Ethan and I made plans to hang out on Tuesday. Ethan suggested he bring Chinese food and I bring the “right mood.” I tried to muster every ounce of excitement for our evening plans while I was at work.
I found a romantic-songs playlist on iTunes, shoved my AirPods on, and bobbed my head to some Peter Gabriel and Snow Patrol. I planned on putting on soft music on my old record player, maybe scattering some flowers around the house.
I was working on my drawing board, outlining a simple dress for our Mother of the Bride fall collection (I hated working on this collection; it was a painful reminder I didn’t have a mother), when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I turned around, fully prepared to see a DoorDash delivery guy holding a paper bag with my lunch. Or maybe Nina scowling at me and telling me to keep the music down on my AirPods. But I nearly fell off my stool when I saw Katie Black standing in front of me, waving at me with an apologetic smile.
“Hi!” I said too loudly, wobbling up to my feet. Flustered didn’t begin to cover what I was feeling. Technically, I could see why she’d be here. She thought we were soon to be sisters-in-law. In practice, I knew my colleagues were going to ask a lot of questions if they saw us together. Namely, Nina, who was already peeking over her shoulder, trying to figure out what Katie freaking Black was doing talking to me.
I’d managed to keep my six-month relationship with Chase a complete secret while we were dating. Knew people would have a field day if they knew I was sleeping with the billionaire from the top floor. The one who owned the department store that kept our business alive. The irony of getting caught dating a man I hadn’t really dated six months after we’d broken up wasn’t lost on me.
“Hi. Hello. Hola.” Katie waved again, her blush deepening. “Hope I’m not interrupting anything. I thought . . . well, I normally take my lunch at the office, but one of my meetings got canceled, and I thought it’d be a good idea if you and I maybe spent some time together. You know, just so . . .” She trailed off, looking at the ceiling and chuckling to herself, mortified.
“Yes!” I said too brightly, eager to get her out of the studio, fast. I patted my chair for my jacket before remembering it was a thousand degrees outside and I hadn’t brought one with me this morning. I dragged her to the elevators. Physically pushed her in their direction. “What a great idea. I’m starving. Where do you want to eat?”
“La Table?” She stared at me with a mixture of surprise and worry, hoisting her Balmain bag over her shoulder. La Table was a $300-per-plate, fixed-price French restaurant under our building. It was reservations only (unless your last name was Black or Murdoch), which meant that I was in no risk of bumping into any of my colleagues. It also meant I was going to shell out enough money to pay a whole week’s rent because of Chase’s stupid lie, but as with Daisy’s vet, I was fully prepared to send him the bill for this.
The elevator slid open, and Sven appeared. He looked at me in question.
“Hi. No questions, please. Bye.” I all but shoved Katie inside while he stepped outside. Katie opened her mouth to ask me what was going on, but I beat her to it.
“So how was the marathon?” I asked cheerfully.
“Half marathon,” she corrected (she and Ethan would get along; I inwardly smiled). “And it was really good, actually. I had fun, and we raised a lot of money for charity. I’m sure Chase told you he donated three hundred thousand dollars to sponsor me.”
I almost choked on my saliva. He’d done that? I had no idea. I always thought Chase would be the kind of guy to support the cause of burning down rain forests and wearing fur. He seemed so infuriatingly soulless. Even when we’d been together, there was a shell of something dark, made out of steel and misanthropy, I couldn’t quite get past. I nodded dutifully, still playing my role as a fiancée.
“Sure. Yes. Totally.”
One affirmative is enough, Maddie.
We got out of the elevator. I asked her how Ronan was doing (not good), then complimented her on completing the half marathon. She told me she was planning on running a full marathon next year. Then asked why I wasn’t wearing my engagement ring.
“I’d really prefer not to make a big deal out of it.” I felt myself blushing. I mean, that, and the fact I wasn’t actually engaged to her brother. Take your pick. Panic alarms rang through my body. It felt so completely, unbelievably shitty to lie.
“Why? He’s not technically your boss. You know that, right?”
“I do, I do.” I wasn’t worried Chase would fire or demote me. I was worried he’d detonate my heart into miniscule pieces. “I still think it might rub people the wrong way, you know? Just because it’s a sister company and I don’t report to Chase doesn’t mean that it smells kosher.”
“Hmm,” Katie replied. It was a good time to change the subject before my head exploded from overblushing.
“I really like your dress,” I chirped. It was a brown knee-length number. Stern but really elegant.
Katie let out a surprised laugh. “I dress horribly. I want to blend in with everything.”
“Why?” I wondered. Obviously, I had the exact opposite problem.
“Because I don’t like to be seen. It’s a part of my anxiety problem. I don’t have the same confidence Julian and Chase seem to have been born with. I always think to myself, the first thing people see when they meet me is that I come from money and my dad gave me a kick-ass job because he had to.”
“He wouldn’t keep you if you sucked. I know that much about Ronan.” I shook my head as we strolled out of the building. “And confidence is like a house. You build it brick by brick. Each brick may seem insignificant, but when you take a step back after a while, you realize you’ve made a lot of progress.” Mom told me that. “Dressing confidently is the first step.”
“We should go shopping together sometime. You can help me out,” Katie suggested, biting down on her lip as we entered the restaurant. I was about to answer when the maître d’ greeted us, seating us at a prime table by the window. Mistaking my silence for rejection, Katie cast her eyes down at her menu, her shaky fingers fluttering over her neck.
“I would love that, Katie,” I said. “Although I’m not sure your brother is going to approve. He always taunts me about my clothes.”