Love on Lexington Avenue
ONE YEAR LATER
TUESDAY, AUGUST 6
It all started with a cupcake.
Well, the cupcake and the cards.
Claire Hayes stared down at the lone cupcake, with its single pathetic candle and wondered why she’d bothered. Some things didn’t need acknowledgment, much less celebration. And as far as Claire was concerned, thirty-fifth birthdays were one of them.
Particularly the thirty-fifth birthday of a widow who was woefully short on optimism, whose metabolism was getting increasingly lazy, and who was celebrating said birthday alone.
At least the alone part had been her choice.
Claire’s parents had offered to come back from their retirement home in Florida to take her out to dinner, but she’d nixed that. She loved Helen and George Burchett to pieces, but the last thing Claire needed right now was her dad’s constant muttering.
I swear, Princess, if Brayden hadn’t been such an idiot as to fall off that boat, I’d kill him myself.
Nor her mother’s well-meaning but exhaustive concern over
the state of Claire’s reproductive organs. Did I tell you that Annmarie’s daughter froze her eggs? She thought it was prudent, and she’s only thirty-two . . .
So, no. Claire’s parents had not been what she’d needed on this particular birthday. And though she felt guilty admitting it, she hadn’t been up for seeing any of her friends, either. Partially, because friends—the real kind—were hard to come by these days. Her once thriving social circle had all but dried up after Brayden’s death.
Some of that was on them. They’d apparently decided a widow at a cocktail party was a downer, and the invitations had stopped rolling in just as abruptly as the sympathy flowers.
But a little of her current isolation from her old social group was on Claire.
Even the well-intentioned friends, the ones who cared more about her than the gossip, hadn’t understood. Not what it was like to lose a spouse so young, and certainly not what it was like to lose a spouse who’d turned out to be downright odious.
But there were two people who got it. Two friends who understood her in a way Claire’s old social set never could. In fact, Naomi Powell and Audrey Tate had been the only people with whom Claire would have considered ringing in thirty-five.
They’d have been here in a heartbeat, and her husband’s girlfriend and mistress, more than anyone, would have understood the melancholy tone of this particular “celebration.”
And yet, some nagging part of Claire wondered if they would truly all-the-way understand.
Naomi Powell may not have known that Brayden was married any more than Claire had known that Brayden was cheating, but that didn’t change the fact Naomi had been the hot, adventurous mistress. The Jessica Rabbit type of seductress that men
were drawn to when they weren’t satisfied at home. Men like Brayden, apparently.
Audrey might have understood a little more. Naomi had thought of Brayden as a fling, but Audrey Tate had loved Brayden, had confessed to Claire that she’d hoped—even assumed—she’d marry him some day, unknowing that the title of Brayden Hayes’s wife was already in use. The sheer pain of the betrayal, Audrey understood.
It was the way Audrey and Claire had emerged from Brayden’s betrayal where they were different. Audrey, with all the hopeful optimism of a woman in her twenties, was still convinced that Prince Charming was out there.
Claire? Not so much. Sometimes a toad was just a toad, no matter how properly he was kissed.
Her lone birthday candle now dripping green wax all over vanilla frosting, Claire blew it out with an irritable puff and turned to the other harbinger of her birthday blues:
The stack of birthday cards.
She’d thought the smattering of text messages and emails that had been trickling in all day had been depressing enough. Most of them had simply said Happy Birthday, resulting in balloons exploding all over her iPhone. Others had contained a chipper Happy BDay, Girl! from women she hadn’t heard from since her last birthday.
But these—the cards that had been appearing in her mailbox for a few days now—they felt like they were from a different lifetime. Claire hadn’t even realized people under the age of sixty still sent paper cards, but alongside the expected cards from some distant relatives, there were plenty of cards from people Claire’s age.
They were well-intentioned, she knew that. They were meant
to let her know someone was thinking of her, but part of her, the new bitter, jaded part that had emerged since Brayden’s death, couldn’t help but wonder . . .
Had these so-called friends sent paper cards because they were a one-way communication? As a way of acknowledging her birthday without having to interact with all of her tainted, depressing widowness?
They were all expensive, as was the way of the Upper East Side elite. Glitter and rich, heavy card stock abounded. Personalized heartfelt messages did not.
Cheers to another year, Claire.
Best wishes, Claire!
Enjoy your big day!
She swallowed, fighting a wave of despondence at the realization that these generic birthday messages were the grownup version of “Have a great summer!” scrawled in a high school yearbook.
When had she become that woman nobody thought about until her birthday popped up on their calendar? Oh yeah, her. Poor thing. Better send a card . . .
Claire shoved away the cards and resumed glaring at the cupcake. She plucked the candle out of it and sucked the frosting end.
So. This is thirty-five.
Claire’s only consolation was that thirty-five couldn’t possibly be worse than thirty-four. A year ago, she’d still been dealing with the aftermath of planning her husband’s funeral. Not great. The fact that she hadn’t attended the funeral she’d planned? Worse. Much worse.
Claire had made it as far as the top of the steps of the church. Even as her brain had dictated she play the role of grieving widow, her heart had commanded something else:
Screw Brayden, and the mockery he’d made of her marriage.
And so she’d run. Figuratively. More accurately, she’d teetered as fast as her stilettos would carry her. And so, while family and friends had gathered to say farewell to Brayden, Claire had been sitting on a bench in Central Park.
Ironically, it had been that day, in that spot, as she’d sat both hating and missing Brayden, that she’d met Audrey and Naomi. It had been there that the three women had made a pact not to fall for another man like Brayden.
But what Claire hadn’t said that day—what she still hadn’t told them—was that she had no intention of falling for another man. Period. She’d done the big white wedding. She’d promised to love and cherish. And damn it, she’d honored those vows. No one had told her that it would be one-sided. Nobody told her that lurking beneath the veneer of a relationship, hiding under the label of “love,” was a whole steaming pile of crap.
Did that make her bitter? Ab.So.Lutely.
And she was just fine with bitter.
Claire swiped her finger along the side of the cupcake, scooping up some of the frosting that the wax hadn’t gotten to. The familiar flavor of vanilla rolled over her tongue. She scowled. Of course it was vanilla. It had long been her favorite flavor. Of cake, ice cream, coffee.
Vanilla frosting, vanilla cupcake . . .
She narrowed her eyes at the cupcake, irrationally angry at the baked good for not being exciting. She could have gone with
Naomi’s favorite: red velvet with cream cheese frosting, flecked with spicy little flecks of cinnamon. Or Audrey’s: double-chocolate everything, all the time, the richer, the better.
Claire gave a rueful smile when she realized that the trio’s respective favorite cupcakes paralleled their looks. Naomi’s red velvet matched her vibrant red hair. Audrey’s chocolate fetish perfectly matched her silky dark hair.
And Claire . . . vanilla.
She lifted a hand to her shoulder-length blond hair. Not platinum; not really gold, either; just a flat, WASP-pale yellow. Shoving the plate aside in annoyance, Claire stood, and desperate for something to distract her, she went to the kitchen counter, determined to lose herself in her latest obsession:
Her house renovation.
For three years, Claire had been itching to overhaul her New York City home. Location-wise, she was living the dream. A three-bedroom brownstone on Seventy-Third and Lexington Avenue was about as elite a Manhattan address as you could get. She and Brayden had inherited the property from Brayden’s grandmother.
The problem was, it looked like Brayden’s grandmother still lived here.
And while Claire and Brayden never truly felt the pinch of money pains, they hadn’t had an unlimited bank account in the way of a lot of their peers. Brayden had been more preoccupied with looking like they had money than actually having it. Most of his salary had gone to extravagant gifts, designer labels, expensive dinners at the trendiest restaurants, whatever it took to play the part of upper-crust New York.
He’d encouraged Claire to do the same; to buy the Givenchy and Chanel, to sip the most expensive champagne
when out with her friends, but never to invite those same friends back home.
Brayden’s income had been generous by most people’s standards, but they weren’t rich rich. Not enough to live the high life when out and about, and have money to put back into their house.
As a result, Claire’s home looked old. Not in the distinguished Vanderbilt way, but in the tired way, I wonder if there’s a lava lamp upstairs sort of way. There wasn’t. But Claire was betting the carpet was the same as when lava lamps had been in vogue.
It was the kitchen she hated most. Small and cramped, more of a hallway than an actual room, with awful beige laminate cabinets, a Formica counter, and a stove far older than Claire. The rest of the house wasn’t quite as bad, but it needed some work. For starters, Claire would like to have words with whoever had decided to put dark yellow carpet throughout the entire downstairs. And she was pretty sure whoever had picked the dark red- and-green floral wallpaper had been color-blind, if not all the way blind.
The woodwork was too dark and the outdated furniture too light, resulting in a mismatch of styles. The modern white sofa that belonged in a trendy Swedish nightclub was horribly out of place in a room that looked like it should be in a Gothic horror movie.
But not anymore, Claire thought, as she began shifting through her pile of paint swatches, tiles, and wood samples. After months of planning and allocating funds from Brayden’s life insurance, tomorrow kicked off her official plunge into renovation.
Even though she knew her home would be a work zone for several months, she welcomed it. She couldn’t wait for
hammering and drilling and muttered swearing. Sure, it was turmoil, but Claire needed it. Craved it.
And yet . . .
She narrowed her eyes at the samples she’d chosen for the kitchen. Cherrywood cabinets and floor to match. Contrasting white granite countertops. Stainless-steel sink. A muted eggshell paint color for the walls. Just a couple of days ago, Claire had been thrilled with the choices. They’d seemed timeless. Elegant without being stuffy. Modern without being trendy.
But now, through the lens of that damn cupcake, all she could see was . . . vanilla. Every single sample, every color, every texture was precisely what was expected.
Slowly, Claire began shuffling through her color selections and textile samples for the other rooms of the house. Her motions became increasingly more frantic as her brain registered what her eyes were seeing.
White. Off-white. Soft white. Snow white. Simply white. Ultra white. Warm white. Paper white. Cream. Beige. Eggshell. Ecru. Cream. Ivory. Oatmeal. Powder. Coconut. Snow. Bone. Linen. Lace. Porcelain. Dove.
For the love of God, one was actually called vanilla.
The worst part wasn’t the blandness, though that wasn’t great. The worst part was the gut-level knowledge that this pile of blah was exactly what everyone expected of her. It’s what she expected of herself.
Claire had always thought of herself as steady. Had prided herself in her reliability, but what if there was a dark underbelly to that constancy.
What if instead she’d fallen into a pit of boring? And worse? What if she didn’t have the foggiest clue how to climb back out again?
Panicked now, Claire snatched her cell phone off the counter.
“Claire?” Audrey’s voice sounded puzzled when she picked up. “Are you okay?”
Translation: Why are you calling instead of texting like usual?
Claire took a deep breath. “I bought a cupcake today. Guess what flavor it is?”
“Oh, it’s a cupcake emergency,” Audrey said with such understanding that Claire knew she’d called the right person. Naomi would have rolled with the direction of the conversation, too, but Claire knew that Naomi’s nights were spent cuddled up with her sexy boyfriend, and cupcake phone calls might be slightly less welcome.
“Hmm, okay, you bought it for yourself?” Audrey was musing. “Then it’s definitely vanilla.”
Claire’s heart sank. “Yeah. Yeah, it’s a vanilla cupcake.”
“I’m confused,” Audrey said slowly. “I feel like I both passed and failed a quiz at the same time.”
“No, it’s not you,” Claire said rubbing her forehead. “Out of curiosity, what is the zaniest cupcake flavor you can think of?”
“Well . . . Magnolia has this absolutely decadent flourless chocolate cupcake that’s—”
“Not chocolate,” Claire interrupted. “I mean, it can have chocolate in it. But I don’t want the standard flavors. I’m talking about a cupcake that breaks all the rules.”
“Do cupcakes even have rules? Are you at a bakery having a decision crisis, or is something else going on here?”
Though she didn’t blame her friend for the confusion. Claire wasn’t the type of person to call at nine at night with a dessert-related emergency.
For that matter, Claire wasn’t the type to have any
emergency. She was a problem solver. She was the one other people called when they needed help, advice, or just a listening ear. The friend who could tell you how to get red wine out of silk or who would gently but firmly tell you that no, a bob wouldn’t really suit your face shape.
In her marriage, she’d been the rock, the one who’d made Brayden a drink at the end of the day and then patiently listened as he unloaded about his brainless coworkers, his small-minded boss, the barista who’d gotten his order wrong.
The roles had rarely reversed, and Claire had never minded—or even noticed, really. Not until Brayden had died. Not until, on the heels of that death, Claire had learned that the stable foundation upon which she’d built her entire life hadn’t been nearly as steady as she’d imagined.
Because Brayden hadn’t just died. He’d left the world naked and drunk and falling off a boat while a twenty-year-old college student waited for him on the dock so they could do exactly what it was that cheating men and carefree twenty-something girls did together.
His autopsy had revealed that he’d hit his head and was unconscious when he went into the water, unaware that he was drowning. Unaware that his quietly dedicated wife once again would be tasked with cleaning up the mess and picking up the pieces.
And she had. She’d gone through all the stages of grief. She’d shed her tears, vented her anger, talked through her confusion.
She’d put her life back together, damn it.
So why did she feel so flat?
“Claire?” Audrey said tentatively.
Claire’s attention snapped back to her friend. “It’s my birthday today.”
“What?” Audrey’s voice was borderline outraged. “How could you not—”
“I wanted to celebrate alone,” Claire said quickly. At least she’d thought she had. “It’s just that . . . well, I was sitting here, feeling a little sorry for myself, and thinking about how eight new wrinkles popped up last night. And I was looking down at this little plain vanilla cupcake. And the thing is, Audrey, I picked that flavor. I went to the bakery with the intention of buying myself a birthday treat, and out of all the options, that’s what I selected. I think it’s the only one I saw. And now, I don’t know. I’m just wondering . . . am I boring, Audrey?”
Am I boring, and is that why Brayden went to find someone not boring? Someone like you?
She didn’t say it out loud, but she suspected Audrey heard the unspoken words, because her friend was quiet for a long time.
“Strawberry lemonade,” Audrey said.
“Molly’s Cupcakes on Bleeker. They’ve got a bunch of fun flavors, but I was there last week, and strawberry lemonade is one of their summer features. It’s not wild. It’s a traditional flavor pairing, but it’s unexpected for cupcakes and it totally works. It’s sweet and tart and it sticks with you. It’s memorable.”
“Strawberry lemonade,” Claire said thoughtfully. “I like strawberries. And lemonade.”
“See! You’re not boring! You’re strawberry lemonade! Do you want to head down there right now? I can come over, we’ll grab a cab . . .”
Claire laughed. “I love the enthusiasm, but I think my days of going down to the Village on a Tuesday night are behind me. Especially considering I have a contractor coming by at seven tomorrow morning to give me a quote for the renovation.”
Audrey let out a tiny sigh of resignation. “Yeah, okay. This weekend maybe?”
Ordinarily, Claire would have nodded in agreement, relieved that her friend didn’t push. But hearing the complete lack of surprise in Audrey’s voice at Claire’s refusal affirmed Claire’s worst fears.
She wasn’t just boring. She was predictably boring.
Claire’s gaze flitted over the pile of generic birthday cards. The pale, lonely cupcake. The pile of uninspired swatches and neutral samples that indicated even her house renovation, a process that by its very nature signaled change, would somehow end up . . . the same. Her house would be more modern, yes, but if she stayed the course of white and off-white, it would be what everyone expected of her. Vanilla.
An urge washed over Claire, strong and unfamiliar, and as a lifelong rule follower, it took her a moment to register what she was feeling: rebellion.
She wanted to surprise people. She wanted to surprise herself.
“Actually, Aud?” She told her friend. “About that cupcake date. Let’s do it.”
“Now?” Audrey asked in surprise.
“I’ll be at your place in twenty. We can share a cab.”
“Yes! You’re sure though?”
“Absolutely,” Claire said. “I’ll see you in a few.”
Claire started to head toward the stairs to change her clothes but backtracked to the kitchen.
And tossed the vanilla cupcake in the trash.