Grace Bennington slapped her checkbook shut, dropped it on her lap, and chewed on one of her gel-tipped nails. She abruptly stopped herself, because a gel manicure was expensive and she didn’t want to screw her nails up before the trip. Such a bad habit. She tucked her hand under her thigh and stared down at the closed checkbook. Her bank account balance danced in front of her eyes, without even looking at it. Taunting her.
You can afford to do this, she told herself. In fact, you can’t afford not to do it.
To appear as anything less than complete, anything less than absolutely unassailable in front of those petty, immaculate women would be a living nightmare. She had to look, act, and seem the part—that was, the part of a goddess, whose life hadn’t fallen into utter shambles over the past year.
“Come on, come on,” Grace muttered, and looked at the time on her phone. “I don’t have all day.”
The office was warm and filled with sunlight, and the décor consisted of bright flowers, kitschy knick-knacks, and framed pictures of happy couples on the desk in front of her. She grimaced. Too much false chipper optimism and forced hominess, like a doctor’s office where you’d soon be told you had inoperable cancer. She supposed most women who came in here were just as nervous as if that bomb was about to be dropped on them.
And apparently, they had to wait forever for the diagnosis.
Finally, a door behind the desk opened, and a pretty, middle-aged blond woman stepped out, carrying a stack of books. She smiled at Grace, with the same put-on cheeriness as the rest of the room.
Grace quickly stuffed her checkbook in her designer bag—bought at an outlet store, but no one could tell, right?—and got to her feet. She held out her hand, sleek nails flashing in the sunlight.
“Grace Bennington, yes. Just call me Grace.”
The woman shook her head. “I’m Monica Hunt.” She had a kind face and gentle eyes, and somehow, the soft assuring tone of her voice made Grace’s stomach stop doing flip-flops. This woman probably floated her way through life, drawing people to her like flies to honey with an aura like that. Grace often found herself disgruntled by such people. They made it look so … easy.
She was the absolute opposite of the women Grace usually hung around.
“I’m the director of SASS.” Monica chuckled. “I love saying that.”
SASS—Social Arrangement Service Specialists—was a silly acronym in Grace’s opinion, and they manipulated it for even sillier advertising. “SASS-y Women Find Love in Unusual Places!” their marketing claimed. The business was, on the surface, a dating and matchmaking service. However, Grace was seeking them out for the more in-depth, specialty services they offered. She intended to hide her patronage, of course. The very thought of her friends finding out filled her with dread.
“Grace.” Monica kept an easy smile on her face. “I’m happy to meet you.”
“I need to get down to business,” Grace informed her. “I’m on a tight schedule. My apologies.”
“Of course, by all means.” Monica motioned to Grace’s chair.
They both sat. Grace smoothed a hand over her silk skirt. Despite her nerves, she’d made the solid decision a few days ago to forge ahead, and she wanted to get this over with so she could focus on more important things—like what outfits to pack for this weekend.
Monica remained unruffled, and Grace felt instantly embarrassed for being so abrupt. She seemed like a very nice woman. On top of that, she was about to provide Grace with a much needed service.
“I’m sorry,” Grace said. “I’m on a time constraint, you see. It’s making me really anxious. I don’t mean to be rude.”
Monica patted her pile of books on the desk. “I understand completely. It’s somewhat nerve-wracking just being here, isn’t it? Let me put your mind at ease.”
“First, I trust you understand the services we offer here? You sounded like you were well informed on the phone, so I don’t want to presume anything.”
“Yes, I know you run a dating service as a front for an escort business.” Grace took her bag from the chair next to her and plopped it on the edge of the desk. “The wealthy women I’m friends with have gossiped about it many times. I get it. Now, I need someone beautiful, suave, and most importantly, able to put on a good show. It’s imperative that everyone believe he’s my boyfriend. I’m willing to tip him additionally if he can pull it off.” She fished her checkbook out. Why she’d put it away, she wasn’t sure. Maybe some insane part of her was terrified Monica would see through the cover.
Monica continued to hold a relaxed, friendly smile. “Our gentlemen are well versed in charm and social graces. You’re looking for something short-term, I take it? Not one of our more long-term and dedicated packages?”
Grace raised her eyebrows. “Dedicated?”
“Some of our clients are looking for extended happiness and companionship. We have a high success rate of bringing people together for life. I’m rather proud of it.”
For a moment, Grace wasn’t sure what she meant, then she realized what Monica was saying and boggled. “You sell husbands too?”
One of the girls had mentioned you could buy a husband from SASS, but Grace thought she was joking. Surely such things didn’t happen, in America, in this day and age. Right?
“We do.” Monica nodded. “But that’s not what you’re here for, so I won’t go into it.”
Grace smirked bitterly. “Goodness. I wish I’d known that before. It would have saved me a lot of trouble.”
“We provide male companions for discerning women, at least this division does. We also have a service for our gay and lesbian community. Our mission, overall, is helping single people find each other and discover lifelong happiness.”
“Right.” Grace crossed her legs and bobbed her Jimmy Choo heel. She’d gotten them at the same outlet store, and they complimented her outfit. “I’m not looking for another husband. I just need a man for the weekend. I’ll be taking him to Barbados, so he needs to have a passport.” She recalled the account balance in her checkbook again. It was burned into her retinas at this point. “I’ll pay for his plane ticket and any expenses while he’s there. We’ll be staying at an all-inclusive resort, so there shouldn’t be too many.” He could eat at their atrocious buffets and she was definitely not paying for a spa package, unless everyone else did it and she had to bring him along.
“That sounds lovely.” Monica shuffled through her stack of books and drew one out, a large soft-bound book with a red cover. “A weekend is three thousand dollars.”
Grace flicked her nails, picking at them. “Fine,” she said coolly. “I have it, no worries.”
“These are our gentlemen who do short-term excursions.” She held the book out to her, across the desk.
Grace eyed it. She’d heard rumors about this book, the fabled “man catalog.” Could she really browse guys like she was at the produce section of Whole Foods?
“If you’d like to take this home,” Monica said, “so you can peruse it at your leisure, there’s a deposit. It’s five-hundred—”
“I’m leaving tomorrow morning.” Grace grabbed the book. “I’ll purchase his ticket tonight. Let me just pick one out right now.” She had wanted to do this earlier, so she wouldn’t have to pay so much for a last-minute ticket for her companion, but she’d had to wait until a certain deposit finally went into her account. She’d made it, just barely.
Monica frowned, the first change in her breezy, confident expression. “You really are on a time constraint, aren’t you? It’s not an easy choice, trust me. Are you sure you don’t want to take it home?”
“No, I’ll choose one now, it’s not an issue.” Grace sat back. She stared down at the book for a moment, then opened it.
As she flipped through the broad, heavy pages, what she saw gave her pause. This was indeed a man catalog, and while she was currently an overwrought, distracted ball of anxiety, the offerings presented commanded all her attention.
Each page displayed a different man, accompanied by two pictures: one a headshot, the other a full body. The photographer was certainly skilled at catching their good sides. Printed below the pictures was a first name only and their age. Each entry also listed their occupation, ethnicity, interests and hobbies, and their availability. Some were labeled as “one encounter,” while more were “multi-day” and “weekly.” She realized her cheeks were getting warm, and she rarely blushed.
All the men were dangerously handsome, some intimidatingly so. Not the sort of men she imagined needed to sell themselves. All were dressed in suits and formal wear so they looked sophisticated and high-class. She hadn’t expected there would be so many to choose from.
Monica folded her hands on the desk and watched her as she flipped through the pages. “What do you do for a living, Grace?”
Grace looked up at her and smiled. “I own several boutiques in Manhattan. Maybe you’ve heard of them—Graceful Garments? They’re quite popular amongst the stylish upper echelon.” Pride swelled in her, but it was quickly deflated by painful memories and even more painful, probable prospects that lay ahead of her.
Not to mention she was lying about the “several” part. She’d had several boutiques, once, and that still counted, as far as she was concerned.
Monica perked. “Oh, yes. There’s one on West 35th, isn’t there? I bought a dress there a few months ago.”
Grace’s pride managed to struggle back up through the cracks. “You did?” She gazed at Monica in surprise. The one on West 35th was her last bastion. “Well … thank you. I design the clothes myself, though I have a few girls who work with me too, adding insights. I hope you like it.”
“I love it. It’s a sweater dress though, and I’m waiting for fall to come back around so I can wear it again.” Monica’s smile had returned.
Grace resisted telling her it would surely be out of style by then. Some women didn’t care about that. She ought to be grateful instead of critical.
“Business must be good.” Monica’s voice wrapped around her like a hug, a strange reaction for Grace to have to anyone these days. “Going to Barbados, to a resort. That sounds exciting, and expensive.”
Grace tucked her hair behind her ear and played with an errant curl against her neck. “Yes, business is booming. I used to have a lot more stores, but you know, I downsized.” She was paranoid now that Monica, being a customer, would discover the truth. “It’s too much work, so I went down to just a few. I had no life of my own, I was running myself ragged. I needed some me-time.” She gave a bright, false laugh.
“Many women who come to us are too busy to pursue relationships. We live in a fast-paced world and that’s why we feel our services are so important. No one should suffer just because they’re struggling to build their own business, or make their mark on the world.”
Grace tugged at her hair. Yes, too busy for love. That was her excuse, wasn’t it? And it was true, mostly.
She turned a page, and her breath caught.
Her toes curled in her overpriced shoes. The man she stared at was the opposite of what she’d intended to look for, and yet he was also perfect for so many reasons.
He had a dusky copper complexion, and thick, straight, jet-black hair, brushed back from his face and hanging past his collar. Long enough to be sexy but not unkempt and rebellious. He had a square jaw covered in dark scruff, and deep, soulful brown eyes beneath thick but well-groomed eyebrows. He also had lips that commanded attention. Just as it was unfair some guys had lashes a woman would kill for, this guy had a mouth that catwalk models in Milan would give up their sponsorships to obtain. They were full and pillowy and pale, and screamed kiss me, suck on me. Her heart pounded at that boyish, beautiful, yet rugged and boldly masculine face.
She tore her gaze from his picture and looked at his info.
His name was Tybalt, which almost made her laugh because it sounded so dramatic. He was twenty-eight. In both the head shot and full-length picture he wore a gray blazer and crisp white shirt with the top buttons undone, collar popped. In the head shot he was smiling, his teeth perfectly white and straight. In the full-length picture he had a smoldering, intense gaze.
He almost looked too much like a man one paid for, and yet…
His stats said he was Italian and Greek, which explained the dark and handsome look. His occupation was “business owner,” so they’d at least have something in common. She didn’t bother reading his interests and hobbies. Most of those things were superficial and made up to get you to pick them, she assumed.
“Does he have a passport?” She turned the book around and held it out, to show her Tybalt’s page. “Can he be at JFK by 10:00 AM tomorrow?”
Monica took the book from her and placed it on the desk, and turned to a computer next to her. “Many of our gentlemen have passports. They enjoy travel.”
“Even more on someone else’s dime, I’m sure.” Grace glanced at the book. Hopefully, he was a good conversationalist. If not, he could just stand there and look pretty. He had enough edge he should induce envy amongst her catty friends, who all wished for something younger and hotter than their stuffy husbands.
Monica typed on the computer, and after a minute, spoke. “Yes, he has a passport, and he’s currently available.” She swiveled toward Grace. “I can call him. Would you like to meet for coffee this afternoon and see if you have chemistry? There’s no commitment.”
“No.” Grace picked up her checkbook. “Just have him show up at JFK at 10:00 AM, and meet me at the American check-in. I need you to send me his information so I can purchase him a ticket, as soon as possible.” She paused, trying to remember everything she needed to convey. “Tell him to bring resort-appropriate clothes, nothing too trashy, and at least one formal suit. Something designer, preferably. Calvin Klein, at the low end.” She pulled out her own pen, a gold-plated Cartier limited edition. “Is it three thousand total, or are there taxes?”
Monica blinked a few times.
“Are you sure you don’t want to meet him first?” Her tone was still light, but now held a touch of concern. Maybe she wasn’t used to women who could make up their minds quickly. “Many of our clients would rather meet the gentleman first, in case they don’t get along. You could still pick someone else. There’s time.”
“It doesn’t matter if we get along, just how he looks.” Grace clicked her pen. “Now, who do I make this out to?” She should have brought cash, in retrospect. She couldn’t pay by debit card, as the amount was too much. But still, the charge might appear as something non-discreet in her account, and what would the bankers think? She had been reduced to paying for a man, and this was truly the low point of the entire year. Did it really matter anymore?
“Um,” Monica said, “just make it out to Hunt Services.”
The transaction took less than twenty minutes. Because it was such a large amount, Grace had to call and clear it with her bank, but everything went through. She wrote out her instructions detailing what Tybalt should bring, and exactly where and when he should meet her. Monica promised she would send his details along as soon as he gave permission to release them.
She and Monica shook hands again as Grace got up to leave.
“Enjoy your trip,” Monica said. The woman never stopped smiling. “I’m sure your gentleman will only improve upon your good time.”
Grace forced a smile in return. “I’m sure he will. Thank you for your help.” At least she’d have something nice to look at this weekend.
Grace turned and headed toward the door but stopped short when Monica called after her.
She looked back.
“That’s a lovely bag.” Monica nodded at it. “Burberry, isn’t it? So chic. I absolutely love it.”
Grace smiled and held it up on her arm. “Yes, it is. Thank you.”
“You have impeccable taste, in both accessories and men.”
Grace laughed. “Oh, darling. You wouldn’t say that if you knew me.” She turned and sauntered out the door.
* * * *
Grace’s outfits were carefully chosen, including shoes for each, and complimentary accessories, all neat and tightly packed—now she just had to hope it was good enough.
She stood in front of her bedroom window, high above the city street, in a white silk bra and panties. No one could see her up here, but she wouldn’t mind if they did—or at least that’s what she told herself. She was fit and curvy, maybe she was some Peeping Tom’s fantasy. She tried to go to the gym a few times a week, though she often had to wedge it into her schedule. She was careful not to eat too many carbs and counted every calorie, and took it easy on wine nights with the ladies. She’d managed to scrape together enough money to laser off every unsightly hair, manicure every nail, and moisturize every inch of skin so she didn’t have any wrinkles, lines, blemishes, or discoloration. Heaven forbid.
She raked her fingers through the waves of her hair, which was long and full and well-hydrated. Maybe she should have re-colored it this week. Were the burgundy highlights in the deep brown too dull? Were her roots showing? She glanced over at the full-length mirror, suddenly nervous. If she had a single dry strand or split end, she would never hear the end of it.
You have to be bulletproof, girl. Hold your head up high in front of those broads. Show them you still belong. She tilted her chin up. You’re just as good as them, even better.
She thrust her chest out, and looked down. Her boobs weren’t sagging, were they? She slumped and sighed. This was exhausting.
Grace walked to the bed, where her suitcase sat open, awaiting the last few items she would throw in there tomorrow morning. She picked up the information package she’d gotten from SASS and her phone, and sat down on the edge of the bed.
Tybalt’s phone number was listed on the sheet, and Monica had already sent her all his pertinent information, so she could get his ticket. He was from Bensonhurst, good Lord. Maybe she should call him and meet with him tonight after all, just in case he was too ghetto for this. She could instruct him on all the things he was supposed to do and say this weekend. She had enough saved up to tip him an extra five hundred, if he behaved himself to the letter.
Her phone rang in her hand, startling her. Was he calling her first? She frowned at the screen, then sighed, even heavier than before. But she answered with a cheery, expectant voice.
“Amelia! How are you?” She got up and strolled over to the mirror.
“Just as excited as can be, darling,” the other woman purred through the phone. “I was just calling to make sure you’re ready.”
“I am.” Grace leaned toward the mirror and inspected her eyebrows. “God knows I need some fun in the sun. I’ve been so busy with the boutiques lately. They’re all doing so well.”
Amelia chuckled, but it was a derisive sound. Grace wasn’t sure she had worked a day in her life, and she didn’t need to.
“I’m looking forward to the sun, that’s for sure.” Amelia’s voice was a lazy drawl. Grace always pictured her sprawled on a chaise lounge, sipping wine, whenever she called. “It’s been a long winter, and this spring is taking forever to bloom. Anyway, even in the summer I can only do tanning beds here in the city. I can’t lay out with all the pollutants in the air.” Her tone brightened. “Carl bought me a gold lamé bikini for the trip. Wait until you see it, you will just die. I look like a movie star in it. He said it cost six hundred dollars. I’m sure he just got it so he can look at the tits he bought me, too.”
Grace twisted her lips. “That sounds beautiful. I’m sure you look lovely.” She thought of her own bikini, one she had designed herself. It wasn’t nearly so showy.
“We have to go shopping while we’re there,” Amelia said. “I hear the resort has a few high-end stores nearby. I bet you could find some rags at the local shops, too. Bring them back, fancy them up, and resell them at your boutique.”
Grace wanted to explain that’s not how it worked, she didn’t repurpose clothes but instead took pride in making her own designs from scratch, but Amelia wouldn’t understand. She hadn’t worn anything without a designer label on it since she was a child, and probably not even then.
“Perhaps.” Grace kept her tone light. “I’m all up for shopping, though.” The balance in her bank account screamed otherwise.
“Oh, and we’re finally going to meet your man, I hear?” Amelia chuckled. “I can’t wait. I’m so glad you’ve finally moved on from Brent, you’ve spent far too much time stuck in the past. I was starting to worry about you.”
Grace tugged at a strand of her hair and kept her voice neutral. “Oh no, don’t worry. I’m not stuck in the past. I know when to cut my losses and move on.”
“I’m glad to hear it. How embarrassing for you.” She tittered. “You recovered like a pro though, darling. Don’t let these men keep you down. Does your new beau know about Brent? I wouldn’t tell him you have an ex-husband in prison if you can avoid it. That’s not the sort of bomb you want to drop on a man you don’t have fully wrapped around your finger yet.”
Grace yanked her hair. “I tell him only what he needs to know, and you’re right, that’s not important. I’m moving toward the future, not dwelling in the past.”
“That’s the spirit. What’s his name again? Did you tell me?”
Grace had made up a “boyfriend” over the past couple weeks, but kept the details vague under the guise they weren’t serious yet. Her friends rarely listened to her anyway. Still, she could no longer stand their side-eyeing at brunch when she explained she was far too busy to get heavily involved with someone. She’d been hoping she might meet someone before the trip, and barring that, at least find someone to playact with her before she had to go to the extreme of actually purchasing a man.
Maybe she was just as pathetic as they obviously, secretly thought she was—or not so secretly. She was sure behind closed doors they laughed at her.
“Tybalt.” She turned from the mirror. “He owns a business, like me. We’re both entrepreneurs. We have so much in common. I couldn’t believe it when we first met, he’s a perfect match.”
“Ah, I see.” Amelia sounded bored. “Well, I hope he has a good time. You know we can get a little crazy.” She giggled. “He can hang out with the men and talk about boring business things. You can push him off on them so we can have our girl time.”
Grace laughed. “Yes, those men get tedious, don’t they? All that talk about money and investments. Not to mention golf. They can go on forever about golf.”
“As long as Carl keeps buying me things, I don’t care. Let him stay on the green or go to the office. The last thing I want is to go to a tedious job every day.”
Grace laughed again, forcing it through the tight ache in her chest. Amelia seemed to possess not one ounce of self-awareness.
“Anyway, Gracie, I’ll see you in Barbados. You and your man. Is he young and hot? Please say yes, we need some fresh meat to ogle.”
“Of course he is.” She plucked at her bra strap. “I deserve the best, after what I’ve been through.”
“Indeed.” She blew a kiss through the phone. “Bye, darling. See you tomorrow.”
Grace blew her a kiss in return and hung up.
She tossed the phone on the bed, next to the sheet with Tybalt’s information, and stood there a moment, trying to breathe. Then she turned and faced the mirror again. Her eyes were bright with unshed tears. She stepped up to the mirror and wiped delicately beneath them, trying not to smear her mascara.
“Stop it,” she told herself. “You’re still good enough. The past is over.” She sniffed and lifted her chin. “You’re going to keep your head up. That’s what you do.”
The past was far from over, though. It loomed in a huge stack of legal papers on her desk—a stack of papers she was sick of looking at, that she couldn’t bring herself to pick up and read through one more time. Those papers represented so much money sucked away, from her business, from the equity in the penthouse, from her wardrobe, from the luxuries she’d gotten used to having but were now slipping through her fingers. Each thing she had to sell felt like another nail in the coffin.
She stared at the papers over her shoulder in the mirror, just sitting there, taunting her in the afternoon light. A big, fat pile of failure.
She burst into sobs.