eliza is not the new au pair
ELIZA THOMPSON TAPPED LIGHTLY ON the gas pedal of her candy-apple red CLK convertible, zipping around the clunky gray station wagon that had been blocking her way. Didn’t they know better than to putter down the Montauk Highway at five miles below the speed limit? She sighed happily as she cruised along, flashes of bright blue ocean in the distance peeking out through the trees, her rumbling engine the only noise disturbing the crisp June air.
Once she was safely past the offending family-mobile, Eliza patted the steering wheel and tightened the silk Hermès scarf holding back her long, platinum blond hair. With her Chloé sunglasses and her white halter dress, Eliza felt like she’d come straight out of the movie Casablanca. The dress was one of her own designs, inspired by the scene in which Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart explore the Parisian countryside in a convertible not so terribly unlike Eliza’s own.
Eliza loved her new car, but it was also a reminder of how much
things had changed—the car was a guilt present from her parents, who had separated earlier this year. Eliza was in the middle of a studio critique as a first-year student at Parsons when she got the news. She’d been so excited to present her vision for her fall collection: an elaborate fantasy of black satin baby-doll dresses and velvet capes, perfectly in step with the current gothic mood in fashion—but then her cell phone rang just as she was about to go up.
Eliza had flipped open her cell to the deafening roar of hair dryers—her mother was always at the salon—and then proceeded to listen as she rather candidly told Eliza that she was leaving Eliza’s father for a much younger man. Her new trainer at the Reebok gym, to be precise. Eliza had stared at the sewing machines lining the Parsons workroom in a state of total shock. Throughout her dad’s business scandal, his bankruptcy, and then his consequent comeback, her mother had stood by his side, just as stoic as Sienna Miller taking back Jude Law during Nannygate. Eliza had always had her suspicions that as soon as her parents got comfortable again, old (bad) habits would resurface, and here they were. Why did money always have to change everything?
Eliza’s cell phone rang, playing Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack,” and after giving her hips a little jiggle she picked it up. “Hello?”
“Hey, gorgeous. What’s shaking?” Her boyfriend Jeremy Stone’s deep, sexy voice reached her ear.
“Hey, yourself.” Eliza smiled. “And I’m what’s shaking,
actually—I just got a new ringtone and I can’t stop dancing every time someone calls.”
Jeremy laughed into the phone. “Oh yeah? I wish I were there to see it.”
“I wish you were too. But I’ll see you soon enough—I’m on the Montauk Highway right now, less than half an hour from my dad’s house.” She had to mentally remind herself not to say parents’ house—her mom was with her boy toy, sunbathing in Saint-Tropez and Capri for the summer, and she’d left the house in Amagansett entirely to Eliza’s father.
“Really? Think he’ll be there with her?”
Eliza’s father had responded to the news that he was being left by his wife by immediately finding himself a new girlfriend—who just happened to be more than twenty years his junior. Suzy Finnemore was a divorcée who ran an enormously profitable hedge fund and was notorious for her affairs with even more powerful men. While Eliza didn’t relish the idea of spending the next three months with a quasi-stepmother, it would be better than hanging out in the city all by herself. It was already the second week of June and New York was like a ghost town, all the “right people” having absconded to their summer houses around Memorial Day.
“Oh God, don’t remind me.” She rolled her eyes. “I really don’t feel like having to play daughter to some woman who’s not that much older than I am.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it—I’m sure you guys will get along fine.” Jeremy’s voice was consoling. “And besides, you’ll be so busy
with the new store you’ll hardly even be around, you hotshot designer, you.”
“Thanks, J.” Eliza couldn’t suppress her grin. Jeremy always knew the right thing to say. Back at Parsons, she’d recovered from the shock of her parents’ separation, presented her collection, and ended up receiving the highest grade in her design class. She’d been chosen as one of five students to show during Fashion Week in February at the big Bryant Park tents. Buyers from Barneys, Bergdorf’s, and Kirna Zabête had clamored for her childlike yet edgy collection—the Times had described it as Courtney Love meets Wednesday Addams.
Bolstered by their enthusiasm, Eliza had decided it was high time she opened her own store. And since her clothes had been such a huge hit last summer in the Hamptons, what better place to do it? She’d found a tiny little space in an alley just off Main Street across from Scoop and Calypso and had the entire place painted a pale pink—the exact color of the inside of a seashell. Her name would appear in lowercase Arial letters—eliza thompson—on the pink-and-white awning. Just thinking about her little boutique made her heart leap.
She held the phone close to her ear, wishing Jeremy were here so she could kiss him. It was hard to believe they’d already been dating for three years—Eliza skipped over the part when they had taken a break after the first summer due to the long-distance thing. Jeremy, with his warm brown eyes and delicious head of curls, was the sweetest guy she’d ever met. She couldn’t imagine being with anyone else.
“But I really should go—I’m almost here. And I got so distracted talking to you that I think I may have just run over a pigeon.”
Jeremy laughed. “Okay, call me later. Love you, babe.”
Hearing those three sweet words, Eliza sighed. No matter how many times Jeremy said them, it still made her skin tingle.
It was going to be another perfect summer in the Hamptons. Except, of course, for one thing: for the first time since they’d met, Mara wasn’t going to be there. She’d landed some kind of job backpacking through Europe, writing about off-the-beaten-path locales—as in stinky hostels and cheapo pubs. Charming. Eliza thought travel should involve five-star resorts, hot stone massages, piña coladas by the pool, and the occasional hot pool boy—and nothing less. But she knew Mara would love it. And at least Jacqui would be nearby with the Perrys.
Eliza sped along the last stretch of the highway and found herself pulling up to the Thompson estate in Amagansett less than fifteen minutes later. Her parents always called it their “shack” or “the cottage,” even though the house was the size of a fortress. It was a beautiful old place—solid, weathered, sprawling, and distinguished, with none of the grotesque McMansion details or gargantuan proportions that were popping up all over the Hamptons. A stately colonial with a two-story portico, a row of impressive columns, and an antique bronze oil-rubbed lantern over the doorway, the house had been in her mother’s family for years. There was even an authentic Indian tepee in the back, where Eliza had played house as a kid and had first smoked pot as a teen. It was home.
“Dad!” she called, pushing her sunglasses up on her head and scrambling out of the car. “I’m here!”
She was about to unlock the front door when it opened. “Dad?” Eliza stopped short. A man in his late thirties stood there, wearing a white Lacoste shirt, faded Edun jeans, and moccasins—no socks.
“You’re not my dad,” Eliza said stupidly.
“No. But you are definitely a babe.” He extended a hand. “Rupert Thorne. Pleasure’s all mine.”
Eliza kept her hands by her side. “I think there’s been some kind of mistake,” she said hesitantly. “I’m Eliza Thompson.”
“Honey, is it the au pair?” a female voice called from inside.
Rupert’s smarmy leer only deepened. “I certainly hope so.” He winked.
“I’m not the au pair. I live here. Or at least, my family does. During the summer. This is our house.” She ignored the sleazy up-and-down look he gave her and dug her phone out of her purse, speed-dialing her father.
He picked up after about ten rings. “Sweetie! Are you stuck in traffic?”
Eliza could hear the clinking of ice cubes in a glass. It occurred to her that she could always tell which parent was on the line by the background noise—with her mom it was hair dryers, with her dad it was the chink-chink of ice in a glass. “Dad, there are people in our house. What’s going on?”
“Oh, sweetheart, I forgot to tell you. Your mother rented out
the house without telling me.” The sound of ice was now drowned out by a loud clamor and the sound of shrieking. Where was he? “I think it’s payback for selling the yacht in Portofino without telling her. But don’t worry, there’s lots of room at Suzy’s. There are a few extra rooms in the east wing, near the kids.”
Suzy’s? Kids? Eliza frowned. Did that mean those insane whoops in the background were her children? There had been no mention of children before this. Eliza cast a grumpy look at Rupert Thorne, who was still staring at her, practically salivating. She’d so been looking forward to staying in her own room, with her own things, in her own house. This did not sound promising.
“It’s right off Dune Drive,” her father said. “You can’t miss it. It’s the largest one on the block, with all the Greek and Roman statuary out front. Turn left at the Pietà.”
Eliza sighed. She didn’t have much of a choice. She walked back down the steps and toward her car, ignoring Rupert Thorne as he called after her, asking if the au pair wanted to come play house.
* * *
Eliza’s dad was right: she definitely wasn’t in any danger of missing Suzy’s house. If the Thompsons’ “cottage” was the epitome of a Gatsby-like Hamptons past, Suzy’s home was decidedly the Hamptons future. It positively screamed new money, with its elaborate mailbox—an exact replica of the house itself—and a massive roof that made it look like the house was sinking into
the ground under its own weight. Until now, the Reynolds Castle had been the largest and most ostentatious house in the Hamptons, but the Finnemore mega-mansion certainly gave it a run for its money. And Eliza was going to have to call this monstrosity home for the whole summer?
A white-jacketed butler took her bags, and another servant led her to the terrace. Her father was splayed out in a lawn chair, a pitcher of margaritas by his side, and Suzy sat next to him, holding a BlackBerry and jiggling a six-month-old baby in a Björn carrier. A portable Sony plasma television was set up in front of her, and on the screen was a view of the stock exchange. The shrieking sounds Eliza had heard on the phone were of traders screeching orders to their runners.
“Hey.” Eliza nodded at both of them and then bent to give her father a kiss on the cheek. She’d met Suzy a couple of times before and didn’t think of her as a woman so much as a blur—she was always on the move, with her three constantly ringing cell phones, two hovering assistants, and her trademark mane of frizzy red hair. For the life of her, Eliza couldn’t figure out why Suzy didn’t just have it straightened. She could certainly afford it.
“This is Cassidy.” Suzy smiled, motioning to the baby as she texted furiously with one hand. “I know it’s an unusual name for a boy, but I’ve always loved the name and was worried this might be my last shot to use it!” She turned her attention away from the BlackBerry for a moment to beam down at the baby boy in her
arms. “And sorry for the chaos—the au pair is supposed to arrive today and of course she’s already late.”
Eliza took a glance around. What chaos? There were three kids sitting quietly on lounge chairs by the pool, two of them playing chess and one reading. It was downright peaceful—so different from what she’d encountered that first day at the Perrys’ when she was their au pair for the summer. She shuddered just thinking about it. Thank God she’d never have to do that again.
Suzy followed Eliza’s eyes. She gestured to the two boys hunched over the chess table. “Logan is the regional champ in the under-ten category. We’re traveling to D.C. this fall for nationals,” she said proudly. The somber-looking seven-year-old wore a pair of round glasses that gave him an owl-like demeanor. “Logan is teaching Wyatt how to play chess,” Suzy added. Eliza looked across from Logan to the chubby little five-year-old who sat across from him, his forehead wrinkled in intense concentration. She’d never seen children who sat so perfectly still.
“And that’s Jackson with the book. He and Logan are twins, obviously.” Jackson was a carbon copy of his brother, down to the owl glasses.
“Obviously,” Eliza agreed, trying to keep the shock and awe out of her voice. Jackson was reading The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina. She raised an eyebrow. Whatever happened to comic books?
“The author was on CNN the other day and Jackson insisted on getting his book.” Suzy sighed with a wry smile. “It’s like that
with everybody who comes on that channel! I can never get him to watch anything else.”
“Oh,” Eliza said simply. She didn’t even watch CNN now.
“And that’s Violet, behind me,” Suzy tilted her head backward and Eliza looked past her to see a thin, pale girl seated at a patio table, hunched over her computer. She’d been so quiet, Eliza hadn’t even noticed she was there. “She’s first in her class at Horace Mann,” Suzy whispered, leaning toward Eliza. “But she gets embarrassed when I tell people that.” She turned toward her daughter and called out to her. “Violet, honey! Say hi to Eliza!”
Violet peeked over the screen of her laptop. “Oh, hi,” she said shyly, not coming out from behind her computer.
“Nice to meet you, Violet,” Eliza called out. She couldn’t help but mentally compare Suzy’s passel of wunderkids to the Perry kids and their many developmental problems.
“Are you the au pair?” Violet looked at Eliza quizzically.
“No.” Eliza shook her head. “No, I’m not.” And then she smiled. Even if the Finnemores did seem like perfect children, she knew all too well that looks can be awfully deceiving.