Home > The Other Man

The Other Man
Author: Nicole French

January

 

 

It wasn’t necessarily odd for Nina Evelyn Astor de Vries Gardner to be standing on a New York City sidewalk. After all, this was where she lived. Lexington and East Ninety-Second Street. The heart of the Upper East Side.

It was odd, however, for her to stand outside her apartment building for nearly an hour. Clutching a bouquet of red roses. Unmoving while the petals swayed in the whistling winter wind and the doormen peering curiously from beyond the old brass-fitted doors.

It was one in the afternoon, but Nina’s clothes were more appropriate for evening. In fact, they were the same pieces she’d worn the night before: an ice-colored silk shirt and A-line skirt from Chloe, plus her favorite Zanotti heels, three-inches of waterfall-colored leather. Winter whites. Flimsy for the frigid January weather, mitigated only by a heather gray cashmere coat left open despite the wind.

Nina barely noticed. It might have been thirty-three degrees, but she was burning up. Just looking at the red bricks stacked to the sky, at the thick glass-paned windows that never seemed to open, made her heart beat faster. Made her skin prickle. Made her eyes water.

She couldn’t understand why.

After all, this was her home.

Wasn’t it?

For a decade, the Upper East Side had been the kingdom below her apartment on the twentieth floor, though one that had never and would never belong to her. That was what happened in the de Vries family when you were the second-born grandchild, and a girl to boot. You were stowed safely in your ivory tower, afloat in luxury. Wrapped in chains of diamonds and gold. Told exactly what to be and where to be it and when.

And Nina had hardly ever bucked those edicts. Until last night. When her entire perfect world seemed to splinter into pieces, then reconstruct itself unrecognizably for a few hours of passion-colored pleasure, just to shatter all over again.

And now she was here. Back in this same world. The same life. To put it back together.

The problem was, she wasn’t sure she could.

Nina Evelyn Astor de Vries Gardner sighed. It was a mouthful, those names. She’d always hated them. Even the first. “Nina” was short and almost lazy, considering in some languages it just meant daughter. As if that was all she was. And yet, wasn’t that fitting? Someone’s granddaughter, someone’s daughter, someone’s cousin—that was all she had ever been.

Someone’s wife.

She wrapped a hand around her left wrist, which only a month ago had been circled with bruises she had carefully hidden with a gaudy Bvlgari watch she only kept for just that reason. Calvin had a strong grip, and that night, it was locked with bourbon. They had a rule, of course. Never her face. She couldn’t act on behalf of De Vries Shipping if she looked like a bruised peach. And her grandmother, Celeste de Vries, the venerated head of one of New York’s oldest families, would have roasted Calvin on a spit before allowing something as untoward as “abuse” to touch her family’s pristine legacy.

But now Grandmother was dead. Mother, per usual, was awash in gin. Eric, Nina’s cousin and new head of the family, was in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. And his wife was missing somewhere in South Korea.

The de Vrieses were no longer pristine. And deep down, Nina knew the truth: it was all her fault. Complicity was just as bad as the crime. She was the coward who still hadn’t fessed up to her parts in her family’s mess. Instead, she had escaped her own guilt in the arms of a stranger and broken every vow she had ever made.

Her real name should be Deceit.

That’s not fair, doll.

Nina started at the voice chiming in the back of her mind. A man’s voice. Lilting, self-assured, mischievous and earnest all at once. Mostly polished, but roughened with slightly rounded Ls and Rs, occasional overemphasis of the letter O. The kind of voice she previously heard only from taxi drivers, doormen, workmen. A voice that, despite belonging to a complete stranger less than twenty-four hours ago, was now so ingrained that it was acting the part of her conscience. Reminding her not to let anyone say anything bad about her.

Not even her.

Do you believe in love at first sight?

He’d asked her in the early morning hours, when they were so exhausted that the line between asleep and awake was thoroughly blurred. The question had roused her anyway, sultry as a siren’s call. And like a ship, she’d crashed right into the rocks.

Not until I saw you.

Even now, Nina was hardly surprised she had said it. Love was such a foreign concept. Her family said the word maybe once every five, ten years, when expected, and usually in front of cameras or other relevant audiences. Nina honestly doubted they understood what it meant. She wasn’t sure she ever did.

Until last night, baby.

Yes. It had been the truth in that beautiful hotel room, on that plush, soft bed, with his green eyes reaching the depths of her with just one look. Love had poured out of her like everything else. Curiosity. Desire. Humor. Lust.

Love, though, was the reason, when he had wondered come morning just why they couldn’t make a real go of it, she’d gone against every instinct she had.

She told him the truth.

Broken his heart and hers.

And run away as fast as she could.

Because Nina knew if he looked at her like that again, she wouldn’t have been able to leave him. Not then. Not ever.

Matthew.

She thought the name silently to herself. Then thought it again. Drew her mouth around its consonants like she was sucking on a piece of candy, letting its sweet nectar glide over her tongue. And for a moment, Nina allowed herself to conjure his face.

A long, straight nose with just a hint of a break at the bridge. Two green eyes framed by a sooty fringe of lashes. The lush, full mouth always hooked by a slight smirk. An impossibly square jaw dusted by a five o’clock shadow.

Nina pressed a hand to her aching heart, to a bruise he had left. One of many she actually wanted. She’d managed to cover most of the spots on her neck and arms with concealer. But that one, bright as the roses she held, safely hidden under her shirt, she’d kept.

Slap me, he’d ordered again under the lush fall of the shower, not for the first time that night. Slap me. Like the dog I am.

He wasn’t a dog, but he certainly turned her into an animal. And so she had slapped him that time, surprised by the surge of power when her hand found his cheek. The sight of her fingerprints on his olive skin was intoxicating, almost as much as the way his body vibrated, like a guitar string that had just been strummed. He loved it so much that she asked him to do the same for her. Just to see what it was like.

Matthew had pressed her against the shower wall, spread her wide as he found her depths again and again, and then, like a vampire, bent to her breast. He sucked the delicate skin between his teeth. And bit.

Do you ever wear red? he had asked her, again and again as he drew a single rose bud up and down the length of Nina’s bare arm, leg, hip, thigh. Would you do it for me?

Pleasure. Pain. It all danced through her, echoes of the first primal ecstasy she had ever experienced in her twenty-nine, almost thirty years. Her fingers pinched at the spot through her shirt, hard enough to expand the bruise. It wasn’t his lips, his teeth, but considering she would never see Matthew Zola again, it would have to do.

I can’t take them with me, Nina had told him when he ordered the bouquet up to the room. And yet, as she fled, she captured them too. The final remnants of their scarlet night.

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