The White Star
“ARE YOU ABSOLUTELY certain this is the way to get the magic back?” Morgan Shaw whispered urgently into her slim black flip phone.
On the sidewalk outside the Grand Duchess, a fashionable boutique hotel located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Morgan paced in the gentle breeze of an early September evening. In her estimation, she was dressed, to put it quite succinctly, like a hooker. Tight black leather miniskirt, stretchy red Lycra top with a plunging neckline and Julia Roberts’ Pretty Woman thigh-high boots. She wore too much makeup, not nearly enough lingerie and an auburn wig that made her scalp itch.
And every time she stalked past the discreet front entrance of the Grand Duchess, the top-hat-wearing doorman shot her a one-wrong-move-doxy-and-I’ll-sic-the-cops-on-you glower.
Morgan tugged at the hem of her miniskirt in a desperate attempt to make it look longer, to make herself feel less mortified.
“Stoking sexual desire is the first step in recapturing the magic,” lectured her younger sister, Cass, who was on the other end of the cell phone conversation. “Ultimately it’s all about the hot sex.”
“There’s hot sex and then there’s—” Morgan peered down at her skimpy attire and shook her head “—just plain hot to trot.”
“Hey, hey.” Cass read her thoughts. “Those were my best going-out clothes before I met Sam.”
“Exactly. That’s what terrifies me.”
“Need I remind you, sister dearest, that you were the one who came to me for advice?”
“No, you’re right. I can do this,” Morgan said, feeling as jittery as if someone had forcibly injected her with pure Colombian coffee-bean extract.
“Sure you can. Be bold, be brave, be bewitching.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You’re already all those things.”
“You can be, too.” “I don’t know about that,” Morgan mumbled. She stepped back against the wall of a nearby residential building to get out of the way of foot traffic. “Decking out like a Victoria’s Secret model seems so overstated.”
“You’ve tried understated and it really hasn’t had the desired effect you were going for now, has it? Do you want the magic back or not?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then for crying out loud, if you want to snag Adam’s attention, you’re going to have to do something big and dramatic.”
The concept sounded so sensible when Cass vocalized it, but to Morgan it seemed the emotional equivalent of using a flamethrower to light a votive candle. Serious overkill.
“But exactly how do I go about doing that?”
“Come on, work with me here. Imagine that Adam is a lonesome cowpoke who aches to learn how to read and you’re the new schoolmarm who’s going to tutor him all night long. And I do mean all night long.”
“Okay, so that’s one of my fantasies. Pick your own. Pirate and captive. Biker dude and uptight socialite. Stable boy and countess. Whatever gets your juices flowing.”
What did get her juices flowing? It was an important question to which Morgan had no immediate answer. She hadn’t really thought about it all that much. As a practical woman, she wasn’t big on unrealistic fantasies and she said as much to her sister.
“That’s why they’re called fantasies, precisely because they are unrealistic. Jeez, Morg, don’t you ever just let yourself have a little fun?”
“But if I have to go to such crazy lengths to snag my husband’s attention, doesn’t it mean that he’s no longer attracted to me? What if it’s just the wig and the clothes that jump-start his spark plugs? Or worse yet, what if he resents me trying to seduce him?” That idea had Morgan pulling her bottom lip, painted Serious Scarlet, between her teeth in consternation.
“You’re overthinking this. Men are simple creatures. Give ’em hot sex and cold beer and competitive sports and they’re happy. Now go blow your man’s mind,” Cass said and hung up.
It was a sad state of affairs when you had to ask your unmarried baby sister for advice on how to revive your sex life.
Morgan’s palms were so slick with nervous sweat she fumbled her cell phone, almost dropping it before finally getting the clasp open and slipping it into her vintage beaded handbag. She ran her palms over her hips to dry them.
A little over a year ago she’d been just like Adam, working eighty hours a week, reaching for the brass ring, striving to make their financial goals a reality so they could buy their dream home and start a family. They’d been a team then, both so enmeshed in their climb to the top of the corporate ladder that there had been little time to consider the personal sacrifices they’d been making in order to achieve their objectives.
And then two things had happened.
First, she’d driven by a charming antique store in Fairfield, Connecticut, where she and Adam were looking to buy their first home and spied a For Sale sign in the window. Excitement, fresh and unexpected, had pushed through her as a little voice in the back of her head whispered, buy it.
She ignored the voice, tamped down the excitement. Owning an antique store was not part of the plan. But still, she couldn’t forget the unbridled joy she’d felt at the thought of it. She always had an affinity for both history and objets d’art and her mind spun cozy fantasies of finding just the right pieces for her customers who she would get to know on a first-name basis. She would make the shop homey and inviting, serve complimentary coffee and hot tea. She liked the idea of being part of a smaller community, of being connected to the past in such a tangible way.
The second thing that caused Morgan to revaluate her life in a significant way was a major accounting scandal that rocked the financial world. Her firm, where she managed multimillion-dollar mutual funds, ended up being probed during a federal investigation. Her company had been signing off on accounts without really doing the mandatory auditing work, allowing creative cheating to slip past unnoticed. Morgan was not involved, but some of her colleagues had been. Their excuse was that they’d been stretched too thin to adequately monitor every account. Her firm was levied a huge fine and several people lost their jobs. While her company hadn’t done anything outright criminal, they’d been negligent in their practices.
The scandal affected her far more deeply than she realized. She had trouble sleeping and she spent hours questioning her morals, values and long held beliefs. How could she, in good conscience, continue to work for a corporation that didn’t serve their clients with the due diligence they deserved?
She discussed her concerns with Adam and then she’d sprung the idea of buying the antique shop. She was heartened when he said he was behind her one hundred percent. His support gave her the courage to turn in her resignation, buy the antique shop and pursue her dream.
Leaving the job she’d held for nine years had not been easy. She felt scared and uncertain, especially in the beginning when she had a lot of money going out and none coming in, but ultimately the trade-off had been more than worth it. She’d grown in ways she couldn’t have imagined and she’d come to treasure the extra time her new job afforded her.
But while the shop was now turning a profit and their new home in Connecticut was everything she’d ever hoped for, her relationship with Adam was faltering. They were no longer a team. Adam was still climbing. Reaching, ever reaching for that elusive dream of “enough” that Morgan had already discovered by giving up the chase.
She had wanted so badly to share her newfound sense of freedom and inner peace with her beloved husband, but no matter how hard she tried to tell him what she was thinking and feeling, he just couldn’t seem to get it. She felt sorry for herself that she’d lost her teammate, but even sorrier for Adam because he was still running a race that could not be won.
They were drifting further and further apart and she longed for the carefree teasing of their early days. She missed the easy camaraderie of a lazy Sunday morning spent leisurely strolling hand-in-hand through Central Park. Or piling up on the couch together, legs entwined as they worked the New York Times crossword puzzle and fed each other tidbits of sweet pastries or sectioned fruit.
Morgan sighed. She was determined to bridge the chasm before it was too late.
To that end, she had scheduled a romantic two-week vacation in the Loire Valley in France for their tenth wedding anniversary, planning on returning to the country where they had honeymooned. Secretly she’d been learning French as a surprise for Adam. He’d always admired her thirst for knowledge and self-improvement.
But when Adam had called her that afternoon to say he would be staying in Manhattan because he had an eight o’clock business meeting at the Grand Duchess, Morgan realized she couldn’t wait for the trip to revive their flagging love life. It was the second time this week and the twelfth time in the last month that Adam had chosen to stay in the city overnight.
No more wishing and hoping things would improve on their own or that Adam would have his own epiphany the way she’d had. She had to take action.
Which was why she was here, dressed like a trollop, treading a groove in Eighty-first Street and woefully second-guessing herself.
She checked her watch.
It was seven forty-five. Not much time. But she didn’t need much time. She just wanted Adam to see what was going to be waiting for him upstairs in his hotel room when his business meeting finished.
“Hey, babe.” A good-looking man in an expensive business suit stopped on the sidewalk beside her. “You interested in a little somethin’, somethin’?”
Morgan blasted him with the coldest stare she could marshal, making a scalding laser of her eyes, and the guy slunk off like a cowed dog, palms raised and mumbling an apology.
Head held high, she swept haughtily past the portly doorman—who was still eyeing her suspiciously—and stepped through the revolving door into the lobby of the Grand Duchess. But then she went and ruined her staged bravado by stumbling in Cass’s stiletto boots.
Aha, exposed for the fraud she was. No femme fatale, Morgan Shaw.
Determined not to let her vulnerability show, she tossed her fake auburn hair and stalked toward the lounge.
Her heels clacked too loudly against the marble floor. The significance of this step weighed importantly upon her heart.
What if her ploy failed?
Prudence whispered inside her head, Morgan, let sleeping dogs lie. Go back home before he sees you. Things aren’t that bad. Adam is a good man. He loves you. You love him. Forget this awful need for something more, something magical. It’s a myth, a fairy tale. Grow up, for God’s sake, and face reality.
How much easier it would be if she could flee, but she possessed the strangest notion that if she turned back now, something inside her would die forever.
Morgan entered the bar and stood in the doorway, letting her eyes adjust to the darker lighting, her gaze wandering around the room in search of her husband. She spotted him seated in a corner booth, head down, brow furrowed, paperwork spread out on the table in front of him.
Her heart hiccuped, reeling drunkenly on fear and possibilities.
He was so handsome with his sturdy all-American good looks. Thick sandy-blond hair cut short but not severely so. Clean shaven. Affable cheekbones, intelligent blue eyes, strong chin, absolutely perfect nose.
He’d played football in high school. Quarterback, naturally. And Adam had managed to hang on to his lean waist and muscular chest. It came at a price, however. Daily morning jogs, weekends on the weight machines at the gym, no sleeping in late and spooning with her. But he considered the results worth the sacrifice.
Morgan hoped their future children would look exactly like him—that is, if they ever managed to have kids with the way things were going. She’d never thought she was pretty enough for Adam. On the looks meter, her handsome husband was a solid nine, while she considered herself a six at best.
She was on the bony side, small boobs, narrow hips, definitely not the sort of woman that men could sink their hands into. Her own hair was fine and blond and wouldn’t hold a style. She considered her bright brown eyes her best feature. And while friends had told her she resembled the actress Joan Allen, Morgan couldn’t help thinking they were extremely generous with their compliments.
Adam glanced toward the door, no doubt scouting for his client, and quickly flicked his gaze over her, not even recognizing his own wife.
Her pulse spiked and doubt sank its vicious teeth into her. This was bad timing. She’d made a mistake in coming here.
She almost ran away.
But the thought of catching the train back to that big empty house in Connecticut stopped her. She was tired of feeling lonely, tired of feeling disconnected, of feeling as if she’d somehow left her husband behind. She wanted him on her team again, wanted their hearts and minds to meld on a higher plane. She wanted the full extent of the happily-ever-after promise and she wanted it today.
Emboldened by the notion that she could have what she longed for, Morgan stalked across the lounge toward him, purposefully putting a seductive sway into her step.
Her heart beat harder and faster the closer she came to the high-backed conch-shell-shaped private booth where Adam sat.
Steady, steady. Don’t invest the outcome with more significance than it deserves. It’s just one step.
Yes, but in what direction?
Morgan exhaled, unable to believe she had allowed the D word to pop into her head for even a fraction of a second.
Adam had already returned his attention to his paperwork. The booth lamp cast a shadow over his profile. His eyes drank in the words on the page. In his right hand he clutched the expensive ballpoint pen she had bought him as a Christmas present two years ago. His tailored silk suit hugged his shoulders, and he had loosened the tie at his neck.
She slipped into the cushioned seat across from him.
“Buy a girl a drink?” she said in the huskiest voice she could manage and leaned forward to accent her cleavage induced by her new padded push-up bra.
“Huh?” Adam blinked owlishly and stared at her as if she were a stranger.
Her chest tightened at the startled expression in his eyes. A heated flush of awkwardness climbed up her throat and burned her cheeks.
“Surprise.” She smiled shakily, scared as a kid on her first roller coaster ride.
She studied him intently, looking for some sign of arousal, of sexual interest, of basic male attraction. But Adam revealed neither delight nor approval. She could see nothing beyond his investment banker’s poker face. Nothing that said he saw her as a sexy, desirable woman.
Come on, what did you expect? For him to throw you down on the table and have his way with you right here in the bar? You of all people should understand what kind of mental stress he’s under. You’ve been there. Cut him some slack.
Yes, she knew what he was going through and that was precisely the reason she was here. To shake things up, to get him to see all the wonderful experiences he was missing out on by focusing so much of his time and energy on work to the exclusion of everything else.
“Um…what are you doing here?” His brow bunched in a frown, and he rubbed the back of his neck with a palm in a gesture she recognized. He was trying to ease the knots of tension wadding up under his skin. “And what is that you’re wearing?”
Adam’s jaw tightened, as if he wanted to say more but was gnawing on the words to keep them from tumbling out. His gaze skated over Morgan’s scandalous attire, but then he averted his eyes as if her being here made him uncomfortable.
The clothes were too much. Over the top. She knew that now. Had known it from the beginning, actually, but she’d let herself be persuaded by Cass. Image mattered a lot to Adam, and she had just embarrassed him at a place where he was well known, where he conducted business.
“I thought…I thought…”
Every silly thought she’d had about surprising him, making him crazy with desire and having wild sex at the Grand Duchess flew right out of her head. Good God, what had she been thinking? Interrupting his work with her lame attempt at seduction? The whole thing seemed cheesy now, ridiculous. This was what happened when she listened to her sister.
She’d been so stupid. This wasn’t the right way to get him to see her point of view.
Ducking her head in shame, she let her hair fall across her face, hoping it would hide the concern in her eyes. She slapped both palms against the smooth, cool marble tabletop and levered her butt up off the padded leather seat.
“I’m just going to go now. I’m sorry I interrupted you.”
“Morgan.” Adam reached out to touch her. But just before his hand settled over hers, a bulky man with a pit-bull face sidled up to their table.
“Is this a bad time, Shaw?”
“Robert.” Adam got to his feet and shook his client’s hand. “You’re here.”
“Eight o’clock right on the money, punctual as always. But you look as if you’ve been caught unaware.” Robert stared at Morgan with frank approval.
Dammit. That’s the way she wanted her husband to look at her, not this overweight, middle-aged stranger.
Adam cleared his throat, rubbed the flat of one hand against the back of his neck again. “Um, Robert, this is my wife, Morgan. Morgan, this is Robert Jacobbi of Jacobbi Enterprises.”
Pasting a civilized smile on her lips, Morgan shook the man’s hand.
“So this is your wife.” Jacobbi wriggled his eyebrows. They were so thick and bushy they looked like gray caterpillars dancing the conga. “Shaw, if you don’t mind my saying, you’re one lucky guy.”
“If you could give us just a second, Robert, I’ll be right with you. Have a seat. Order a drink.”
“You’re not joining us, Morgan?” Jacobbi’s eyes glistened as he settled himself into the seat she had just vacated.
“I was on my way home.”
“Well, it was my absolute pleasure to have met you, Mrs. Shaw,” he said.
Adam took her hand and guided her out of Jacobbi’s earshot. His eyes held hers, his body stiffened, his whisper was rough. “What’s going on? Where did you get those clothes?”