Betty dearly regretted taking that Monday off. It just extended the worst weekend of her life to three interminable days, most of which she spent sobbing. Her family, which had expected to have a post-orthodontia party, regretfully left her alone, with her father declaring that maybe she was having some weird psychological reaction to losing the braces.
Almost anything had the power to crush her broken spirit. The sight of the neat white row of tiles at the top of her shower reminded her of Daniel. Back issues of MODE reminded her of Daniel. The sunhat she'd worn in the Bahamas. Her pink sheets. A small bruise on her hip from when they'd last made love, only a couple of days before. She cried so often and so hard that she gave herself a crushing headache.
Worst of all was the knowledge that she had hurt him. His white, seasick face that last morning: Betty thought she'd never be able to erase that from her memory. She didn't deserve to have it erased. She deserved to remember what a crappy friend she could be, and how completely she could deceive herself.
By Sunday night, she'd already figured out what she had to do. Monday morning, instead of going in to MODE, she got started. It would be better, on Tuesday, to present it to Daniel as a fait accompli.
Tuesday morning, Betty almost tiptoed in to MODE, going as fast as she could to her own office. First off she sawed through her in-box – God, how it could pile up in just one day – and saw, as she'd expected, a note from Daniel. It read, in its entirety: Come say hi this morning. It'll be less awkward.
He was trying so hard; it hurt her heart. She'd wanted to do this at day's end, or at least right before lunch, to give them both a break – but Daniel was right. Making him wait longer would only be cruel.
Heart leaden, Betty made her way through the tube, past Amanda (who was too busy texting to notice her) and into Daniel's office. "Hi," she said, as she shut the door behind her.
"Hi." Daniel had shaved his beard. It made him look even more vulnerable – or was that her belated realization that he'd only kept it so long because she said she'd liked it? "Thanks for coming by."
"Thanks for the note. Listen, I did a lot of thinking this weekend. It would be best if – best for both of us if I left MODE."
"What?" He half-stood behind his desk. "Betty, don't."
She held up a hand, forestalling any further argument. "I'm not stupid. With the job market the way it is, I'd be crazy to leave before I find something else. But as of yesterday – I'm looking. At all kinds of options … online, TV, anything."
"You don't have to go." Daniel stepped closer to her – just to the end of his desk, but it made her feel pursued. "I'm not going to be an ass about this. All right, so, I feel something you don't." That sentence had cost him, she could see, but he kept going: "That doesn't mean we can't work at the same magazine, not if we act like adults."
The headache was already back, making her forehead throb with suppressed tears. "I trust you, Daniel. But if I hang around here, I'm only going to make it worse for you. I already took the worst possible advantage of someone who trusted me; I can never undo that, no matter how much I wish I could. The least I owe you is a chance for a clean break."
"If you leave right now, we're not even going to end up friends." His eyes were as bloodshot as hers. "Jesus, Betty, don't tell me I'm not even going to get to keep you as a friend."
"I don't deserve a friend as good as you." She went out before he could say anything else. Amanda, thank God, was still texting.
The next days crawled by. Despite the thin job market, Betty got a couple of requests for interviews – for side gigs rather than full-time positions, but she knew those could lead to job offers if they went well. So there was a decent shot she would be out of MODE within a month or so.
And she definitely needed to be out of MODE. Just seeing Daniel walking by her in the Tube was torturous. They tried to avoid one another, but the offices weren't big enough for them to escape each other entirely. Worst of all were the countless times a day she started to forward him a link to something interesting, or send him a funny text, and then remember she couldn't talk to him any more.
He emailed her a couple of times about work stuff, though one of those emails – an offer to send her to London to cover the fashion week there – seemed vaguely like a bribe. Betty turned him down. She needed to stay put, to concentrate on helping Hilda with wedding planning and, above all, to keep looking for another job, one that would take her far away from Daniel.
I knew, Betty kept telling herself. I knew he wasn't over Molly yet. Why did I let this happen?
That Friday – a week after she and Daniel had made love for the last time – Betty hung around in her office until sundown, knowing that he'd be unlikely to stay late on a weekend. By the time she ventured out to use the restroom before leaving, the offices were all but deserted.
But the restroom wasn't.
"Betty," Claire said, never pausing from powdering her nose. Her tweed Chanel suit made her a vivid figure against all the white and orange. "There you are."
Of all people to run into. It was already too late to just dash into a stall and refuse to leave, ever, so Betty tried playing it cool. "Hi, Mrs. Meade."
Claire turned, and before she ever spoke, Betty realized: She knows.
"You talked to Daniel."
"In a manner of speaking. I noticed him moping, offered to take him to Balthazar as a treat, and when he said he didn't feel like it, I told him I knew something was up." Surprisingly, Claire didn't look angry. Her smile was dry, but her eyes were gentle. "After that, I didn't really get a word in edgewise. So let's say I listened to Daniel."
Betty could just see him at his desk as he confessed everything to his mother – expression downcast, sticking his jaw out in the way that he thought made him look calm and casual but actually revealed how uncertain he was; the image made her throat feel tight. "I'm glad somebody knows. No – I'm glad it's you. He needs someone to take care of him." That had always been her job, before she proved herself so unworthy of it.
"Look. I'm aware that what's happened between you two is none of my business," Claire said. "Furthermore, I understand your current plans to leave MODE are entirely because you think you have my son's best interests at heart."
That was better than the blame Betty had expected and felt she deserved. "I wish it were different."
Claire smiled slightly. "I expect you do."
"What do you mean?"
"I'll only say this, and then I'll go back to minding my own business. And let's be clear – right now, I'm not speaking as Daniel's mother. I'm speaking to you as one woman to another." She laid one hand on Betty's shoulder. "No matter how much you care about Daniel, or how sincerely you're trying to shield him from being hurt – nobody runs that far, that fast, to protect someone else." Claire stepped away from Betty to the door of the bathroom before she finished: "We only run like that to protect ourselves."
Then she left Betty alone with her thoughts.
The rest of that evening, Betty remained restless. She didn't want to go back to her apartment, with its memories of Daniel lying next to her, stroking her oil-soft skin. Taking the train out to Queens would either result in listening to tons of wedding chatter, which Betty didn't feel up to, or her father realizing something was seriously wrong and interrogating her. In fact, both of those things could happen at once. So no Queens. Instead she set her phone to silent and window-shopped for hours, dining on some halal food from one of the Sixth Avenue carts.
When she got home, she took a long bath (resolutely avoiding looking at the top row of tiles) before turning, at last, to her phone. There were the texts she expected: One from Hilda, wondering where she was; another from Justin, who had just seen the April MODE cover and seriously wanted to know what they could have been thinking, because the model had, like, no neck. Was he the only person who had learned from Tyra's wisdom on Top Model?
There was also an email she hadn't expected – from Daniel.
Okay, I remember how you reacted when we went back to the karaoke pizza place – just from that, I know, that night back when we first hung out – it means as much to you as it did to me. So what we said on the bridge is pretty much sacred, right? Well, we agreed one night we'd meet back there in the middle of the night. So – tonight. 2 a.m. I'll be waiting.
Betty knew she didn't have to go. She could text him back and tell him not to do it, and she knew he'd take that as a final answer. Also, she knew a last-ditch effort when she saw one; this was Daniel's one big pitch. Nothing would follow it but more of the same awkward silence, the same irrevocable drifting apart.
Yet, since talking to Claire, Betty'd been forced to admit she was trying to hide from telling Daniel the full truth about why she had to leave. After what she'd done to him, she owed him that much, at least. It would make their parting so much messier, but in the long run, maybe – if she knew she'd been totally honest with Daniel – someday Betty might not feel like scum any longer.
But she doubted it.
Betty dressed for the March late-night chill, not for a rendezvous: blue jeans, a hot pink sweater concealed under her plaid peacoat, comfy shoes in case she lost her nerve and decided to walk home – or in case Daniel gave her what she deserved and just left her out there on the Brooklyn Bridge to freeze her ass off.
However, as she stepped out of the cab and started walking across, she realized she could already see Daniel; despite the distance, the darkness of the night and his black coat, his outline was clear. So far away, it might possibly have been someone else mad enough to stand out on the bridge at 2 a.m. in March, but Betty knew better.
He obviously recognized her almost as quickly, but he simply waited, looking out at the city, until she was almost at his side. Only then did Daniel turn to her and smile – an expression so trusting that she wanted to die inside.
"You came," he said. "I knew you would."
"Bridge. Sacred. You nailed it." Betty hugged herself against the wind, chewing on her lower lip.
"Hear me out, okay?" When she nodded, Daniel continued. "I'm not going to lie and say I'm not hurting, or that I don't wish things between us could be – what I want them to be. But aside from all that – Betty, you're the best friend I've ever had. Whatever I have to do, whatever I have to get over, to keep you as a friend, I'm going to do. However much time it takes, I'll keep at it. You're worth working for."
Tears stung her eyes; every word he spoke made Betty feel worse.
"I love you, Betty. I love you enough to let you go, if that's what I have to do. All I need from you is a promise that you'll give me the chance to rebuild our friendship."
"You're not in love with me." Betty wiped roughly at her cheeks with the back of her hand. This was going to be even harder than she'd thought. "When we hooked up, you were in a fragile place. You hadn't slept with anybody else since Molly's death. A – rebound is natural. But rebounds are pretty much always illusions."
"I told you, you're not my rebound. How could you think that?"
"We hooked up so you could find out if you could still have sex! How is that not a rebound?" Her voice was getting higher, more shrill; she hated the sound of it, and yet she couldn't calm herself.
Daniel's hands closed over the railing, as though he wanted to shake it in frustration. "I hate the idea that if I'd hooked up with some blonde in the Bahamas, I'd actually have a better chance with you now." When he looked at her again, his eyes were so gentle and wounded that she screwed up her courage to say the rest.
"I can't stay at MODE," Betty began. Her voice quavered, thick with tears. "You deserve to know why."
"We're coming back to this 'rebound' thing. But okay. Tell me."
She had to say this right. If she said it the wrong way, she would give him false hope. "From the beginning, I knew this could happen. I knew you could get confused. But I spent so much time worrying about you, I never stopped and asked myself if – if I could get confused too."
Daniel's eyes widened. "Are you saying – " Oh, no, he looked happy. She'd botched it. "Betty, if you're confused, and I'm confused, then neither of us is confused." He reviewed what he'd just said and frowned. "Wait. That came out wrong. But if you feel – even a fraction of what I'm feeling, oh, God, don't walk away from me now."
"I have to walk away! You're saying all these things I want to believe so badly, and I know you think they're true, but if I let us go down that road – Daniel, I know right now it feels like nothing would be worse than this, but it would be so much worse."
She'd fallen into the trap that final night they spent together. When Daniel's demeanor had changed – when he'd told her she was the only one he wanted and began making love to her so tenderly – the spell had settled over her completely. If she hadn't fallen in love with him before that moment, she did then, and the joy she'd felt as they kissed each other afterward was like nothing else she'd ever known.
Then the next morning, she had awakened by his side in bed to remember that this had been Molly's bed. Molly's apartment. Molly's husband. Betty had finally remembered everything she knew to be true that first night they hooked up, but she'd allowed herself to forget in the months since. It had hurt her so much she'd felt almost sick with anguish … even with Daniel still sleeping naked by her side.
If she took advantage of Daniel's delusion, of his vulnerability, she'd buy herself a few weeks of happiness. Maybe even a few months. But when the rebound ended, the split would be beyond anything she could take.
Daniel shook his head in apparent disbelief. "Why can't you believe I'm really in love with you?"
"You can't be in love with me when you're still in love with Molly!"
He stood there, silent for so long that she thought he'd glimpsed the truth and was already in shock at his own mistake. But then Daniel said, "I'll always love Molly. That doesn't mean I can't fall in love with you."
"You're fooling yourself."
"No, I'm not. Think about it, Betty – your dad's in love with Elena, right? Do you think that means he doesn't still love your mom?"
That was impossible, of course. Betty had never doubted her father's enduring love for her mother, even when he and Elena were canoodling in every corner of the house. She shook her head, trying to clear it. "That's – it's not the same, Daniel."
"It's exactly the same." He stepped closer to her, for the first time bringing them within each other's personal space, close enough to remind her vividly of the nights they'd spent together.
So she stepped backward. "It took Dad years to get over losing my mother."
"Your father was married to her for something like twenty years and had two children with her, so no wonder. And besides – maybe he didn't get lucky enough to meet someone special until then." Daniel kept smiling at her; he just didn't get it. "In my case, you were right here the whole time."
Hope tugged at her, begging her to believe him, but she couldn't. She wouldn't. "You're only – confused – "
"Stop saying that! Betty, you were one of the most important people in my life for years before I even met Molly. How could you think I'd ever confuse what I feel for you because of what I felt for her?" Once again, he stepped closer; this time, she felt frozen in place, unable to move, unable to do anything but stare up at him through the tears that blurred her vision. "We have our own history. I mean, think about it – we're here, aren't we?"
And she lost it. Completely. The sobs spilled out of her, embarrassingly beyond her ability to control, and all Betty could do was cover her face with one hand as she hugged the other around her waist. Daniel's arms went around her, pulling her into his embrace, and the scent and warmth and nearness of him was both what she was trying to run from and what she needed most.
As she cried against his coat, Daniel murmured, "I love that you came to your first Halloween at MODE wearing a butterfly costume. I love that you made me and Alexis and Mom have it out on the bumper cars. I love remembering that time you visited me in the hospital and brought me your bunny just in case I needed company."
"We were friends – "
"Doesn't mean I loved you any less, does it?" He hugged her almost fiercely, as if the wind whipping around them might blow her away. "I love – the courage that let you keep coming back into the magazine every day back when all of us were treating you like shit. I love the fact that you're simultaneously this … playful little girl and the most mature, compassionate woman I know. I love how you make that prim face when you're angry. God, I love pink and plaid and anything else that's ever touched your body."
Betty's arms went around him. She still didn't want to let herself believe, but she couldn't stop listening to Daniel's voice.
His voice cracked as he said, "I spent this whole week trying to talk myself out of being in love with you. I figured – if it was just a rebound, and I could tell you I understood that, then maybe everything would be okay. Maybe we could be friends again. But no matter how long and how hard I tried, I couldn't do it. I know, Betty. I know as surely as I've ever known anything. I love you."
She broke again, this time taking his face in her hands and pulling him down to her. Betty didn't know if she was making the worst mistake of her life or the best decision ever; she only knew she couldn't withstand this. She couldn't go one moment longer without him. Their mouths met in a fierce, ragged kiss. It felt like victory and surrender at once.
When it was over, he pulled her even closer, his face against her cheek. "I thought I'd never kiss you again."
"I love you too." Tears still streamed down her cheeks as she confessed. "I don't know how this is going to end, but – I love you so much."
The smile that spread across Daniel's face held enough hope for them both. "Come on. Let's go."
Daniel flagged the taxi that took them back to her place. In the back seat of the cab, she curled into his side, welcoming the warmth of his arm around her like a blanket. Neither of them spoke; Daniel, for his part, seemed content to lean his head against hers, and every once in a while to kiss her forehead.
Finally, as they trudged up the final flight of steps to her apartment, Daniel said, "You look exhausted."
"I've hardly slept this whole week."
"Me either. It's been awful." Daniel's hand stroked her cheek. "Let's get inside."
Neither of them bothered turning on any lights in her apartment. Betty took his hand in hers and led him around the sofa, around the laundry basket she'd just ignored in her depression, back to her bed.
They undressed each other gently, without urgency; though Daniel kept planting soft kisses on her cheeks and her shoulders, he took things no further. She knew they weren't going to make love tonight. After the wretched week they'd both had, and the emotional wringer they'd gone through, they were nearly at the end of their endurance. But they needed to be close. To have each other near.
Maybe then she could believe this was really happening for them both.
When she lay in bed in her panties, Daniel stripped down to his boxers and climbed in beside her. Almost as soon as his arm stretched across her body, Betty leaned her head against his chest. He whispered, "I missed you so much."
"I missed you too." She slid her hand across his belly, relishing the warmth of his skin, the rise and fall of his breath. "When I first knew you – the reason I stuck with you after those first couple of weeks – it was because I saw that beneath all the money and the girls and the stupid stuff, you had this … incredibly kind heart. The deeper I saw you, the more I saw how generous and loving you really were. That's why it hurt so much, thinking that I'd used you." Betty looked up at him. "That's also why I love you."
He kissed her hair. "Say it again."
"I love you."
Daniel sighed, contented, and Betty felt the last of her tension leave her body as she closed her eyes. Within seconds, she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Betty awoke first. She opened her eyes to see Daniel still sound asleep next to her, his hand slung over her hip. For a few long moments she listened only to the relative silence surrounding her: the distant clanging of the antiquated pipes in her building, muted traffic sounds from the street outside, the soft in-and-out of Daniel's breathing.
The last time she'd awakened beside him had been terrible, a moment when her own worst fears came crashing down on them both. Now, though – well, she still wasn't sure what to believe. But she no longer refused to hope that this man she loved might truly love her back.
She covered his hand with hers, meaning it only as a caress, but Daniel stirred, shifting on the mattress and turning his hand so that their fingers intertwined. "Morning."
He rolled over, framing her shoulders with his elbows, so that they were face to face. "Can I say I love you?"
Hope, Betty reminded herself. Until the two of you find the truth, you're going to hope. "Yeah. And I love you."
They kissed, long and sweet. She could feel him hardening against her thigh, and the warmth and nearness of his body seemed to be melting away any resistance she might have felt. But when their lips parted, Daniel looked down at her more thoughtfully than lustfully. "You're still not sure."
Weighing her answer before she spoke, Betty finally said, "I don't think this is going to be as easy for us as you think it is. But – I don't think it's as impossible as I was pretending it was." With an uneven smile, she continued, "Thanks for not letting me give up so quickly."
Daniel remained silent for a few moments, obviously deep in consideration. Then he shifted to her side, so that they lay facing each other. "Let's start with breakfast."
"Breakfast?" Was this going to be some double entendre? Or was it the name of some sexual technique she hadn't heard of yet?
"I'll get dressed, run down the block and buy us doughnuts and coffee from the cart down the block. You know the one. Tim Gunn's love shack."
"Oh, right." She couldn't resist a smile.
"And then we'll just spend the day … hanging out. Doing whatever we feel like."
She made a small gesture that took in the bed, and their presence together in it, as she teased, "I thought we were doing what we felt like."
"Yeah, but – Betty, let's start over. We kind of skipped a lot of important parts, you know? The, I don't know, call it the courtship phase."
"Courtship? That's an old-fashioned word, coming from you." But she knew she was beaming at him.
"Call it whatever you want. Dating. Hanging out. Wooing."
"Woo," Betty repeated, just because it was fun to say.
"Woo," Daniel said, in exactly the same way. "We'll go back to the beginning. Do it the way we probably should have all along, with me asking you out. Maybe going zero to 60 was part of our problem, you know? Maybe we just need to slow down for a little while. Give our heads time to catch up."
That – made sense. It was mature, and reasonable, and proof in and of itself how much Daniel had changed, not only since she'd met him, but even since he'd fallen for Molly a year and a half ago. Betty felt hope rising within her as she realized that what they were doing was new for both of them. Something that belonged to them alone.
"We'll catch up," she agreed. They kissed again, warm and gentle – but no more. Betty figured she knew where Daniel was going next. "And – as for sex – you were thinking we'd wait a while?"
"I guess," he said, so downcast and yet determined that he reminded her of a dogged little boy. She bit her lip to keep from laughing as he said, with resignation, "I'm going to miss making love to you, but it's not forever. Hopefully not even for long. Just until – until you know where we are. Does that sound right?"
"Yeah, it does." Not exactly ideal, but right. "I should mention something now."
Daniel tensed. "What's that?"
"I still think I should leave MODE, soon. You're my boss, Daniel. I know we haven't had a strictly professional relationship in a long time, but it's going to be different from here on." She sighed. "Besides, I never meant to work at a fashion magazine forever. Maybe I started on this job search for the wrong reasons, but I think moving on is still the best plan. For me and for us."
From his frown, she could tell he didn't like that idea, but that he saw the sense of it. Slowly, he nodded. "Okay. Anything else I ought to know?"
"Yeah." Betty gave him her best pout. "I miss the beard."
With a grin, Daniel promised, "Shaving stops today."
"And everything else starts today." It really felt like a new beginning.
"Speaking of which, we've got breakfast covered, but would you have lunch with me this afternoon? Wherever you want."
The grin spreading across her face must have been as brilliant as the happiness she felt on the inside, because Daniel's eyes lit up even before she said, "I'd love to."
"It's a date?"
"It's a date."