It was summer and Merritt was spending a weekend in the Hamptons with the Darlings. On Saturday afternoon, the three of them were lying on the beach when a call came in from a client, a supermodel who had just had an altercation with a flight attendant. Words had been exchanged and a fellow passenger had leaked the story—which cast the supermodel in a very unflattering light—to the press. It was a publicity situation that could easily escalate into a publicity nightmare. Cordelia had to go back to the city to deal with the fallout.
I’ll go with you, Merritt had said. You’ll need help.
I have Sage, Cordelia said. Sage Kennedy was a brand-new hire. Merritt had sensed Sage’s ambition and professional envy immediately; Sage wanted to be the next Merritt. Sage was too young and broke to spend summer weekends away, but now that would work in her favor. When Merritt insisted she was more than happy to go back to the city, Cordelia said, You stay here and enjoy. I’ll see you Monday.
Had Merritt been uneasy about staying in the house with Travis alone? Not really. By that point, Merritt had been working for Brightstreet for three years. If Travis were going to make a pass at her, she figured, it would have happened already.
But late that afternoon, as Merritt was rinsing the sand off her feet at the outdoor hose before going into the house, Travis came up behind her and, without a word, untied the string of her bikini top. Merritt had frozen. She was petrified, she told Celeste, but she’d decided to laugh it off as a prank. She grabbed the strings and started to retie them but Travis stopped her. He took both of her hands, pulled her to him, and started kissing the back of her neck. Into her ear he whispered, I’ve been waiting so long for this.
“I was trapped,” Merritt told Celeste. “I could have pushed him away but I was afraid I’d lose my job. I was afraid he’d tell Cordelia that I was the one who took off my top. So I let it happen. I let it happen.”
The affair lasted seven torturous months. Merritt lived in mortal fear of Cordelia finding out, but Travis assured Merritt there was nothing to worry about. His wife, he said, was frigid and possibly even a lesbian and she wouldn’t have cared even if she did find out.
Deep down, she wanted this to happen, Travis said. One of the reasons she wanted to hire you was that she knew I thought you were hot.
As it turned out, Travis was gravely mistaken about what Cordelia wanted. Cordelia hired a private investigator, who followed both Merritt and Travis, accessed their phone records and text messages, then presented Cordelia with all the proof she needed, including, somehow, 8-by-10 glossies of Merritt and Travis showering together in Merritt’s apartment.
Cordelia had swiftly taken the company from Travis, as well as their investments and their brownstone. She fired Merritt and set out to shred Merritt’s reputation professionally and personally—and by then, Cordelia’s friends were Merritt’s friends. Travis forsook Merritt as well. She called and begged him to tell Cordelia the truth: that he had started the affair and he had given her no choice but to be complicit. Travis had responded to her calls and texts by filing a restraining order against her.
Merritt had been suicidal in the aftermath, she confided to Celeste. On bad days she stared at a bottle of hoarded pills—Valium, Ambien, Xanax. On good days, she looked for jobs in other cities, but it turned out Cordelia’s tentacles reached all the way to Chicago, DC, Atlanta. Merritt didn’t get so much as a callback. Every once in a while Cordelia would text her, and each time Merritt saw Cordelia’s name on her phone’s screen, she thought that maybe, just maybe, Travis had come clean and told Cordelia that the affair had been his fault, that he had coerced Merritt, then basically blackmailed her. But the texts were always the exact opposite of apologies. One said: If I thought I could get away with it, I would kill you.
But then, one miraculous day, Merritt received a text from Sage Kennedy, who, Merritt knew, had summarily taken her position in the company. The text said: Cordelia has sold the brownstone on Eighty-Third Street and is relocating Brightstreet to LA. Thought you would want to know.
At first, Merritt didn’t believe it. She was wary of Sage Kennedy. But when Merritt checked Business Insider, she saw it was true. She wondered if maybe Travis had preyed on Sage Kennedy after Merritt left. She was afraid to ask, though she did text Sage back to thank her for the information. She had, essentially, been set free.
Soon thereafter, Merritt found a job in PR with the Wildlife Conservation Society, and although she took a pay cut, she was grateful for the fresh start. She introduced herself to Celeste in her first weeks of work by saying, “You’re the best-looking, most normal person who works at any of our zoos. Please let me use photos of you in the literature.”
Celeste had been stupefied by Merritt’s blunt honesty. “Thanks,” she said. “I think.” They had gone to lunch together in the zoo’s cafeteria, and over tuna fish sandwiches, a friendship was forged. Merritt credited Celeste with “saving” her, although Celeste saw it as the other way around. Celeste had been bound and determined to move out of Forks Township and make it in New York City on her own, but even she had been confounded by just how on her own she actually was. The city was home to ten million people and yet Celeste had a hard time meeting anyone outside of work. She had two sort-of friends on her block: Rocky, who worked at the bodega, and Judy Quigley, who owned the pet-grooming business.
Rocky had taken Celeste on a date to the Peruvian chicken place on Ninety-First Street but then he confessed that although he liked Celeste and thought she was very, very pretty, he had neither the time nor the money for a girlfriend. Mrs. Quigley was a pleasant woman and she and Celeste shared a love of animals but it wasn’t like they were ever going to go out for cocktails.
Merritt was the New York City friend of Celeste’s dreams. She was fun, sophisticated, and plugged in; she knew everything that was happening for Millennials in the city. She told Celeste that her experience with Travis Darling had jaded her, but all Celeste saw was her tender heart. Merritt was remarkably patient, kind, and maternal when it came to Celeste, and she knew that Celeste could handle her pulsing, frenetic world only in small bites.
“I don’t know what to do,” Celeste says to Merritt now. “Benji came to the zoo with his girlfriend and his girlfriend’s daughter. He and the girlfriend were arguing and then I noticed him staring at me. Then he asked for my card. For a friend, he said, and I believed him. I gave him my direct line. So do you think he broke up with his girlfriend already? He wants to take me to Madame Vo’s, which is all the way down on Tenth Street. It’s Vietnamese.”
“Madame Vo’s is on everyone’s list because SJP eats there,” Merritt says. “But I don’t like the way they seat twos. It feels like you’re on a date with the couples on either side of you.”
“Should I cancel?” Celeste says. “I should probably cancel.”
“No!” Merritt says. “Don’t you dare cancel! I’m going to help you. I’m going to transform you. We are going to make this Benji fall in love with you in only one date. We are going to make him propose.”
“Propose?” Celeste says.
Later, Merritt comes over to Celeste’s apartment and she uses Celeste’s laptop to Google Benji—Benjamin Garrison Winbury of New York City. In a matter of seconds they discover the following: Benji attended the Westminster School in London, then went to high school at St. George’s in Newport, Rhode Island, and college at Hobart. Now he works for Nomura Securities, which further Googling discloses is a Japanese bank with a headquarters in New York. He sits on the board of the Whitney Museum and the Robin Hood Foundation.
“He’s twenty-seven years old,” Merritt says. “And he sits on two boards. That’s impressive.”
Celeste’s anxiety ramps up. She has met several board members of the conservancy; they’re all wealthy and important people.
Merritt scans through images of Benji. “The mother has resting-bitch face. The father is kind of hot, though.”
“Merritt, stop,” Celeste says, but she peers over Merritt’s shoulder at the screen. She expects to see pictures of Benji with Jules and Miranda, but if those pictures existed, they’ve all been expunged. There is a photo of Benji with friends in a restaurant raising cocktails and one of him posing on the bow of a boat. There’s a picture of Benji with a guy who must be his brother at a Yankees game, and in the picture Merritt is referring to, Benji poses with a refined older couple, the mother cool and blond, the father silver-haired and grinning. There’s Benji hoisting a tropical drink under a beach umbrella and one of him in a helmet sitting astride a mountain bike.