My Darling Bride: Chapter 5

EMMY

After showering, I blow out my hair and arrange the strands into a sleek bun on top. The air-conditioning isn’t great, so I have a fan pointed toward the bathroom to keep me cool. From the closet, I grab a black shirt with a corseted lace bodice and pair it with a layered long tulle skirt cut into strips. Louboutins that Jane bought me are on my feet.

I give myself a pep talk. I’ve got enough in savings to get us through the year. Jane’s modeling will pick up. Andrew will finish this semester soon.

Half an hour later, I’m on Fifth Avenue, headed to work, when my neck prickles, a malicious tingling that skates down my spine. I toss an anxious glance over my shoulder. There’s only a hundred or so people milling around, but I don’t see Kian’s head towering above them. Still, I can’t help but think someone is watching me.

I brush it off as I arrive outside A Likely Story and linger at the large window display, featuring two mannequins, a woman and a man. She’s standing in a floor-length empire-waist dress, and he’s in a replica early nineteenth-century suit. He’s down on one knee holding a book up to her in the palm of his hand. A sparkling diamond (fake) sits atop the book, Jane Austen’s Emma. Fluffy clouds, angelic cupids, and white doves dangle from the ceiling with wire. It took weeks to put that together, and it’s freaking glorious.

“Look at that window,” a little girl gasps as she points it out to her mom.

“We feature romance in May,” I explain with a wave. “You should see us at Christmas. Last year we did rabbits hosting a winter tea party for the forest. Come see us!”

They’ve already gone, but satisfaction lingers. Of course we aren’t as famous as some of the other displays in New York—at Bergdorf Goodman, Macy’s, or Bloomingdale’s—but we’re getting there.

The bookstore is my bright star that never dims. Built over a hundred years ago, the four-story building used to be a dance hall. There’s even a gold plaque inlaid in the bricks that says MYRONS JAZZ CLUB, 1920.

“What the hell?” comes from me at seeing the A LIKELY STORY WILL BE CLOSING SOON sign posted on the double oak doors. Sure, I took two weeks off, my usual summer vacation, and I knew Terry had the store for sale, but he would have told me if he’d found a buyer.

I shove inside, the bell jangling. I enter the marble-tiled rotunda and rush past book displays and cozy seating areas. The air is thick with the smell of coffee, warm croissants, and ink. The comforting buzz of conversation between customers and staff reaches my ears. Normally, I’d stop to chat with the regulars or tinker with the display, but I stride to the main counter, where Babs, the assistant manager, waits.

Petite, she’s in her late fifties, with red hair in a stylish blunt cut. Her makeup is expertly applied, with sweeping eyeliner and thick false lashes. Her chin quivers when she sees me.

“What’s with the sign? Is this a joke?” I ask.

“Oh, Emmy! Thank God you’re back. As for the sign, ask the jerk in his office. He’s the one who put it up this morning.” She bursts into tears as I fumble around the counter to find a tissue. There’s not a box, so I grab a wad of napkins from the coffee station.

“I swear to God, I hate Terry. I’m tempted to get a knife and”—she grabs one of the stir sticks for coffees and bares her teeth—“march in there and cut his balls off.”

“Whoa, there’s no need for cock cutting.” I remove the stick as a customer walks by the counter and gives us the side-eye. He asks where the used books are, and I point to the beautiful wrought iron spiral staircase and explain they’re on the third floor.

“But he hasn’t given us any warning,” Babs wails after he’s gone. “I love the smell of books, the feel of a hardcover in my hands. I can’t exist without this job!”

need this job as well. I’ve worked here for years, first as a barista, then as a manager.

“Who did he sell to?”

She dabs at her eyes. “I’m not sure, but a man came in about a week ago, in a divine suit. It was a summer style, maybe linen or something, and a cream color. Can you imagine it? Cream. Few men can carry that off. Anyway, he sauntered in like he owned the place. He looked like a movie star, Emmy.” Her eyes glaze over, and I nudge her.

“Did he buy it?”

“I don’t know but thought I should mention it, because he asked if you were working, and when I said no, he asked to see Terry. Weird, right?”

I frown. I hadn’t even realized Terry was back from his fishing trip. Even when he is in town, he only comes in maybe twice a week. “Did he know Terry, or was he just asking to see the owner?”

She shrugs. “I didn’t put much thought into it at the time. Your name is on the door as the manager, so the mystery man probably wasn’t looking for you specifically.”

He could have been a rep from one of the publishers.

Or a detective with a sense of style. Ugh.

She sniffs. “Anyway, he might be a potential boyfriend, you know, since you and Kian are kaput.”

“Nope. Men suck.”

She completely ignores me. “I’m finding you a guy.”

“God, no, please.” Before Kian, she introduced me to three nephews, a couple of cousins, and her own son.

“I’m never fucking Terry again, that’s for sure. Never.” Her voice rises, and I take her arm and steer her toward the kitchen before the customers overhear.

Her shoulders dip. “That’s a lie. I’m weak willed; you know this. I love the feel of warm skin, dirty talk . . .” She whimpers. “And Terry knows how to work it. Ever since his hip replacement surgery, he’s got this swivel thing—”

An image of Babs and a sixty-year-old Terry going at it threatens, and I interrupt her by clearing my throat.

“I guess I could be one of those professional cuddlers. I hear they get fifty bucks an hour, plus the dopamine your brain releases. It’s like free drugs, but I’d be worried I’d get horny; then I’d have to booty-call Terry, and girl, his D is capital D for delicious—”

“For the love of everything, please stop. I’m trying to have a tea.” I take a hasty sip of the caffeine-free peppermint drink I made.

“Fine. The bakery on Seventy-Sixth is looking for a taste tester. I mean, I’d probably need some kind of culinary experience. I made snow cones in my teens.”

My mind is halfway listening, twisting with how to deal with the store closing. I never imagined he’d sell it so fast, and I assumed whoever bought it would keep it open.

She heaves out a long exhale. “Whatever. I’m more worried about you! I mean, I have money from Freddy. I work here because I love getting out of the apartment.”

Freddy was her late husband.

“If you need me to help you job search, I will.” She nudges her head at her laptop, sitting open on the counter. “I’ve been looking. There’s a place in Alaska that needs women. The entire town is hiring, pretty much any job you want. Give me a day, and I’ll find you one. We could go together, since I hate Terry now.”

She’d never leave Manhattan. But she enjoys talking, so I let her go on.

She pops her compact and gasps at her face. “Good God, one of my lashes have come unglued. My life is officially over.”

She carefully sticks it back on, then reapplies her lipstick. She waves at one of the baristas, a young man, who then rushes over. “Be my favorite and bring me a scone and a chamomile tea with a touch of honey, please. I need something calming.”

She needs something calming at least twice a week. Once a customer couldn’t find his money to pay for a book. After rummaging for a while, he reached inside the front of his jeans to his crotch. She took it with a stony expression, but as soon as he’d walked out the door, she did a hyena/banshee scream, then ran to the bathroom to throw up. Now she wears surgical gloves if she works the register.

Once she had a fifteen-minute stare-down with a kid who’d broken all the crayons (over two hundred) in the kid area and was throwing them in the store. He told her crayons were ugly, and so was she. She kept inching closer to him—who knows what would have happened—so I ran to the PA system and announced that someone needed help in the ER section, code for erotica. She snapped out of it and dashed to help a customer with one of her favorite genres.

Another time, a man came in dressed in a black-and-red cape and asked for a vampire cookbook. She hung crosses and tossed garlic around the next day.

“Where are you going?” she asks as I head down the hallway to the back of the building, where the offices are located.

“To talk to Terry.” And get to the bottom of this.

“Tell him we’re over, but if he calls me repeatedly and tells me I’m pretty on my voice mail, I might pick up,” she calls.

I flip her off behind my back and hear her laugh.

I knock at his door, and his raspy voice tells me to come in.

While Babs is coiffed and sophisticated, Terry sports a full head of gray hair that’s a mess. Tall and slim with a rugged face, he’s wearing rumpled jeans and a vacation shirt. This one is a faded peach color, with a “Bimini Beach” logo on it.

With a heavy sigh, he studies my face. “You’re pissed.”

“Some kind of notice would have been appropriate. I am the manager.” I lift my hands in frustration, my words clipped as I plop down in the leather chair across from his desk. The surface is scattered with messy papers and a half-eaten muffin from the bakery. I add, “I thought it would take a few years before you found a buyer.” And I was hoping my financial situation would be better when the time came.

A long exhale comes from him. “You had dreams of buying it someday, but we both know the situation your gran left you in. I should have called you, and I’m sorry. It was very sudden.”

My throat tightens. “I have artists who have their work here, authors scheduled, and we talked about expanding to comics and vinyl records . . .”

My voice trails off at the resignation on his face. My breath catches. Shit.

“It’s hard to compete with online stores. Bookstores close every day, Emmy.”

But we’re different. We make money.

I straighten my shoulders. “Jaws is the theme for summer, and I’ve got a papier-mâché shark and fake shark teeth ready to go. We’re more than just a bookstore. The Times called us a ‘truly religious experience.’ They love the displays, the staircase, plus Babs is perfect to start a book club. I’ve been meaning to bring it up in a meeting—”

“Emmy. Please,” he says as he interrupts me, then sighs, his voice softening. “The offer . . . it’s more than I planned to retire on.”

I deflate like a popped balloon. How can I be angry at a man who wants to retire?

“Dear, I’m sorry. Truly.” He stops at a bookshelf and gazes at a picture of a fishing boat he bought a few years ago. “I want to get away from the city. I want to drink tequila and watch the sunset.”

“Are they going to keep the store? The employees?” My hands clench, preparing for the worst.

“No. And the buyer wants to remain anonymous. I’m going to have a meeting with the staff in a few days with the particulars. Everyone will get a nice severance package.”

I don’t care about that right now. It feels as if I’ve just lost an arm. “What if they tear it down?”

“It’s a historical building.”

“They can still gut it. If they’ve got the city in their pocket, which they probably do, with that kind of money, then who knows what will happen. Was it the man who came in wearing a cream suit? I heard he asked for me.”

He sits down in a chair next to me and pats my shoulder. “Emmy, nothing changes if nothing changes—you know that. Maybe you need something different.”

He didn’t answer my question.

I rub my face. “My life is blowing up. Scorpions are after me.”

He gives me a worried glance. “Is that a gang or something?”

“No. I’m just in shock.”

“And it’s my fault.” He rubs his jaw. “You should take the day off.”

“What? No. I-I just got back.”

“I insist,” he murmurs, giving me a squeeze on the shoulder. “I feel terrible for not telling you before putting the sign up. Freshen your résumé and look for a new job.”

Oh God. This is really happening.

Numbly, I mumble an agreement and leave. I make my way to my office, my eyes drifting over the store. Owning it was just a pipe dream, something to keep me going. Part of me always knew I’d never have the money, but to not even work here anymore—I can’t fathom it.

Sitting at my desk, I cover my face with my hands. The anxiety that’s been growing in my chest ever since I saw the sign claws at me.

It’s all hanging over me, the bills, the Lamborghini, and now the bookstore.

In that moment, I wish desperately for Gran to appear at my side. She always knew what to do. She’d give me a hug and say, When the Darling women get lemons, we make lemon drop martinis.

A knock comes, and I start. “Yeah?”

A young man in a bike helmet and a messenger outfit eases in. He throws up a hand. “Hey. Babs sent me back here. I’ve got a letter for you. Can you sign for it?”

“Sure.” I scribble my initials and take the white envelope, frowning at the lack of a return address.

Sitting on my desk, I rip it open and pull out a handwritten note.

Emmy,

Got your note and thought I’d reply. Look at what you did (see enclosed photo), and you’re going to do something for me to make up for it. Because you stole my fucking car.

I’ll be in touch.

G

With shaky hands, I reach in the envelope and pull out a four-by-six photo. A gasp comes from me. No way. I can’t believe it. I’ve imagined his car at the airport, all nice and shiny and waiting for him.

It’s his yellow Lamborghini—only it isn’t at the airport. The once sleek and aerodynamic lines of the car are barely recognizable, twisted and curled up on a street. One of the doors is gone. The windshield is busted. A wheel is off.

Blood drains from my face. Holy shit.

I start when Babs appears in the door, carrying a tray loaded with cupcakes. Pink icing coats her lips. “I’ve been thinking . . .”

I tuck the letter and photo away and clear my throat. “Yeah?”

“My ma always said that life changes come in threes, especially the bad ones. Kian, the bookstore being sold, which means you’ve got another thing coming.”

Funny. It just arrived. By messenger.

“So beware. Also, I sent one of the guys to the bakery on Seventy-Sixth.” Her eyes flick down at the tray. “I’m practicing being a taste tester. You want a green one? They call it the ‘grasshopper.’ I think they can improve on the naming process.” She frowns, lowering the cupcake as she searches my face. “Hey. What’s wrong? Your face looks like that time we thought we’d lost that first edition of The Great Gatsby.”

A faint smile ghosts my lips. An employee accidentally shelved it when it should have been locked behind a glass display in the rare-books section. We ransacked every floor looking for it, then found it next to the antique manual typewriter we keep on a table in the rotunda for customers to type messages and notes to people.

She comes closer. “Was Terry an ass?”

I shake my head. “No.”

G has found me. He knows where I work. Probably where I live.

It’s time to face the consequences of my actions. Karma has circled back to sting me.

I gather myself. “Question: Is there a vacant place here where I can go scream?”

“Basement. Nothing there but boxes and a papier-mâché shark. The art girl made it while you were gone, if you want to take a look. It’s quite massive. You’ll love it.”

I sigh sadly. No one will see our shark. No one will see our summer window display.

“I gave Terry a blow job in the basement once. It was a good one. He blacked out.”

“Thank you for letting me know. How do you think I’ll look in orange? Maybe in scrubs?” I ask.

“No one looks good in orange. Why?”

“It’s what they wear at county lockup.”

She grimaces. “Are you in that much trouble?”

I nod as I think about his vague letter, anger curling inside me. Just send the police, already. Bring on the handcuffs and interrogation.

I’m not doing “something” for G. Scenarios dance in my head. Who exactly was he? Wealthy, yes, that was evident by the car and clothes, although he was staying in a shithole motel. He could be mafia or some kind of international thief. Maybe he wants me to kill someone, smuggle drugs, or steal art from museums.

I rub my temple. Maybe he just wants an apology?

Chewing my lips, I think about the twisted remains of his car. Somehow, I think “I’m sorry” isn’t going to cut it.

“Where are you going?” she asks as I grab my purse and walk out of the office and into the bookstore. She trails behind me on my heels like an overeager puppy.

“Wait. Are you going job hunting? I want to go. Please . . .”

I grab one of the cupcakes from the tray she’s holding and take a big bite, savoring the burst of sugar. “Stay. I’m going to find a man about a car.”

“You can’t just say that and not explain. What car? You don’t even have a license!”

And that didn’t stop me from stealing one.

I give her a wave and head out the door.

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