CHAPTER SIXTEEN

BOB STARED AT CARTER ACROSS THE TABLE IN COFFEE Talk, his eyes glazed, his jaw slack. “Holy shit.”

“She didn’t answer the phone. After I finally got Corrine out of the house, I called. Her house—both lines—her cell. She wouldn’t answer. I thought about just going over, but if she didn’t answer the phone . . . She thought I’d—She shouldn’t have thought that, but given the situation at the time, I can’t blame her. Not really.” He brooded into his green tea. “I need to explain. Obviously I need to explain. But I’m out of my depth here. I don’t know where to start.”

“You have two women after you. Two. Man, Carter, you’re a dog. You’re the big dog.”

“For God’s sake, Bob, you’re completely missing the point.”

“Not me, pal.” The slack jaw had morphed into a grin of pure admiration. “The point is two hot chicks got it for you. Plus, I heard you had a thing going with Parker Brown. A trio of hot.”

“I—

What? Who . . . No. Where did that come from?”

“You were cozy right here at the Talk the other night. At the Talk, people talk.”

“God, when did this turn into a soap opera? We had coffee, and talked about Mackensie. We’re friends. Just. Only. Hardly even that really.”

“That’s good.” Bob issued his wise nod. “Because I was going to tell you that, man, you

never date girlfriends. It’s not only not cool, but it’s lethal. They’ll rip you up, then go shopping together.”

“That’s good to know, Bob.” Carter watched the sarcasm float harmlessly over Bob’s head. “But I’m not dating Parker. And since when can’t a man and a woman have coffee—tea—together in a public place without . . . Never mind.” As he felt a headache coming on, Carter let it go. “It just doesn’t matter.”

“Right. Back on topic. Two hot chicks squaring off over the Cartman. I bet if the redhead had come in, you’d have had a chick fight. Chicks fighting over you, Carter.” Bob’s eyes went bright with fantasy. “You’re the big, bad dog.”

“I don’t want to be the dog.” There was a reason he’d kept the incident to himself through the workday. But what madness had overtaken him to make him believe he could get reasonable advice out of Bob anywhere, anytime? “Try to stay with me on this, Bob.”

“I’m trying, but I keep getting flashes of the girl fight. You know, with the rolling around on the floor and ripping each other’s clothes.” Bob lifted his skinny cinnamon latte. “It’s pretty vivid.”

“There was no fight.”

“There could have been. Okay, so you don’t want to try juggling the two of them. Me, I think you’ve got the skills for it, but I’m sensing you want me to help you figure out which one to pick.”

“No. No. No.” Carter dropped his head in his hands. “They’re not ties, Bob. This is not a comparison study. I’m in love with Mackensie.”

“Seriously? Well, hey, you never said you had the Big L for her. I thought you just had a thing.” Rubbing his chin, Bob sat back. “This is a different equation. How pissed off was she?”

“Take a guess, then double it.”

Bob nodded wisely. “Beyond the taking her flowers and apologizing. You’ve got to get your foot in the door first, that’s the thing. Something like this, when you’re the innocent party . . . You are an innocent party, right?”

“Bob.”

“Okay. You’re going to have to let her kick your ass first, that’s my advice.” Considering, Bob sipped his latte. “Then you’ve got to tell her how you’re innocent. Then you’ve got to beg. You’re going to want to top it off with something that sparkles in a case like this.”

“Jewelry? A bribe?”

“You don’t look at it like a bribe. It’s an

apology. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t do anything, Carter. It never does. You want this to go away, get things back, get her back and have sex with her again in this decade, you spring for something shiny. It’s coming up on Valentine’s Day anyway.”

“That’s shallow and manipulative.”

“Damn right.”

Carter laughed. “I’ll keep the something shiny as a backup plan. But I think you’re right about the rest. Especially letting her kick my ass first. It looked bad. It looked very bad.”

“Did you take the brunette for a tumble?”

“No. God.”

“Then you’re a righteous man. Remember that. You’re a righteous man, Carter. But you’re also the big, bad dog. I’m proud to know you.”

IN HER STUDIO, MAC FINISHED A SET OF PROOFS. SHE BOXED them for the client, along with a price sheet, her business card, and a list of options.

She glanced at the phone and congratulated herself for having the spine

not to return Carter’s calls. Maybe Corrine had been playing games. Probably she’d been playing games. But he’d still been on the field.

It would take more than a couple of apologetic phone calls to make up for that. Besides, if he hadn’t done anything, what was he apologizing for?

Didn’t matter, she reminded herself.

She was going to reward herself for a productive day with a bubble bath, a glass of wine, and an evening of popcorn and TV. An action movie, she decided. Where lots of things blew up, and there was absolutely not the slightest whiff of romance.

She set her completed work in a Vows shopping bag for delivery, then whirled around as she heard her door open.

Linda, in full, spitting rage, stormed in. “How dare you? How dare you have my car towed to some second-rate garage? Do you know they expected me to pay two hundred dollars to release it? You’d better write me a check right this minute.”

Okay, Mac thought, there’s the bell for this round. And for once, I’m ready. “Not on your life. Give me my keys.”

“I’ll give you your keys when you give me my two hundred dollars.”

Mac stepped forward, grabbed her mother’s purse, and emptied the contents on the floor. Linda’s utter shock gave Mac time to crouch down, shove through the debris, and pocket her keys.

“How—”

“Dare I?” Mac said coolly. “I dare because you borrowed my car on Sunday, because you didn’t return it, or my calls, for five days. I dare because I’m finished being used and abused. Believe me when I say I’m finished. I’m done. This stops now.”

“It

snowed. You could hardly expect me to risk driving home from New York in a snowstorm. I could have had an accident. I could have—”

“Called,” Mac interrupted. “But leaving that aside, there was no storm; there was a dusting. Less than a quarter of an inch. That was Sunday.”

“Ari wouldn’t hear of me driving home. He invited me to stay over, so I did.” She shrugged it off. “We spent a few days together. We went shopping, to the theater. Why shouldn’t I have a life?”

“You’re welcome to one. Have it somewhere else.”

“Oh, don’t be such a baby, Mackensie. I left you my car.”

“You left me a car I couldn’t use, even if you’d bothered to also include the goddamn keys.”

“An oversight. You pushed me out the door so fast that day, it’s no wonder I didn’t remember. Don’t swear at me.” She burst into tears, lovely drops spilling copiously out of shattered blue eyes. “How can you treat me this way? How can you begrudge me a chance for happiness?”

It won’t work, Mac told herself even as her stomach cramped. Not this time. “You know I used to ask myself those questions, reversing the you and me. I’ve never been able to find the answer.”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m in

love. You don’t know what it’s like to feel this way about someone. How it takes over everything else so it’s only the two of you. It was just a car, Mackensie.”

“It was just

my car.”

“Look what you did to mine!” Even with tears still gleaming on her cheeks, the outrage came through. “You had it towed to that—that grease pit. And that horrible man is holding it hostage.”

“So pay the ransom,” Mac suggested.

“I don’t know how you can be this mean to me. It’s because you never let yourself feel. You take pictures of feelings, you don’t have them. Now you’re punishing me because I do.”

“Okay.” Mac crouched again, scooped, shoved, pushed the scattered contents on the floor back into her mother’s bag. “I have no feelings. I’m a horrible daughter. And in that vein, I want you to leave. I want you to go.”

“I need the money for my car.”

“You’re not getting it from me.”

“But . . . you have to—”

“No.” She shoved the bag into Linda’s hand. “That’s the thing, Mom. I don’t have to. And I’m not going to. Your problem, you fix it.”

Linda’s lip trembled, her chin quivered. Not manipulation, Mac thought, not entirely. She felt what she felt, after all. And believed herself the victim.

“How am I going to get home?”

Mac picked up the phone. “I’ll call you a cab.”

“You’re not my daughter.”

“You know, the sad thing for both of us is I am.”

“I’ll wait outside. In the cold. I’m not going to stand in the same room with you for another minute.”

“They’ll pick you up in front of the main house.” Mac turned away, shut her eyes as she heard the door slam. “Yes, I need a cab at the Brown Estate. As quickly as possible.”

With her stomach in ugly knots, Mac walked over and locked her door. She’d need to add aspirin to that post-workday relaxation plan, she thought. A whole bottle ought to just about do it. Maybe she’d take the aspirin and lie down in a dark room, try to sleep off the feelings she apparently didn’t have.

She took the aspirin first, washed it down with a full glass of icy water to try to soothe the rawness in her throat. Then she simply sat down on the kitchen floor.

That was far enough.

She’d sit there until her knees stopped shaking, until her head stopped throbbing. Until the urge to burst into wild tears passed.

When the phone rang, she reached up, managed to grab it from the counter. She read the ID, answered Parker. “I’m all right.”

“I’m here.”

“I know. Thanks. But I’m all right. I called her a cab. It’ll be here in another couple minutes. Don’t let her in.”

“All right. I’m here,” she repeated. “Whatever you need.”

“Parker? She’s never going to change, so I have to. I didn’t know it would be so painful. I thought it would feel good, good and satisfying. Maybe with a little triumphant thrown in. But it doesn’t. It feels awful.”

“You wouldn’t be you if it didn’t hurt. You did the right thing, if that helps. The right thing for you. And Linda will bounce. You know she will.”

“I want to be mad.” Weary and weepy, Mac pressed her face into her updrawn knees. “It’s so much easier when I’m mad at her. Why does this break my heart?”

“She’s your mother. Nothing changes that. You’re miserable when you let her use you, too.”

“This is worse. But you’ve got a point.”

“The cab’s here. She’s going.”

“Okay.” Mac closed her eyes again. “I’m all right. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“Call if you need me before.”

“I will. Thanks.”

SHE COULDN’T WORK UP THE ENTHUSIASM FOR BUBBLES AND candles and wine, but took the hot bath. She put on her oldest flannel pants, a soft comfort. She no longer wanted sleep and thought drudgery might be an answer. She’d clean her bedroom, organize her closet, her dresser, scrub the bathroom for good measure.

It was way past time for household chores and it would keep her busy for hours. Possibly days. Best of all, it was a cleansing, she decided, a symbolic act to go along with her stand with Linda.

Out with the old, in with the new. And everything fresh and ordered when the task was done. Her new life order.

She opened her closet, puffed out her cheeks, expelled a balloon of air. The only way to approach it, she decided, was the way they did it on the improvement shows on TV. Haul it out, sort, toss.

Maybe she could just burn everything and start over. Burning bridges seemed to be her current theme anyway. Squaring her shoulders, she grabbed an armload, tossed it on the bed. By the third load she asked herself why she needed so many clothes. It was a sickness, that’s what it was. No one person needed fifteen white shirts.

Fifty percent, she decided. That would be her goal. To purge out fifty percent of her wardrobe. And she’d buy those nice padded hangers. Color coordinated. And the clear, stackable shoe boxes. Like Parker.

When the contents of her closet lay heaped on her bed, on her sofa, she stood a little wild-eyed. Shouldn’t she have bought the hangers, the boxes first? And one of those closet organizer kits. Drawer dividers. Now all she had was a big, terrible mess and no place to sleep.

“Why, why in God’s name can I run a business,

be a business, and not be able to cope with my own life? This is your life, Mackensie Elliot. Big heaps of stuff you don’t know what to do with.”

She would fix it. Change it. Deal with it. God, she’d kicked her own mother out of the house, surely she could deal with clothes and shoes and handbags. She’d cut down on the clutter in her life, in her head. Minimalize, she decided.

She’d go Zen.

Her home, her life, her damn closet would be a place of peace and tranquility. In clear plastic shoe boxes.

Starting now. Today was a new day, a new start, and a new, tougher, smarter, more formidable Mackensie Elliot. She went downstairs for a box of Hefty bags with a gleam in her eye.

The knock on the door struck her with such profound relief she actually shuddered. Parker, she thought. Thank God. What she needed now were the superpowers of Organizer Girl.

Eyes crazed, hair sticking up in spikes, she wrenched open the door. “Parker—oh. Oh. Of course. Perfect.”

“You wouldn’t answer your phone. I know you’re upset,” Carter continued. “If you’d just let me come in, just for a few minutes, to explain.”

“Sure.” She threw up her hands. “Why not. It just caps it off. Let’s have a drink.”

“I don’t want a drink.”

“Right. Driving.” She waved her hands in the air as she stomped toward the kitchen. “I’m not driving.” She slapped a bottle of wine on the counter, got out a corkscrew. “What? No date tonight?”

“Mackensie.”

Somehow, she thought as she attacked the cork, he managed to make her name an apology, and a mild scold. The guy had skills.

“I know how it might have looked. Probably looked. How it looked.” He stepped to the other side of the counter. “But it wasn’t. Corrine . . . Let me do that,” he said as she struggled with the cork.

She simply shot a finger at him.

“She just dropped by. Came over.”

“Let me tell you something.” She braced the bottle between her knees, raging as she yanked on the corkscrew. “Just because we had a fight, just because I felt I needed to set some reasonable boundaries, doesn’t mean you get to entertain your mysterious, sexy ex five minutes later.”

“I wasn’t. She isn’t. Damn it,” he growled, and reached down to grab the bottle from her just as she managed to release the cork.

Her fist caught him square on the chin. The force knocked him back a full step.

“Feel better now?”

“I didn’t mean . . . Your face got in the way.” Setting the wine on the counter, she pressed her hand to her mouth to muffle the sudden laughter she feared might reach toward hysteria. “Oh God, it just gets more ridiculous.”

“Can we sit down?”

She shook her head, walked to the window. “I don’t sit down when I’m worked up. I don’t have calm, reasonable discussions.”

“So you think the second part is news to me? You left. You just ran off without giving me the chance to explain the situation.”

“Here’s one level. You’re a free agent. We didn’t agree, or even discuss, exclusivity.”

“I assumed it was understood. We’re sleeping together. Whatever the boundaries you may want, I’m with you. Only you. I expect the same. If that makes me traditional and priggish, it can’t be helped.”

She turned back to him. “Priggish. Not a term you hear every day. And it doesn’t, Carter. It doesn’t make you priggish. It makes you decent. I’m trying to tell you that, on one level, I had absolutely no right to be upset. But that level is mostly bullshit. The other level is we had a disagreement, and when I came over to try to work it out with you, you were with her.”

“I wasn’t with her. She was there.”

“She was there. You were pouring her wine. You gave her my wine.”

“I didn’t give her your wine.”

“Well, that’s something.”

“I didn’t give her any wine. There was no wine involved. I told her she had to go. I made her cry.” Remembering, he rubbed the back of his neck. “I sent her away in tears, and you wouldn’t answer your phone. If you’d only waited, if you’d come in, given me a chance—”

“You made polite introductions.”

He stopped, frowned at her. “I . . . yes.”

“I nearly beat you to death with the damn bottle of wine for that. Oh, hello, Mac, this is the woman I lived with for nearly a damn year who I’m so careful to tell you as little as possible about. And she’s standing there with her cleavage and perfect hair purring to you about pouring her a nice glass of the wine the idiot brought over.”

“I—”

“Not to mention the fact that we’d already met just a couple hours before in the shoe department at Nordstrom.”

“Who? What? When?”

“Your mutual friend what’s-her-name already made the introductions while she and your ex were in

my shoe department during

my shoe therapy session.”

Even the thought of it had Mac hitting the red zone. “And her with her damn red peep-toe pumps and single sarcastically lifted eyebrow as she checks

me out. And smirks.” She jabbed a finger at him. “

Smirks with her perfectly sculpted lips. But I let it go, screw her and her attitude. I was going to buy my fabulous blue boots, and the adorable silver slingbacks, a really good bottle of wine to take to your place—after I stopped by the MAC counter for a new eyeliner, and got buffed up a little because I wanted to look good when I went to see you. Especially after I got a load of her. Then there was this great DKNY jacket, and cashmere was on sale. Which is why I’m going Zen. Well, that’s partially because of the tow truck and emotional turmoil, but that’s the root of it.”

Shell-shocked, Carter let out a long breath. “I’ve changed my mind. Could I have a glass of wine?”

“And I don’t know how you could think for one minute that I’d stick around,” she continued as she reached for a wineglass. “What? You expect me to go head-to-head with her. Have a slugfest?”

“No, that was Bob.”

“If you’d had possession of the single brain men seem to pass around among them, you’d have introduced me to her—as the woman you’re involved with. Not like I was just some delivery girl.”

“You’re absolutely right. I mishandled it. My only excuse is I was completely out of my depth. Everything was confused and inexplicable, and I’d burned the grilled cheese sandwich.”

“You made her a

sandwich?”

“No. No. I made myself a sandwich. Or I was making one when she came over, and I forgot I had the pan on the stove because she . . .” As it occurred to him mentioning what happened between Corrine’s arrival and the burned sandwich wasn’t a particularly good idea, he took a long drink of wine. “Interrupted. In any case, do I understand you ran into Corrine and Stephanie Gorden while you were shopping?”

“That’s what I said.”

“Somewhere in there,” he mumbled. “I see. That certainly explains . . .” Boggy ground again, he realized. “Can I just say, bottom line, I didn’t want her there. I wanted you. I want you. I’m in love with you.”

“Don’t pull out the love area when I’m having a crisis. Do you want to make me more crazed?”

“Is that actually possible? But no, I really don’t.”

“She had on seduction wear.”

“I’m sorry? What?”

“Don’t think I don’t know why she ‘dropped by.’ She takes a look at me and thinks,

pfft, as if I can’t outgun that one, puts on the seduction wear and comes over. She came on to you, don’t deny it.”

His shoulders wanted to hunch. He had to make a genuine and physical effort to straighten them. “I was making a sandwich. Doesn’t that count for anything? I was making a sandwich and thinking about you. How could I possibly expect or prepare for her to come over and kiss me?”

“She

kissed you?”

“Oh God. I should’ve bought the shiny thing. She just—it all caught me off guard.”

“And you got a really big stick to defend yourself from her unwelcome advances?”

“I didn’t—Are you jealous? Seriously jealous over this?”

She folded her arms. “Apparently. And don’t take that as a compliment.”

“Sorry, I can’t seem to help it.” He smiled. “She means nothing to me. I thought of you the whole time.”

“Very funny.” She picked up his wine, took a sip. “She’s beautiful.”

“Yes, she is.”

She seared him with a glance. “Do you know nothing? Do you need Bob’s list to tell you you’re supposed to say something like she’s nothing compared to you?”

“She’s not. She never was.”

“Please. Bee-stung lipped, sloe-eyed D cup.” She took another sip, pushed the wine back to him. “I know it’s shallow for me to hate her for her looks, but I don’t have much else. And they’re a lot. I get she caught you off guard. But the fact is, Carter, she blindsided me. Both times. All I know is you had a serious, live-together relationship with this woman, and she broke it off. You didn’t, she did. You loved her, and she hurt you.”

“I didn’t love her. And the hurt? I suppose it’s relative to the circumstances. I realize I’ve made this more complicated, and more important, because I’ve avoided talking about it. It’s not my finest hour. I met her at a party at the Gordens. The mutual friends. I hadn’t been back long, just a few months. We started seeing each other, casually at first. Then, ah, more seriously.”

“You started sleeping together. I’m on to your semantics, Professor.”

“Hmmm. She thought I’d eventually go back to Yale, and couldn’t understand why I wanted to teach here, to be here. But that was a small, subtle thing initially. Living together just, well, it just sort of happened.”

“How does that just sort of happen?”

“She was moving to a new place. A bigger apartment. Something fell through there, I can’t remember the details. Exactly. But she’d already given notice where she lived, and had to move out. I had all that room, and it was only going to be for a few weeks, maybe a month. Until she found another place. And somehow . . .”

“She never found another place.”

“I let it happen. It was nice, having someone there to have dinner with, or go out to dinner with. We went out to dinner quite a bit now that I think about it. I liked the company, having someone to come home to. The regular sex. And apparently I do need Cyrano.”

“Everyone likes regular sex.”

“I thought about asking her to marry me. Then I realized I was thinking about it because it was expected. Everyone just assumed . . . Then I felt guilty because I didn’t want to ask her to marry me. I was living with her, sleeping with her, paying the bills, doing—”

Like a traffic cop, Mac threw up her hand. “You paid her bills?”

He shrugged. “Initially she was trying to save for her own place, then . . . It got to be a habit. What I mean to say is we were living together very much like a married couple, and I didn’t love her. I wanted to. She must have felt it, and I could see she wasn’t completely happy. She went out more. Why should she be stuck at home when I was buried in books and papers? She realized I wasn’t going to be what she wanted, or give her what she wanted, so she found someone else.”

He stared at the wineglass on the counter. “I might not have loved her, but it’s painful, and it’s humiliating to be cast off for someone else. To be cheated on. She had an affair, to which I was oblivious. Which I wouldn’t have been, admittedly, if I’d been paying more attention to her. She left me for him, and while it was hurtful, and embarrassing, it was also a relief.”

Mac took a moment to absorb. “Let me just sum all that up, take it down to its basic formula. Because it’s one I know very well. She maneuvered you into providing her with housing—for which she paid nothing.”

“I could hardly ask her for rent.”

“She shared none of the household expenses, and in fact sweet-talked you into fronting her for her expenses. You probably lent her cash from time to time. You’ll never see that again. You bought her things—clothes, jewelry. If you balked, she used tears or sex to smooth that out and get what she was after.”

“Well, I suppose, but—”

“Let me finish it out. When she got tired of it, or saw something shinier, she lied, cheated, betrayed, then laid it all out as your fault for not caring enough. Would that be about right?”

“Yes, but it doesn’t factor in—”

Mac held up her hand again. “She’s Linda. She’s . . . Corrinda. She’s the same model as my mother, just a younger version. I’ve lived my entire life in that cycle, except for the sex. And I know it’s easier to see the cycle from outside it. You and me, Carter, we’re a couple of patsies. Worse, we let them convince us we’re at fault for their selfish, demeaning behavior. If I’d known all this I wouldn’t have . . . yes, I would. I’d have reacted exactly the same way because it’s knee-jerk. It’s the Linda factor.”

“That doesn’t erase the fact that I helped create the situation, and let it continue when I didn’t love her.”

“I love my mother. God knows why, but I do. Under the seething resentment, the frustration and rage, I love her. And I know that under the selfish, abusive whininess, she—in her strange Linda way—loves me. Or, at least, I like to think so. But we’ll never have a healthy relationship. We’ll never have what I want. It’s not my fault. Corrinda—as she will now and forever be to me—wasn’t yours.”

“I wish I hadn’t let it hurt you, what happened. I wish I’d handled it better.”

“Next time we run into her, you can introduce me properly as the woman you’re involved with.”

“Are we?” Those quiet blue eyes looked into hers. “Involved?”

“Is that going to be enough? Can you understand I’m trying to deal with the fact my emotional closet is cluttered, disorganized, and messy? That I don’t know how long it might take me to sort it out?”

“I’m in love with you. That doesn’t mean I want you to be with me, stay with me because you think it’s expected. I want to be here when you sort it out, while you sort it out. I want to know it’s truth when you tell me you love me.”

“If I do, if I’m able to say that to you, it’ll be the first time I’ve ever said it to a man. And it’ll be the truth.”

“I know.” He took her hand, kissed it. “I can wait.”

“This has been the strangest week.” She brought their joined hands to her cheek. It felt right, she realized. It felt right to have him there with her. “I think we should go upstairs and finish making up.”

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