The happiest day of my life was the day Brandon Michaels got down on one knee on the marble imagine tribute in Central Park, holding out a diamond ring that nearly blinded me as the sun bounced off of its radiance. How could I say no? On paper he was perfect. Brandon was extremely wealthy, his trust fund alone supported his lavish lifestyle. We had just gotten back from a yachting trip over the weekend. It was a world I never thought I would have been privy too. Yet, here I was, gaining entrance to New York City’s elite by way of engagement. How could I say no?
“Yes!” I squealed in pure joy. He took the ring from the box and slipped it onto my dainty finger. I held it up to the light, blindingly beautiful. Brandon pulled me to him, wrapping his arms around me possessively, squeezing me against him so hard it nearly knocked the air from my lungs. Oh, but I didn’t care. He could own me if he wanted to. Now, he basically did.
I had gotten comfortable. From the expensive gifts, to the penthouse apartment on fifth avenue, to the chic exclusive restaurants. There was no way I was going back to the life I’d led before. I was done with scraping by paycheck to paycheck just to live in a shitty shoebox room in a shitty apartment with four other girls. I was done being nice. Nice had gotten me nothing, but pretending had gotten me everything.
I’d met Brandon at a gallery opening down in SoHo. My friend was catering the event and had snuck me in through the back door. I was dressed like one of the patrons and pretending that I was a snobby art critic.
I stood with my glass of champagne, digging the heel of my stiletto into the marble floor to ease the pain throbbing up my leg. Brandon, with his perfectly tailored suit and midnight hair stepped up beside me.
“And what do you think of this?” He nodded toward the splatter painting before us.
“Clearly a representation of a chaotic childhood,” I said confidently and quirked a brow at him. He was handsome and I smirked as I brough the champagne flute to my lips. The bubbles tickled my nose.
“Not mere scribbles on a canvas then?”
“No. It’s childlike to show the artist is still caught in his childlike state. It’s purposeful.”
“Should I buy it?” he whispered to me. The painting was $50,000.
“Yes.” It was a dare.
He took the red dot sticker off his palette and pressed it to the wall. “Done.”
“Impressive. And you are?” I asked, holding out my hand to him.
“Brandon Michaels,” He said proudly and gripped my hand firmly. His hands were soft, almost like a baby’s.
“Now, that is an interested name,” His eyes never left mine and I didn’t dare look away.
That’s where Epiphany Jones started and Caroline Feinstein ended. I became a socialite the minute I gave him my false identity. Funny how you can do that if you’re really looking to start over. Lucky for me, Brandon didn’t ask questions. He wasn’t interested in getting to know me. He wanted someone pretty to dangle on his arm, someone witty to charm his boss and coworkers, some mysterious. I think not knowing my past or even present was intriguing to him. I was molded into everything he wanted me to be. In bed I was a sex kitten, in public I was polished and demure. The perfect girl. I didn’t argue. I didn’t protect. I was compliant and sweet. If only he knew what was really lurking beneath the surface. How I had scrounged my way up from the bottom, using my fingernails like tiger’s claws.
The day after our engagement I went to get a manicure, ensconcing my nails in cherry red so the ring glared at anyone willing to look. It had to be perfect. Everything had to be perfect.
“We’ll have to make the formal announcement to the press,” Brandon’s mother, Mary Claire said. She annunciated each syllable perfectly, in that waspy New England drawl that reeks of old money.
“Of course,” I replied, mimicking her voice. I had studied them all, picked out what I deemed necessary to my survival in this world. The nail technician rubbed lotion onto my hands, her thumbs pressing into my palms for a deep comforting massage.
“I am just so pleased that my son chose you, Epiphany. You will be a grand addition to the family, just grand.”
I smiled at her, pleasant and sweet, “Ms. Michaels, I am just tickled by it. I can’t believe I’ll be your daughter in law. It’s a gift really.” A gift in the way that syphilis might be. In private she was horrendous. She yelled at the staff, was rude to waiters, and chastised those who didn’t agree with her. But I was compliant. I was willing. The perfect daughter in law. I had been studying these people for months. I became perfect in months. By the third month Brandon and I had been dating I was installed in his penthouse. It was an epic feat, but so easily done. By the end of the year I would have everything.
“My, how the debutantes will cry,” Mary Claire nearly giggled at the thought.
“There will be other eligible bachelors for them,” I giggled along, pretending to be amused. I looked at my nails, perfectly manicured. Perfectly polished.
The second day of my engagement came and the announcement was printed in the paper; One of New York City’s most Eligible Bachelor’s Engaged to Socialite. It was big news to all the hopeful upper crust daughters at snagging an old money bachelor. It was crushing. A nobody pretending to be a somebody becoming what they all desired.
The newspaper stared at me from my vanity as I slipped on my diamond earrings. I’d pulled my thick black hair from my face, curling it in a bun at the nape of my neck. No messy hair allowed. No unruly black ringlets could be seen. Brandon didn’t even know my hair was curly. I had never let him see it. I selected bland natural makeup. A perfectly tailored black dress. Chic, calm, elegant. Nothing of my former life was allowed to peek through what I had fabricated.
Brandon came over to me, his hand pressing into my shoulder and I looked up at him with a sweet smile on my lips.
“I’m almost ready, darling.”
He tapped my shoulder and kissed the top of my head, “Our guests are waiting.” Quickly the engagement dinner had been arranged. Mary Claire refused to sleep on any social occasion.
“I’ll meet you at the car.”
“Five minutes,” He warned. I would be ready in five minutes. No more and no less. Everything was perfectly structured. No tardiness allowed.
I placed the diamond ring on my finger and cautiously fiddled with the band. When I gazed at the brown eyed girl in the mirror I didn’t recognize her and that was exactly what I wanted. My old life was dead and my new one was just beginning.
The door to the apartment closed and I grabbed my coat from the back of the chair. I smoothed down the hem of my dress and took a deep breath. This was it. This was everything I had ever wanted. My high heels echoed on the clean tile floor each step booming in the empty apartment. The floor to ceiling windows revealed the glittering lights of New York City. I had lived on the bottom and never would again.
I don’t know what possessed me to look down as my hand gripped the handle of the door, but I did. A crisp white envelope waited there, and on it was my real name. Caroline. My hands began to shake as I crouched down to pick it up. I slipped a fingernail beneath the paper to open it and slipped out a card.
DON’T MARRY HIM!
The writing was labored, forced, scribbled. Tightness filled the back of my throat and I took a shuddery breath. This could only be from one person. Someone I had left behind in my pursuit of this new life. Warning bells began to sing in the recesses of my mind, but I pushed them away. Of course, I shouldn’t marry Brandon. I knew that, but what this person didn’t know was that I wanted this life more than anything in the world, more than safety. I’d heard rumors of Brandon’s true nature, but it didn’t stop me. I heard rumors of what Mary Claire had hidden away for her son. What neither of them counted on was the fact that I was reared like an animal and when it came down to it, I would behave like one if necessary. All they saw right now was that I was compliant. I was perfect. Nothing else mattered. I would have it. I would have it all.