An extract from The Prenup by Lauren Layne
Thursday 13th August
There are a few things I’ve missed about New York in the decade I’ve been away.
JFK Airport isn’t one of them.
I’m fresh off a six-hour flight in coach, and thanks to my last-minute trip, and the resulting back‑of‑the-plane seat assignment, by the time the food/drink cart got to me, they were out of the cheese plate and white wine (horror). I’d made do with Pringles and vodka, because there are some things a person shouldn’t attempt while sober, and a middle seat between a fussy toddler and a man who brought his own onion-laden Tupperware was one of them.
As you can imagine, somewhere over Nebraska, I’d started fantasizing about the moment I’d get off the plane. Like, we’re talking borderline erotic daydreams about stretching my cramped legs,
breathing in non-recycled air, and listening to something other than the toddler’s repeated demands for “bananananaanaa NOW!”
Now don’t get me wrong, I could respect that the toddler hadn’t yet learned just how many sugar calories were lurking in the humbly delicious banana, and he wanted it now. I could even get behind my onion-loving neighbor’s mind-set that airplane food was rarely worth the risk.
Still, my fantasy of not being between the two of them was very, very real.
My fantasy had most definitely not included the tense exchange with the airline after they’d made me gate-check my suitcase and then lost it. Nor had it included a mile-long taxi line once they’d
finally located my suitcase on the carousel with a flight arriving from Denver. Lastly, my fantasy hadn’t incorporated a cab driver involved in a heated cell phone fight with his mother. Although, that, at least, I can sympathize with. I’ve had a few of those over the years myself.
I know what you’re thinking: Who is this hot mess?
Fair question. I’m Charlotte Spencer, age thirty-one. Sagittarius, in case that’s the sort of thing you like to know about a person. Long blond hair, although not as naturally platinum as my skilled hair stylist would make you think. I’ve got blue eyes and a borderline unhealthy affection for mascara. I’m a New Yorker by birth, San Francisco resident by choice. Body type . . . eh, we’ll go with decent, mostly thanks to a rather expensive personal trainer. And no, we’re not telling her about the plane Pringles. Or the vodka.
My professional life is pretty badass, if I do say so myself. I’m founder and CEO of my own business, a social media management company called Coco (as in Chanel, obviously). I started it when I was twenty-one and had pretty great timing on the whole social media wave. When I started, some of the biggest retailers on the planet were desperate for someone to help figure out the whole social media thing and couldn’t wait to hand over their money to a team of twenty-somethings who got it.
Fast-forward a decade, and if I were going to be completely crass, I’d be making cha-ching! noises right now, because I’ve always known I’d make a killer girl boss, and now, finally, my bank account agrees.
Let’s see, what else . . . Oh, relationship status? It’s complicated. Very complicated. But we’re getting to that.
For now, all you need to know is that I’m back in New York after a decade away and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it.
I rest my head back and turn to look out the window. Traffic is even slower than usual, thanks to an August thunderstorm, but Manhattan inches ever closer, its lights a blurry kaleidoscope through the raindrops on the window. The taxi driver pulls his phone away from his face and glances at me in the rearview mirror. “Where to again?”
The words Sixty-third and Lex nearly roll off my tongue, and I bite them back. Apparently, ten years on the West Coast can’t undo twenty-one years as an Upper East Side princess. But the last place I want to be tonight is my parents’ house.
“Seventy-sixth and Madison. The Carlyle Hotel.”
He goes back to his conversation without acknowledging my response, but he apparently heard me, because twenty minutes later, the taxi pulls up to the correct address. I pay the fare, and a second later, the car door opens. I smile in gratitude at the hotel doorman who’s already unloaded my suitcase from the trunk and is waiting with an oversized umbrella.
“Welcome to The Carlyle, ma’am.”
Ma’am. Ouch. I make a mental note to stop putting off replacing my eye cream. And while we’re on the topic of appearances, I’ve forgotten how vicious the summer humidity can be on the East Coast. I feel my sleek blowout transforming into a poufy cloud with each passing moment. Thankfully, the hotel lobby is cool and dry, and I want nothing more than to check in to my room and make a hot date with a bottle of wine and a shower.
A glance at my cell phone tells me there’s no time for that. The luggage debacle and traffic have already made me ten minutes late for my, shall we say, appointment.
I leave my suitcase and trench coat with the bellman to be taken to my room, and ask for directions to the restroom. I may not have time for a shower, but some occasions at least require a lipstick check, and this is definitely one of them.
A glance in the restroom mirror confirms that I’m a good deal beyond a simple lipstick check. At least half my mascara is under my eyes, and my lipstick is long gone, though my lip liner has managed to stick around in a very unbecoming manner. And as expected, the humidity-induced frizz is simply gorgeous.
A damp paper towel takes care of the mascara, a couple dabs of concealer hide the fact that I haven’t had much sleep since getting The Call, and by the time I apply ChapStick and a swipe of light
pink lip gloss, I feel mostly human.
Even better, the hotel is fancy enough to have complimentary mouthwash, and I pour some into the provided little cup, gargling as I pull my long hair into an intentionally messy bun.
When you’ve survived three decades with naturally curly hair, you learn that sometimes the best method is to pretend that the frizz is deliberate and work with it, Carrie Bradshaw style. I spit and rinse, then dig through my Prada purse— a thirtieth-birthday gift to myself from yours truly— until I find some much-needed eye drops and a lint roller, which go a long way to diffuse the just got off a cross-country flight look. A spritz of perfume to combat the onion-eating neighbor.
I’d purposely selected the blue dress I’m wearing because it’s made out of some wrinkle-free material I like to call magic, so at least my wardrobe’s on point. And now, for the final touch: I reach into the bottom of my purse, groping around until I find the stilettos carefully wrapped in their fancy Stuart Weitzman shoe bags. Yeah, I’m that girl, the one with fancy shoes in her purse. I love a good pair of sexy high heels, just not for walks over four blocks or the airport security line. Thus, I am a master of The Shoe Swap.
I slip my feet out of the gray flats, into the gray suede peep-toe stilettos, and voilà. I’m ready.
Or as ready as one can ever be for this. I’m also late. Quite late. Crap.
I hurriedly put my makeup and the flats back in the purse, do one last smoothing of the flyaway hairs by my temples, and head toward the hotel bar. Like the rest of the hotel, the bar’s fancy and
dimly lit. It’s not until I’m scanning and coming up empty that I realize . . . I don’t know what the guy I’m meeting looks like.
I mean, I know what the version of him ten years ago looked like. Long, curly black hair, pulled back into a man bun before man buns were even a thing. I scrunch up my nose, trying to remember other details. He’d been long and lean, almost coltish. Full, dark beard. Not my type at all, truth be told, but to give credit where it was due, I do remember that he had very nice eyes. They were light blue with thick, those-can’t‑be‑real black eyelashes.
The trouble is, the bar is far too dark to see anyone’s eye color, so I’m at a bit of a loss. I scan the room and come up empty. My palms get a little sweaty, and I hope he didn’t leave because he
thought I’d stood him up. I scan the room again, slower this time. Get‑a‑room couple in the corner? Nope. Group of girls laughing shrilly next to them? No. Not the elderly couple either, nor the
business meeting that looks to be two glasses of wine past productive. It’s definitely not the single lady reading her book, nor the two dolled‑up cougars on the prowl.
There’s a man with his back to me who has the right hair—longish and black, although he seems a bit shorter than I remember . . . the man turns his head. Nope. Too old. Next.
I look all the way to my left and see a hot guy in the far corner that I’d somehow missed the first time around. His clean-cut good looks, broad shoulders, and dark suit are pure fantasy material,
and a reminder that buttoned‑up businessmen are one thing that New York does very well. Guys in California tend to be a bit more casual. His attention is on his phone, so I can’t get a good look at his face, but it doesn’t matter, because as yummy as he is, now is definitely not the time and place to be ogling.
I drag my gaze away from Hot Guy and continue my search.
Cute old lady reapplying her red lipstick. No. There’s a couple giving off first date vibes. No. Damn it! No man bun in the entire place. Maybe he did leave. I pull out my phone to see if I have any missed messages, when I feel eyes on me. Not surprising, considering I’ve been standing in the middle of the crowded bar without taking a seat. What is surprising is who’s doing the looking. The hot guy in the corner’s attention is no longer on his phone. It’s on me. His blue eyes are so piercing, so direct, so . . . familiar.
My stomach drops out.
The hot guy is my guy.
Somehow it had simply not occurred to me that my brother’s lanky, awkward best friend from college would turn into . . . this.
My mouth is a little dry as his gaze holds mine. There’s no trace of a smile on his face, though I could swear there’s a hint of a smirk in his eyes . . . as though he’s very aware what I’m thinking and is amused by it.
No, no. We can’t have that.
I paste a confident grin on my face and make my way toward him. He stands when I approach, and I think we can say, without a doubt, he’s not lanky. Not anymore. He’s turned into male perfection:
broad shoulders, lean waist, and long legs. If I had to bet, six-pack under the dress shirt. No, eight-pack. Twelve-pack? Is that a thing?
I reach his table and he gives the slightest nod. “Charlotte.”
The voice is the same. Gorgeous and lilting, and every bit as Irish as I remember.
“I almost didn’t recognize you,” I say breezily, lifting my cheek to receive his kiss.
Damn. He smells good too. Expensive and clean. Why did nobody warn me about this?
“Almost didn’t recognize me?” he says, lifting his eyebrows. “If I had to guess, I’d say you didn’t have the faintest clue who I was,” he says, pulling out my chair for me before settling back in his.
“Well, in my defense, you’re not on social media. And your picture isn’t on your firm’s website.” I know, because I’ve looked. “How was I supposed to know what you look like these days?”
“You could have asked your brother.”
“Right, because that’s something normal siblings do. Ask their brother for a picture of his best friend,” I say, picking up the drink menu in an effort to hide my nervousness.
A tuxedo-clad server comes over for my drink order and I opt for a martini, because strong sounds like just the thing for this particular moment in my life. The waiter disappears, and for a moment, my brother’s best friend and I simply look at each other. He’s clearly taking me in, assessing, but I don’t mind because I’m doing the same, absorbing all the details I couldn’t see from a distance.
The beard’s gone, although there’s a hint of a five o’clock shadow that draws attention to the Superman-worthy jaw that really never should have been covered up in the first place. His hair is as black as ever, though ruthlessly short now.
“What happened to your man bun?” I ask.
He blinks. “I’m sorry?”
I gesture to my own messy knot. “You know. Before, you wore your hair long.”
I expect him to smile, but he doesn’t; his blue eyes lock on mine. “I cut it.”
I give in to the urge to roll my eyes. “Okay. Good talk.”
“You look . . .” His gaze trails over me, more calculating than sexual, which, let’s face it, is kind of insulting. “The same.”
I wrinkle my nose. “I’m going to choose to interpret that as you saying I look like I did when I was twenty-one. I thank you for the compliment.”
He shrugs as though he doesn’t care one way or the other how I take it, then exhales a long breath, the first sign that he’s as unnerved by all of this as I am. “Thank you for coming.”
“You said it was urgent?” I ask, deliberately letting the question enter my tone.
I’m dying of curiosity here. I have been ever since his email came three days ago, saying he needed to discuss something urgent with me—in person. After establishing that my brother wasn’t dying of cancer or something awful, I’d agreed. Partially because I needed a break from work, partially because I was dreadfully curious, and partially because, well . . . a little sliver of me has known for a while that it’s time—past time— to face this part of my life.
He waits until the server puts a wonderfully large martini in front of me, waits until I take a sip and somehow manage to withhold a moan at how good it tastes after the day I’ve had. And then, as though he’s been deliberately waiting until I had a little booze flowing through my veins, lets me know the reason I’m here.
“Yeah?” I give him an encouraging smile.
He looks nervous but determined.
Then he lays it on me: “I want a divorce.”
Perfect for fans of Jo Watson, Sophie Ranald, Lindsey Kelk and Sophie Kinsella.
LOVE WASN'T PART OF THE DEAL FOR THIS MARRIAGE...
My name is Charlotte Spencer and, ten years ago, I married my brother's best friend. I haven't seen him since.