And she tried to fool herself into believing she didn’t care.
One big happy family
At 8 P.M. sharp, Spencer, Zach, and Amelia passed under the green-and-white awning of Smith and Wollensky, the upscale steakhouse on Third Avenue, and swished through the brass-handled double doors.
The bar area was six people deep, and everyone was shouting. Businessmen sat at giant oak tables eating rib eyes and juicy burgers the size of their heads. Trophy wives sipped martinis and winked flirtatiously at the white-coated Irish guys pouring goblet-sized glasses of wine behind the bar. The air smelled like testosterone and meat.
“Leave it to my dad to pick somewhere über-masculine,” Zach mused in Spencer’s ear as a hostess guided them around the crowded dining room to where their parents were waiting. “Do you really think your mom finds this place romantic?”
Spencer doubted it, but she pinched his arm. “Now, now. We need to be on our best behavior, remember?”
Zach raised a brow. “Actually, I propose we be on our worst behavior.”
“Oh? What are you thinking?”
“Drinking game.” Zach’s eyes sparkled. He reached into his bag and showed Spencer the very tip of a stainless steel flask. “It’s filled with Absolut Kurant.”
“Naughty boy!” Spencer whispered. “I’m in. Here’s my rule: Every time my mom fusses over your dad, we take a drink.”
“Deal. And every time my dad acts like a big shot, we drink.”
Spencer snorted. “We’ll be loaded before the food arrives.”
Zach raised his eyebrow. “Isn’t that the idea?”
Tingles shot up Spencer’s back. After their provocative moment in the dressing room, Zach had been even more touchy-feely than ever, brushing his hand up against Spencer’s waist and giving her unprompted hand-squeezes whenever Amelia emerged in a particularly fabulous outfit. When they’d passed Cartier on the walk down to Saks, he’d even grabbed Spencer’s hand and asked if she wanted to go inside—he’d buy her something. “Only if it’s a platinum love ring,” she teased. That had made Amelia give them both a sickened look and walk several paces ahead of them for the rest of the afternoon.
Mrs. Hastings waved at the three of them as they approached the table. Mr. Pennythistle sat on her right. Both were dressed in opera regalia, Mr. Pennythistle in a tuxedo, and Spencer’s mother in a beaded gown that clung snugly to her thin frame. An opened bottle of red wine already sat on the table, along with a platter of fried calamari. As they sat down, Mrs. Hastings made up a plate for Mr. Pennythistle. “I know you hate the ones with the tentacles,” she said in a motherly voice as she placed it in front of him.
“Thank you, dear,” Mr. Pennythistle said, picking up his knife and fork.
Spencer and Zach exchanged a glance, nearly bursting out laughing over the word tentacles. Zach covertly reached for his flask and poured some into his and Spencer’s glasses of sparkling water. They both took a big sip.
“So what did you kids do today?” Mrs. Hastings dipped a piece of calamari into the bowl of marinara sauce.
“Oh, we did the New York tourist thing,” Spencer said. “Saks, Bendel’s, Barneys. Amelia got a lot of great clothes.”
“Oh, those stores are lovely,” Mrs. Hastings sighed wistfully.
Mr. Pennythistle’s forehead wrinkled. “You didn’t go to any museums? You didn’t visit the stock exchange?”
Amelia clamped her mouth shut. Zach wilted in his seat. Mr. Pennythistle shoved a calamari into his mouth with gusto. “What about the tour of Carnegie Hall I arranged for you, Amelia? I had to pull major strings to get that.”
“I’ll go tomorrow, Daddy,” Amelia piped up quickly. Suck-up.
“Good.” Mr. Pennythistle nodded, then glanced at Zach. “And are you telling me you didn’t meet with Douglas?”
Spencer glanced at Zach—she’d forgotten about his meeting with the Harvard admissions guy. Zach shrugged. “I didn’t feel like it.”
Mr. Pennythistle blinked hard. “But he was waiting for your call.” He pulled out his BlackBerry. “I’ll see if he can meet with you tomorrow morning . . .”
It looked like Zach was going to explode. “You know, not all of us want to go to Harvard, Dad.”
Mr. Pennythistle’s mouth dropped open slightly. “But . . . you’ll love it at Harvard, Zachary. Some of my best memories are from my time there.”
“It is a lovely school,” Mrs. Hastings chimed in. Mr. Pennythistle squeezed her hand gratefully.
But Zach folded his hands on top of the table, unblinking. “I’m not you, Dad. Maybe I want other things.”
Mr. Pennythistle looked like he was going to say something else, but Mrs. Hastings quickly interrupted. “Now, now, let’s not fight!” She pushed the plate of calamari over to Zach like it was consolation. “We’re all having such a nice time in New York. Let’s just keep it that way.”
A ping sounded from Mr. Pennythistle’s phone. “Ah,” he said, studying the screen. “Douglas can meet you at ten A.M. tomorrow. Problem solved.”
A waiter approached to take their orders. Spencer turned to Zach. “Are you okay?”
Zach’s jaw muscle twitched. Patches of red bloomed on his neck and cheeks. “Everything I say to him goes in one ear and out the other.”
Zach shrugged and covertly added more vodka to their waters. “Story of my life. But listen, we have some catching up to do. My dad was totally throwing his weight around.”
“We need to take at least five drinks, by my count,” Spencer whispered.
There were plenty more drinking opportunities after that, too. Once they ordered, the conversation turned to Mr. Pennythistle and how he was such a loyal Smith and Wollensky customer that they’d put his name on a brass plaque on the wall—drink, drink, drink. When the food came, Mrs. Hastings scrambled to procure steak sauce for Mr. Pennythistle’s T-bone, mayo for his fries, and the wine list so he could choose another bottle—drink, drink, drink. Spencer was so dizzy with vodka that she barely tasted her filet—she wasn’t even sure why she’d ordered it. Zach kept bursting out laughing at random intervals. Amelia stared suspiciously at them from across the table but didn’t say a word. She hadn’t been this wasted since . . . well, since this past summer. But she closed off that part of her mind before she could think too carefully about that.
As the dinner progressed, Zach’s father and Spencer’s mother moved closer and closer to each other until they were practically in each other’s laps. Mr. Pennythistle fed Mrs. Hastings a bite of creamed spinach. Mrs. Hastings wiped a dab of steak juice off Mr. Pennythistle’s cheek. Admittedly, Spencer hadn’t seen her mom look this happy in a long time—she and Spencer’s father weren’t very touchy-feely. Spencer and Zach had moved closer to one another, too, their feet bumping under the table, their hands touching as they drained Zach’s flask.
When the waitress brought giant slabs of cheesecake for dessert, Mr. Pennythistle clanged his fork against his glass. “Well, kids, I have an announcement to make.” He looked around the table. “We meant to keep this a secret until tomorrow, but we might as well tell you now.” He took Spencer’s mother’s hand. “I’ve asked Veronica to marry me. And she’s said yes.”
Spencer stared at her mother, who was unveiling a Tiffany jewelry box from her purse. The box creaked as it opened, revealing an enormous diamond ring. “Wow.” Spencer breathed, always feeling a little cowed by diamonds. “Congratulations, Mom.”
“Thanks!” Mrs. Hastings slid the ring on her finger. “We broke the news to Melissa before you guys arrived. She wants us to have the ceremony at the townhouse, but I’m thinking of something a little more fabulous.”
“When are you getting married?” Zach asked tentatively.
“We think the wedding will be in a few months,” Mr. Pennythistle said, his cheeks pink with pride.
“Perhaps a destination wedding, we haven’t decided,” Mrs. Hastings added. “But for now, I’ve asked Nicholas if he’d move into the house with us, Spencer. Amelia and Zach will be your stepsiblings pretty soon—you might as well get used to one another.”
Amelia let out a note of horror, but Spencer and Zach turned to each other and drunkenly grinned. “Hey, bro,” Spencer joked, punching Zach on the shoulder.
“Nice to meet you, sis,” Zach said back in an utterly unbrotherly voice. He hid his hand under the table, entwined it with Spencer’s, and squeezed hard.
“This definitely calls for a toast.” Mrs. Hastings flagged down the waiter. “I suppose the kids can have a glass of champagne, don’t you think, Nicholas?”
“Just this once,” Mr. Pennythistle demurred.
“A round of champagne for the table!” Mrs. Hastings trilled. Flutes arrived right away.
Spencer and Zach glanced at one another once more, daring the other not to laugh. “Cheers!” they both cried. They knocked their flutes together and drank them down.
Spencer’s mother and Zach’s father were off to the Met after dinner, so they bid their kids goodnight at the escalators at the Hudson. Amelia retreated to her room immediately, but Spencer and Zach took their time, giggling about the hotel’s faux-minimalist décor and the ubiquitous techno music.
Their rooms were right next to each other, and they unlocked their doors with keycards in unison. “Holy shit,” Spencer said when she opened her door. “It’s like a Japanese sleeping pod!” A porter had brought up her stuff earlier today, so she hadn’t been inside the room until now. The whole thing was the size of her family’s first-floor powder room.
“A hobbit should live here,” Zach called from his doorway. “Dad really pulled out all the stops for us.”
Spencer joined him in his room. It was the same as hers—the bed barely fit in the tiny nook the hotel called a bedroom. “And look at the bathroom!” she cried, wedging herself into the minuscule space. “How does someone fit on this toilet?”
“At least the bed’s comfy,” Zach called from five feet away. He kicked off his shoes and started bouncing. “Come jump with me, sis.”
Spencer removed her stilettos and climbed up on the bed. Manhattan blinked at them out the huge picture window. “If you call me sis one more time I’ll kick your ass.”
Zach kept bouncing. “You don’t look like you can kick anything.”
“Oh yeah?” Spencer leapt up on the bed and tackled him, pushing him to the mattress and wrapping her arms around his head. Zach pushed her off easily, flipping her around so that he was on top of her. He hovered over her for a moment, his longish hair hanging in his face, his mouth twisted into a messy grin, and then he tickled her stomach.
“No!” Spencer flailed. “Stop it! Please!”