The Muse

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Excerpt:

The cab’s horn went off like a shot, twice, then settled into a long, indignant blare, shattering what passed for quiet on Fifth Avenue on a Sunday afternoon. Arden MacCarren’s heart rate spiked abruptly as adrenaline flooded her nervous system. Startled in the act of removing her bags from the backseat of the SUV, she banged her head on the frame. One hand clapped to the back of her head, she hunched over to extricate herself from the car when the horn blared three times. Her heart rate spiked again, nearing the terrifying sharp thrum that was the precursor to passing out. She reached out blindly for any solid surface, and gripped the door handle until her fingers went numb, then forced herself to relax her grip slightly. Balanced on the razor wire between frightened and a panic attack, her body would interpret even the slightest stimuli as a reason to tip over the edge.

You’re overreacting. Calm yourself. Brain over body. Mind over matter.

Her brain snapped into hyperalert mode, cataloging her surroundings. Fifth Avenue. Sunlight glinting off chrome and mirrors, coating the trees with gold. The cabdriver righteously taking to task the driver of a Mercedes double-parked while a woman unloaded her take from an afternoon of shopping. Hermes, Tory Burch, Barneys, Irresistible. Arden scanned the woman’s sharp features without the click of recognition, but her brain, already on a hair trigger thanks to the horn, slid into the worst-case scenario like tires on black ice. No one she knew, but in her New York world it was only one degree of separation. She knew someone who knew this woman.

This woman knew.

The woman stalked up the red carpet leading to her building’s front door, and the Mercedes turned the corner onto the side street, allowing the cab to roar off down Fifth Avenue with one final blaring honk. Arden’s heart stutter-stepped up a notch, the resulting spike in blood pressure throbbing in the sore spot on the back of her head. Not good. She forced in a deep breath, inhaling long past the point her lungs thought possible, then exhaled as she focused on what was right in front of her: the black leather backseat of her SUV, the tote holding her sketchbook, pencils, charcoal. Reach out, ignore the tremor in your hand, and close your fingers around the handles. Good. Don’t forget your purse.

Derek, her driver, waited patiently until she closed the door. Arden turned to find Tony, the doorman, sweltering in his gray wool uniform and white gloves as he hovered under the canopy stretching from the building’s heavy brass doors to the sidewalk, his normally friendly face a smooth mask. “Allow me, Ms. MacCarren,” he said, reaching for her bag.

“I’m fine, Tony, thank you,” she said, and ordered her knees to quit shaking. But Tony’s unusual formality sent a new wave of anxious thoughts surging to the forefront. The woman in the street knew. Tony knows. The only people who didn’t know your father and brother were arrested for orchestrating a decade-long Ponzi scheme that swindled thousands out of hundreds of millions of dollars were living under rocks or in yurts somewhere without electricity or satellite television, and how many of those people were left? Six, maybe eight? Everyone knows. You’re exposed; you’re all exposed for everyone to see, stare at, a shining example of how the mighty have fallen . . .

The cool air in the building’s marble-tiled lobby swirled against her skin, drying the sweat at her nape and sending goose bumps down her spine. Without meeting her gaze, Tony pushed the button to call the elevator. “Ms. Cottlin said to send you straight up,” he asked.

“Thank you,” she said.

The doors opened and she stepped inside. Tony pushed the button for fourteen, then stepped back.

When the doors closed, she held it together through sheer will, inhaling slowly, filling her lungs, forcing her diaphragm to expand into her belly, safe in the cocoon of the elevator. That’s all it took to make her feel safe: several layers of thick walls between her and the outside world.

No. I’ve given up on finding peace, inside or out. I will not give up on feeling safe.

At the ding the elevator doors opened, revealing the marble floor of the fourteenth floor. She strode off and nearly collided with a woman obscured by a marble-topped table holding a profuse arrangement of flowers. Her heart jackrabbited again. “Excuse me,” Arden said as her face flushed.

The woman looked up from her phone, and did a double take before her jaw dropped in shock. That’s the way it would be from now on, stares and double takes, whispers behind her back and tirades on social media, their honor dragged through the mud again and again, for ratings. The woman’s gaze flicked over Arden’s clothes, the sizable oval ruby ring on the middle finger of her right hand.

“I hope your father burns in hell,” she said, teeth bared in hatred.

Arden froze. The woman sidestepped into the elevator, the doors closing, leaving Arden with the spray of flowers and her reflection in the mirror. Unbrushed blonde hair spilling around her shoulders. Pale skin. Near-colorless lips. A lavender tunic her personal shopper chose to draw attention to her eyes, which only served to highlight the smudges under her eyes and the scar tissue on her shoulder and chest. White jeans. Gold sandals.

Put on some lipstick, Arden. It brightens your face.

Her mother’s voice echoed in her ears until a door at the end of the hallway flung open, and Betsy Cottlin peered nearsightedly into the hallway. “I thought I heard the elevator,” she said. “Why are you standing in the hallway? Come in and help me find my glasses.”

“You live next door to a former investor,” Arden said as she hurried down the hall, glad for the distraction. Her voice was almost normal, but Betsy knew all of Arden’s tells. “She hopes Dad burns in hell.”

“Her dog craps in the elevator at least twice a week. I hope she sees him there,” Betsy said. She closed the door and resumed patting tabletops and rifling through the pockets of coats hanging in the closet by the door. “Carlotta, have you seen—?”

Betsy’s housekeeper appeared in the door to the kitchen, a pair of red-rimmed glasses in one hand and a scraper smeared with what looked like spinach dip in the other.

“Thank you,” Betsy said, and took the glasses.

“Hello, Arden,” Carlotta said, then disappeared as Betsy slid the glasses on her nose to study Arden. Her gaze, sharpened by both corrective lenses and two decades of BFF status, missed nothing. “Oh, honey.”

Arden surrendered to the enveloping hug Betsy gave her. “It’s fine,” Arden said automatically into her friend’s loose dark hair.

“I call bullshit,” Betsy said.

“Okay, I’m at the end of my rope,” Arden said.

“That’s better,” Betsy said. “How’s your mother? Still in denial?”

When the FBI raided their Hamptons house a week earlier, Arden and her mother had no idea what was happening, or why. Shunted off to the side and under the watchful gaze of an armed agent, Arden immediately called her cousin Neil, who served as the family’s attorney, and got him off the sidelines of his son’s soccer game. When the FBI left, taking her father and brother away in handcuffs, she turned on the television and watched a CNBC reporter narrate the devastation of their family’s reputation.

MacCarren, the investment bank carrying their family name and headed by her father and oldest brother, Charles, was a front for one of the largest Ponzi schemes in history. The screen cut from a report to video of men and women in cargo pants and polos with FBI emblazoned on the back and guns strapped to their thighs, carrying boxes and computers out of the firm’s offices in Midtown, the principals’ homes in New York, Aspen, and Palm Springs. She had been so stunned, it took her a moment to realize the reporter was broadcasting from the front lawn of the house in which she’d been standing[CE1] . In the next ninety seconds, Arden watched her mother age a decade, right in front of her eyes. She wouldn’t have been surprised if her hair had gone white.

In the moment, Arden kept it together, called lawyers, took the house phone off the hook. When the scope of the accusations became clear, Charles’s wife, Serena, laid her crying, shivering girls down in the back of her Land Rover and covered them with blankets before driving through the reporters and back to her family home in Connecticut. Her mother refused to leave, then spiraled into an attack of hysterics. It was Arden who shut off the television, Arden who found her mother’s pharmacopeia, Arden who helped her mother into bed, as if the shock had numbed her system to whiteout overload that staved off a panic attack. But she knew one was coming, perhaps the mother of all panic attacks, and if history repeated itself, the monster inside her head would arrive at the worst possible time.

“She’s still refusing to leave Breakers Point,” Arden said. Her pulse had slowed, her breathing deepened, but the scent of flop sweat hovered in the air around her, and her legs were still unsteady. She held out her hand, tremors running through her fingers, out into the air. “A cab honked while I was getting my bags out of the car.”

Betsy’s eyes sharpened even more. She reached for Arden’s hand and held it palm-down in hers. “I’ve seen worse,” she said, her voice oddly gentle. “If you want, I’ll reschedule this for another time. This probably isn’t the best week for us to brush up our rusty drawing skills. Libby and Sally won’t mind.”

It was tempting, except it felt like quitting, and quitting felt like failure. “Who’s here?”

“Everyone except the model.”

Which meant Micah Russo, on faculty at NYU and an accomplished artist, was also here. “No,” Arden said. “This is a good idea. I need a distraction. It might even help.”

“Fine, but say the word and we shut this down in favor of a really good pinot,” Betsy said decisively. “Come have a glass of wine.”

“Where’s Nick?” Arden asked as they walked down the hall into a classic eight overlooking Central Park.

“Dubai,” Betsy said. “He said to tell you whatever you need.”

As Betsy’s husband, Nick was still Arden’s friend, although he had dated Arden all through college before they parted ways just after graduation. All three of them pretended there was nothing awkward about this. “Thanks,” Arden said automatically.

“All right. Forget about it. For the next two hours, you’re in a Parisian atelier. Nothing exists but this moment,” she said grandly, leading Arden down the hallway.

Betsy did nothing by half, including turning her spacious, high-ceilinged living room into an atelier overlooking Central Park. The furniture now resided against one wall. Four easels were arranged on the antique Turkish rugs in a semicircle around a simple wooden box draped with a soft blanket. Libby Harmand and Sally Kettering-Stevens were arranging their pencils in the easel trays, but they stopped to kiss Arden’s cheek and hug her.

“I’m so sorry,” Sally said.

“How are you?” Libby said, squeezing her hand.

“Fine,” Arden said automatically. “Which one’s mine?”

“That one, unless the sun is too bright,” Sally said, pointing to the easel at the top of the circle, facing the windows. “I can switch with you.”

Sally erred on the side of oversolicitous, unlike Betsy, who would crack dirty jokes until Arden howled with laughter. They’d clearly circled the wagons before Arden arrived, maybe even had a conference, and while Arden knew they meant well, this group of friends who’d seen her through crises before, this time it rankled.

“It’s fine,” she said to Sally, and forced a smile. “We’ll switch it up each class.”

Libby brought her a glass of wine, placing it on the barstool beside her easel. Arden set up her large sketchpad and arranged her pencils, then sipped the wine. Sometimes alcohol helped and sometimes it acted as a trigger. She just didn’t know which would happen, but she refused to stop drinking wine because something bad might happen. The instructor, Micah, stopped by to say hello. They’d met before, moved in the same art circles, which enabled them to keep the greeting casual. His blond hair brushed his fine-cut jaw, and his brown eyes reflected a calm, if abstracted, wisdom.

“We’re just missing our model,” he said.

The buzzer from the doorman went off, startling Arden nearly out of her skin. She covered by adjusting her sketchpad on the easel. A few moments later the door opened, and Arden heard Carlotta’s low welcome.

“That way?” came from behind her.

A male voice, smooth and dense, like the caramels her grandmother used to keep in her pocket for Arden. A thud of a heavy bag hitting the floor, then the hair on Arden’s arms lifted as he strode between her easel and Libby’s. Her gaze focused down at her pencil tray, Arden saw bike shoes, knee-length cargo shorts and a tight-fitting jersey, unzipped to the end of his breastbone. Tattoos swirled up his forearms to disappear into the jersey’s short sleeves, and reappeared in the gap between the unzipped edges. A day or two’s worth of stubble accentuated his square chin and full lips. His hair was buzzed close to his head, indentations flattened into the hair and his forehead from a bike helmet that had left a distinct line on his forehead and around his ears from the straps. The heavy sunlight streaming through the west-facing windows slid through his irises, turning them the pale green of sea glass.

He shook Micah’s hand. “Sorry I’m late. I took one last job in Midtown.”

“You’re fine,” Micah said amiably. “We’ve just set up, so you’re in good time.”

The model scanned the room, his gaze searching corners high and low. Arden got the impression he wasn’t interested in the crown molding. “Now?” the model asked.

Micah nodded. In two seconds the model tugged the zipper of his bike jersey free and shrugged out of it. Arden’s first impression was of skin stretched over muscles, revealing veins, tendons, ligaments, flat planes of muscle. The cargo shorts hung low on his hipbones, held up by God-only-knew-what force of nature because the man didn’t have an ounce of fat on his body, but was absolutely covered in tattoos. Ink curled up both arms to the shoulder, but the first thing Arden could distinguish in the swirl of color was a sword, the hilt spreading over his collarbone, the blade arrowing down his pectoral, ribs, and hip to end just above his thigh. The second thing was a dragon, prowling restlessly over his other shoulder. The third thing was an oddly bare spot just over his left pectoral, a patch of skin remarkable for its lack of ink.

Micah turned to the circled easels. “This is Seth. Seth, this is Libby, Betsy, Arden, and Sally,” he said, pointing to each woman in turn.

Seth paused in the act of unzipping his cargo shorts to give them a short nod, then, with absolutely no ceremony or coyness, hooked his thumbs in his shorts and boxers, and pushed them to his ankles. In one movement he stepped out of them, kicked them behind the platform, and he was up onto the blanket-draped box. Hands on his hips, weight on one hip, he looked at Micah. “Say when.”

“Now’s good,” Micah said, and moved from the center of the circle to the outer edge. “We’ll open with fifteen-second poses. Big movements, not details. Warm up your arm, and your brain,” he said. “Whenever you’re ready, ladies,” he said gently.

Arden blinked. Stared. Came back to her senses. Ducked her head behind her easel, and slid Betsy a look, only to find her best friend gaping. Flat-out gaping, which was worth savoring. Very little took Betsy by surprise, and the sheer shock on her face almost made the last week worthwhile. Clearly Micah hadn’t vetted his choice of model with Betsy.

This wasn’t happening. This kind of person didn’t show up to model for a private drawing class hosted in a Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park. Classes like this hired dancers of either sex, slender, supple, waxed, capable of holding languid, elegant poses while beginning artists struggled to capture the way fingertips dented the air, the slope of a thigh into negative space.

Seth was almost too much to look at.

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