Passion on Park Avenue
SATURDAY, JULY 21
Naomi Powell figured there was no good way to discover that the man you’d been dating for three months was married to someone else. But of all the possibilities, learning about the existence of a Mrs. Brayden Hayes via the cheating bastard’s obituary?
Definitely the worst.
The taxi pulled to a stop outside Central Presbyterian, and Naomi nearly lost her nerve, her instincts screaming for her to tell the cabbie to take her back to the Lower East Side.
Instead, she handed the driver a twenty, shoved open the door, and stepped onto ritzy Park Avenue as though she belonged there. She pulled her Gucci sunglasses out of her bag and slid them onto her nose—the overcast July day didn’t quite warrant the shades, but she was walking into a funeral. People would hopefully think the purpose of the sunglasses was to hide red, puffy eyes rather than what it really was:
Screw that, Naomi thought furiously, pushing the sunglasses back up into her dark red hair and marching with
purpose toward the stately Gothic-style church. She didn’t need a disguise. At twenty-nine, Naomi had spent most of her lifetime dealing with people trying to make her feel inferior, and she’d be damned if she let a turd of a playboy succeed from beyond the grave.
She had just as much right to be here as anyone else. It’s not like she’d known he was married. She hadn’t even known he lived in Manhattan. Naomi wasn’t sure she knew a single damn thing about the real Brayden Hayes, but even around all her anger, she still wanted the chance to say goodbye.
The man had made her life better, for a while at least. Even if he was making it a hell of a lot worse now.
She sighed and slid the sunglasses back onto her face. Not to protect herself, but to protect Brayden’s wife. Naomi had no idea if Claire knew of her existence, but on the off chance she did, Naomi didn’t want to make this any harder on the woman than it already was.
Naomi walked up the steps to the church as Brayden’s obituary rattled around in her brain, the way it had for days. The victim of a tragic yachting accident, Brayden Hayes is survived by wife, Claire Hayes . . .
A yachting accident. Really? Really?
Wasn’t death by luxury boat just a little too good for a womanizer with the morals of a lump of coal?
The only saving grace of the situation, and Naomi had had to look really hard to find one, was that Claire and Brayden hadn’t had any children. Thank God for that. It was the only thing that had kept Naomi from breaking completely when she’d learned of Brayden’s double life. She knew all too well the havoc a philandering asshole could wreak on a child’s life.
Naomi stepped into the dark, quiet church and walked
toward one of the back pews. Several people turned and looked her way, and her footsteps faltered.
On a rational level, Naomi knew they were merely turning instinctively at the sharp click of her Louboutin stilettos against the church floor. Some maybe even recognized her as the Naomi Powell from the latest 30-under-30 list, or from her interview on the Today show.
But everywhere she looked, Naomi saw only disdain. As though they could see beyond the conservative Chloé dress to her Bronx roots. As though they knew she was the other woman. The very identity that had destroyed her mother and that Naomi had sworn to avoid.
She sucked in a breath, trying to gather the defiance that had turned her from a nobody into one of the city’s wealthiest women. She tried to gather the confidence that had earned her a spot on every “women to watch” list in the nation. But today, she didn’t feel like a bright up-and-comer in the business world. Today she felt small. Worse, she felt dirty.
Naomi watched as a woman pursed her lips and turned away, as though unable to look any longer upon Brayden Hayes’s whore. That’s what he’d made her. A lifetime of trying to avoid her mother’s footsteps, and one Upper East Side scumbag had turned her into her own worst nightmare.
Naomi didn’t even realize she’d turned around and left the church until she felt the warm summer breeze whip at her hair. Didn’t register what direction she was walking until she hit the eastern edge of Central Park.
Only then did she let herself truly breathe, sucking in big lungfuls of air. But she didn’t cry. Naomi had promised herself a long time ago she’d never cry because of a man.
She was hardly dressed for a stroll, but the trees and winding
path calmed her as she entered the park. A welcome respite from the nearby neighborhood and all its snobbery. In Central Park, it didn’t matter what street you lived on, what borough you came from. Central Park belonged to all New Yorkers, one glorious shared backyard.
The park was mostly quiet. Most tourists entered at the south side, so she saw only a couple of joggers, a few elderly couples out for a walk, two moms on a stroller date, and . . .
Naomi did a double take at the blonde sitting alone on a park bench, and her stomach dropped out. Are you kidding me with this right now, God?
The first thing Naomi had done after the shock of reading that Brayden Hayes was freaking married was to google the crap out of his wife, desperate for an indication that the Times had been wrong about his marital status. That it was a misprint or he was divorced. The paper hadn’t been wrong. There really was a Mrs. Brayden Hayes.
And she, too, had chosen Central Park over Brayden’s funeral.
Nearly even with Claire Hayes now, and with the sunglasses still providing Naomi anonymity, she dared to sneak a look at the other woman out of the corner of her eye.
Brayden’s widow looked pretty much like the picture Naomi had rummaged up online: a thirty-something Upper East Side WASP. Like Naomi, she wore oversize sunglasses, the Chanel logo glinting in a stray ray of sunshine. Naomi’s trained eye pegged the basic black sheath as St. John, and the basic black pumps Louboutins—identical to Naomi’s.
But unlike Naomi, Claire had a genteel poise about her. Like she’d never said darn, much less dropped an f-bomb. Naomi would bet serious money that Claire Hayes didn’t eat Kraft Macaroni & Cheese straight out of the pan when she was stressed
and that Claire had never been so poor that she’d actually once considered taking home a neighbor’s discarded mattress, bedbugs be damned, simply because it was free.
Claire’s placid expression betrayed nothing as Naomi passed her, the glasses too large to reveal any emotion on her face. For that matter, Naomi wondered if women like her experienced emotion at all. It didn’t seem it. The woman was the picture of calm, except for . . .
Brayden’s widow’s hands were clenched tightly in her lap, the fingers of her right hand white-knuckled around the fist of her left hand. But it wasn’t the subdued pink manicure that captured Naomi’s attention. It was the bright red crescent moons beneath the nails.
Naomi had a lifelong bad habit of acting before thinking, and she did so now, crossing to the other woman and sitting beside her on the park bench.
“That’s enough now,” Naomi said, using her CEO voice, calm and commanding.
Claire didn’t move. Naomi wasn’t even sure the other woman heard her.
Naomi hesitated only for a moment before slowly reaching over and prying the nails of Claire’s right hand away from her left hand. Little streaks of blood were left in the wake.
Claire looked down in confusion, as though just now registering the pain.
“Does that Givenchy have any Kleenex?” Naomi asked, nodding toward Claire’s clutch on the bench.
Claire didn’t move for a long moment, then taking a deep breath, she calmly reached for her purse, pulling out a travel-size package of tissue.
“We’re wearing the same shoes. Same dress, too,” Claire said, dabbing at the blood on the back of her hand with a tissue, using the same casual indifference of one dabbing up a drop of spilled water.
Naomi nodded in agreement, though Claire’s St. John was a knee-length mock turtleneck, and Naomi’s Chloé was a boatneck that hit at midthigh.
For a long moment, neither said anything.
“I’m supposed to be at a funeral,” Claire said, balling up the tissue and dropping her hands back into her lap.
“Why aren’t you?”
Naomi was genuinely curious. She knew why she wasn’t at that funeral. But the widow being a no-show . . . that was some serious Page Six–worthy gossip right there.
Claire opened her mouth to respond but shut it when a pretty young woman with dark brown hair walked past them. Naomi waited for the other woman to pass and, when she gave the brunette a closer look, realized the other woman was walking a bit too slowly, as though tempted to approach. She looked vaguely familiar. Naomi was fairly sure they’d crossed paths at a couple of events, though Naomi couldn’t put a name with the face.
Brayden’s widow, however, could. Claire went rigid beside Naomi, even as she called out to the other woman, “Audrey.”
Unlike Claire and Naomi, the brunette wasn’t wearing sunglasses, and Naomi saw her round eyes go even wider. “You know who I am?”
“You’re Audrey Tate. I did a little digging after you called the house that night,” Claire said quietly. “I know you were sleeping with my husband.”
Naomi’s head whipped around in surprise, and then surprise escalated to shock as she realized Claire wasn’t talking to her.
What the . . .
Audrey let out a hiccuping sob and walked to the bench, and Naomi almost laughed when she saw the other woman’s shoes. Black Louboutin pumps identical to hers and Claire’s.
“I didn’t know,” Audrey was saying in a rush as she sat beside Claire and stared at her with a pleading expression. “I didn’t know until you picked up the phone that night that he was married. I swear to you, he told me his wife had left him, that he was separated . . . I never would have— You have to believe me. I didn’t know—”
“Oh, honey,” Naomi interrupted, half-sympathetic, half-horrified. “You’ve got to get it together.”
Audrey stopped her sniffling and gave Naomi what she probably thought was an icy glare, but the impact was diminished by the red nose and puffy eyes. “Respectfully, you don’t know the first thing about what’s going on here.”
“Well now, that’s the thing,” Naomi said, looking down at her manicure. “I sort of do.”
Both women were studying her now.
“Who are you?” Claire asked.
Naomi studied the other woman for only a moment before acting on the same instinct that had taken her from Bronx high school dropout to entrepreneurial superstar; she sensed that Claire Hayes was the sort of woman who deserved the truth. The full truth.
Naomi pushed her sunglasses on top of her head and looked at Claire. “I’m Naomi Powell. The other other woman.”
Audrey’s mouth fell open, but Claire didn’t react beyond a slightly too long blink. “What?”
Damn. She’d thought she’d been pretty clear.
“Your husband was putting his pickle into one too many
sandwiches,” Naomi announced plainly. “Well, two too many if you count her.” She jerked her chin toward Audrey.
“Did you just compare . . . pickle . . . oh my God, sandwiches,” Audrey said, lifting a hand to her forehead.
Claire’s head dropped forward, her chin resting on her chest, and Naomi winced. Perhaps she could have phrased it slightly differently . . . sticking his noodle in the wrong casserole? Cucumber into multiple salads?
But Claire Hayes surprised her. Her shoulders were shaking, not with tears but with silent amusement. Then she tossed her head back and looked at the sky, letting out an audible laugh.
“I hate to be the one to tell you this,” Audrey told Claire, “but I don’t think he’s up there.”
Now it was Naomi’s turn to let out a surprised laugh as she realized she’d underestimated the brunette. She may look like a lanky Hepburn, but this Audrey had an edge beneath the sweet, doe-eyed appearance.
“Shouldn’t we be at the funeral?” Claire asked. Probably more to herself, but Naomi answered anyway.
“Nah. I mostly showed up to tell God not to allow that one through the pearly gates, and as Audrey pointed out, I think He probably already figured that one out.”
“I never thought I’d be here,” Claire said tiredly, lifting her fingers to her temples and rubbing absently.
“You mean sitting on a park bench with your husband’s mistresses while his funeral goes down just a couple blocks over?” Naomi asked.
Claire laughed. “Yes. That. I just keep thinking I know I should be sad, but instead all I can think about is how stupid I was, and that’s before I knew there were two of you. How did I not see it?”
“We were just as stupid,” Audrey said, setting a hand on
Claire’s arm. “He was my boyfriend for a year. I just thought he traveled a lot.”
“Three months,” Naomi said, pointing at herself. “He told me most of his business dealings were in Hong Kong and that he had to work most nights. I totally bought it.”
They all fell silent, lost in their own memories of the man, and Naomi was struck that despite the fact that this was perhaps one of the weirdest meetings in the history of female encounters, it didn’t feel as odd as it should. Far from resenting the other women, she felt almost comforted by their presence. Claire’s and Audrey’s very existence was proof that Naomi wasn’t the only clueless one. That she wasn’t alone in being a victim of a heartless man’s games.
Who would have thought that strength in numbers applied to a dead man’s philandering?
Naomi straightened slightly and turned toward the others. “I have a confession.”
Claire lifted her eyebrows. “Worse than the fact that you were having adult sleepovers with my husband?”
“Who I didn’t know was your husband,” Naomi clarified, waving her finger at Claire. “But no, my confession is that while I’m really mad at Brayden, I’m even angrier at myself. For letting him fool me.”
Audrey nodded. “Same. I mean, it’s a little more self-loathing than anger, I guess, but . . . I just can’t stop thinking about how I didn’t see it. And if I didn’t see him being a snake, how will I ever spot another man being a snake?”
Claire looked down at her hands, running the pad of her finger along the small cuts caused by her own manicured fingers. “I’m not worried about it. After all this, I’m pretty dead set on turning into the old lonely lady with cats.”
“Nope,” Naomi said firmly. “We are not going to let him do
that to us. I’m not really a long-term relationship girl, but I do like a male companion, and I have no intention of letting Brayden sour me on . . .”
“Pickles?” Audrey suggested.
“I was going to say sex, but yeah. That, too.”
Audrey’s smile was fleeting. “But I am the long-term relationship girl. I want the ring and the babies, and the—”
“Please don’t say white picket fence.”
“Oh God no.” Audrey shuddered, then pointed to her shoes. “These red soles are meant for Fifth Ave, not the burbs. But I still want the fairy tale, and I just . . .” She swallowed. “It’s harder to believe these days.”
“So let me get this straight.” Naomi turned to Claire. “You’re going to turn into a cat lady, and you’re giving up your Disney princess dreams,” she said, turning toward Audrey. “All because of a guy.”
Claire and Audrey exchanged a look, and Naomi pressed.
“Ladies, I know we just met, but let’s face it, we have the same shoes and we were screwed over by the same guy, so as far as I’m concerned, we leapfrogged a few steps in the female-bonding process.”
“Perfect, I’ll invite you over for a slumber party,” Claire said, starting to stand.
“Hold up.” Naomi put a hand on her arm. “I’m not suggesting we get matching tattoos, just that we can help each other.”
Claire stared at her but sat back down. “You want me to help my husband’s mistresses—do what, exactly?”
“We watch each other’s blind spots as it relates to men. Left to our own devices, obviously we’re no good at seeing a guy for who—and what—he really is. But what if we combined forces? Help each other spot another Brayden.”
Naomi knew it was spontaneous, a little bossy, a lot nuts, but it felt right. And Naomi had made a name for herself trusting her gut.
“Respectfully, I don’t even know you,” Audrey said, running a hand over her dark ponytail. “I get your point, but why would I have two strangers do a gut check on a guy I like instead of my friends?”
“Because who knows better how to spot another woman getting scammed than three women who just experienced it?” Naomi pointed out.
Audrey bit her lip and looked at Claire. “You know, I don’t hate this plan?”
Claire fiddled with her watch, and Naomi’s gaze tracked the motion. “Cartier.”
Claire looked up. “Yes. How’d you know?”
“I know designers. I also know that I have the exact same watch at home.”
Claire’s eyes went wide. “Brayden . . . ?”
“Me, too,” Audrey said, almost inaudibly.
Claire stared down at the watch on her left wrist, and Naomi knew they had her.
Naomi extended her right hand. “Hands in, girls, we’re making a pact, high school–style. May neither of you ever fall victim to a cheating bastard again. Not on my watch.”
“And to helping each other find the right man. That’s on my watch,” Audrey said, placing her palm on top of Naomi’s hand.
After a moment of hesitation, Claire set her hand atop Audrey’s. “Oh, what the hell. I’m in. To no more assholes.”
Naomi had never been a girl’s girl, and she certainly wasn’t the type to get all fluttery about fate. And though she’d been half-joking with the whole pact thing, something odd happened
in the moment the three of their hands met. As though they were bound together now not by Brayden, but by something bigger. Something important.
And Naomi was suddenly certain that this moment with Claire Hayes and Audrey Tate was somehow going to change everything.
As they all let their hands fall away, Audrey let out a long sigh and looked eastward in the direction of the church. “I guess we should make an appearance, huh?”
Naomi stood and flicked her sunglasses back onto her face with one finger. “Screw it. Let’s go shopping.”