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“Bennett.”

“Sloane.”

Sloane’s temple twitches. Riley can see it as she passes her: the way Sloane clenches her jaw, pushes her tongue against her back teeth. A single motion, coupled with the narrowing of her eyes, the proud tilt of her chin.

Interesting.






What follows - Abby and Harper’s reunion, the family’s pseudoreckoning - must be gleaned from conversations with Riley’s mother Eleanor, a method of news-sourcing that she has never enjoyed but will accept given the circumstances. Town gossip is unrivaled and beggars can’t be choosers: Riley doesn’t follow Harper on social media. Never did. This is a decision she made over a decade ago, and one she stands by to this day. 

Harper had sent her a follow request on Instagram. 2011, she thinks, though certain elements of college life have made it difficult to remember on which evening in particular this had all occurred. (Cocaine, for example. Alcohol for another.)

Harper was a legacy admit at Harvard, her page the product of a budding strategist, carefully curated: cashmere sweaters paired with pleated skirts, champagne flutes in manicured hands, boys on sailboats. Fucking sailboats, Riley remembers thinking, as if they weren’t both descended from the same kinds of New England dynasties, overflowing with stereotypes and sad little rich girls in gilded cages. As if this wasn’t Riley’s inheritance, too, even if she insisted on downplaying it.

Well, cliché after cliché, and here they were.

It was very bold of Harper to assume she was going to re-enter Riley’s life, unremarkable as it was at the time - Smith, terrible bangs, brief flirtation with septum ring - after four years of silence. Bold of Harper, but typical.

Delete request. Block. Done.

Over the years, she’d accepted requests from the other two Caldwell sisters, including Sloane. Watched the spectacle of her marriage, the coordinating outfits, motherhood as a kind of intensely choreographed recital with a Boston filter. Exhausting, it seemed then, and this from someone who had sacrificed their twenties to medical school. Now she realizes that Sloane was only doing what comes naturally to women like her - like Sloane, like Harper, but like Riley, too, deep down in a part of her she has chosen to ignore. Sloane was performing, and she excelled at it. The result of a natural with years of practice, dancing her feet bloody.






Riley’s recollection of Sloane at school was a scowl, a passing figure in the hall, occasionally appearing at the periphery of memories involving Harper to deliver a scathing comment. Her presence tended to sour Harper’s mood. Riley was intrigued.

A senior when Riley and Harper were freshmen, Sloane had simultaneously held the positions of student government president, secretary of the Young Republicans, and captain of the field hockey team, where she was known for being particularly vicious. The story of her breaking the kneecap of a teammate was passed down with terrified reverence. 

On other girls, the uniforms with their Peter Pan collars and plaid skirts came across as coy, but on Sloane the style was severe, even austere. When everyone else flaunted prestige with the Coach Hobo, Sloane was the first to sport a Fendi Peekaboo. The rest of the school immediately followed suit, scrambling to keep up. 

In the ecosystem of wealthy teenagers at New England private schools, Sloane had found a way to consistently hold the lead with few competitors. She was distinct from her sister this way: Harper glided through school softened by a halo of admirers (of which Riley was formerly the most loyal), her successes as social as they were academic; Sloane seemed to disdain any attempt at bonding with her peers, preferring to see them skewered when they stepped between her and her prize. A predictable cast of handsome but submissive boys would briefly play the part of her boyfriend before being rotated out for the next.

Sloane had graduated by the time Harper decided to ruin Riley’s life. But Riley remembers that first Christmas after it all happened, the annual Caldwell party that Eleanor had refused to skip: Sloane back home for the holidays, maturing herself in a Kate Spade dress, holding silent court in the corner of her second dining room. Impossible for her not to have known what had happened. Riley had kept to the shadow of her parents, ignored in the way that this town’s adults signaled their disapproval, but there was Sloane, watching her carefully, following her around the room with her eyes. In only a few minutes, Tipper would take Eleanor and Roger aside and ask them to take their daughter home - Harper’s not comfortable coming downstairs, you see how it is, thank you so much for understanding, Merry Christmas - and they, of course, would concede. 






A week into January, Riley gets a text from Abby: 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So it’s not awkward if we actually become friends, right?

I’m not opposed to it.

Cool. Great. 

Friendship commenced.

How was your New Years?

 

From here, a robust friendship does bloom. Riley has never been fond of certain lesbian stereotypes, especially ones that are firmly in her control and thus can be avoided, but finds this friends-with-the-current-girlfriend-of-my-ex scenario to be an agreeable compromise. And she will be the first to admit that she does feel a certain wicked satisfaction when Abby comes to her for commiseration over Harper’s more boneheaded fuck-ups. As she should, she thinks. She has more than earned that right. It also comes naturally to her, being the daughter of a born begrudger, and on this one very particular occasion, she will indulge the genetic tendency.






“I was looking at that picture you posted the other day. You’re starting to get bags under your eyes. I’d say you’re stressed, but the same thing happened to me when I was in my thirties. Well, maybe a little later. You’re aging faster than I did, you get that from your father’s side. They all retain water in their faces.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“Anyway, thank god for Dr. Roman. I’m sure he could give you some kind of industry discount, doctor to doctor. You really should think about it.”

“Will do.”

“Your father says hello.”

“Hello, Dad.”

“And there he goes. Something more important in his study, I suppose. Oh, I almost forgot. Did you hear that Sloane Caldwell moved to New York? I saw Tipper yesterday, but I already knew about the divorce. Well, everyone knew about the divorce, I just didn’t know she’d left Boston.”

“Interesting.” And it is. It is very interesting.

“That poor family. It’s just been one thing after another with them. Who knows, maybe this will make her happy. She was never a very happy girl, though, was she? So intense.”

“Intense, yeah. Definitely.”

“You sound distracted. Are you distracted?”

“No, I’m just making dinner.”

“Sticking to 1200 calories? Remember that supplement I told you about?”

“Talk later, Mom.”






She will blame exhaustion for what she is doing now: scrolling on her phone, not even out of her scrubs yet, tapping her way to Sloane Caldwell’s Instagram page. 

New York, indeed. There’s the brownstone, there’s the obligatory day out with the kids in Central Park, there’s the selfie at some kind of gala in a floor-length gown. That same scowl in the mirror, as though even her reflection has done something to bother her. Maybe it has. Self-loathing is a favorite hobby among the women of their particulars.

No evidence of a new partner. Not that Riley is seeking out said evidence, but it is hard to miss that the only people appearing in these photos are Sloane and her children, and a few stray shots of Jane. No surprise appearances from her parents or Harper, interestingly enough. And no men on her arm, no men posed behind the twins, no men in the background of a mirror selfie. This is not the Sloane whose social media was formerly plastered with family portraits and couple photoshoots and clearly staged occasions of supposed spontaneity. This New York version is nearly unrecognizable in that way: private, discrete, difficult to read. 

Riley slides away from the profile, sees Abby’s post of her and Harper skiing in Aspen. Comments “I’d say watch out for yetis, but you’re on vacation with one.” Receives a cry-laughing emoji in Abby’s reply. She and Abby have an ongoing joke about Harper’s height which Harper seems to be mostly on board with, and if it makes her just a little bit uncomfortable, well, that’s unfortunate.






Abby says they’ve finally decided on a date: middle of June, most agreeable weather and no overlap with Caldwell family birthdays. And they want the ceremony to be at the Caldwells’ vacation home in Maine. Almost a destination wedding, as Abby puts it, but lowkey. Riley chooses not to tell her that any event involving the Caldwell matriarch has no chance of being labeled “lowkey.” She will pretend to be surprised when the wedding is inevitably ostentatious and overcomplicated. 

What is an actual surprise is Abby asking her to be one of her bridesmaids.

“I know, I know,” she says, her face on Riley’s phone pulled into one of her crooked grimaces. “It sounds weird and traditional but we’re not using that term, we’ll call you ‘friends of the bride’ or something. And I promise you won’t have to wear a dress I picked out. Fuck, can you imagine?” There’s a pause, Abby gnawing the inside of her mouth. In another conversation, Riley would jokingly accuse her of doing Orphan Face, but she knows how serious this is for the other woman, who confessed over the months that she can count her friends on one hand. “Look, you don’t have to say anything now. You can decide and let me know. It would mean a lot to me, but I wouldn’t ever want anyone to feel uncomfortable or even—”

“Dude. Happy to do it. Bridesmaid, friend of the bride, whatever you want to call me, I’ll be there.”

The relief in Abby’s features is palpable, her shoulders dropping as she smiles. “Oh, perfect. Thank you so much. Expect for Sloane to get in touch.”

“Sloane?”

“She volunteered to help with everything, which is great because John’s kind of useless. You know how intense she is with organization, although…” Abby shrugs. “She’s chiller now, I think. Since the divorce she’s definitely more chill.”






Actually, Sloane is not at all chill. 

In reply to Riley’s questions, Sloane presents one-word answers in a three word range: Yes. No. Explain.

‘Yes’ to Riley asking if there is a designated place for them to book their accommodations.

‘No’ to Riley asking if she has any suggestions for wedding gifts.

‘Explain’ to Riley asking if she’ll be in New York next week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m headed up there for a medical conference at Sloan-Kettering.

That’s why I ask.

Well, I live here.

So clearly I will be here.

Would you like to get together for a meal?

Why?

Because we’ll both be in the same place.

Have we not been in the same place before?

We could discuss the wedding over a coffee.

Is the phone not sufficient for that?

Okay, well, I’ll be in New York next week.

And I guess I’ll see you next at the wedding in June.



Riley doesn’t know why she even bothers with the Caldwell women, why she hasn’t learned her lesson by now after everything they’ve put her through. She isn’t that stupid, really.

 

 

 

 

Except then she’s buzzed in Hell’s Kitchen next Tuesday at about 9:30 PM, the end of a very, very extended happy hour and she is feeling stupid, just exquisitely moronic, and texts Sloane again.

 

 

 

 


If coffee doesn’t work, how about a drink?

Three dots appear and disappear, appear and disappear. Finally, a response comes.

 

 

 

 

I’m not dating right now.


I didn’t ask.

When?

Now-ish? 
Tonight?


That is extremely presumptuous.


It’s spontaneous.


Where?


Wherever is convenient to you, you pick.


So not only are you imposing, you are expecting me to do all the work of finding a bar.
In a city with hundreds of thousands of bars.
Of which I am meant to select one.


Do you have a favorite spot?

No.

Name a block that would be easy to get to and I will find a bar on that block.


Which, to Riley’s shock and amusement, Sloane does. 

And this is how she finds herself riding a train uptown, seeing her reflection in the window across from her, trying not to laugh at it all. Because this is ridiculous, it cannot be denied: she makes eye contact with Sloane Caldwell on one single occasion, catches some kind of murky “feeling” that has deluded her into asking the other woman for a drink when, really, there are any number of eligible doctors and pharmaceutical representatives who would be better suited to coming back to Riley’s hotel room tonight, and now she is speeding underground to the Upper West Side so as to be more convenient to a woman who has not, as far as Riley can remember, ever smiled at her. It’s not like she lacks other options. It’s not like she isn’t in the most populous city in the United States and could wander into one of the thousands of open venues to acquire whatever it is she thinks she needs right now. It’s not like she didn’t intend to spend this evening preparing for a presentation on rare genetic disorders that she is only seventy percent ready to give tomorrow morning.

No, for some reason, despite her strong dislike of Mr. and Mrs. Caldwell, Riley finds herself strangely drawn to the fruit of their cursed loins for the second time in her life. 

 

 

 

 

 

Sloane orders a Manhattan and gives Riley the same disapproving one-over that had earlier been addressed to the interior of the bar, though the bar provoked no comment from Sloane beyond a nose-pinching sniff. She meets Riley’s eye, and for the first time, Riley considers that this entire venture is actually a very bad idea.

Sloane nods at her suit. “Did you dress up for this?”

“I was at a cocktail event.” She self-consciously straightens her jacket, smooths the sleeves. Did Sloane dress up is the real question, and Riley thinks she can make a guess: no. Or yes, in her own way. Sloane’s hair is longer than the last time they saw each other, held up at the crown of her head with a single gold clip. She’s wearing all black, which makes her recede even further into their unlit corner of the bar. Said bar being a cocktail place with a good wine list, mostly unoccupied because this is a part of town for families and old folks and it’s late on a Tuesday. School night. But here is Sloane, mother of two, sitting in the corner booth with the table between them like a statement, and here is Riley, unsure where to settle her eyes, her hands.

Sloane’s head cocks, studying Riley’s collar, then her neck. “What is that, Philip Lim?”

“Tom Ford for Gucci.”

“So you always wear a pantsuit.”

“Not always.”

Sloane’s eyebrows raise as she drinks. “But mostly.”

“How are the gift baskets?”

“I wouldn’t know. Eric kept the business in the divorce.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Well, I’m not. It was his brainchild, I refused custody.”

“So now you’re…”

“Practicing law. I’m certified in New York and Connecticut. I’ve gone to enough waste already. I am preventing further degradation.”

“Congratulations.” She holds up her glass. Sloane stares at it, considers the gesture, and finally clinks her drink with Riley’s. At the success of this moment, maybe the first success of the evening beyond getting Sloane here at all, Riley takes a sip.

“Did you fuck Abby?”

An interruption to her swallow, causing a slight sputter. “Sorry?”

“Did you fuck her? Obviously you fucked Harper, or at least did the teenage equivalent of heavy petting.”

“I didn’t fuck Abby, no. I didn’t fuck Harper either. It would depend on your definition of fucking but I’ll make a wild guess as to yours and say no.” She gives her a look. “Did it seem like I fucked Abby?”

“No, I just…” A sigh, or the more aggressive cousin of a sigh. “I won’t even lie, I was hoping you did.”

“Aren’t you organizing their wedding?”

“I am, but I’m referring to Christmas. At the time, I thought there might be something karmic in it.”

“In me fucking your sister’s fiancee?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I didn’t. It did not cross my mind then or now. Haven’t you two made up?”

Sloane snorts. “Oh, haven’t we.”

“I’m confused. You’re her maid of honor. You’re in charge of everything.”

“I volunteered because I knew if I didn’t, my mother would step in and make things even worse. Jane is not incompetent but her enthusiasm hinders matters of project management. Harper and I have a few unresolved issues that I don’t see being resolved any time soon. That does not make me a completely evil human.”

“I never said you were.”

“It would have been evil to leave her and Abby in the clutches of Tipper. I did what had to be done.”

“Does Harper know you have these issues? I was under the impression everything was resolved.”

And this is the first time that Sloane ever smiles at Riley. She will remember it the way someone recalls seeing their first Rembrandt. Sloane leans forward, and though her smile does not reveal her teeth, though it slides across her face as though coaxed by someone’s finger, though it is...decidedly wicked, it is a smile, a smirk, and Riley swallows.

“Let’s not play pretend with each other, Bennett.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“I think we both know the many ways in which Harper is not an angel.”

“Ah.” Riley sits back, cups her elbows as her arms cross. It is a slightly defensive move, she knows, but it also shows the width of her shoulders. Appropriate for whatever it is they are doing now: posturing, taking in each other’s assets, as careful as they are intrigued. “That was a long time ago.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not.”

“So you’re not about to tell me that you’ve forgiven her?” Sloane shrugs, eyes rolling. “That you’re the bigger person for taking the high road.”

“If I did, isn’t that very much my business?” 

And there’s that smirk again, Sloane smiling into her sip of whiskey. “Did she ever apologize?”

“No.”

“She never does.” 

What Sloane does not know, what Riley will not reveal here nor ever, is that Riley is the one who apologized. Worse, she wrote Harper a letter detailing all the ways she herself had been wrong, all the things she was willing to do to atone for the grievous trespass that was revealing the truth of their relationship to the greater student body, even on accident. Riley had begged for forgiveness, begged for something like release, and then done the thing that landed her at the psychiatric institute for three months. Different times, worse times. A wound she claims has healed.

“Can I give you some advice?” Sloane is leaning in again, her elbows grazing the table and Riley can’t help but to close the gap between them as the other woman’s voice lowers. “Forgiveness must be earned. They have to deserve it. Can you really say she’s done enough?”

“I never said I forgave her,” Riley says. “I just said it was a long time ago. What about you?”

“What about me?”

“Has your family done enough for you? Have you forgiven them?”

Sloane lets out a brief cackle. “There aren’t enough years left in any of their lives to make up for their continued wrongs.” Her frown loosens slightly. “Minus Jane. Jane is a different story, my issue is not with Jane. But Harper, my parents...no, I’m not interested in forgiveness. I would gain nothing from it.”

“Christ,” Riley shakes her head, and it’s only the drink that pushes her this far, it’s the only thing to explain how reckless this statement is. “You’re so fucking intense.”

Sloane’s posture stiffens, her glass placed back onto the table. Yet she isn’t scowling; if anything, strangely, she seems interested in something. Curious. “I’m aware.”

“Not that it’s a bad thing. Not necessarily.”

“I’m aware of that, too.” Sloane’s jaw twitches. “When are you going to fuck me?”

Riley’s mouth falls open in a rather cliche way, the space between her teeth large enough for someone’s thumb. “Sorry?”

“I said I didn’t want to play pretend. Whatever pretense you keep upholding is unnecessary at this point. I am very aware that you did not come all this way to have small talk.”

“I didn’t assume…” Actually, she did, there’s really no question that she did, but she’s going to lie anyway.

“I’m not insulted, so you can stop trying to be polite. I’m just saying that if you’re ready to leave now, we can go. You’ve done enough posing, the point is taken. I’d prefer not to wait all night.”

She gets to her feet, finishes her drink as she does so. “My hotel is—”

“No, I’m a five minute walk and Eric has the twins until Saturday. No forty-minute Ubers.”

“Okay.” Riley feels the need to shake out her limbs, to do another shot, but she follows as Sloane leads her out of the bar with a determination that seems appropriate for an assassination, a task in which one pierces the vital organs of the others, instantaneous death.

Not entirely inaccurate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sloane has rules. Well, they are less rules than recommendations. Riley has learned in the span of a few hours that she can get away with more than initially assessed.

No usage of names.

No biting in places visible when wearing a boatneck collar.

No romance, which is how Sloane puts it, and turns out to mean that tenderness is out the window.

Not that Riley interpreted any of this as an occasion that called for tenderness.

 

 

 

 

 

Riley steps on something soft and hairy as she slips out of the bed: a stuffed bear, it turns out, and she gingerly removes her foot, feeling slightly guilty for the intrusion. Glances over her shoulder to make sure Sloane remains asleep, then places the bear up onto a chair, facing away from them so as to not shock the poor thing.

There are other signs of children in the house, their portraits (professional, casual, self-via-crayon) on various walls and surfaces, the doors to their rooms marked with stickers. If Riley had ever imagined Sloane as a domestic engineer, it was in a much more exacting role: minimalist, severe, toys hidden away, colors reduced to black and white. Yet there are small things out of place here that feel more organic, imperfect. A few dirty dishes in the sink. A coloring project abandoned on the floor of the living room that needed to be stepped around when they arrived in the dark. An unfinished mug of coffee sat cold on the nightstand on Sloane’s side, and Riley had narrowly avoided smacking it with an elbow at some point, distracted with other matters.

In the bathroom, she dares to turn on the overhead light, then flicks it off just as fast after facing the carnage of lipstick across her mouth and nose, her hair stuck to her forehead. A shining layer of...Sloane on her chin. Fuck, she thinks. The clock next to the sink declares it to be a little after three in the morning.

“Is it your intention to sleep over?” This from Sloane when she returns to the bedroom. Sloane is sitting upright in the center of the mattress, arms folded over her chest. She has put on a black negligee, though this does not hide a breach of contract: a fast-forming bruise on her left shoulder, left by Riley’s teeth.

“I, uh...I can go back to my hotel if that’s what you want.”

“I didn’t say what I wanted. What is your intention?”

“My intention?”

“If I hadn’t been awake, would you have gotten back into bed and slept? Or would you have snuck out and gotten a cab?”

Riley finds herself without an answer to this. Well, without one worth saying aloud. In truth, she’d had every intention of climbing back under the sheets and sleeping with an arm wrapped around Sloane’s middle - completely presumptuous, likely impossible, but she was not exactly thinking clearly right now.

Sloane sighs, jaw twitching. Tongue searching the inside of her mouth, eyes narrowing as she meets the other woman’s gaze. “Decide, please.”

To Riley’s knowledge, Sloane has never used ‘please’ with her before, either, or with anyone in any conversation Riley has witnessed. 

“Is it okay if I stay?”

“I would have asked you to leave immediately after I came if I wanted you to go.”

“Which time?”

Sloane blinks. “What?”

“You came more than once. Following which orgasm would I have been kicked out?”

“Just get back into bed, Bennett.”

 

 

 

 

 

She’s sitting through a panel of pharmaceutical reps when her phone buzzes against her thigh. This is the text she has been waiting for all morning, the text she did not receive when she left the apartment despite expecting one - a thank you seemed too much to hope for, but a goodbye, maybe, an acknowledgment that most of Riley’s digits had spent a portion of the evening getting to know Sloane Caldwell’s cervix? - and it was not a disappointment.

 

 

 

 

How much longer are you in town?

One more night.

Do you have plans this evening?

Do you?

Don’t make me spell this out, Bennett.

Do you want to get drinks first?

No.

So I should just come back over there and…

Just be here after 9.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I’ll see you in five weeks.”

“What?” Riley looks up as she steps back into her pants, hair falling into her face. 

Sloane raises an eyebrow. “The wedding?” she asks. “Or have you decided not to go after all this?”

“Right, fuck. The wedding.” She zips up. “Why wouldn’t I go after this? Is this going to be weird now?”

“You tell me.” Sloane stands, slides on the silk robe previously crumpled on the floor when it had been forcefully removed and discarded. She had been wearing this robe and only this robe when Riley had arrived earlier that evening, a fact Riley continues to find difficult to believe, yet there she’d been: Sloane Caldwell in a silk robe, waiting for Riley Bennett to show up and fuck her. 

God, the town would be sent into some kind of extraplanar orbit if this ever got home.

“I don’t think it has to be weird.” Fuck, should she even go here? Should she really be this stupid and ask? “Where are we, uh...at...after all this?”

“Have you gotten what you wanted?” It’s a bizarre question, but Sloane asks it as though it is the natural follow-up to a two-night-stand. Once again, Riley finds herself going along with whatever this woman presents to her.

“I guess.”

“Have your needs been fulfilled?”

“When you put it like that, sure.”

“How else should I put it?” Sloane crosses her arms again: a common gesture for her, it seems. “Please tell me you haven’t developed a crush, Bennett.”

“I could ask the same of you.”

Sloane’s cackle makes a brief reappearance. “I can’t imagine where you would have gotten that impression.”

“So we just move on, then.”

“That seems to be the most preferable option.”

A new and sudden fear occurs to Riley. A foolish one, maybe, birthed by a leftover insecurity, and yet she has to ask. “Are you going to tell Harper?”

Sloane’s face softens, seems almost confused. “Why would I ever tell Harper?”

“I mean, I think she’d absolutely hate that this happened.”

And now all softness in Sloane is gone, replaced immediately with that set jaw, her frown back and more severe than ever. She tips up her chin. Glows with what is unquestionably anger. It’s frightening and Riley feels her organs go cold and yet god, she kind of wants to kiss her and get slapped in the face all at once. “So you think I got into bed with you to piss off my sister.”

“No, I just--”

“This was some kind of revenge fuck, is that it?”

“I didn’t say that. Look, forget I brought it up.”

“I don’t forget anything. Ever.” Sloane makes a gesture towards the door. “I’ll see you in five weeks. Do not expect me to acknowledge you beyond what is expected of a maid of honor to a bridesmaid.”

“Friend of the bride, I think.”

Sloane’s eye twitches. “Friend of the bride.”

God, she’s so fucking intense.

And this is the thought that follows her on the Amtrak, and then through the next five weeks, during which Sloane does not return her text messages, choosing instead to cc her on organizational emails and leave very militant instructions in the bridal party groupchat: God, she’s so fucking intense.