinking I know I should be sad, but instead all I can think about is how stupid I was, and that’s before I knew there were two of you. How did I not see it?”
“We were just as stupid,” Audrey said, giving in to the urge to comfort this time and setting a hand on Claire’s arm. “He was my boyfriend for a year. I just thought he traveled a lot.”
“Three months,” Naomi said, flicking a manicured finger toward her chest. “He told me most of his business dealings were in Hong Kong and that he had to work most nights. I totally bought it.”
There was a long moment of silence, and Audrey realized that for the first time in a week, something besides anger and guilt was creeping in around the aching numbness. Relief. Relief that she wasn’t totally alone in the jumble of complicated feelings.
There was a strange camaraderie here. She didn’t know how, exactly, but she felt it as purely as she did the New York sunshine beating on the top of her head.
Naomi straightened and turned toward them. “I have a confession.”
Claire’s eyebrows winged up. “Worse than the fact that you were having adult sleepovers with my husband?”
“Who I didn’t know was your husband,” Naomi said, with a correcting finger waggle. “But no, my confession is that while I’m really mad at Brayden, I’m even angrier at myself. For letting him fool me.”
Audrey’s flicker of relief roared to a flame—someone else understood. “Same. I mean, it’s a little more self-loathing than anger, I guess, but... I just can’t stop thinking about how I didn’t see it. And if I didn’t see him being a snake, how will I ever spot another man being a snake?”
Claire glanced down at her lap, staring at her hands. “I’m not worried about it. After all this, I’m pretty dead set on turning into the old lonely lady with cats.”
“Nope,” Naomi said, shaking her head. “We are not going to let him do that to us. I’m not really a long-term relationship girl, but I do like a male companion, and I have no intention of letting Brayden sour me on...”
“Pickles?” Audrey suggested.
“I was going to say sex, but yeah. That, too.”
Audrey forced a smile, but her heart squeezed, and she couldn’t hold back her smile as she spoke the truth. “But I am the long-term relationship girl. I want the ring and the babies and the—”
“Please don’t say white picket fence.”
“Oh God no,” Audrey said, her head snapping back. She pointed down at her stilettos. “These red soles are meant for Fifth Ave., not the burbs. But I still want the fairy tale, and I just...” She swallowed. “It’s harder to believe these days.”
“So let me get this straight,” Naomi said, looking first at Claire. “You’re going to turn into a cat lady, and you’re giving up your Disney princess dreams,” she said, turning toward Audrey. “All because of a guy.”
Put that way, it did sound... ridiculous. She flicked a glance at Claire, who was watching her, the same look of contemplation on her face.
Naomi pressed on. “Ladies, I know we just met, but let’s face it, we have the same shoes and we were screwed over by the same guy, so as far as I’m concerned, we leapfrogged a few steps in the female-bonding process.”
“Perfect, I’ll invite you over for a slumber party,” Claire said in a cutting tone. She stood, apparently deciding she’d had enough of this. Whatever this was.
“Hold up,” Naomi said, reaching out to stop her. “I’m not suggesting we get matching tattoos, just that we can help each other.”
Audrey was skeptical, but intrigued, and Claire seemed to be as well, because she sat back down. “You want me to help my husband’s mistresses—do what, exactly?”
“We watch each other’s blind spots as it relates to men. Left to our own devices, obviously we’re no good at seeing a guy for who—and what—he really is. But what if we combined forces? Help each other spot another Brayden.”
Audrey pulled her bottom lip between her teeth, running a hand over her hair as she considered the proposition with undisguised skepticism. “Respectfully, I don’t even know you. I get your point, but why would I have two strangers do a gut check on a guy I like instead of my friends?”
Even as she said it, she saw the flaw in her own logic. She had plenty of friends. But none of them had protected her from Brayden. Not even Clarke West, her best friend since childhood, had been able to stop the hurt, and she knew he’d do anything for her. Audrey winced, belatedly realizing that poor Clarke was waiting for her in the church, probably worried about where the hell she was.
Naomi was still pushing her plan. “Because who knows better how to spot another woman getting scammed than three women who just experienced it?”
Damn. It was a good point. A really good point. And the truth was, Audrey didn’t know if she could survive the past week for a second time. She bit her lip and looked at Claire. “You know, I don’t hate this plan?”
Claire wasn’t as sure. Audrey could see it in the way her eyes remained wary, the way she fiddled with her watch as though biding her time until she could politely excuse herself from the situation.
Naomi’s gaze was also locked on Claire’s watch. “Cartier.”
Audrey hadn’t been paying much attention to the watch itself, but she jolted at that. She wasn’t in the accessory business like Naomi, but she knew a Cartier watch.
She knew because she had one at home. Her gaze dropped to the watch. She knew what she’d find, but her heart twisted all the same. They didn’t just both have Cartier watches. They had the same Cartier watch.
Claire looked up at Naomi, her confused gaze indicating she was a step behind Audrey’s realization. Or perhaps, deeper in denial. “Yes. How’d you know?”
Naomi didn’t look away from Claire. “I know designers. I also know that I have the exact same watch at home.”
Claire sucked in a startled breath. “Brayden...?”
“Me, too,” Audrey said, almost inaudibly.
Claire stared down at the watch on her left wrist, and Audrey could feel her caving—understanding what Audrey and Naomi already understood. They needed each other.
Naomi extended her hand. “Hands in, girls, we’re making a pact, high school–style. May neither of you ever fall victim to a cheating bastard again. Not on my watch.”
Audrey didn’t even hesitate in placing her palm on top of Naomi’s hand. “And to helping each other find the right man. That’s on my watch.”
And she meant it. She might not be worthy of a happily ever after, but she was determined that these women would find it. It was the least she could do.
Claire hesitated for a moment longer before slowly resting her hand atop Audrey’s. “Oh, what the hell. I’m in. To no more assholes.”
Audrey felt something click in that moment, feeling a connection that went beyond friendship, a sense that this was a pivotal point of her life. Not Brayden’s death, but what came after.
As they slowly pulled their hands back, Audrey let out a long sigh before glancing across the park in the general direction of the church they’d all ditched. “I guess we should make an appearance, huh?”
Naomi let out a derisive snort and, standing, flicked her sunglasses back onto her nose with a finger. “Screw it. Let’s go shopping.”
“I’m in,” Claire said, also standing. “Let’s stop by Sugarfina on the way and get some ridiculously priced but fabulous gummy candies. Brayden hated gummy candies.”
“Did he?” Naomi said. “I didn’t know that, but hell, let’s buy the whole shop.”
Audrey stood as well, but slower. She’d known. She’d known Brayden hadn’t liked gummy candies. Just like she’d known they’d both loved chocolate. And she knew his smile had been higher on the right than the left and that he didn’t really like black pepper but always asked servers to add it to his food anyway, as though saying no would be an affront to his manhood. She knew his favorite cocktail was a Tito’s martini with a blue cheese olive and that he liked to sleep on the right side of the bed.
She knew everything a wife would know. But she would never be his wife. Or anyone else’s. Not because she’d turned cynical. Audrey still believed in happy endings. She believed in them with her whole heart. She believed that a man and a woman could get married and live happily ever after so long as someone else didn’t come along and ruin that happiness.
Which was exactly what Audrey had done.
She’d thought she’d been living her own fairy tale, but really she’d been the villain in Claire’s. In her quest to find her own Price Charming, she’d been borrowing someone else’s. Maybe even two someone else’s, she realized, with a glance at Naomi.
Audrey silently made another pact, this time with herself. She’d help these other women find a second chance at happiness. She still believed in love. Just not for herself. She wasn’t at all sure she deserved it.