Andrea was in no condition to handle a house full of people. Miranda sent a text to Cara to ‘clear the way’ a few minutes before Roy parked in front of the townhouse. In the back seat, Andrea had rested her forehead against Miranda’s neck the entire ride, sighing heavily. While Roy got the luggage, Andrea marched into the townhouse, up the stairs, and went straight to Miranda’s room. Cara took care of the luggage Roy left at the foot of the stairs and Miranda wearily walked into the kitchen, immediately stopping on the tiled floor.
“How is she?” Derby asked, nursing a ceramic mug at the table.
Stepping out of her shoes, Miranda picked them up then placed them on a small bench chair near the window. She claimed the empty chair across from Selah and Andrea’s nanny.
“Can I get you something, Miss Priestly?” Selah asked, already half-standing.
“Whatever wine’s open in the fridge, thank you.” Miranda pushed back her forelock then looked at Derby. “She’s handling it.”
“Hello, Miranda.” Demetria said then looked down at her drink. “I just want to apologize...”
“There’s no need. It was Mrs. Sachs’ error in judgement. I’m sorry you got caught in the middle but allow me to address that now since you’re here.” Miranda waited for Demetria to look her in the eye. “First, has Andrea shared anything about her situation?”
“No but I willingly signed a NDA and I haven’t talked to anyone about what I’ve seen or heard or anything, Miranda. I only let Mrs. Sachs in because she’s Andrea’s mom and she said...”
Selah set down the glass of white in front of Miranda but said to Demetria, “Calm down, Miss Priestly is cool.”
The young nanny’s gaze flicked to Selah then Derby and finally settled on Miranda. She nodded slightly, licking her bottom lip.
“Thank you, Selah. I do wish you would call me Miranda.” She looked at the quintessential teenager and endured a slight pang in her heart. She was going to miss her once she started at Spelman in the fall. “ And thank you for coming over so quickly. I was under the impression Derby and Cara had plans this evening and I didn’t know Andrea had sent Demetria over until later.” Miranda raised her eyebrows at Derby, waiting.
“Well, Cara just wanted to be here in case you needed her.”
“I set the bags by your bedroom door.” Cara said as she walked into the kitchen and headed straight for the fridge. “I’m finishing the wine. Selah, you want some soda? What about you Dee?”
“I’m good.” Selah answered, retaking her seat.
Demetria smiled. “No thanks.”
“Now that everyone’s here, there are some things you should know.” Miranda put her elbows on the table and leaned a bit forward. “Before I continue, I need your assurances nothing I say will be repeated outside of this room to anyone else.” Once each of them agreed, she continued, “Andrea Sachs and I are in a romantic relationship. She’s in the midst of a divorce and custody battle and she also works for me albeit not directly.”
A small gasp, quickly cut off, escaped from Demetria.
Selah’s eyes widened then she grinned. “My best friend has two dads so I know all about it.”
“That’s good to know, Selah.” Miranda shifted in the chair. “We haven’t discussed anything with the children, yet. Until certain things are dealt with, Andrea and I cannot go public. We will be going out socially with men, however...”
“Oh, wait, I know this one...” Cara excitedly interrupted, holding onto Derby’s arm and lightly shaking it. “C’mon, remember? The trivia game we played at Amita’s house? When a gay person dates someone of the opposite for show?”
“A beard?” Derby answered, snapping his fingers.
“That’s it!” Cara cried out and hugged him.
Miranda stared at the two of them and slightly raised one eyebrow.
Derby scratched the back of his neck, smiling in apology. Cara rolled her eyes and resumed occupying her chair.
“Yes, well, that was the term employed by Nigel. Andrea and I, starting tomorrow, will not be spending as much time together in public and will be reducing the visits between our respective homes. Things are very delicate right now.”
“I won’t say anything.” Demetria said as she adjusted the shoulder of her Baby Phat pink velour hoodie. “Even if I didn’t sign the NDA.”
Selah hopped off the chair and walked around the table, standing at Miranda’s side. She put her arm around Miranda and said, “I got you.”
Returning the embrace, Miranda replied, “I appreciate that.”
“Well, okay...” Cara stood, continuing, “...everyone’s in agreement. Me and Derby gonna head out. Don’t forget I’m off tomorrow.” To Demetria, she said, “I made up one of the spare room’s for you, if you’d like to stay. Just follow the same routine you do at Andrea’s. Miranda will deal with the twins.”
“Oh, um, okay.”
Cara winked at her. “I put some of my clothes on the bed you can sleep in. Third floor, second room on the right. Laundry’s in the basement if you want to wash your own.”
“Thanks. It was nice meeting you and Derby.”
“C’mon, Selah. We’ll walk you home.” Derby stated.
After everyone dispersed, Miranda locked up the house and headed up the stairs, shoes in hand. Fen slept on her side, facing Cassidy’s back, with one hand under a curtain of burnished copper hair, Lou the Sloth between them. Caroline, neatly tucked in, already had clothes for school laid out on the foot of her bed. Obviously she was looking forward to getting back into her normal routine.
When she entered her bedroom, Andrea’s bag in hand, she stopped at the sight of Andrea on the bed. Naked, she perched on the edge of the mattress with her arms braced behind her. Damp hair held in a clip with wavy tendrils framing her face, Andrea’s eyes held a challenge. She lifted a leg, anchoring the heel on the bed, and bared herself. Adrenaline flushed through her veins.
“What’s your pleasure, cub?”
Andrea smiled without teeth as she slowly shifted her weight to one arm and used her free hand to slowly caress down the inner thigh of her bent leg. A tremor raced down Miranda’s spine. She dropped the bag and her shoes and took the steps necessary to stand in front of Andrea’s wanton display. The soft hint of Andrea’s arousal clung to the air between them and Miranda immediately filled her lungs.
Riveted by the way Andrea’s fingers spread apart her lower lips, revealing her excited sex, Miranda rapidly breathed through her nose. Her gaze snapped upward and latched onto Andrea’s dark brown eyes. She took a deep breath then walked over to the nightstand a few feet away. Slowly she pulled the drawer open, the sound a preamble of things to come, then placed a bottle of lube onto the table with quiet authority. Her hand dove back in and retrieved a black harness. Spreading it out on the bed next to Andrea, Miranda’s precise movements were like a countdown.
“I’m in a mood.” Andrea rasped faintly.
Miranda withdrew the last item from the drawer. The solid weight of the strapless dildo felt good in her palm. She stared at Andrea.
“Then I’ll fuck you out of it.”
The Bench was a member’s only club located in Tribeca. When Judge Joslin suggested it, Miranda had been surprised a family court judge had access to such an old-money establishment. Senators and New York Supreme Court judges, Governors and New York elite frequented it, not a fashion editor, even if she brought in revenue for the city every year during the local fashion week. Of course, she knew about The Bench, but had never been. Stephen used to preen every time he finagled an invitation, condescendingly explaining it was a business meeting.
Roy didn’t pull away from the curb until she was safely within the lobby. Immediately greeted by a ‘seneschal’, Miranda supplied identification and the member’s name.
“If you’ll follow me, please.”
She knew enough to keep her eyes forward and remain silent despite the wild curiosity to look around. The corridor, lined with landscape paintings and fresh flowers in crystal vases set in waist-high alcoves every eight feet or so, ended at bronze plated elevator doors. The seneschal inserted a card somewhere to her left and the doors opened. Miranda noticed tiny red lights above in her peripheral vision, uncertain whether she felt comforted or intruded upon by the cameras. Unlike regular elevators, there wasn’t a floor display nor panel, a jolt to signal up or down but she heard a faint mechanical hum. Miranda supposed they were in motion. Every New Yorker was an expert in riding an elevator yet she highly doubted the majority rode in one like this.
The elevator doors smoothly retracted.
“May I offer to check your outer garment, purse and any electronic devices?” The seneschal politely inquired.
It wasn’t a request. Miranda allowed it, however much it made her wary to be without a way to contact the ‘outside world’. Her power and influence were nonexistent within the establishment’s walls.
“This is Rose. She will escort you the rest of the way.”
Miranda nodded, donning a blasé expression then fell in step with Rose down an unusual serpentine hallway. Soft white lighted scones hung on the blue fabric walls and it was almost soothing. The still and odorless air, however, struck Miranda as odd. She was accustomed to being among people and being seen, urban noises and smells. Deep within the confines of The Bench, it was hard to get her bearings.
Faint sounds bubbled forth as they rounded yet another curve, relaxing Miranda’s nerves. Like the mouth of a river spilling into the sea, the hallway widened into a great room. Conversation was muted, randomly broken by a soft laugh or two. A quick look confirmed she wasn’t the only female, at least among those of whom were staff members in predictable uniforms moving without haste. Potted trees, dark wooden and painted silk panels and a variety of half-walls with stone or brick veneers created the impression of an open floor plan. It reminded Miranda of a hedge mazes in British palaces and country estates.
Rose gestured for her to move ahead to their right where a small entryway seemed to suddenly appear.
“Enjoy.” she murmured and waited for Miranda to enter.
“Miranda, how are you?” Judge Joslin greeted her, sitting in a padded leather chair with a wine glass a fourth of the way filled. She swirled the dark liquid, sticking her rather hawklike nose in the glass.
“I’m well, and you?” Miranda returned, taking the seat opposite of the judge.
“I know I shouldn’t drink wine this late, especially red, but this is a marvelous offering from Australia. Would you care for some?”
“Would you like the fish or meat course?”
“Fish.” Miranda answered, idly taking in the décor of their little alcove.
Judge Joslin tapped something into a panel attached to the table. “Care for a appetizer? Soup? They have an incredible tomato bisque with an okra infused foam.”
“Oh, no thank you.”
A server appeared at Miranda’s elbow with a glass of red on a silver tray then quietly withdrew. She observed a wine-tasting ritual, aware of the judge’s eagerness to hear her verdict. Miranda was half-tempted to gulp it down and smack her lips.
“It’s surprisingly silky.” Miranda offered with confidence, not much of a wine expert, and hoped it satisfied the judge.
“Such an opulent wine.”
Miranda set down the glass. “Yes.”
Judge Joslin sighed woefully after emptying the glass then tapped something on the panel. “How can I help you?”
Miranda leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs. She stared into Linda’s eyes, gauging her, still not convinced of how to broach the subject. She allowed the seconds to pile up, unperturbed by the silence. Linda’s gaze sharpened.
This time the server reappeared at the judge’s side with a fresh glass of wine.
Once she left, Linda ventured, “Just tell me the problem.”
“Someone I care for requires a divorce as quickly as possible.”
Linda’s pudgy fingers caressed the wine glass. “When did they file?”
“Is this a high profile case?”
“The husband’s a struggling sous chef and my friend works at Runway.” Miranda tensed at the opportunistic gleam in the eyes leveled at her.
Judge Joslin’s judicial outward appearance dropped low enough for Miranda to see that brokering a deal was a possibility.
“A judge’s cases are determined randomly in my district.” Linda said, clasping her hands on the table in front of her. “I doubt they’ve even processed the paperwork yet.” She unclasped her hands and leaned back in her chair, the regretful slant on her mouth a bit too contrived for Miranda’s taste. “Are there extenuating circumstances? Alleged abuse?”
Miranda took her time as she sipped from her drink. The server appeared with microscale salads, smoothly setting it before them. The presentation, while artistic, still didn’t tempt her tastebuds. Miranda much preferred a traditional salad. Nevertheless she conveyed approval with a smile as the server draped a linen napkin over her lap then departed. Skewering a sliver of strawberry, what looked like shaved kohlrabi matchsticks, and arugula leaves, Miranda hoped the dressing had a bite to it. Grown from hydroponics, the fruit lacked flavor, but, then, she was partial to consumable plants cultivated from plain old dirt.
She closed her eyes as if savoring the taste then swallowed. “Oh, the dressing is rather good, isn’t it?”
Linda chewed and nodded, eyebrows flickering briefly.
Before gracefully stabbing more salad, Miranda answered Linda’s previous question in a deliberate offhand manner. “It’s hard to tell, really. We aren’t that close after all, but...” Holding the food up to her mouth, she bit her lip and looked at Linda then slowly set the fork back down on the plate. “Well, her demeanor is noticeably different and that’s natural, yes? Even the impact on her work is to be expected, I suppose, although my career oddly prospered during both of my divorces.”
“How’s her appearance?”
Miranda arched her brows as she consumed another forkful. Linda’s line of inquiry sought to ascertain the degree of alleged abuse, a double-edged sword that required considerable balance on Miranda’s part. Too much reported abuse would invite an investigation and too little wouldn’t properly motivate the judge. Even though Linda seemed intrigued, Miranda knew there was no reason for the woman to go too far out on a limb, not while Miranda’s answers to the judge’s questions would define the length and strength of said ‘limb’. Gaining a few seconds to craft her next answer, she ran her tongue over her top teeth then patted her mouth with the linen napkin.
“She does look tired and, well, the way she’s put her ensembles together lately...” Miranda tsked and leaned forward in a conspiratorial fashion. “...in my business, appearance is everything.”
“I suppose I’m fortunate I have a uniform then.”
Miranda guided the rest of the conversation away from the purpose of the meeting. It wouldn’t do to appear desperate. In the ‘world of favors’ the energy required didn’t always invigorate her. Often it was tedious. The prize, however, was Andrea’s early release from her marriage, a factor that would influence their future together. Vivian Sachs possessed the wherewithal to fund Nate although her husband seemed disinclined to interfere in his daughter’s life. In a week’s time, Q, the private investigator she employed, promised a complete dossier on the Sachs’. She assured Miranda the couple’s lack of fame, wealth and influence made their lives a book in a library Q could check out with minimal effort. Vivian Sachs was her opponent and Miranda always did her homework.
Linda excused herself to use the restroom which afforded Miranda an opportunity to check her phone. As expected, there were texts from Amber and Vanessa, several emails but nothing marked urgent, and one voicemail since leaving Runway an hour ago. She smiled at the caller’s identity.
“I’m going to miss you in my empty...lonely...sexless bed tonight. But, hey, we get to double date this Friday which reminds me...do not, and I mean it, wear underwear Friday.”
Chuckling softly as she shook her head, she decided to reply later. Andrea was shameless and confident and so very imaginative in the bedroom. It wasn’t bravado or arrogance either. When Miranda had confessed to enjoying delayed gratification, Andrea hadn’t simply excited her then withheld an orgasm. She learned Miranda adored chocolate covered cherries and had a crush on her female science teacher in high school. A few weeks later Andrea walked into Miranda’s Runway office dressed like a proverbial hot teacher. She then proceeded to outline something on the whiteboard. Andrea stopped writing in the middle of a point and apologized, leaning over the visitor’s chair to get something out of her purse. The curve of her ass was perfectly outlined by the tight charcoal skirt which Miranda really enjoyed. What had her squeezing her legs together, however, was when Andrea slowly peeled back the red foil around her favorite candy. Game over. She had gotten Miranda halfway there without even a touch. Sometimes direct but often not, Andrea’s seductions always made Miranda breathless.
“You look like you’re having very happy thoughts.” Linda joked as she took her seat.
Miranda put her phone away. “One of my daughters’ drawings won first place.”
“A budding artist in the family. How nice.”
“I’m very proud of her.”
Linda replaced the linen napkin on her lap then took up her utensils. While cutting into a steak, she said, “I just feel so sorry for your friend, Miranda. Maybe I can look into it? It sounds like a very straightforward situation. Courier the information over.”
“Oh, well, thank you, Linda.”
The judge smiled, a bite of meat poised in front of her mouth, as she replied, “Excellent. I’ll get back with you within a week’s time.”
Miranda flashed her social smile and wondered what the judge would ask for in return.