Karen Booth is returning to the beauty circles of Manhattan with another ‘over-40 romance’ showing us it’s never too late to find true love in life, and I have the first chapter for you.
There were people all over Manhattan who would’ve killed for an invitation to the Van Cleeves’ party. Sabrina Kelly was about to be sick over it.
Eyes fixed on the numbers above the elevator door, she tapped her foot like she was keeping time for a woodpecker. Her heartbeat pulsed in her ears and as the floors ticked by, her breathing got shallower. Seventeen. Eighteen. Her hands became cold and clammy. Nineteen. A few more seconds and she’d be at the penthouse. There’d be no turning back.
Or would there?
An exit strategy. Yes. Just think of a way out. It would need to be clever—nothing lame like I have a headache. And it would need to be polite. She adored Nora Van Cleeve. Nora was like a sweet, ridiculously wealthy aunt, not that Sabrina would know anything about that. Sabrina’s family never had money. And if she did have an aunt, she sure as hell didn’t know her.
The elevator came to a silent stop and the doors pulled apart, welcoming in a wall of music, conversation, and the persistent clinking of cocktail glasses. The din was unavoidable, like someone had clamped big fat ‘70s headphones on her ears, forcing her to listen to a sound effects record titled Insufferable Cocktail Party. She looked down at her strappy black sandals as she forced her legs to carry her across the threshold and onto the polished hardwood floors of the Van Cleeves’ apartment. She dared to look up. A sea of people churned in twinkly party lighting—men in dark expensive suits, women in sparkly short dresses and heels. Smiles flashed. Laughter bubbled. These people didn’t have a care in the world. Sabrina didn’t belong here.
She wasn’t going to feel sorry for herself though. There was a takeaway from her attack of social anxiety—she had an answer to the question she’d been asking herself since she’d first received her invitation. She wasn’t ready for this. Not for a party. Not yet.
Good to know. Now to escape.
The elevator door closed behind her. Shit.
Her gracious host, Nora, caught sight of her and rushed over, tucking her silvery chin-length bob behind one ear and unleashing a smile as genuine as her chunky diamond earrings. She pulled Sabrina into an embrace. “You made it. I’m so glad.” Nora’s hugs always made Sabrina want to take her out for milkshakes. It was like wrapping her arms around a bird. Nora stepped back. “It’s so nice to see you out and about, darling. I worry about you down in that big apartment all by yourself.”
Nora’s concern was familiar, like a piece of artwork you walk by every day and eventually stop noticing. Sabrina got it from her employees. She got it from perfect strangers if she was unlucky enough to fall into a situation where she had to tell her story. She’d received similar treatment from the nosiest of the residents when she’d moved into this building a year ago. Courtesy of the rumor mill, Sabrina’s story had spread like wildfire—launched a global cosmetics company at thirty-five, married at thirty-eight, widowed right before her fortieth birthday.
Sabrina mustered a smile. At least it could appear as if she were wholly comfortable with being a part of such a celebratory setting. “That’s very sweet, but you don’t need to worry about me. Really. I’m fine.”
Nora took Sabrina’s arm and walked her through the grand foyer into the massive expanse of the luxe apartment. “There are lots of single men I can introduce you to tonight. I think you’re ready.”
Ready—much of Sabrina’s life revolved around that word. Was she? When would she be? Would she ever be? “You haven’t told anyone about me, have you? I mean, about Andrew?” Sabrina didn’t want to spend an entire night tiptoeing around her past. It’d been two years since she’d lost her husband. She might not be ready for much, but she was certainly prepared to take an evening off from enduring someone else’s concern. She was desperate to see if she remembered how to have fun. If she managed five minutes without getting sad and left without shedding a tear, the Van Cleeves’ cocktail party would be an epic win.
“I haven’t said a word.”
“Great. Thank you.”
A waiter drifted toward them with a silver tray of champagne flutes. Sabrina and Nora each took a glass. Sabrina downed half of it in one gulp, hoping to soften her ragged edges.
Nora pointed to a gaunt, pale man standing near the doors out to the terrace, tapping his glass with his fingers and surveying the room. “I don’t remember his name, but he’s single. He works in Walter’s office. One of the senior account managers.”
Judging a man on his looks alone wasn’t Sabrina’s style, but she couldn’t see herself going for a grown man wearing a suit two sizes too big. Unless he was super into the Talking Heads. “Anyone else?”
Nora scanned the room. “Walter suggested his friend over there, in the black sports jacket and light blue shirt.” She subtly nodded in the man’s direction, but Sabrina could’ve spotted him from the observation deck of the Empire State Building, and that was dozens of blocks away. His spray tan was loud and orange, making his lips appear an unnaturally bright shade of pink. “But I’m not sure he’s right for you.”
“Yeah.” Good call, Nora. Good call.
Nora’s husband, Walter, came up behind her. “Hello, Sabrina.” He nodded politely. “I need to steal my lovely wife here for a few minutes if that’s all right with you.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I’ll be quick,” Nora said.
“Don’t worry about me. I’m fine,” Sabrina answered, realizing she really needed to lay off the “fine”.
Nora disappeared into the crowd with Walter.
Here I go. Mingling. By myself. Tralala. Mingle mingle mingle. Sabrina treated the second half of her champagne like a tequila shooter, then bee-lined to the bar in the corner. “Gin and tonic, please.”
The bartender scooped ice into an old-fashioned glass while Sabrina perused the crowd. Hopefully Nora wouldn’t be gone long. Otherwise there’d be no telling how long Sabrina would last, sorely out of practice in the art of working the room.
A high-pitched titter rang out, piercing the roar of party noise. Sabrina quickly spotted its origin—a petite blonde, as well as the person who had apparently elicited it—Michael Wright. He lived at the opposite end of Sabrina’s hall and was her regular morning elevator companion.
Michael caught Sabrina looking and bugged his big brown eyes at her. She shied away for an instant, trying not to smile, which was pretty pointless. Even if he sometimes came off as a bit of a goof, his ability to make her laugh was his superpower. He managed to do it even when he wasn’t trying to be funny, instead brandishing his super-smooth brand of flirtation and not-so-subtle innuendo.
The bartender tapped Sabrina’s shoulder. She took her drink, dropped a tip into a crystal vase and returned her sights to Michael, whose eyes kept darting to hers.
He mouthed something to Sabrina as his female companion took a canapé from a waiter.
Sabrina squinted. “What?” she mouthed back.
“Save. Me,” said his lips. He punctuated it with a flick of his thick eyebrows.
She swirled the ice in her glass with the cocktail stirrer, concocting a plan. Hanging out with Michael would certainly be more fun than time with the David Byrne wannabe or Mr. Spray Tan. From a purely practical standpoint, conversation could remain light, since she was fairly certain Michael knew nothing about her past. He’d only lived in the building for a few months and had never once brought it up during their chats on the elevator. More telling, he flirted with her like she was any other single woman. Now to be a good neighbor and rescue him from the blonde.
Sabrina marched over and tapped Michael brusquely on the shoulder. “You have some explaining to do, Wright. I know you’re stealing my Sunday New York Times. Mrs. Jackson saw you do it last week.” She glanced over at Michael’s conversation partner. “Do you realize you’re talking to the most notorious thief in this building?”
“I thought you were in the stock market,” the woman answered with a squeak.
Michael loosened his steely blue tie, which went perfectly with his slim-cut gray suit. “Hey. If someone leaves something sitting around, it’s not my fault if I decide to take it. Newspapers. Cars. I once found a Rolex on the vanity in the men’s room at Delmonico’s.”
“Are you being serious right now?” The blonde bugged her eyes at him.
Michael shrugged. “Mostly. I get bored.”
“Unbelievable.” She shook her head and hitched her handbag over her shoulder. “Look. You’re cute, but I’ve wasted too much time on flaky guys.” She wandered off, only to be flagged down by Mr. Spray Tan.
Michael unleashed his slightly lopsided grin. “I don’t know what your problem is. I very neatly folded your paper back up and returned it to your door when I was done.”
Clever bastard. “After you’d already completely ruined it. And while we’re discussing it, who does the Sunday crossword in pen?”
“Excuse me. Did I or did I not get every answer right?”
“I rest my case.” He took a swig of his drink. “Thank you for saving me. I swear I attract the ditzy ones like crazy.”
“You’re lucky I was around to rescue you.” Sabrina enjoyed a sip of her own cocktail, unable to ignore that a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Time spent in the elevator with Michael had been a wise investment. Their back-and-forth was comfortable, and that was the last thing she’d expected to feel when she’d walked into the party. “Maybe you shouldn’t make your initial appraisal of a woman by checking out how she fills out a dress.”
He raised a finger. “Ah, but if I didn’t, you and I might never have become friends.”
Heat rushed to the surface of her cheeks. He was always lightning fast with the compliments. “You’re terrible. Just so you know.”
He cast her a heated gaze. He didn’t blink. Not once. Which only drew attention to how absurdly long his lashes were. “I know you love it. I can tell by the way you look at me.”
Now it felt as if her face was on fire. For the life of her, she could no longer swallow. Who knew Michael would step up his game so quickly once they were outside the confines of the elevator? It was scary as hell. And flattering, which was its own brand of horrifying. “Did you trim your beard?”
He grinned and rubbed his manicured stubble, a shade or two darker than his warm brown skin. He had a few grays mixed in there, which she found adorable. Topped by all of that was his perfectly shaped bald head. It was so damn sexy. “I may be terrible, but you’re worse at changing the subject.”
“I’m making conversation.”
Wrapping his fingers around hers, he tugged on her hand. It sent a jolt of nerves through her. “Come on. Let’s find a spot to sit.”
He led her through the crowd and out to the terrace, never letting go of her hand. The October night air held a slight chill, but it helped to cool Sabrina’s overheated skin, and clear her mind. The hard landscape of the Manhattan skyline glowed, but aside from a cluster of candles flickering in hurricane lanterns on a table, it was otherwise dark. Michael invited her with a sweep of his hand to sit on a low, cushioned love seat.
“Do you really want to talk about my facial hair?” he asked.
“Sure.” She couldn’t think of a more benign topic.
“This is going to sound especially lame coming from a forty-five-year-old man, but I trimmed it for my mother. Or more specifically, my mother’s head of communications. We had to take a family picture for her official Christmas cards.”
Ah, yes. Michael’s mom was U.S. Senator Lydia Wright, a major political power-player, re-elected for her fourth term late last year. “She thought you were looking scraggly?”
“She likes things—and by things, I mean her sons—to be prim and proper.”
Funny, but very little about Michael was either of those things. “Well, it looks nice.”
“Can we talk about something more fun?” He stretched his arm back behind her and softly brushed her shoulder with his fingers.
And to think she’d been worried about talking. She hadn’t even considered that she might need to stress out about touching. And so soon, although to be fair to Michael, any man who didn’t know about her past, would assume she was fair game. Was she on the market? Part of her wanted to be. It sounded so fun and carefree. If only it didn’t make her hands sweat and her heart race like she was a teenage girl trying to figure out boys. “We could talk about work. I realize that’s not super original of me.” She folded her hands in her lap. There was nowhere else for them to go that didn’t suggest that she was open to an escalation of their physical contact. It was difficult enough to think straight when he was drawing delicate circles on her shoulder.
Michael cleared his throat and brushed his pant leg. “Fair enough. I pretty much despise everyone I work with and am worried I’m going to hell for being nothing less than an ambassador for greed and wealth.”
“Tell me what you really think.”
“You asked.” He considered her with his damning cocoa brown eyes. “The thing is, the more time I spend doing it, the better I get and the less I have to try. Which gives me a little too much time to think.”
“Were you hoping the blonde would keep your mind off all that thinking?”
“No. That just happened. She approached me and I couldn’t be rude.”
“And I needed a distraction while I was waiting for you to arrive.”
There went Smooth Michael. “You were not waiting for me. I find it hard to believe you would ever wait for a woman.”
“You don’t know me very well, then.”
Sabrina hadn’t bargained on that answer. “Sorry.”
He cleared his throat, seeming as if he was about to say something especially weighty. “Let me ask you this, since I’m clearly questioning my life choices and I know your career is important to you. Do you ever wonder if putting everything you had into a job was a mistake?”
If only he knew how much that exact question weighed on her. She’d spent far too much time working during her marriage, before Andrew got sick. If she’d known their time together was going to be so short, she would’ve done things differently.
“Yeah. I know what you’re getting at, but I try not to live with too many regrets.” Except that was a total lie. She did have regrets, the most painful of which was that she’d been the one in her marriage to put off having a baby. Even when Andrew had made his case more than once.
Let’s do it now. The perfect time for a baby will never come.
Just one more year. Let me get my company to a better place first.
Michael cocked his head to the side, seeming surprised. “So work still comes first?”
“Something like that.” Her voice faded. Caging answers took so much work. It’d be much simpler to simply come out with it and tell him that she didn’t know what else she was supposed to do anymore, but she’d resolved not to dredge up the past tonight. And they were having fun. It was just going to mess things up.
“When I was in my twenties, I thought my whole life was made. Absolutely perfect. I was on top of my game, living here in Manhattan, going out every night, beautiful women around every corner.”
“You really shouldn’t pick your women from corners. That could get you arrested.”
“Funny. Very funny.” He smiled and shook his head. “But then twenty years fly by and I’m looking around wondering what in the hell I’m supposed to be doing now.”
“I get that. Completely.”
“I’d just like to figure out a little more than how to make money.”
A strong breeze swept across the terrace. Goose bumps propagated on Sabrina’s arms, but it was more from his words than the chill. Maybe their flirtation was ill-fated. He was certainly coming at it from a different viewpoint. He was busy pondering the meaning of life while she had entirely too much experience with it. She was exhausted from it. Even questioning the meaning of the next twenty-four hours seemed like an insurmountable task.
“Are you cold?” he asked.
“Oh, no. I’m fine.” She pulled her arms tightly around her body.
Michael scooted to the edge of the seat and removed his suit coat. He placed it around her shoulders, rubbed them then gripped them tightly. “There. Better?”
She looked up at him, getting caught in the warmth of his eyes. He really was sweet. And way too handsome for words. “Thank you. That’s very kind.”
Michael reached over and brushed her cheek with the back of his hand, causing her breath to hitch. “I won’t lie to you, Sabrina. I like you. A lot.”
Her heart not only raced, it whirred around the racetrack of her chest. Everything about him, including the smooth exterior that made her wonder if he was playing her, was irresistible. But these weren’t merely scary waters—they were ice cold. There might be sharks. If she was going to go in, she’d need to enter them slowly. She might be capable of dipping in a toe to check the temperature, but that was it for now.
“I like you, too. I’m glad we’ve become friends.”
“I can’t help but feel like there’s more to it than that.”
There was an impulse to let her body crash into his, to blurt out that friendship was for suckers, but she knew that feeling wouldn’t last. She was way too skittish. Every time Michael did something that made her forget, her heart reminded her with an awkward flutter.
He lowered his head, his perfect lips were mere inches away, parted slightly, clearly about to connect with hers. Never before had she been so unprepared for a kiss, even when she had far more advance warning than was needed. There was no time to think it through. His lips were on hers—tender and soft, but still strong enough to say that he was all business. Until that instant, she’d had no idea how starved she’d been for a kiss. She closed her eyes, surrendering to the simple pleasure of it, arching her neck and molding her lips to his. This was a big step toward reclaiming herself. Could she find Sabrina again? Was kissing Michael the way to do it?
He palmed her thigh and leaned into her. His tongue found her lower lip, which made every part of her feel as though it might float up into the cloudless night sky. Kissing Michael was the nervous delight of a great first date and the warm satisfaction of Christmas morning, all rolled into one…
But then her mind leapt ahead. The kiss only led in one direction—more kissing, the elevator, one of their apartments. That would be a lot. Too much. And she didn’t want to lead him on. She gripped his shoulders and gently eased herself back.
“Michael, I’m sorry.” Her breaths came fast. It was so difficult to look at him, but his eyes drew her in. “It’s just, um, I don’t think this is a great idea.”
“I’m sorry if I was too forward.”
She sighed and shook her head. If only she could find a way to tell him how important the kiss had been, without sounding out of her mind. “No. It wasn’t too forward. It was wonderful. I’m just not ready for more than that.” She got up from the sofa and removed his jacket. A swift escape was now her first priority.
He sprang to his feet. “Please don’t go. We’ll talk. No kissing.”
“I wish I could, Michael, but I can’t.” She scanned his face while an especially cruel series of thoughts and images rifled through her mind—mornings in the elevator with Michael, lonely nights in her apartment curled tightly into a ball, saying goodbye to Andrew on that cold December day.
There was no way to explain any of it, at least not in a way that wouldn’t completely kill the memory of the kiss she and Michael had just shared. Still, it hurt to hurt him and she was about to do exactly that. She was about to take a sweet and sexy man and cut him off at the knees. She never should’ve put herself in the situation. She never should’ve put him in it.
“It’s not you. It’s me.” She popped up onto her tiptoes and pecked him on the cheek, then rushed through the French doors into the Van Cleeves’ living room. She kept her eyes trained on the floor, winding through the mass of people, gasping for breath, feeling like someone with enormous hands was squeezing the air out of her lungs. She broke free from the crowd, lunged for the elevator button, and luckily, the doors opened right away.
She hopped on board and jammed the button for her floor. Just as the tears came.