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Claire Hollingsworth stared across the table at her fiancé Matthew Charles Howard Jr. They sat in one of the most exclusive restaurants in Connecticut, the Forked Inn, an old country manor home turned exclusive eatery with a wait list longer than her personal to-do list. The dishes were small and finely made, a testament to the classically trained French chef who personally created each and every item on the menu. The dress code was strict as well, with men in jackets and women wearing the jewelry they normally kept tucked away in safes. It was decadent, romantic, the air thick with the scent of fine perfume and finer wine.
For the evening, Claire had donned a lilac dress with a flared skirt and delicately scalloped edges. It reminded her of the vintage postcards her grandmother had collected of perfectly coiffed woman holding turkeys or vacuuming the house in high heels. It maybe wasn’t her favorite cut, but Matt had insisted she look the part of a demure lady when they went out with his coworkers, and she was always too happy to help Matt make a deal.
The dress, a gift from a New York City designer friend of her sister’s, had sat in the back of her walk-in closet for months, until Matt said he had planned to take her to the Forked Inn. It was the place they had first gotten engaged, and Claire had nothing but fond memories of the dimly lit corner where the man she had planned to pledge her life to got down on one knee with an obnoxiously large diamond he’d probably paid too much for.
But instead of loving glances over glasses of champagne, Claire was dabbing her tears with a cloth napkin, and resisting the urge to whack Matt over the head with the half-empty bottle of Dom Pérignon.
“Claire,” Matt said in a terse whisper, his gaze darting around to the other diners. “I thought if we came here, you wouldn’t make a scene.”
Hot rage bubbled in her chest like a witch’s cauldron and she spat, “Make a scene? You tell me you got someone pregnant and I’m the one making a scene? You made an entire human, Matthew!”
A woman with a gray perm stared at their table and Claire made eye contact with her, then quickly looked away. The last thing she really wanted to do was draw attention to herself, so Matt had it right on that account. She was utterly humiliated, but it would only get worse if she saw her name and picture printed in the next day’s tabloid pages with her mascara running down her face. Father would have a stroke.
“Come on, my little eclair,” he started in a sugary-sweet voice that normally made her all warm and fuzzy inside. “I know this is—”
“Don’t call me that. I’ve always hated that nickname, and you don’t even eat processed sugar.”
He sighed. “Now, Claire, she says she’s more than willing to keep full custody. All I would have to do is pay child support and a little extra to ensure it all stays off the books. It would be the same thing as if I had . . . a car payment, wouldn’t it?”
“Oh, so you’d completely abandon your child for me? I’m not sure if you think that’s flattering, but you couldn’t be further from the mark.” She snatched her champagne glass off the table and took a gulp. “It’s a baby, not a Mercedes.”
“I just wanted to tell you so you wouldn’t be . . . caught off guard if it came up later.”
“Oh, yeah, because this is so much better. Who is she?”
His gaze darted away. “You don’t know her.”
She slumped back in her chair and recalled the scene in Legally Blonde when Warner Huntington III took Elle Woods out to dinner to dump her instead of proposing because she was too much of a Marilyn and not enough of a Jackie. Was that what was going on? Was Claire too saucy and unpredictable and not prim and poised enough for him? She had tried to live up to his Stepford wife dreams, but maybe cutting sugar out of her diet and only wearing jeans on lazy Saturdays wasn’t enough for him.
“I’m a Marilyn, aren’t I? Is that it?” she managed around sips of champagne.
“Yes, am I just too much like Marilyn Monroe and not enough like Jackie O for you? Are you just planning on running off and starting some impeccable life with her and your child?”
Matt gave her a sad smile, like she was a child who’d just said she didn’t believe in Santa Claus anymore. “No, honey, you’re not a Marilyn. You’re a Jackie . . . too much of a Jackie sometimes.”
“Too much? How can anyone be too much like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis?” Claire was stunned. She’d never thought that could be a bad thing.
“You’re just so . . . perfect,” he said. “Everything with you is plotted and planned, leaving no room for fun sometimes.”
“Only if you think you have to be. Look, I had my fun with a Marilyn, and now I’m cleaning up the consequences. I’ve learned my lesson.” He smiled as the waiter appeared with their dinners and paused until he left again before continuing. “I’ve transferred Rhonda to a new office, so—”
“Wait . . . you cheated on me with Rhonda? How? When?” Her mind spun as she tried to remember every evening Matt had said he was working late or was getting dinner with someone from the office. Was he really with Rhonda? Was Claire sitting at home while he wined and dined another woman?
“The timeline isn’t important, Claire. I just thought you deserved the truth before—”
“God, Matt. Sleeping with the secretary? You’re such a cliché.” She put her empty glass on the table and pulled her phone out of her purse. She scrolled through her contacts and shot a text to her best friend.
CLAIRE: At Forked Inn. Please come get me. SOS EMERGENCY
BEA: Give me 5
She shoved her phone back into her bag and reached for the champagne bottle, but Matt took it first, gingerly pulling the ice-filled bucket toward him. “Claire, I didn’t mean to upset you. I just wanted to tell you the truth so we can start our marriage off on the right foot.”
“Well, you already tripped.”
“Maybe you should eat something. Your duck is going to get cold.”
Claire wanted to laugh; she really did. Her life was crumbling down around her, jagged fragments of glass and stone that cut deep. There was no reason her world should be in such a state. She did everything right from the moment she got out of bed in the morning until she slipped between the sheets at night. There was no karma to fear, no cosmic retribution. She was a good person who didn’t deserve any of this.
Then there was their wedding, which was completely paid for and meticulously planned. It was to be a full-scale gala at the Plaza in New York City straight out of her childhood dreams. Imported champagne, a full string quartet, a six-tiered cake with sugared sprigs of lavender. And it was in six weeks. What the hell was she supposed to do?
In six weeks, anyone who was anyone would arrive in floor-length gowns and perfectly tailored suits to see a Hollingsworth Publishing Princess tie the knot. Her gown had already been tailored to fit her by a designer friend of her twin sister Molly, the dinner menu was set, and dozens of peonies were being flown in from Holland. The invitations had gone out months ago, so now she would have to figure out what to do with the hundreds of their parents’ nearest and dearest business associates who would be waiting at the Plaza to see her get married. Because if there was one thing she was sure of, it was that she wasn’t about to marry Matthew. Not at the Plaza. Not ever.
Claire thought she was going to throw up.
“Stop it.” She gathered up her purse with a shaking hand.
She began to stand, but Matt reached out and grabbed her arm. “Now, honey, just think . . . what would Jackie do?”
“I’m not thinking about what Jackie would do, I’m thinking about what I’m currently doing, which is telling you we’re done. No wedding. No marriage. No us.”
Claire tugged herself free from his grasp and stalked through the restaurant, careful to keep her head held high and not break into a run. She had begun the evening with such high hopes. She’d thought maybe Matt had planned something special for their trip to Marietta, Montana, the following week for her big sister Olivia’s cozy wedding, like a romantic stay at the Graff Hotel, or maybe he’d even decided to try rock climbing with her. But instead of planning out where they could take a hike or go rafting, she was scurrying out of dinner and hoping her friend Beatrix, or Bea for short, would be waiting for her.
Bea was nowhere to be seen, so Claire sidestepped the valet and stood beside a cluster of hydrangea bushes, out of the way of the other diners coming and going. She had half hoped Matt would have chased after her, told her it was all a lie or some sort of sick prank. But as soon as she had stepped out onto the sidewalk and Matt hadn’t followed, Claire knew everything she had just been told over a glass of champagne, surrounded by candles and light piano music, had been the truth.
Affairs in the high society world weren’t uncommon. She had caught her own father getting a little too close with a paralegal when she was in high school, and her mother was currently taking extra lessons at the country club with a rather handsome tennis pro. But Claire always thought she and Matt were different. She had naively been under the assumption he would be true to her like a Prince Charming out of a fairy tale. She had tried so hard to be absolutely perfect, leaving no room for him to step out on her.
For five years she had allowed herself to be molded by him. She’d cut her hair just as he liked, dressed as he liked, took the exercise classes he suggested, and even cut out gluten and sugar when he went on another one of his specialty fad diets he’d picked up at the gym. Somewhere along the way in her efforts to become the perfect wife, she had completely lost herself and now she felt like nothing more than his discarded designer Barbie doll.
A deep green Range Rover pulled up beside her, and Bee’s heart-shaped face appeared in the open driver’s side window. “You okay?”
Claire hurried to the passenger side and slipped in. “It’s Matt. He . . . he . . .” Before she could stop herself, she began to cry again. Voicing what happened, telling another person, would make it all real. She didn’t want it to be real. She wanted to wake up in her four-poster bed in her childhood bedroom and have everything just be a bad dream.
Bea pulled away from the restaurant and headed toward the main road. “He didn’t hurt you, did he?”
“Not physically, if that’s what you mean.”
“What did he do?”
“I can’t even say it, it’s so . . . terrible. There’s no other word for it.”
She gasped. “Did he break off the engagement?”
Claire’s gaze shot to the massive rock on her finger. “No, but I know that I have to. He had . . . he is . . . him and his secretary—”
“He cheated on you?”
“Worse. She’s pregnant and he’s such a dirtbag, he thought ignoring his own kid would be enough to make me happy. How in the world would him leaving his secretary to raise their child alone make me happy? He’s such scum.”
“Wow.” Bea made a sharp right turn into a strip mall.
“Where are we going?”
“You’re coming back to my apartment, but first we’re going to pick up some supplies. Want to wait in the car?” She put the Range Rover in park in front of a liquor store.
Claire nodded. “My face is always so blotchy when I cry. I don’t want anyone to see me like this.”
“I can’t believe him. He’s such a jerk. We should go pour sugar in his gas tank or put a dead fish in his office. I mean, did he really think you could ever do better than you? He is a terrible person and you deserve so much more. The fish market’s closed, but I feel like we can probably get a tilapia or two at the grocery store.”
Clair cracked a small smile. “Let’s hold off on the fish.”
“You got it. I’m going to grab a couple bottles of wine and some snacks. Did you eat dinner?”
“No. He broke the joyful news to me, and I promptly lost my appetite.”
“You need to eat dinner. Just order something for delivery. I’ll be right back.”
Once she was alone, Claire went through the motions of looking up the Thai food restaurant she and Bea always ate at on Saturday afternoons after her Pilates class. She hated Pilates, but Matt had always insisted it was the best way to work on her core. She was newly thirty and had never been even remotely worried about “her core.” To think she had given up on the intensive dance classes she loved for some exercise class she hated. She felt so stupid for being so completely blind.
She placed an order online and went to call her twin sister, Molly. Although they were twins, they weren’t identical, with Molly being the youngest wild child of the three Hollingsworth sisters. She was pink, bubbly, and loud where Claire was softer in both manner and speech. Molly had spent most of the last year traveling the rodeo circuit with her fiancé Wes Granger, who was a professional bull rider, and working on her own magazine, Hollingsworth Horse and Rodeo. Molly seemed so happy every time Claire spoke to her, building a life in Marietta, and she almost hated to ruin her good mood by dumping her troubles at her feet.
Her oldest sister, Olivia, was also engaged, and her fiancé Kit Granger had gotten someone pregnant as well, but it was Olivia, which was why their wedding was moved up several months. She’d be starting her own charming little family in the heart of Marietta. Both of her sisters seemed to be settling down, and Claire had thought she was too. But for once in her life, things weren’t perfect.
She almost had to laugh. In the tabloid world, she and her sisters were known as the Hollingsworth Publishing Princesses of Connecticut. Olivia was the Ice Princess for her sharp business mind and sharper tongue, Molly was the Party Princess because she lived in a world of modeling perks and lavish events, and Claire was the Perfect Princess, because she was—or had been up until her second glass of champagne—perfect.
Claire had always done exactly as she was told, even if she didn’t want to. She’d given up her painting classes for French and Mandarin lessons in high school. She’d gotten into Harvard University and graduated top of her class with an MBA in accounting with a minor in business relations when she’d really wanted to go for classical arts. She went to work for Hollingsworth Publishing, met an investment banker named Matt whose blood was just as blue as hers, and followed every single rule to the letter.
But she hadn’t gotten anything out of it. She never used her French or Mandarin, she disliked the firm settings in the workplace she basically lived in, and Matt had been nothing more than a garbage can of a person beneath the designer suits. Claire had given up everything she’d ever wanted for a life she thought she needed to have, and outside her job, which she would have probably had anyway since her father owned the company, she felt that she had nothing.
For the first time in her life, nothing was perfect.
End of Excerpt