In this powerfully written and insightful novel, author Stacy Robinson explores the consequences of flawed choices, the complex nature of betrayal and forgiveness—and the intriguing possibility of second acts…
Claire Montgomery has a lifetime of sensible decisions behind her. Yet all it takes is one impulsive indiscretion to bring everything crashing down—her marriage to a wealthy entrepreneur, her status as half of one of Denver society’s power couples, and the future she dreamed of for their seventeen-year-old son, Nick.
Claire’s husband, Michael, angrily blames her for the recklessness that has left Nick’s life in the balance, though not nearly as much as Claire blames herself. But as Nick struggles to move forward, Claire too begins inching toward a reimagined future. Along with a fresh perspective come new questions. Are there other reasons for her fractured relationship and Michael’s increasingly erratic behavior? Has he, too, been harboring painful secrets? And does Claire dare to find the real truth, when her seamlessly decorated world of privilege and security is at stake?
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By Stacy Robinson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Stacy Robinson
All rights reserved.
Claire Montgomery took a long sip of chardonnay and arched her head back, savoring the cool liquid slide in her throat. Her eye twitched, and somewhere behind her closed lids a faint throbbing set in. She tried to shake it away and placed her glass on the mahogany partners' desk of the study. The throbbing traveled to her neck. She steadied her hands on the back of a chaise and looked out the window to see the crimson dusk wash over her garden and the distant mountains.
Her arms were tanned from hours planting impatiens and peonies despite Michael's insistence that Rigo, the gardener, lighter of winter fires and sous chef to his wife Maria's efforts in the kitchen, could manage it much better. Her watch read seven thirty, and the carats on her finger flickered in the descending sunlight. In the background Joni Mitchell lamented the paving of paradise. Claire tried humming along, averting her eyes from the clusters of family photos on the bookshelves. But there was no shaking it away. The whole thing was so ridiculous, so unlike her. She reached for the phone to tell him not to come after all.
The doorbell rang, and for a second Claire considered ducking under the desk and cupping her hands over her ears. He'd leave, she'd apologize later. Done. Forget the idea of one stolen hour of Oh my God, I matter again, forget the rush and tingle. But a persistent knocking followed the bell, and her thoughts ricocheted to the night at The Palm—to his voice, his scar. And she could hear the pounding in her chest amplified to full acoustic brilliance.
Taking a deep breath and, for good measure, another healthy slug of the Louis Latour, Claire backed away from the desk and walked out to the foyer. Her capri sandals clapped across the floor and the sweet fragrance of Casablanca lilies filled her nose as she fluffed the arrangement on the table before opening the door.
Andrew Bricker stood under the marble portico. Whistling. She reached out to shake his hand and he leaned in and kissed her cheek, admiring her through his glasses.
"Well, don't you look gorgeous," he said, the corners of his eyes creasing with his smile.
She concentrated on keeping her voice calm, her expression casual—donning all her armor to avoid revealing her inner teenager. "It's nice to see you, too. Been enjoying Denver, I hope?"
She smoothed her summer dress over her hips and showed Andrew into the study, offering him a chair at the desk. The remnants of daylight were still fading outside the windows, and the glow brought an eerie calm to the house. Andrew removed an envelope and fountain pen from his jacket pocket and sat down, grazing Claire's bare shoulder as he did.
"I watched The Thomas Crown Affair last night," he said, uncapping his pen and flashing her the same bedroom smile that had launched her into this unfamiliar territory. "Nice recommendation." He paused. "That staircase scene was a real showstopper."
Claire tried to ignore the reference in a desperate attempt to forestall a fantasy detour to three-alarm movie sex. Instead she focused on Andrew's hand as he began writing a note to Michael. She saw the blue-green of his veins roll with his script and heard the scratch of the pen's silver tip along the paper. Again she felt the peculiar sensation that he was also scratching awake something from deep inside her. As if overcome by an uninhibited and wholly incongruous spirit, Claire placed her fingers on top of Andrew's, and was instantly disrobed of what little armor she had left.CHAPTER 2
Claire had met Andrew Bricker on a pink-sky night the previous week. She'd been downtown finalizing details for the Art Museum gala she was co-chairing—her nine-month, semi full-time, fully unpaid labor of love. And just a few weeks shy of term, all signs were pointing to a record-breaking event. Drawing on her New York and European art world connections, Claire had gathered the exquisite and the exotic for an auction that would be part of the evening's festivities. She'd secured underwriting and matching funds; Harry Connick Jr. would be performing. Denver's art patrons and boldfaced names were in for a spectacular night, and with a last-minute half-million-dollar gift from a certain NFL Hall of Famer and a late rush in table sales, Claire was in the mood for some early celebration.
She gave Maria and Rigo the evening off, then dialed Michael's cell as she paced the cluttered museum office, jotting notes for the volunteers and staff.
"Hell-o," Michael answered, with his usual emphasis on the first syllable.
"Hell-o, yourself. How do you feel about a festive night on the town with your wife?"
"Ah, your little project must be going well."
Claire kept her smile fixed. "Yes, my little project looks like it's going to be a huge success, and I'd love a celebratory cocktail." She punctuated a Post-it note with red exclamation points and placed it on a file folder as she continued. "And maybe a little something else. So whaddya say, honey? Can we sneak off for some fun tonight?"
Michael cleared his throat and laughed in his clipped Bostonian way. "Sounds interesting, but I'm in the middle of a meeting at The Palm, and I'm afraid I've put Mr. Bricker here through the wringer. And I'm not quite finished." He had mentioned Andrew Bricker before. A young VC player in from New York making the investment rounds. Michael's lighthearted tone betrayed a thinly veiled enthusiasm for his guest's business pitch. "Lemme call you back in a few minutes?"
Claire sat on the edge of a desk and massaged the arches of her bare feet, fighting off a sense of deflation, and wistfully contemplating her early days in New York with Michael and the white-hot passion they'd shared then. How he'd jump at the chance for an unexpected rendezvous, and how he had loved to show her off to his colleagues, bragging about her latest projects at Sotheby's and her expertise in a world they didn't understand. But the farther they'd traveled from that time, the more he seemed to have replaced those memories with the weightier issues of business and busy living. She slipped into her slingbacks again and paused to remind herself that there was nothing unique in such marital hills and valleys. She'd had countless conversations with girlfriends about absent, inattentive spouses—especially those whose names regularly appeared in the business section—and she always walked away from those female bonding fests thinking that she and Michael had done it far better than most.
Still, her mind wandered to a recent Sunday morning when they had been lounging in the sunroom, sipping their coffee and reading the New York Times. Michael had pulled out the crossword puzzle and uncapped his pen while she was still in the middle of the Book Review section. They always saved the puzzle for last to work on together, but he'd started without her, as if their history had been etched in her mind alone. She glanced up between reviews to see if he was making any progress. After a brief run, he appeared stymied.
"Italian Renaissance artist, six letters. That's your department, Clarabelle." Michael looked across the ottoman with an exhausted expression, pointing his pen in her direction. "Fourth letter's a t, I think."
"Giotto," she'd replied, swallowing her disappointment and reminding herself that he hadn't been sleeping well, that the snub was likely due to fatigue.
He filled in the boxes with staccato strokes and moved on to the next clue.
Claire watched him for several minutes, willing him to remember them. But his focus remained on the paper, his brow creased in exaggerated concentration. "You know," she offered in a buoyant voice, "it looks like we might bring in a new collection of de Koonings and some other incredible pieces next year."
Michael set the paper aside, appearing slightly less distracted. "What?"
"The gala, it's going to provide some important opportunities—"
Before she could finish he was standing beside her, one finger pressed to her lips while his other hand untied her robe. "You're doing great work, all of you gals at the museum." Artfully he slipped off his pajama bottoms. "Really great, babe. You should be proud."
Sunlight angled through the bamboo shades and jade-and-gold faille drapery, washing them in a warm glow. Michael hit play on the sound-system remote and Claire bolstered herself with the fact that enthusiasm was enthusiasm. She closed her eyes and propped her feet on the ottoman, curved her body into his, and they slipped into the rhythm of their years together, making silent love with her arms wrapped around the small of his back. The rustle of newspaper and the sting of Liza Minnelli's "Maybe This Time" bookended her let's just let it slide slide into sex. Just before Michael was ready to come, Claire grasped his thighs with both hands and pulled him deeper into her. He thrust faster, shuddered, and leaned back on his elbows, their bodies fashioning an unsteady X. She opened her eyes to see that his were still squeezed shut, his mouth frozen in a tight expression—reminding her of the grimacing Phoenician mask she had seen at the Louvre the previous summer. When they untangled, she waited for him to pull on his pajamas, which he did, as always, within seconds of finishing. She laughed silently at his fastidiousness. He sat back down in his chair and wiped at a phantom smear of newsprint from the knee of the paisley pajamas. Shards of violet and indigo bisected his face.
"I spoke to Nicholas yesterday," Claire said, leaning in toward him and pulling her hair away from her damp neck. "He may need you to go with him to Andrisen Morton to pick up a tux for the benefit when he gets back from Andover." She took his foot in her hands and began to massage it. "He's not exactly thrilled about it, but it should be a nice little outing for the two of you."
"Of course he's not thrilled. He's a teenager—seventeen already, Jesus," he'd said with the same odd tinge of distress and disbelief that had been coloring similar oft-repeated remarks since Nick's October birthday. "And teenage boys don't want to attend boring black-tie benefits. Hell, I don't like to attend boring black-tie benefits. They're a waste of chicken." The light had shifted, and the rainbow had moved to the east wall. Michael slid his foot to the floor and stood. "I ... didn't mean your deal, Claire. Just tell me the date and the time." He walked to the foyer muttering seventeen, his head canted and his mind somewhere else, not there.
"I already have."
A staff member peeked into the office and flashed Claire a check for a new Platinum Level table from Carolyn and Robert Spencer. She smiled gratefully, relocating her happy mood. Even with the economy in its dreadful state, her friends were stepping up and supporting the event. She made a few more notes for the auctioneer and telephoned Carolyn to thank her and make lunch plans, while she waited for Michael's call. It came fifteen minutes later.
"Sorry for the delay, babe. Everything okay on your end?"
"Well ... things are good, but could be even better." She adjusted the straps of her shoes and ran her fingers slowly up her calf, waiting.
"Andrew and I were about to order some more drinks and a couple rib eyes," he said, sounding preoccupied.
"Then I guess my hopes for a little celebrating are dashed."
"You could join us if you want," Michael allowed after a short pause.
Claire hopped off the desk and stared out the window overlooking the skyline. "Is that the best you can do?"
"Okaay," he scrabbled. "How about some scintillating con versation and serious red meat to go with your cocktail? And Sabina's waiting on us. I'm sure she'd love to see you."
"Hmm. Two men for the price of one, a juicy steak, and Sabina? I guess that is my best offer of the day. I'll head over."
A fiery sunset hovered above the downtown high-rises, and a wind rustled the branches of the honey locust trees on the Sixteenth Street Mall. She walked to the restaurant, suppressing her chagrin that she'd had to goad her husband into an invitation that once would have come with enthusiasm, and arriving twenty minutes later focused on a triumphant bottom-line gala figure, and a taste for champagne.
As Claire navigated her way to their usual table just below Michael's autographed caricature on the wall, she raised her hand in a small wave to her husband. Michael nodded back and the man who sat beside him turned his head in her direction. His lips parted a fraction, and Claire watched him watch her approach. Behind his off-kilter smile, he appeared to be in his late thirties, a few years shy of her forty-three, and not at all like the rep tie, overgrown frat-boy types Michael often did business with. She noticed his eyes travel from her legs to her silk blouse that shifted over her lace camisole, before resting his gaze on her face. The gesture came as an almost satisfying, welcome surprise. Claire lowered her eyes and smiled toward a table of women coated with the glitz and hope of a girls' night out.
"Hi, babe," Michael said from his seat while craning his face upward to give her a kiss. "Don't you look elegantly exhausted. Busy day?"
She tucked her windblown hair back into place. "Fabulous day, actually." Claire extended her hand to Andrew. "So nice to meet you, Mr. Bricker. Michael's told me about you."
"Good reports, I hope?" Andrew stood with Claire's hand in his and pulled out a chair for her.
He was an inch or two taller than Michael's six feet, with the broad shoulders and slim torso of a swimmer—a butterflyer, Claire imagined. A faint scar rose from the center of his lip to the side of his nose, and his dark, wavy hair and tortoiseshell glasses reminded her of an enthralling Spanish artist she'd worked with in her first New York job. The young Spaniard had suffused his work with a complexity that belied his age, and Claire recalled for an electric instant the monumental self-control it had taken—despite the artist's best efforts—to keep their relationship professional. "Thank you, sir," she said to Andrew with the playful flirtatiousness Michael had once adored.
She ordered a glass of Veuve and surveyed both men. Michael wasn't wearing his usual poker face. He'd loosened his tie and was toasting Andrew, drawing him in. A platter of oysters arrived, a bottle of wine. They talked markets and interest rates, laughed knowingly over encounters with Trump and Larry Ellison, and made more toasts as Michael teased out inside figures and details on the biomedical company Andrew had come to pitch, and Andrew engaged them with a charismatic and cultured wit. The seduction was ramping up, and Claire could see there was an important deal in the offing. Andrew had something Michael wanted. She sipped her champagne appreciatively, enjoying how the evening was stacking up after all.
"So, where in New York did you say you live?" Claire asked Andrew over her petit filet.
"Soho. Just a quick walk to Balthazar." He smiled an intimate, reflective sort of smile. "I have several acquaintances with galleries in the area, which is also nice."
Claire pegged him as a sophisticated player. He was Tom Ford in a town whose tastes ran more toward mountain chic or, like Michael, Brioni suits and Hermes ties. She was amused by the contrast. Michael, always perfect and handsome in his French cuffs and sterling cuff links, his blond hair cut short and neatly groomed with pomade, was a man who took pride in his appearance. Andrew was more of an unmade bed—handsomely disheveled with a bit of scruff on his chin and maybe a tiny smear of lip gloss on his collar. As the wine and conversation flowed she tried to imagine what his acquaintances might look like.
"Do you know Arcadia Fine Arts?" she asked, picturing Greene Street's cobblestones and the exquisitely curated space where she'd first seen the Spaniard's work showcased.
"Sure. They bring in some interesting new artists. Great parties, too. I'm just around the corner."
"Ah. You must live in one of those wonderful cast iron buildings, then?"
Andrew gave her an intrigued nod, poised, it seemed, to walk with her through that neighborhood of her past.
"So," Michael interjected, reinserting himself into the conversation, "you're a big gallery aficionado, Andrew?"
Andrew turned his head toward Michael, but managed to keep his focus on Claire. "I am. Although I like to check in on the Met occasionally, too."
"Oh, this one," he said, glancing sideways at Claire, "is always trying to drag me to some new show or exhibit or some crazy event when we're in town." Michael had drunk enough wine to be careless with his casual mockery.
"Drag you?" Claire tried to remain good-natured about his comment as she slapped his elbow in mock outrage. The water in his glass jumped the rim and dribbled down his wrist, and she saw the controlled surprise of his expression mirror her own. "We've had some of our best afternoons in Manhattan at museums." She dabbed at the water stain with her napkin and tried to smile through her embarrassment.
Excerpted from Surface by Stacy Robinson. Copyright © 2015 Stacy Robinson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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