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Sunday Night Bedtime Reading: THE SISTER, Chapter One

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The cover of The Sister, a black and white image of a woman in bra and panties, her head thrown back and her hand between her legs (though nothing explicit is shown).

I will not throw up on this woman. I will not throw up on this woman.

The studio lights were way brighter than I remembered from last time I was on the Wake Up! America set. I’d been auditioning for a job at the time, but somehow, I was more nervous today than back then. A very blonde woman of indiscernible age sat across from me on the bright orange curved sofa. I followed the line of her gaze to the teleprompter and accidentally caught sight of myself on the monitor.

The shade of blue they put me in flattered my suddenly green complexion, and my long, dark hair seemed too meticulously curled. Like, approaching uncanny valley perfection.

“And we’re live in five, four, three…”

“Welcome back, America,” the anchor said. “It’s eight forty-six here on a beautiful sunny morning in New York. I’m Amanda Tanner. If you’re just joining us, we’re about twenty minutes from Ariana Grande rocking the block as part of our Rock The Block summer concert series. But right now, we’re talking to Sophie Scaife, founder and co-editor-in-chief of Mode magazine, as well as author of the new memoir, Does She Have to Call Me Grandma?, which is out tomorrow. Sophie, It’s a pleasure having you with us this morning.”

“You, too.” You, too? You, too! Why did you say that, Sophie? Why? You’re going to have to go into hiding after this.

“You have quite a unique story, here. You’re twenty-eight years old. Never thought you’d have children. And now, you find yourself a grandmother. How did that happen?”

I laughed nervously and tried to remember what the answer was supposed to be. I’d rehearsed all of this with a production assistant in my dressing room. “Well, my husband is older than I am, and he has a daughter who’s my age. Olivia is her daughter.”

“But you’re not a grandmother?” Amanda teased, in that friendly, but not overly familiar way that interviewers generally had.

“No, Olivia doesn’t call me grandma. She calls me Sophie.” And sometimes, mama, which really creeped me out, so I tried hard to curb that.

“Now, your stepdaughter and her husband tragically passed away over a year ago, and you talk about that in the book. Can you tell us a little about what happened?”

A little? I could tell anyone hours of information about Emma and Michael. About their love story, about their desire for children and their struggle that seemed hopeless. About how cruel life was to give them the thing they wanted most, then snatched them away from it.

But I was getting better about not doing that. “Emma and Michael died after a car accident when Olivia was seven months old, and my husband and I are her guardians now.”

“Your husband is Neil Elwood, correct?” Amanda asked, and when I answered in the affirmative, she followed-up, “So, here you are, running a brand-new online magazine, you have a very successful husband, and suddenly, you’re mothering this child—”

“I wouldn’t say I was mothering.” It might break protocol to interrupt an interviewer, but I didn’t care. If there was one thing I always wanted to keep clear, it was that. “I’ll never be able to replace Emma.”

“Of course not,” Amanda said, taking control once more. “But you talk in the book about making that transition from, as you described it, ‘Long Island trophy wife who identified as child-free’ to a more parental role. And it hasn’t been all that easy, has it?”

“Well, obviously losing Emma and Michael was very hard for us as a family. And Neil and I never planned to have children. We still don’t. But I don’t see this as taking on a maternal role or being a stand-in for Olivia’s mother in any way. I see it as doing something out of love for Emma and Michael. Olivia is a part of our family. The way I was raised, you take care of your family.” I’d written something similar in my book, and I’d meant it with all my heart. “There’s no way we could refuse to care for a child we love, regardless of what our plans were.”

“What’s that old saying, life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans?” Amanda joked mildly. I nodded and laughed in agreement, but inwardly, I cringed at hearing one of the most difficult times in my life reduced to a trite coffee mug quote.

That was the last hard question. The rest of the interview coasted by so easily, I was startled when Amanda thanked me again for being on the show and directed viewers to buy the book.

Before I had time to barf on her, it was all over.

I shook her hand and thanked her, and a woman in a headset put her arm protectively around my back without touching me to herd me away from the set.

I exited through one half of a double door and ran directly into Neil waiting in the hallway. Even after five years of all the joys and heartbreaks our life together had given us, his smile still swept me away like it had on the first day we’d met. In his arms, Olivia squirmed and fussed, until she saw me.

“You were wonderful, darling,” he said, leaning in to kiss my cheek as Olivia situated herself between us.

“No, no, no,” she babbled sternly, pushing Neil’s face away from mine. She was going through this phase where she didn’t want Neil and I to kiss, ever.

Children were so weird.

The headset woman directed us back to my dressing room, where I changed into the tight black jeans and oversized pink cashmere sweater I’d arrived in. As I pulled my boots on, I watched Olivia methodically jerk diaper after diaper out of my alligator leather Birkin, wondering when Neil would notice what she was up to. But he was too lost in his own thoughts.

“Hey,” I said softly. When he looked up, I asked, “Are you okay?”

Talking about Emma would probably always be hard for him, but it seemed more so recently. The book coming out and the interviews I’d been giving about it had him a little more shaken up than usual.

“Hmm?” He snapped back to reality. “Oh, yes. Fine. Everything’s fine.”

“Did you take that second Xanax today?” I asked casually, not trying to sound overly concerned. He’d been hospitalized for two months at an inpatient psychiatric facility following a suicide attempt the year before. Emma’s death had almost been his, too, and in some ways, he was still recovering.

He shook his head. “No, really, I’m fine. I haven’t felt that I needed it.”

I pulled up the zips on my calf-length boots and stood. “Good to know. I feel really guilty that this is so hard on you.”

“It isn’t,” he insisted, stooping to gather up the diapers Olivia had strewn across the floor. “Truly, it isn’t. I love that you’re writing, again. It seems as though it helps you.”

“It really does. It helps me to sort my thoughts.” It would be nice if I could drum up enthusiasm for it without requiring some major tragedy to get the creative juices flowing. “But I’m going to be glad when the release stuff is over.”

“What time is your signing tomorrow?” he asked, handing me the bag.

I slung it over my shoulder and reached for Olivia’s hand to hold so she could toddle along beside me. “Eight to nine-thirty. I’m debating just staying in town after and meeting you at the airport in the morning.”

When we reached the elevators, Neil scooped Olivia up in his arms; she couldn’t be trusted not to bolt the moment the doors opened. “You don’t sound terribly enthusiastic. Is it the signing you’re dreading, or the trip?”

“I’m not dreading the trip.” Not all of it. Olivia had never met my family before, and I wanted them to get a chance to know her. And I wanted her to grow up knowing that not everyone lives in a thirty-five thousand-square-foot house and travels by private jet. Neil had never even been grocery shopping on his own until we moved in together, so he was hardly up to the task of keeping her grounded.

“I’m just kind of dreading the whole class reunion thing,” I told him as we stepped into the elevator and the doors closed.

“This, again?” Neil rolled his eyes. “You’re not seriously still worried about this.”

“I can’t help it,” I protested. “What if I go back and nobody talks to me because they think I’m… I don’t know. Full of myself? Like I think I’m better than everyone?”

“Are you going to act full of yourself or like you’re better than everyone?” he asked, his mildly condescending tone enhanced by his posh English accent. Sometimes, I felt like I was being scolded by the male version of Mary Poppins.

“Obviously, I’m not. But it’s a small town. People talk. And I know I would have been a little intimidated and envious if one of my friends had moved to New York and become some rich asshole.”

“Language,” he reminded me, reaching up to cup Olivia’s ear.

The not-swearing was the worst part of raising a child.

“Sorry. Some rich…apple…core.” Not my best. I cursed under my breath.

“Doing splendidly as always, darling.” Neil smiled. “Are you coming with us or going to the office?”

“I’m going to work.” For once. Lately, everything else in life seemed to get in the way of work. For most people, it was the opposite.

“You are coming home tonight, though, aren’t you?”

“Oh, absolutely. I have to pack and stare at myself in the mirror and freak out because nothing fits me the way it used to.” I really didn’t need to lay it all out like that. He knew the routine by now. “But I’ve got to get back to work.”

We paused in the lobby to part ways; Neil would return with Olivia to our home in Sagaponack, while I caught a cab to my Brooklyn-based office.

“What time should I expect you? I’m cooking tonight.” He leaned in for a kiss that Olivia intercepted with a cranky whine and a hand over my mouth. Neil shifted her to his other arm and tried again, this time, more successfully.

“Around seven-thirty, god willing. I’ll call you when I’m in the car.” The commute was long, but Neil needed the helicopter more than I did. Trying to keep Olivia entertained in her car seat for two hours was a special kind of hell, and we were currently in an air traffic battle with the neighbors.

While Olivia was distracted by something across the lobby, Neil leaned in for another kiss. “I love you.”

“Love you, too,” I said, and quickly dropped a kiss on Olivia’s head. “Tell Tony five o’clock, okay?”

It kind of broke my heart to leave them. It always did. During the first year taking care of Olivia, I’d looked for any excuse to escape when I could. Not because I didn’t love her. I’d just been overwhelmed. After I’d gotten used to it, I hated to leave her and Neil for any length of time. I even had a picture of the three of us on my desk.

That was a future I definitely had never planned on.

The Mode office was in Brooklyn, in a brick building we’d previously rented, then bought when the opportunity arose. Though we’d started out as online only, we were trying to transition to a print version, as well. Which had created ten times the work for my co-editor-in-chief, Deja, and me. Luckily, we had a great assistant.

Mel looked up from her desk as I approached. As always, her eyeliner was preternaturally symmetrical, her outfit scorchingly stylish—she wore her YSL puff-sleeved black blouse as though it had been designed for her—and her manicure glistened as though the polish were still wet. Her heels were Louboutin; her hijab was Hermés.

“Good morning, Ms. Scaife,” she said with a big smile. “And good interview.”

“Thank you.” I did a little a curtsey. “I tried my very best.”

“Well, you succeeded.” She turned to her computer and typed with unnerving speed. She’d missed her calling as an airline ticket counter worker. “Okay, all of your messages have been forwarded, you’re late for the August pitches and you’ve got the run-through at eleven.”

I checked my phone and hissed through my teeth. “Yikes. That doesn’t give me a lot of time to pull the Michael Kors bags, huh?”

“I’ll put Patricia on it.” Mel’s fingers started flying, again. Those bags would be in my office within minutes. “Did you see Daisy’s new outfit?”

Mel had a Chihuahua named Daisy, and Daisy had her own Instagram account, wherein she posed in different, rarely repeated outfits, daily. Sometimes, she and Mel matched.

“I did not,” I admitted. “But I am going to look, right now.”

And that wasn’t a lie. Daisy’s OOTD—Outfit of the Day—was as essential to getting me through the morning as caffeine.

I dropped my purse and jacket in the office and headed straight for the conference room, where Deja and the four other editors—two for fashion, one for beauty, one for lifestyle—were seated around the table. Deja sat at the head, leaning her elbows on the table and fiddling with a stylus as she listened intently to Dana, our lifestyle editor. Always the epitome of cool, Deja had taken the bold step of totally shaving her perfectly shaped head.

I paused outside the glass door and waited, watching for a break in the conversation. When Deja looked down at the tablet in front of her and started scrolling, I saw my chance and pushed open the door.

“You’re late,” she said without looking up as she dragged the stylus over the screen.

“I have a good excuse today,” I reminded her. “I was on TV.”

Deja grinned at me. “I know. We were watching. ‘You, too?’”

Light laughter rippled around the table. I sank into my chair with a good-natured shake of my head. “Ugh, I know. I can’t believe I said that.”

“It’s like when you buy something at an airport kiosk, and the guy says, ‘Have a nice flight!’ and you’re like, ‘You, too!’” Stephenie, one of our fashion editors, said.

“Other than that, I think it went pretty well,” I said with mock—okay, and a little bit real—defensiveness.

“You did good,” Deja reassured me. “Okay, we were about to talk Gwyneth Paltrow.”

“Veto!” I said automatically, raising my hand. “I use my veto card.”

Deja arched an eyebrow. “You just walked into this meeting. Do you want to wait a second and see what’s going on before you jump right in?”

I made a sheepish, apologetic face.

“Yeah. Put that card back in your deck.” Deja cleared her throat. “Okay, on the subject of our lifestyle piece debunking several vaginal health claims made by Gwyneth Paltrow’s website…”

****

After the meeting, I slunk into my office and put my head down on my desk. I had about half an hour before the beauty editors would show me every single piece they’d picked to feature in the August issue, and I would sit and make notes and generally not feel like such a failure.

I’d known that running a magazine would be hard. I’d worked at one for long enough. But I’d been an assistant. My old boss, Gabriella Winters, had made the entire process seem effortless. And Neil was more than capable of managing the day-to-day at a magazine; his entire fortune was built on them. What was wrong with me?

Deja knocked on my door before she opened it and stuck her head in. “Hey, do you have the run through coming up? I though you wanted to pull those Kors?”

“Mel got Patricia to do it.” I propped my elbows on my desk and rubbed my temples. “Deja, why am I such a fuck up?”

She sighed and closed the door behind her then leaned on it. “You’re not a fuck up. You’re just…really bad at coming to work and doing your job.”

“But I shouldn’t be!” I exclaimed. “I worked for the most demanding editor-in-chief at the most demanding fashion magazine in the world, and I survived for two years. I know how to do all of this.”

“You know in theory,” she reminded me. “Not in practice. You were Gabriella’s assistant. You kept track of things for her, but you never had to do them for her.”

“Ugh. She made it look so easy.” I dropped my head to my desk then looked up miserably. “You’re so good at this. I actually feel guilty dragging you into it with me.”

Deja rolled her eyes. “Oh, no, you dragged me into running an extremely lucrative fashion magazine. All of this financial security is unbearable.”

I snorted.

“Besides, I did kind of get the inside track,” she said guiltily.

I’d first met Deja when I was still the assistant to—and not yet girlfriend of—my husband. He hired her, she eventually fell in love with and married my best friend, and yeah, committed some corporate espionage for my old boss at the same time.

Things had gotten pretty messy for a while there.

But Deja was right. Her time as Gabriella’s mentee had prepared her far more thoroughly than my stint as Gabriella’s assistant had me. And that wasn’t something I should have been ashamed of.

What I should have been ashamed of was how little effort I’d put into the entire magazine endeavor. We were a success, but I had very little to do with that aside from having a rich husband.

There was a lot I needed to think about, but my day was jam-packed, and it was always easier to just ignore the big, scary life questions in favor of doing literally anything else. And there was plenty “anything else” that needed doing.

Despite my best efforts, I didn’t arrive at home until quarter to nine.

The solar-powered lights lining the circular drive hadn’t turned on yet; the sun had only barely set. I asked Tony to drop me off under the porte cochere, rather than the front door, so I could go directly to the kitchen. I’d expected to find dinner waiting for me in the warming oven, but to my surprise, Neil waited behind the counter, too.

“Seven-thirty?” he asked with a tilt of his head and a smug smile.

“Like you’ve never worked late in your life.” I kicked my shoes off with a relieved groan and went to him. He looped his arms around my waist, and I leaned my head against his chest to breathe in his familiar scent. “Is Olivia asleep?”

“I had to put her to bed,” he said with an apologetic kiss on top of my head. “She was an absolute tyrant at dinner.”

I glanced over at her highchair, still smeared with food. “Am I the worst Sophie ever?”

“Of course not,” he reassured me. “And not for nothing, you’re my favorite Sophie.”

I reluctantly stepped back, my stomach growling. While Neil leaned down to get a dish from the oven, I hopped up on one of the stools at the island. “I feel like I never see her or spend time with her, anymore. Or you, for that matter.”

“If I had time to feel neglected, I would, I promise,” he quipped, depositing a round white ceramic dish on the trivet on the counter. “Caprese stuffed chicken?”

“Ooh.” I leaned over the dish and inhaled deeply. “Give me a fork.”

“I can give you a plate, as well,” he offered as he handed the utensil to me. Then, chagrined as I dug directly into the baking dish, he added, “Or you could dine from the trough this evening.”

I put up one middle finger as I chewed. I’d taken way too big a bite. When I could get words out around it, I mumbled, “Since when are you Mr. Sixties Housewife?”

“Since all I do these days is chase after a toddler. Who is also chased after by a nanny, thank god.” He shook his head. “You know, I wouldn’t survive parenting a child without support staff. How on earth do people manage?”

It was still hard not to roll my eyes at Neil’s cultural disconnect. He’d lived his entire life as a billionaire. His father had owned a major media company. His mother had come from the oldest of old money. As soon as he’d graduated college, he’d started building a media empire of his own. I’d once caught him Googling “poverty.”

“They get by, somehow, I promise.”

I watched Neil as he wiped down the counter with a kitchen towel. He’d done a complete one-eighty since we’d met. Well, since we’d met, again. It had been six years between our bonkers day of sex in an L.A. hotel and the morning that he’d walked into my boss’s office and informed me that he was my boss, now. After four years, cancer, the death of his daughter, and his subsequent hospitalization, he was a completely different Neil Elwood. He looked a little older, his hair was grayer, but he was still just as heart-stoppingly handsome as he’d ever been, and he could still melt the panties right off me with a single emerald-green glance. He’d quit working nonstop the way he had in the past, though he spent most of his time backseat-managing some of his businesses and calling in funding favors for the rape crisis center he’d founded. Everything he’d been through in our years together had changed him.

It had changed me, too. I’d gone from never-settle-down to a husband and somebody else’s kid. I’d gone from a dinky Chinatown apartment to an eight-figure mansion in the Hamptons—oh, and a stunning Fifth Avenue penthouse, an ultra-modern Reykjavik home, a palatial estate in the English countryside, a London townhouse, and a Venetian apartment I’d never even seen. Not to mention a closet I wouldn’t have dared to dream about on the salary I’d earned as a mere assistant at a fashion magazine. All of that seemed like it should have made me a kept woman, but my life with Neil had made me far more independent.

Even if I was really, really bad at that independence, I was determined to hold onto it.

“Neil…do you think I’m good at what I do?”

He looked up with a devious smile. “I think you are very good at what you do.”

“No, perv.” I rolled my eyes. “I meant the magazine.”

“I couldn’t say. I don’t work with you. The magazine’s selling well. The issues themselves look wonderful, even if I’m not particularly fond of some of the formatting—”

I cleared my throat.

Neil stopped himself and shrugged. We’d had the don’t-criticize-my-magazine conversation more than once. “If the magazine is successful, then you aren’t bad at your job.”

“Unless it’s ninety-nine percent Deja,” I admitted sheepishly.

He waited for me to continue, eyebrows raised quizzically.

“I’m always late,” I explained, using my fingers to tick off all the things I failed at every day. “I never know what’s going on, the only thing I’m really good at is picking out clothes, I take heaps of time off…”

Those couldn’t possibly have been all the reasons I sucked. It seemed like there should be so many more.

Neil braced his hands wide to lean on the counter. “You do realize that these are problems only you can control?”

I nodded miserably.

“Is it possible that the stress of your book release might be making you slightly more self-critical than you usually are?”

Again, I nodded. “Not to mention the class reunion.”

“Oh, Sophie, we’ve been over this,” he said, straightening and moving to toss the kitchen towel into the sink. “There is no reason for you to be insecure about going to your ten-year reunion when you’ve got two memoirs under your belt and you own a magazine.”

“You don’t understand what it’s like. When I was growing up, I always heard that poor people like us were hardworking, noble people, and rich people were sitting around getting something for nothing.”

“That is part of it,” admitted the man whose investments made him an annual upper-middle class salary every day.

“I just don’t want anyone to think I’m putting on airs. Now that I’ve been on national TV promoting my book about me and my billionaire husband, it’s going to be a little hard to convince anyone that I haven’t changed.” My dread intensified. “Maybe I shouldn’t go to the reunion, after all. There’s so much going on at the magazine—”

“Out of the question,” he said quickly. “Your mother would be crushed. Tony is meeting your family for the first time. Olivia has never met them at all.”

“And I promised my grandma.” I stabbed miserably at my dinner. “I just wish everything wasn’t coming one on top of the other. The print issue, the book, the morning show, the signing… By the time we actually get to Calumet, I’m going to be an even bigger ball of stress than I am now. I’m going to be a veritable Katamari of stress.”

“I’ll pretend I know what that is and just move along, shall I?” He reached across the counter and put a hand on the arm that wasn’t shoveling chicken into my mouth. “How about I come to the signing tomorrow night? We can stay in the city; it will be closer to the airport, anyway.”

“I don’t want to make a big deal out of all of this. I feel like everything is just…out of control.”

He nodded thoughtfully and got me a San Pellegrino from the refrigerator. Twisting the top off, he came around the island to sit on the stool beside mine. As he handed me the bottle, he said, “You’re not making a big deal. It won’t cost anything to change our plans. I’m already nearly packed. It won’t be any trouble at all to put together an overnight bag for Olivia and me.”

One of Neil’s most appealing qualities as a husband was that he often knew exactly what I needed, even when I had no clue myself. “Yeah?”

“Absolutely. As for the out-of-control part of the equation, I know how to fix that.”

“Oh?”

He inclined his head toward the door. “When you’re finished with that, go put your collar on.”

Sophie and Neil return August 22nd, 2017

15 Comments

  1. Kristina
    Kristina

    I can’t wait!!!

    August 20, 2017
    |Reply
  2. Lori
    Lori

    I love Sophie and Neil…. so happy they are back! I can never get enough of this story.

    August 20, 2017
    |Reply
  3. Anna Ilardo
    Anna Ilardo

    When i started reading I didn’t know What the book was about but As soon As i relised I got really excited. The boss Is one of my favorite book read it multiple Times can’t wait to read this one Thank you

    August 20, 2017
    |Reply
  4. Rin
    Rin

    OH MY GOFD

    August 20, 2017
    |Reply
  5. Christal Williams
    Christal Williams

    I screamed so loud when I read the release date!!!! I’m so excited omg

    August 21, 2017
    |Reply
  6. Melissa
    Melissa

    Oh my gosh, just in time for my birthday!!!! Well, it’s today, but it means I get to use birthday money to reconnect with Neil and Sophie!! I can’t wait!

    August 21, 2017
    |Reply
  7. KATAMARI DAMACY REFERENCE! Because I needed a reason to love you and this series more…

    August 21, 2017
    |Reply
  8. Ellen
    Ellen

    I’m going to guess that one of the reasons Sophie was “green” during the t.v. interview was that she has morning sickness and that’s the source of “the sister” in the title.

    Can. Not. Wait!!!!

    August 21, 2017
    |Reply
    • GS
      GS

      My guess is that Sophie finds out she has a half-sister through her dad when she returns to Calumet 😉

      August 21, 2017
      |Reply
    • Ange
      Ange

      I really hope she stays nominally childfree. We never get any bloody representation…

      August 22, 2017
      |Reply
  9. Shirley Fremd
    Shirley Fremd

    In true Jenny/Abigail fashion, I think we will be totally surprised by the title’s meaning.

    August 21, 2017
    |Reply
  10. Niki
    Niki

    Omg I can’t wait!!! Crossing my fingers it posts at midnight!!

    August 21, 2017
    |Reply
  11. Shay
    Shay

    YES YES YES YES YES!

    August 22, 2017
    |Reply
  12. Jenny
    Jenny

    I can’t find it anywhere

    August 22, 2017
    |Reply
    • Shay
      Shay

      I bought it on Smashwords

      August 22, 2017
      |Reply

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