The Billionaire's Embrace Page 37

It was a sensitive subject, and not one I broached lightly. My mother raised an eyebrow at me and said, “Go ahead.”

“Why did you take him back? After he left,” I said. “What made you do it?”

She sipped her coffee and looked at me over the rim of her cup. “Why are you bringing that up now?”

I couldn’t have said, other than that I had spent the last few months thinking about loss, and my father leaving had been the first time I realized that I wasn’t the center of the universe, that other people had inner lives, and that even the people who were supposed to love me the most would abandon me if it suited them.

I was eleven when my mother discovered that my father had been having an affair for the past two years with a woman in her garden club, the young wife of a plastic surgeon. I still remembered the late-night arguments behind closed doors, after they both thought I had gone to sleep. It ended with my father moving out. He was gone for almost five years, and during that time I saw him on only a handful of occasions. He traveled a lot in those years, working on expanding the business overseas, and he had no time for the adolescent son who missed and needed him.

I never knew what led to my parents’ eventual reconciliation, and I had never asked. I woke up one morning and my father was sitting at the breakfast table, and that was that. It was never discussed, and I did my best to forgive him and put the past behind me, but his absence hurt me deeply. We never regained the closeness we had when I was a child, and even when he was on his deathbed I found that I couldn’t relinquish my resentment.

“I always wondered,” I said. “He was gone, and then he came back, and neither of you ever explained it to me.”

“No,” my mother said. “We didn’t.” She took another sip of coffee. “We probably should have. Carter, there are some things in life, about duty, and loyalty, and turning the other cheek, that are impossible to explain. You’ll have to learn those lessons yourself. Your father and I both made many mistakes. I chose, in the end, to forgive his, and he forgave mine.”

“He left me,” I said, a plaintive whine that broke out of me without permission. I hadn’t intended to say that.

“He left both of us,” my mother said, unsympathetic, and finished her coffee.

That was that. My mother was clearly not going to be a good source of insight into my emotional state. I abandoned that notion and instead took Carolina out for lunch at her favorite Chelsea hotspot. She was happy to accept my invitation, and happy to drink three mimosas and order the most expensive item on the menu.

I would expect no less from Carolina, of course. She was one of two people I considered an actual friend, the other being Elliott, who was currently “finding himself” somewhere in Southeast Asia. I had known the two of them since we were all snot-nosed brats at a tony private school on the Upper East Side. When I was younger, I had a wide and varied circle of companions, but as I grew older I realized that most of them were interested in me only for what I could do for them. One particularly painful incident had led me to cut ties with most of those so-called friends. Carolina and Elliott were the only ones who had stuck with me through thick and thin, wild parties and the hungover aftermaths, terrible breakups, post-adolescent ennui, and everything in between. I trusted that they would never take advantage of me.

Well, Carolina was always willing to take advantage of my credit card, but that was different.

She spent a good quarter of an hour chattering about her latest photoshoot, and then set down her mimosa and said, “Very well, you asked me to lunch for a reason other than to listen to my silly model talk. Out with it.”

There was no point in beating around the bush. “Nelson told me that I seem sad,” I said.

She laughed. “Is that all? Poor Carter, so unaccustomed to having emotions. No, you don’t seem sad. It’s only that you were much happier when you were dating that woman. Nelson is noticing the contrast, I think.” She leaned toward me across the narrow table. “You pretend otherwise, but she obviously meant a great deal to you. But you have mourned long enough, I think.”

“I’m not mourning,” I said. “We were only together for a about a month. It wasn’t serious.”

“Of course,” Carolina said. “Whatever you say. You will go on a date with my friend, then, yes? She is very beautiful, and she just arrived in New York and knows nobody.”

“Except for you, clearly,” I said. This was classic Carolina—she always had a friend who was new in town and needed to be shown the sights.

“Oh, I don’t count,” she said, with an airy wave of her hand. “Say you will take her out. It will be good for both of you. You are far too serious, Carter. Spend less time working and enjoy yourself. Soon you will be too old to have any fun.”

“I’m thirty-one,” I pointed out.

“Yes, exactly,” Carolina said. “Oh, don’t remind me that we’re all in our thirties now. I cannot think of it, I’ll grow wrinkles just from the thought.”

“You don’t look a day over eighteen,” I told her loyally. I was fudging the truth, but only slightly: she was still as fresh-faced and wide-eyed as she’d been in her early twenties.

“What a flatterer,” Carolina said, but she looked pleased. “So my friend—”

“Yes, okay,” I said, succumbing to the inevitable. It was one evening. The worst that could happen was that she would be incredibly boring. And I couldn’t spend the rest of my life feeling sorry for myself. “Fine. I’ll go on a date with her. Are you happy?”

“Immensely,” Carolina said, beaming.

* * *

The girl’s name was Jenna, which sounded suspiciously Middle America for someone Carolina claimed to be friends with. I met her on Friday evening at one of my favorite restaurants in Midtown. I made sure to arrive fifteen minutes early, so that I was seated and had already ordered a bottle of wine by the time the maitre d’ escorted her to the table.

She was, as Carolina had promised, very beautiful: long auburn hair waving loose over her shoulders, a full mouth, high cheekbones. She wore a low-cut dress that revealed ample breasts lightly dusted with freckles. I appreciated a woman who knew how to display her assets to good effect.

I rose as she approached the table, and bent over her hand, very gallant, and kissed her knuckles. She blushed prettily and said, “Am I at the right table?”

Prev Next