Prologue

Twenty-six years ago

 

THE HUNGER didn’t hurt.

Actually, it did a little. His stomach cramped. His head seemed to spin every so often. His hands trembled, a touch. Those were okay, not too big a deal. More than anything, the hunger felt safe, strong. It felt powerful. Kevin felt powerful.

Kevin Bivanti hadn’t eaten in three days. There had been a saltine the evening before, and though a twinge of guilt tugged at him about the indulgence, the cracker had been mostly air. That shouldn’t matter, should it? He thought the three days still counted. A saltine wasn’t food, not when you only had one.

With his schedule, between getting up before the sun for the paper route and the alternating events after school of student council, play rehearsal, and choir practice, it was easy to convince his moms that he’d eaten elsewhere. That one of the teachers brought snacks, or he’d stopped by a friend’s house to help with homework and eaten with their family.

While a matter of pride to brag to his seventh-grade friends at lunch that he’d not eaten in days, that he was above such trivial needs, he couldn’t let his moms know. Kevin would rush through the door in the evening, kiss them both hello, and shut himself in his room, ready to face the hours of homework. If only that were an excuse too. He had friends who claimed to be studying in their rooms but were really playing on Game Boys, sneaking out to meet friends, or simply avoiding the work to be done. Not him. Hours upon hours he worked every night. Never taking a break or slipping up, not like he had with the saltine. There was no room for a slipup. He’d worked too hard, and he was not going to fail.

Times like this were the only thing in his way, and the realization made them so much worse. Time wasted as he curled up on the floor beside his bed, his arms wrapped around his knees, struggling to breathe. So much time just trying to pull oxygen into his lungs. Papers to be written as he lay shaking, thinking he was going to die, waiting for that last breath to refuse to enter his body. Twenty-five blank pre-algebra problems taunting him while he lost his mind.

That was the worst part.

Much worse than thinking he was dying.

He’d been in this position so many times over the past year and a half that some part of his brain knew he wouldn’t die. That he would arrive on the other side and still be there, the work waiting. But he wouldn’t be able to do it. At least at some point, he wouldn’t be able to do it.

He was going crazy.

After one of these attacks, he knew he wouldn’t come out of his curled-up position. His body might, but his brain, the stuff that made him Kevin, would remain in a tight ball, shaking on the floor, trapped in panic, forever.

Sometimes, during the worst moments, Kevin would manage to call out. Either a cry of fear or yell for one of them. They would hear, rush into his room, and soothe him. His moms gently caressed his back and hair, whispering calming words, even as he could hear fear seeping into their voices. They knew he was going insane. He knew they did.

And he couldn’t stop it.

This night, even as he lay in the claws of terror, Kevin knew this was one of the better nights. He wouldn’t need to call them, wouldn’t need to let them see yet another example of his failure. If he could just stretch out his hand the few feet and pull his salvation from under the bed.

After two attempts to drag in more oxygen, Kevin gave up on breathing and managed to throw a trembling hand toward the magazines that lay a million miles away.

He didn’t realize he’d taken ahold of them until they were mere inches from his face.

As the bedside lamp caught their glossy covers, a small molecule of oxygen found its way inside, giving Kevin enough strength to flip the magazine open, taking advantage of the salvation inside.

With each turn of the page, Kevin’s heart rate slowed. The shaking gradually stilled as one gorgeous white gown gave way to the next.

Muscles released their cramping and progressively loosened as the tips of Kevin’s fingers traced the intricate patterns in the lace.

Tears dried on his cheeks, and the corner of his lips gradually turned up at the peaceful, happy expressions of the beautiful brides.

Breathing slowly returned to an automatic function with every passing page of flawless bridal photos. Each one soothingly perfect. The lines of the dresses artful yet purposeful. The beautiful structure of the white gowns both hypnotizing and inspiring.

Within fifteen minutes, Kevin had once again taken his place at his desk, the bridal magazines captivating and healing him enough to stave off the insanity for a while longer.

A few more pages and he’d be able to return to his work. Return to his goal. But for now, he’d found strength enough in tulle, brocade patterns, and silk.

 

 

 

1

KEVIN

 

FROM A block away, the lower two stories of the brownstone appeared covered in aged copper. Now that Kevin stood a couple of feet from the storefront, he could see the beveled columns and arches were painted in a faux style. The effect was deceiving. Shielding his brow with his hand to protect his eyes from the gently falling snow, he peered at three stories, two of which matched the rest of the attached curved brick brownstones on the block. Snow was building over the ropelike vines of english ivy that covered the walls. Unlike the lower two levels, the top stood out from its brothers. Instead of the evenly spaced small widow’s peak windows that lined the rest of the roof, there was a wall of curving glass.

Even though he’d spent his entire life in Boston, Kevin never tired of the endless historic brownstones. They were the perfect balance between artistic style and clean, pure lines. They soothed him.

Kevin adjusted his scarf, pulling it closer to guard against the evening breeze. He turned away from the building and toward the grinning woman next to him.

“Well? What do you think? It’s perfect, right?”

“Of course it’s perfect, Noelle. It’s a brownstone.” Kevin moved closer, walking up the two curved steps to the copper-green front doors. He attempted to peer through the window. Leaning back, he rubbed his gloved hand over the glass and tried again. No luck. “I think the windows are covered in black paper or something from the inside. I can’t see anything.”

“Does it really matter? It’s a brownstone. On Tremont Street. Who cares what it looks like on the inside?”

Kevin returned to where his mother stood on the sidewalk, seemingly oblivious to the cold, in nothing more substantial than a tacky Christmas sweater. She could only be thinking one thing, but it was too crazy. Maybe too wonderful. Too wonderfully stupid, in any case. “And the reason you forced me to meet you down here after an exhausting day of work instead of letting me go to the gym is why?”

Noelle rolled her eyes, but her grin never faltered. “I swear, you are a carbon copy of Renata—heaven forbid you use any imagination. I’m not sure how I handle the two of you!”

Kevin rolled his eyes in response, both in an effort to mock her expression and partially because he meant it. He’d have to spend twice as long doing cardio the next day to make up for this loss of time. And for all things, another of his mom’s crazy schemes. “You can’t be serious?”

She had the audacity to sound irritated. “Of course I am.”

He didn’t even try to hold back a sigh. “I suppose you took the Orange Line down? Let me drive you back to JP.”

Noelle managed to strike an imposing figure with her hands on her hips, despite the red fluff ball that made up the reindeer’s nose on her sweater. “A wedding dress store is your dream, not mine. I shouldn’t be fighting harder for your dream than you are, young man!”

An unintentional barking laugh escaped him. “I hardly qualify as a young man.”

“Forty or not, I am still your mom, so you will always be ‘young man’ to me.”

Kevin’s gasp was equally as unintentional as his laugh. “Forty! I’m thirty-eight!”

Noelle shrugged. “So I rounded up.”

“How would you like me to round up? All of a sudden you’d be seventy.”

Another shrug. “Age is just a number.”

“Yeah, a bad number.” Kevin motioned toward the offending sweater. “You’d have to be pushing seventy to try to pull that thing off. That or be eight years old.”

She just grinned. “You sound just like your mom.”

“Speaking of, does she know you’re down here with me?” Another question he needn’t ask.

“Of course not. She has her spin class this evening. You know that.” Noelle gestured back to the building with a wave of her mittened hand. “And quit trying to avoid the topic. It’s perfect, and you know it.”

Kevin glanced toward the beautiful brownstone. “How would I know? There’s no telling what the interior looks like.”

Again with the hands on her hips. “Whatever it looks like, it’s perfect.”

The curved bricks. The New England style windows. The glass wall on top. Kevin didn’t even have to close his eyes. He could see a glowing light from the faux copper storefront windows. He could picture gleaming hardwood floors. The white wedding gown backlit by a Christmas tree in the window display. A carved wooden sign over the front doors.

He exhaled the breath he’d unconsciously held. “Yeah, Noelle. It’s perfect.”

She brought her hands together in a solitary, decisive clap. “Wonderful! I knew it would be.”

The glow faded from Kevin’s mind, the dress diffusing back into darkness. “Again, I assume you took the Orange Line. Let me drive you back home.”

Noelle ignored his words, closed the small distance between them, and grabbed both his shoulders in her firm grip. “It’s not even on the market yet. It will be in the next couple of weeks, if I’m reading the details correctly. Apparently, there are things they need to do to the inside to get it ready. I’ve been looking for years. For just the right thing. Ever since Scott. Nothing was ever right. This one is.”

Kevin narrowed his eyes. “You’ve been looking for years? And you know about it before it’s on the market? How?”

She released one of his shoulders to wave him off. “By sneaking onto Renata’s real-estate website, of course. How else would I know all of this? Don’t be dense. And focus on what’s important.”

“Mom will kill you when she finds out. How did you get her work passwords and everything?”

“Seriously, Kevin. Focus. This is it. You’ve been dreaming about this since you were in middle school. It’s time.”

The brownstone called to him once more, and he gave in. The glow behind the windows seemed to begin to grow once more. “How much?”

A pause. Longer than comfortable. “Don’t worry about that. When it’s right, it’s right.”

“That bad, huh?” Kevin looked back to his mom’s brown eyes.

“The universe will provide, dear. Just trust it.”

“The universe couldn’t care less about a wedding dress shop. And I’m betting… what? Three million?”

No answer.

“More?”

“That’s not important. You’ve waited long enough. It’s important that you take a chance! Leap—”

“If you say, ‘Leap and the net will appear,’ I’m going to throw up.”

“Well, it will.”

The building beckoned once more, but Kevin ignored it, firmly keeping his gaze averted. “Well, maybe a net would, but I can guarantee it wouldn’t have millions of dollars in it.”

Noelle started to speak, but Kevin cut her off once more.

“Let me drive you home. I’ll drop you off a block away so Mom doesn’t see my car. The last thing either of us needs is for her to get wind of this.”

 

 

IT TOOK over half a bottle of Malbec and a melatonin for Kevin to begin to find sleep. Though he hadn’t seen inside the brownstone, thank God, he kept decorating it in his mind. The rows of dresses. The dressing rooms. The pedestal in front of massive mirrors for customers to try on their gowns. He was torn between doing the place in warm earth tones and fabric walls with romantic, Victorian décor or taking a more modern route with steel, glass, and minimalist fixtures.

Finally, getting out of bed around two in the morning, raging at his brain for giving in to Noelle’s flight of fancy, he took another melatonin and a chug of wine directly from the bottle.

The alarm blaring at five thirty in the morning was barely enough to pull him out of bed. Even a too-quick, ice-cold shower did little to erase the fuzzy, hungover, drugged sensation that threatened nausea. Determining that driving was a dangerous option in Boston’s manic traffic, he arrived at New England Advertising via a cab, having stopped long enough to get a quad-shot of espresso. Nevertheless, he had succeeded. His body might be in a tumultuous state of being, but his brain hadn’t let any synapse fire that even slightly resembled a wedding dress or a brownstone.

 

 

BY THE time his early afternoon meeting rolled around, the melatonin had faded, as well as his hangover. He might have been slightly jittery due to a second quad shot, but with the help of half a Xanax, he was back on his game. If he wasn’t, he needed to fake it in a room full of coworkers and subordinates. The last thing Kevin wanted was to make a fool of himself in front of Brent, the junior account executive; he’d never hear the end of it.

“They can’t be serious. They want Rihanna for their formula campaign?” Maybe he could feel his hangover returning.

Sylvie, the firm’s CEO, shrugged. “Kevin, I’m not saying it’s a good idea, but it’s what they want. And they have the money to pay for her. And us. Need I remind you?”

Kevin held up his hands, palms out. “Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Rihanna, but I don’t think babies chugging down formula while she sings ‘S&M’ over the mother’s shoulder is really the angle they should go for.” He needed to quit talking. He knew it. But he’d worked for over two weeks on this campaign, and his markup had been killer. “While we’re at it, why don’t we just invite Chris Brown to—”

“Don’t be crass.” Sylvie’s voice was stern, but they’d worked together so long, Kevin knew it was taking all her willpower to keep from laughing.

Brent, always lacking professionalism, let out a chuckle.

Sylvie glared at Kevin, as if it was his fault the moron acted like he was still in middle school. “Brent, I’m fairly certain we’re out of coffee.”

Taking a few moments too long to connect the dots, Brent sat with a confused look on his face before his cheeks flushed and he pushed back from the oval table.

Sylvie scanned over her team, a stern expression conveying more than words. When she arrived back at Kevin, one of her black eyebrows rose expectantly.

Kevin started to protest, but then he glanced out the high-rise’s window overlooking the Beacon Hill neighborhood, taking in the rows of brownstones on the opposite side of the Public Garden and Boston Common park. It was nearly a physical sensation. He could almost swear he heard a snap somewhere in his brain.

Who really cared? He’d spent countless hours on baby formula. Baby formula! For what?

When he didn’t respond after nearly a minute, Sylvie continued on with the meeting, not even pausing when Brent returned with coffee. It dragged on for nearly another two hours.

Kevin barely noticed when the rest of his team began to file out of the conference room. He still stared out the wall of windows and was lost, wandering the streets of Boston. Sylvie had to say his name twice before he responded. “I’m sorry, what?”

Her brows furrowed. “Would you meet me in my office, Mr. Bivanti?”

 

 

SYLVIE’S OFFICE was more of a penthouse at the top of the building. The sleek, modern décor managed not to seem cold or stark, but only served to draw attention to the true beauty of the space—the two walls of the office that didn’t lead to other rooms of the penthouse were nothing but windows. In spite of the day being cloudy and gray, the light dusting of snow from the previous night covered Boston in a nearly magical layer.

Motioning toward one of the red leather swivel chairs across from her desk, Sylvie raised her voice to catch Kevin’s attention once more. “Sit. Please.”

Crossing the room, Kevin observed his boss more keenly than he had in a while. She was beautiful, her dark skin flawless and not even beginning to hint at her actual years. In many ways, she reminded him of his mom. Renata was always perfect. Gorgeous. Poised. Every hair in place. Every item of clothing and jewelry impeccable and chosen with intention. Maybe that was why Kevin was never afraid of Sylvie like all the others seemed to be. Every time he’d gotten a promotion, he’d almost felt guilty, like he was receiving a gift from his mom, an unfair advantage somehow.

“Do you still want this office, Mr. Bivanti?” Sylvie left her perfectly manicured mother-of-pearl-tipped fingers folded on top of her desk.

Kevin’s voice caught in his throat. He knew she didn’t mean the question as any sort of challenge. It was an ongoing blunt conversation between them. Sylvie had made it clear to him over a year ago that she was grooming him to be her successor.

Her tone softened. “You were quiet in that meeting. You disappeared halfway through. Like you gave up. And for you not to keep fighting about that ridiculous formula campaign….” She paused, giving him time to answer.

In all honesty, she was rather hard to hear. Kevin’s heart was beating so fast, and the pounding blood in his ears drummed out all other sounds.

Sylvie reached forward, stretching out one of her hands to place over his left forearm. “Kevin, honey, are you okay?”

Kevin nodded, then shook his head. “No. No, I’m not.” He lifted his gaze from her hand to her warm hazel eyes. “I’m sorry, Sylvie. I have to quit.”