The first scene of CARNEGIE HILL
Unsure of the proper attire for a co-op board meeting, Pepper decided to err on the side of stuffiness. She settled on a heather-gray skirt-suit with matching cloche, a raw-silk blouse, nude hose and heels, and a three-carat diamond choker that Rick had given her the past Valentine's Day, two months after they met. He was possibly the most successful asset manager under forty in New York, and he loved to spend money on her. She didn't need it, but she also didn't mind it.
Pepper had been dressing up a lot lately. It was a shortcut to looking mature, even if she didn't feel that way. Despite being on the verge of thirty-three, she still felt like a teenager on the inside. Maybe it was because she'd lived at home until a few months ago. Or because she never had a job that felt like a career. Or because she wasn't married yet, unlike most of her friends, including her younger sister, Maisie. Or because she didn't have sturdy opinions about politics and religion and everything else that people argued about. Or because she still used her parents' credit card and resented them for giving her advice. She didn't know how other people grew up; she was in therapy with Dr. Riffler to figure that out, but in almost three years, she'd gotten nowhere. She hoped that her new life with Rick in the Chelmsford Arms would speed things up.
Among the fears her mother had instilled in her—forgetting to wash off her makeup at night, eating more than a bite of dessert, airing too many opinions in mixed company—one of the biggest was the fear of arriving at a gathering empty-handed, so she perused the bottles in Rick's commercial-grade wine refrigerator, his main contribution to their shared life. Even though he earned a good living as a wealth manager, his furniture had been a pastiche of sidewalk and Craigslist finds and the detritus of former roommates, and all his books were ragged and swollen as if they'd been laundered. But he invested in wine, sometimes spending thousands on a bottle at auction, and she liked scanning the labels in search of a tempting vintage. The whites were kept at forty-five degrees on the left-hand side, the reds at fifty-eight degrees on the right. Anything from the top two rows was for everyday drinking or hostess gifts. The middle rows were dedicated to a gradient of special occasions: holidays on top and birthdays toward the bottom. She'd never seen him open a bottle from the very bottom row, ancient Bordeaux with inscrutable, handwritten labels. Their musty secrecy gave her a chill.
Pepper chose a Sauvignon Blanc from the top row and ran it by Rick, who was drinking a chocolate protein shake one determined gulp at a time while replying to Facebook messages, probably from people he'd met once in person and then had become bosom buddies with online. He was kind to everyone: his two thousand Facebook "friends," strangers in elevators and in restaurants, even telemarketers, panhandlers, and street poets. The truth was that his effusive friendliness often annoyed her. He couldn't meet someone without trying to charm them.
"Okay if I take this to the meeting?" she asked, showing Rick the label.
"Ooh, that's a good one," he said. He was so handsome—a dark wave of smooth, gelled hair, powerful nose, dimpled chin—she could barely look at him without getting wobbly. He didn't quite have the face of a model or actor, but diet and exercise, styling and attention to detail amplified his inborn gifts. For better or worse, he knew exactly how good he looked. "It's like eating a pear off the tree, with just a hint of cat piss. They're gonna splooge."
"Maybe I should pick a different one, then—you know, save them the dry-cleaning bill."
"They're going to do it anyway when they see you. You look fucking amazing," he said, and kissed her neck. She kissed his neck, too, and then they were making out in the middle of the kitchen. Part of her wanted to skip the meeting to make love; only when she met Rick did she discover that sex didn't have to be a tepid, churning affair. But he'd still be in the mood when she got back. She could nudge him awake at three in the morning, and he'd be ready to go.
"Is the hat too much?" she asked, angling her face away. "I mean, I'm not leaving the building."
"The hat makes the outfit. It says, 'Bow before me, mortals.'" He palmed her butt.
"Perfect. I was going for Penelopia, Goddess of the Co-op." Pepper's given name was Penelope, but she didn't feel quite mature enough to fill out such a roomy name. Since moving into the Chelmsford Arms, however, she'd been introducing herself with all four syllables. Her nickname was better suited to a little girl, or maybe a bunny.
Rick shook his fist. "Ruler of the Assessment and Creator of Bylaws."
"Wielder of the Signatory Pen and the Construction Shovel." She raised her arms over her head, untucking her blouse. She quickly tucked it back in.
"Your glory shines upon the preferred vendors."
She kissed him one last time, touched up her lipstick, and headed for Patricia Cooper's apartment ten minutes early, propelled by a gust of anticipation.