A year ago, if you had told Bronte Talbott she was going to quit her job and leave her life in New York for any reason, much less a romantic one, her answer would have been a quick and confident, "Bullshit." Bronte wasn't looking for anyone to sweep her off her feet. She didn't have any absurd ideas about her very own happily ever after. She had worked too hard and loved her job in advertising too much to throw it away for some guy. But that night at David and Willa Osborne's going-away party had been the beginning of a transformation that left Bronte almost unrecognizable to her former self.
She had walked through the packed front hall of David and Willa's apartment in Tribeca and seen Mr. Texas across the proverbial crowded room. Really crowded. Really smoky. Really loud. And he had looked up from his conversation as if her late arrival had triggered some unanticipated but welcome reaction, and he had given her a small, inviting smile that sliced through all the noise and peripheral distractions.
She had met him a couple times before. Over the past few years, he had become a sort of bit player in their circle of friends. He lived and worked in Chicago, but he would fly into town for what he liked to call "the big weekends." He and David had hit it off after they'd worked on a financial deal together and discovered a shared love of the Austin music scene and alcohol.
At first, Bronte had written him off as a little too loud, a little too confident. He was from Midland, Texas, for chrissake. But in that moment of crosscurrent intimacy amid the melee, she had a little recognition of her own desire to ally herself with someone who might be a little too loud or a little too confident. For once, she wanted to be the one who didn't have to carry the conversation. Or the luggage, for that matter.
The rational, Gloria Steinem part of her railed (My mother marched on Washington for this?), but there it was. The shameful truth: a latent desire to be arm candy. To be taken care of.
"Hey," he said.
He'd left the conversation of which he had been, as usual, the center of attention and was standing next to her at the makeshift bar. Half-empty bottles of Belvedere Vodka and Johnnie Walker Blue and Myers's Rum were scattered across the black-granite countertop of David and Willa's narrow, modern kitchen.
"Hey," Bronte answered back as she poured herself a glass of red wine.
The two of them were temporarily alone in the relatively quiet space.
"So," he asked, "you think you'll go visit Willa and David in London after they move back?"
"I hope so. I've only been there once, but I loved it." She took a sip of wine and waited for him to carry on the conversation.
"What'd you think of the show?" he asked.
"The concert at Madison Square Garden!" He smiled. "I thought everyone here had been there."
"Oh, I didn't go."
Another friend, who was bombed, stumbled into the kitchen and pulled a soda out of the refrigerator, then weaved between the two of them.
"Hey, Bron," he slurred.
Bronte smiled as she watched the poor guy bump into the doorjamb on his way out, then she looked up to see Mr. Texas staring at her with something akin to interest or mischief.
"What could have possibly kept you away?" he drawled.
She looked into her wineglass, then back up into his eyes. "It was a flip of the coin, but I ended up choosing the Rothko show at MoMA over the concert. My cousin is moving to L.A. and it was our last chance to hang out before she moves."
"I don't think I would've missed that concert for anything, much less some grim museum exhibit. I've been to that Rothko Chapel in Houston, darlin', and I thought it was pretty lame."
Bronte laughed. She wasn't sure she had ever heard anyone dismiss Rothko. Or call her darlin'. If he had still been alive to meet him, her intellectual father would have absolutely despised this man.
"What kind of art do you like? The dogs playing poker?"
He smiled. "Yeah, I love that bull dog. The dangling cigarette. He's definitely got a full house."
"I know you are being purposely unintellectual," she said.
"Life is grand; why struggle with all those suicidal abstract expressionists?"
From anyone else, she might have been offended, but he had this uncanny way of making her academic interest seem, if not foolish, at least needlessly difficult.
"Yeah." She looked at him over the rim of her wineglass and wondered if he was drunk. He had a hint of mobility around his mouth, and his eyes were unsteady. But he seemed sober enough to keep his attention firmly on Bronte's lips.
"So, you want to go for a walk?"
She laughed again. "It's almost two in the morning. Where would we go for a walk?"
"I don't know. I was just thinkin' I could walk you home. You know, how one does."
He was ramping up the Texan drawl and she had to admit it was pretty damn sexy. She hadn't been attracted to anyone for ages. It felt good to have the warmth of his gaze on her. She'd been so focused on scratching her way to a level or two above entry level in the advertising business that her eye had simply been elsewhere. She was adept at compartmentalization. If she was focused on work, she was focused on work; she wasn't 90 percent focused on work and 10 percent focused on seducing someone.
Bronte had looked at these post-college years as the pay-your-dues chapter. She was willing to do just about anything to earn the respect of her boss and her colleagues, to prove that she wasn't some airhead who was working for a few years until she found a husband or hop-scotched to another industry. Whatever it took, she was going to be a kick-ass advertising account executive. She wasn't going to wait around for anyone to whisk her off her feet.
This man was proving to be pretty awesome in the whisk department. Broad, blond, confident, jovial. He reminded her of Kipling's Kim, little friend of all the world. But big.
"Have you ever read Kim by Rudyard Kipling?"
"Is that like The Jungle Book? I've watched that cartoon with my nieces." His smile was inclusive and naughty.
Every guy who entered the kitchen to grab a beer saluted him with a mix of respect and camaraderie. A string of "Dude!" and "Hey, dude!" and "What a show, dude!" punctuated by high fives and emphatic nods constantly stalled their incipient conversation.
"Why are they congratulating you on the concert?" Bronte asked in one of the lulls.
He laughed. And it was as if a great bass guitar had strummed through her. "They're not congratulating me! We were just all agreeing how great it was. Shared pleasure and all that."
He slowed his voice there at the end, and even though she knew it was some trick of seduction that he probably practiced (or no longer needed to practice because it came so easily), she still gave herself over to the warm flow of desire that it created.
"I like the sound of that," Bronte said softly.
Shared pleasure and all that, she repeated to herself in her mind. She would like to know more about "all that."
He reached out his hand and took Bronte's near-empty wineglass out of her grasp. A sort of chauvinist gesture that she resented but also liked, hating herself a little.
"What if I want another glass of wine? What if I want the last sip in that glass?"
But he knew, and she knew he knew, that she would much rather abandon the dregs or the possibility of a future glass in favor of walking out of this party with this charismatic, larger-than-life, anti-Rothko hunk holding her hand.
He was pulling her in that direction when Willa and David entered the small kitchen, pretty much sauced and holding their arms around one another's waists. Bronte let her hand fall away from his.
"There you are!" Willa nearly sang.
She gave Bronte an emotional hug.
"Willa, I saw you for lunch today! You act as if I haven't seen you in years!"
"I know, but I'm going to miss you." Then, still holding one of Bronte's hands, Willa turned to the blond hero in close proximity. "And you! You have got to meet Bronte Talbott. She is fabulous." Willa's voice was a lilting mix of upper-crust British and drunk.
Mr. Texas smiled over Willa's shoulder and winked at Bronte in a conspiratorial way, then said, "Thank you for the introduction, Willa. Bron and I were just gettin' acquainted. Please convince her that I would be a suitable escort to walk her home."
"Oh, Bronte! You must! He's simply so American, isn't he?" Willa grabbed his bicep as if he were a prizefighter. "All that might and muscle."
David rolled his eyes and pulled his wife's hand away from his friend's upper arm. "Really, darling, you must stop mauling our guests. Plus, I thought you wanted Bronte to meet Max."
"Well, I did. Who wouldn't want to meet the most eligible bachelor in all of England after all?" Willa gave Bronte a meaningful, if drunk, eye widening. "But if he doesn't have the decency to arrive on time, he's going to miss the catch of the day."
Bronte blushed, unsure if it was from being referred to as a catch or if it was from the possessive Texan hand that had just retaken hers.
"He's shit outta luck then!" The Texan drawl was back in full force, along with that firm hand. "Let me walk you home, darlin'. You must need to walk off all that Rothko, right?"
And she did need to walk it off. She needed to walk off a lifetime.
She felt like, up until that moment, her life had been a stressful balancing act of rebellion and conformity. Her appreciation of Rothko notwithstanding, Bronte craved people and ideas that served to disprove her father's despicable worldview that humanity was divided into two groups: one was made up of about a hundred intelligent people, and then there were the rest of the idiots. Lionel Talbott had been a brilliant academic who'd loathed his daughter's love of pop culture. In her early teens, her addiction to Hello! magazine had become almost feverish, especially in her father's presence. He had studied in England and had tried to get her to focus on Shakespeare and Marlowe.
What had started out as a mere act of rebellion on her part soon grew into a lifelong fascination. She would acquaint herself with British history, all right. Starting with the torrid affairs of Henry VIII right up until the glamour of Lady Diana. She was especially fond of the brooding men who always had pressed linen handkerchiefs in their pockets and the stylish women who were born knowing how to wear a fascinator. Her father had despised Bronte's royal infatuations and had ridiculed her inconsolable adolescent drama when Diana died. Of course, his disapproval only served to solidify her attachment to all things having to do with British royalty (and occasionally Danish and French when marriages demanded).
In a perverse turn of events, she ended up reading Shakespeare and Marlowe in secret, while she flaunted the latest Regency romance or left steamy bodice rippers on the living room coffee table merely to antagonize her father. Unfortunately, all of those teenaged skirmishes culminated not in a mature evolution of mutual understanding between father and daughter, but in a final battle of the wills when Bronte refused to go to Princeton. That had been her anti-intellectual coup de grâce.
Up until now.
How her father would have sneered at this poker-playing-bulldog loving, brawny, blond Texan. Not that she was attracted to him for those superficial, anti-Daddy reasons, she hedged. But it didn't hurt. Mr. Texas was smart and well-educated and well-informed, and even after all that (the master's degree in international relations and the MBA in corporate finance from the University of Texas), he actually chose to toss all those diplomas aside and simply enjoy a great bottle of St. Estèphe or the perfect Dover sole.
"Means to an end and all that," he quipped when she pressed him for why he had gone to graduate school at all if he had no respect for higher education.
"Again with the 'all that,' huh?" Bronte said. "I sort of love how you are able to dismiss 'all that,' all that I have been brooding about for the past six years since graduating from college."
They walked on in silence for a bit. A nice silence, thought Bronte. The cool March air made her feel keenly alert.
"So is it just for the money?" she asked as they walked farther north up Hudson Street. They had crossed Canal Street and were making their way into SoHo. The three-in-the-morning streets were quiet, almost private.
"No such thing as 'just,' Bron."
He had started calling her Bron from the outset. Whether it was because that's how her drunk friend had addressed her or because he always assumed a level of heightened intimacy with everyone, she didn't care. She liked the sound of his warm, vibrating voice when he said her name.
She realized-without much perception, she later noted-that it didn't matter much what he said because that deep thrumming voice was seductive no matter what came out of his mouth. He could have read the directions for setting up her modem and she probably would have sighed and batted her eyelashes like a starstruck teenager.
But along with all that thrumming, sexy, deep Bron-calling, he was also just walking a girl home and holding her hand. He never got grippy or pawing or pushy or any of that.
He just held her hand.
No such thing as "just," she reminded herself.
"So if it's not 'just' for the money, what do you intend to do with all your filthy lucre when you've made enough?"
"Enough? Never enough!" he laughed. "And I'm already doing it... go to my favorite concerts, stay in kick-ass hotel suites at the Four Seasons, fly to London for the weekend to hang out with friends and drink martinis at Dukes and eat squab at Mark's, go skiing in Aspen, bonefishing in the Yucatán, hunting in Argentina, windsurfing on the Columbia Gorge. You know... live!"
Bronte so wanted to think of him as a pompous ass, but he made it all sound perfectly vital and joyful. Who wouldn't want to go bonefishing in the Yucatán? she argued with herself. Not that she would know a bonefish from a bone-in rib eye, but it all sounded so alluring when he said it in that carefree, optimistic drawl.
And she wanted to be a part of it all, laughing in the boat on the shimmering turquoise shallows as he caught the elusive bonefish and smiled that big Texan smile in her direction.
"This is me," she muttered as they arrived at the sidewalk in front of her modest apartment building in the West Village.
He kept her hand in his and leaned in to kiss her briefly on the lips, nothing demanding.
"Thanks for walking me home."
"The pleasure was all mine. Are you around tomorrow, darlin'?"
"Sure." She suppressed another blush at his familiar use of darlin'. "What's tomorrow? Sunday? Yeah, I have to meet a friend in the morning, but after that I should be around."
"Want to meet at Balthazar for lunch?" he asked.
"That sounds great."
"All right then." He leaned in and kissed her again on the lips, lingering a bit longer this time.
"Mmmm," Bronte hummed as her tongue dragged slowly across her lower lip after he'd pulled away. She opened her eyes slowly.
"Good, right?" he asked, looking into her eyes until she nodded her agreement. "Right," he said with confident affirmation. "Okay, you get up to your apartment before I ask to come up there. And I'll see you at Balthazar tomorrow. About noon sound good?"
"Perfect," he agreed, giving her another one of his trademark winks.
Bronte let herself into the vestibule and smiled over her shoulder as he watched to make sure she got through the second locked door safely.
She rolled into bed that night thinking that here was a man, a grown man, a gentleman even, who walked her home, kissed her good night, didn't seem to have a single urban neurotic impulse, and thought that she was quite perfect.
Max left a note on the kitchen counter, then pulled the door shut quietly behind him, not that there was any possibility of waking David and Willa anytime soon. He had crashed in their guest room shortly after arriving at two in the morning and then had woken at six thirty when the garbage trucks started clanging and crashing down the street. The flight from London had been one delay after another and he could have used a few more hours of sleep, but once he woke up, it was impossible. He read in bed for several hours, then decided to walk up to Balthazar, telling Willa and David in his note to join him there whenever they could.
He arrived at the height of the Sunday lunch crowd and spotted an empty seat at the bar. He smiled at the hostess as he walked by, then sat himself so he could look up at the mirror behind the bartender for a great view of the bustling brasserie. He ordered a spicy Bloody Mary and started scanning the reflected room. Back in the corner, he let his gaze rest on a particularly attractive woman. She was flushed and animated while she listened to a blond footballer type. She was entirely wasted on him, Max thought coolly. Even from this distance, Max could see how her erect posture and attentive look barely concealed a concentrated energy. The tosser she was with just looked like he was moving at half speed compared to her, nodding and smiling like a bobblehead in slow motion. Not that Max was being overly judgmental-what'd he care?-but clearly those two were doomed to fail.
"Do you know what you'd like?"
The barmaid was a tall, angular blond, and even though she was asking what he wanted to order for lunch, her mouth quirked in a way that suggested she might be able to provide more than what appeared on the menu. If only his brother, Devon, were with him, he thought with a wry smile, someone might have been able to follow up on her unspoken offer.
"Just lunch, I think." Max was a firm believer in the look-don't-touch school of flirtation. One thing led to another and then it just got messy. Devon, on the other hand, had an honorary degree in touch-all-you-want. And he always managed to skip away without a second thought.
Max ordered an omelet then resumed people watching. His eyes trailed back to the far corner to check on the tightly wound brunette, but the booth was now empty.
"There you are!" Willa sang, then grabbed her forehead as the sound of her too-loud voice exacerbated her hangover.
"A booth just opened in the back," David said, "Let's go sit."
Willa groaned as she settled into the booth between the two men.
"Ugh. I need a little something." She looked around for a waiter, then back to Max. "I always swear I will not get pissed as a newt and then I do this to myself. I swear-"
Max smiled as he snapped his fingers and waved at a passing waiter. He spoke quickly in perfect French and the busy Parisian nodded, took the order for two more Bloody Marys, and continued on his way.
"Why are you the only person I know who can do that without coming off like a total ass?" Willa asked.
"Animal magnetism?" Max said with a grin of self-mockery.
"You think you're joking, perhaps," Willa said, "but it's more than that. You just never come off as a pompous jerk-"
"Of course, we know better," David interjected.
"No, seriously. It's a nice touch. You seem, I don't know, collegial somehow."
"Why thank you, Willa. I'm glad you approve."
"I do." She smiled up as the waiter set down the two new drinks. "Thank you." Her smile faded when she refocused her attention on Max. "But I'm still annoyed that you arrived too late to meet my friend. You two would be such a pair."
"And why is that?" The image of the brunette he'd been admiring in the booth where they were now sitting flashed in his mind. He may try harder to be prompt for someone like that.
"Because she is vivacious and smart and funny. And you are... well..."-Willa paused thoughtfully-"you."
Max smiled at Willa for the kindness. He had assumed she would round out that sentence with one of her typical most-eligible-royal-bachelor throwaway lines, and as much as he hated to admit it, he was pleased, even at the ripe old age of thirty-four, to feel that he was something more than the sum of his titles and holdings.
"Thank you, Willa. I think."
"You're welcome. I think."
They ate lunch then headed back to Tribeca, where they settled in to watch some college basketball and hang out on the enormous couch. Max had given them both a good ribbing about their absurdly large American life, but he secretly admired the sheer audacity of American design and, ultimately, the American psyche. While he questioned the disposable nature and planned obsolescence of many American enterprises, he loved the guts it took to think on a grand scale and just go for it. He came from a long line of men and women who prided themselves on preserving things. It was admirable. But it was also stifling.
"So what happens next?" David asked.
Max looked up from his novel. He'd never gotten attached to watching American sports, but for some reason, he always found it enjoyable to read in the same room while the television hummed and buzzed with commentary and prattle. He knew what David was really asking.
"There's not really much wiggle room, as you like to say. I finish out this semester, summer job in London, weekends at Dunlear being harangued by my mother, then return to Chicago next year to finish and defend my dissertation, and then... it begins."
"Come now, Max, it's not like you haven't seen it coming."
"Well, of course I've seen it coming. For most of my life it's the only thing I've seen coming. These years in Chicago have been such a blessed relief. I am just myself there, rising and falling on my own merits. In that Hyde Park, I am not the son of the Duke of Northrop, nor am I the Marquess of Dunlear, nor am I the seventy-fourth person in line for the throne, nor am I on the eligible royal lists-"
"I get it, I get it."
"-or any of that shit. But then I feel guilty for even thinking of it as 'that shit' because I really do want to succeed at it. To be worthy of it, I guess."
David looked at the television. "It's a lot. I'm not saying it's not. But you are clever." He turned and faced his friend, smiling because it was a huge understatement. Max Heyworth had been widely respected as one of the most gifted scholars ever since they'd been at Eton together. And not in the distractible, head-in-the-clouds stereotypical way. Max's mind worked in a methodical, precise fashion. His doctoral work on theoretical economics at the University of Chicago was more or less incomprehensible to the rest of his friends and family.
"Is he whinging about becoming the duke again? It's aeons away in any case. Get over yourself." Willa's posh accent derailed the serious conversation, and they all three started laughing. She sank into the couch next to David and put his arm around her shoulder to make herself more comfortable. "You really should have been on time last night, Max. My friend has been single for years-"
"Now there's a ringing endorsement," David said without looking away from the television.
"What in the world would I do with an American bird, anyway?" Max asked.
David rolled his eyes.
Willa pressed on. "You would love her, of course. And then marry her!"
"Oh, wouldn't that be the worst day of the duchess's life?" Max said. "Might be worth it just to see my mother's face when I come home with a commoner, and an American to boot."
David burst out laughing. "Who's she trying to set you up with these days? The twelve-year-old princess from Denmark?" Max rolled his eyes and David continued, "Or maybe the fourteen-year-old from Spain?"
"Just shut up, David," Max said.
"You're right; fourteen is way too old for you. Maybe there's a royal toddler in Monaco?"
Max started laughing despite himself and Willa began giggling too. "You know Sylvia's motto! It's just as easy to love a royal as it is to love a commoner, so-"
"You might as well love the royal!" all three of them chimed in unison.
Willa's laughter died down first. "Oh, that is the only thing that makes my hangover feel better... a good laugh. Thank you."
"You're welcome," Max said. "Always glad to be the brunt of your jokes."
"You're not the brunt!" Willa protested. "Your mother is!"
Max looked back at the book in his lap and felt the warm residue of humor slip away. "She's not entirely wrong, you know."
"How do you mean?" David asked.
"I mean, I am going to have to get married at some point-"
"Why 'have to'?"
"I mean, I want to, but I also have to, you know... eventually. Heir and a spare and all that."
"First things first," Willa said, "Just get a girl. That tends to be a good place to start."
"You make it sound like it's as easy as walking into the local pub and picking up a pint."
"Well..." David gestured toward Max as if he were exhibit A. "As Willa pointed out, you are you, after all."
"Exactly. You're pretty easy on the eyes, and don't try to deny it," Willa continued. "All that tall, dark, and handsome stuff is not to be tossed aside lightly. Think of it as a commodity, a bargaining chip"-Willa waved her hand in the air-"you know, some economic term that you can relate to... an option? A forward? Whatever it is, you need to use that shit."
"Charming, Willa," David murmured without looking away from the three-pointer that was being replayed.
"You know what I mean. He's too... good." Willa looked from her husband to their handsome friend. "You are, you know."
Max rolled his eyes to shake off the joke, but the pressure of reality was there just the same. After he finished this semester in Chicago, his fifth and final year was all that stood between him and a future that felt like a slowly constricting collar around his neck. The job in the City of London was already on hold the minute he returned to the UK for good. The obligatory weekends out at Dunlear Castle with his parents. The blind dates. It had never been stated outright, but the unspoken expectation was that Max would begin to assume more and more ducal responsibilities over the next ten years. His decision to attend graduate school had already caused a huge fracas between his parents, with his mother wanting him to begin living at Northrop House in London immediately after he'd gotten his degree from Oxford. Luckily, his father had supported Max's plan to buy his own place in Fulham, work in the City for a couple of years, and then attend graduate school in the United States.
Sylvia, Lady Heyworth, Duchess of Northrop, had finally relented. It was the only time Max had ever heard his father raise his voice, and apparently it had had the desired effect. But the duchess wasn't happy about what she referred to as Max's years of "faffing about."
He shook his head and looked up from his lap to see Willa and David staring at him with genuine concern.
"You okay?" David asked.
Max gave his best all-is-well smile. "Of course! I mean, seriously, I have nothing to complain about. So my mother's a bit pushy... like that's news to anyone. I'm perfectly fine." There wasn't a hint of false enthusiasm. He had perfected that, at least. Keep everyone happy. No need to upset the applecart.
David looked skeptical. "Just get a girlfriend in Chicago to take your mind off things."
"Not likely, but I'll try."
From A Royal Pain by Megan Mulry. Copyright 2012 by Megan Mulry. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks Landmark.