Five years earlier Ashley had been working her way through Gotham University. That she’d got into the school at all was a surprise, her application there more a matter of being thorough about hitting up every school in the Tri-State area, as her career counselor had suggested.
After all, she’d been told many a time that Gotham was a very expensive, very “exclusive,” very “good” school, which was a smug way of saying that people like her generally didn’t go there. That it was the kind of school attended by people who went on to become Fortune 500 CEOs and Senators, by people who were rich, or connected, or gifted. She wasn’t rich or connected, and she didn’t think of herself as gifted, either. Her test scores had been okay, not great; her grades good, but then the bar hadn’t been high at her second-rate high school.
Maybe it was her life story. She’d been born in Leigh, Pennsylvania, where her dad worked in the steel mill that was the city’s main employer. After it closed down her family moved to Jersey City, so her dad could take a job as manager of a Mindy’s, while her mom worked part-time as a bank teller. When the owner shut down that particular Mindy’s outlet, he ended up an overnight stocker at a big box store on the edge of town.
When she was fourteen both her parents were killed in a car accident, and she went into foster care. She hadn’t been through the kind of nightmares she knew other people had suffered while in the System. She was at the same home for the last two and a half years, and the couple who took her in there tried more than most to make her feel like a part of the family. As far as all that went she counted herself lucky, but yeah, it had been tough, and she supposed that maybe this was what appealed to the admissions board, the idea of a plucky working-class foster kid from the area, who looked like she was going to be the first in her family to get a real university degree.
Of course, getting accepted into Gotham was one thing, and actually paying for the program was another. But the counselor guided her through the process of arranging a package of financial aid, a scholarship, loans, to supplement the money she’d make working in the kinds of jobs that a college student with limited work experience could get—retail, table-waiting.
And so in the fall after graduation, she started life as a student at Gotham U, listing her major as economics (according to her assessment test, her best chance for a high paying job), moving into the dorms, going to classes, going to work. It was neither the party Hollywood promised, nor the uplifting experience the Gotham U President pompously spoke of at orientation, but all the same she stuck with it, negotiating the general education requirements while doing her best to stay afloat financially.
Try as she might, money was always uncomfortably tight, so she supplemented her income with the little side jobs that came her way on campus (modeling for the art department, being a human test subject for the psych department), and when she got the chance, traded up to better jobs. In the summer before her third year, she wound up a waitress at LeBlanc’s. The boss was often a pain to work for, and so were many of the customers, Ashley soon learning the hard way that those with the money to patronize places like LeBlanc’s had few compunctions about being overbearing or demanding. Still, the pay and the tips (even after being pooled among the servers) were rather better than at the diner where she’d previously worked, and so she counted herself lucky there.
She was also excited about finally being done with the general ed course work, finally delving into the real stuff of her major, but that feeling didn’t last. When she went back to class in the fall she felt that she just wasn’t clicking with the material; that she didn’t hear the music of the spheres in the movements of The Market. When she said as much to her friend Karen she shrugged it off, said that she didn’t either, that probably no one did. That the stuff they were studying had about as much relation to the realities of commerce as “Ptolemaic astronomy does to the space program or Lysenkoist biology to gene-splicing.”
Ashley had never heard of Ptolemaic astronomy or Lysenkoist biology, but Karen’s tone made the meaning of the similes clear.
“You can afford to be ironic about it,” Ashley said. “You’re getting As. I’m killing myself to get B-minuses.”
“That’s not so bad,” Karen said.
Maybe not, Ashley thought, if her parents were footing the bill, or if she had a trust fund. But she was at Gotham on a scholarship, and if she didn’t do better than a B-minus her GPA would fall below the minimum required to keep it. Not much below the minimum, just a tenth of a grade point, but a miss was as good as a mile there, and there were no second chances, which would mean her having to drop out of school.
There were only so many hours in the day. Studying even more than she was already doing (and already Ashley hit the books harder than anyone she knew) meant working less, and she was just managing to pay the minimums on her credit card.
There seemed little for her to do but keep doing what she was doing and hope that things would turn up. Alas, when midterm time came along she got more rather than less worried. Walking out of the test in her “Game Theory in Economics” course she was sure that she’d done badly, probably badly enough to render any further worrying moot.
She agonized over that test all day, and then after she went to work that night, the events of the day repeatedly intruded into her thoughts as she waited on tables. They did so again as she went to present the evening’s bill to the table that had ordered the grilled mackerel and the steak. There was only one man there when she reached it, the one who’d ordered the steak.
She gave him the bill. After setting down the check and the tip, he asked her out.
Every single time a customer had asked Ashley out before her response was to politely decline. And this guy was so old. (He looked like he could have been almost forty.)
But if he was forty he seemed a young forty, like the full head of chestnut hair just starting to gray was all his own, and like he didn’t need to pop little blue pills before dates. His stomach didn’t bulge out over his belt, the way his friend’s had.
Even when he was younger he probably hadn’t looked like the guys in the Abernathy & Hitch ads and vampire movies that had formed her romantic ideals, but he struck her as handsome nonetheless.
And he seemed much more sophisticated than the guys she met in her classes, or hanging out at the rathskeller, or even most of the customers she saw here: self-assured, but without jackassery. No cheesy pick-up line, no swagger, no crude promises, he’d asked her straightforwardly but not clumsily. That told her that this man didn’t just have money, the way all the customers at this place did. He knew how to carry himself, maybe even how to carry on a conversation too.
Besides, it had been weeks since she’d last had a proper night out. And the last thing she needed was to spend more time sitting in her dorm room, or hanging out with the same people she saw day in, day out, remembering her problems in the familiar places and the familiar faces on campus.
Why not? Ashley thought to herself, and took him up on his offer.
Julian (that was his name, Julian Montfort) suggested Saturday night, which she happened to have off, and so Saturday night it was. He asked where he could meet her, and she suggested a coffee shop just off campus.
Almost immediately afterward she had second thoughts. What would her friends say if they saw her with him?
“God, he’s old enough to be your dad!”
Normally it was what she would have been thinking too.
She started having second thoughts about the whole night, wondering if she should call Julian and cancel, but she didn’t work up the nerve. Saturday evening she put on the black Veronesi she bought knowing full well that she couldn’t afford it, and went to the coffee shop and hoped no one saw her and thought again about canceling—
But then she saw Julian walking into the shop.
“Good evening,” he said.
Good evening. Who said good evening?
“Ready to go?”
“Great,” he said.
She rose and followed him out to his car, a silver Jaguar. He opened the passenger-side door for her, the kind of thing she’d only seen in movies, but she went right along with it, seating herself and watching as he went around to take the wheel.
“Nice car,” she said, trying to play it cool.
Julian pulled away from the curb while Ashley watched the street, hoping no one she knew had seen her.
“So—what are we doing tonight?” she asked.
“I thought we’d go to dinner at Bernadotte’s. And then the opening of Allison’s. It’s a new art gallery.”
Ashley knew of Bernadotte’s, one of only a half dozen restaurants in the whole New York area to rate a third star in the Mitchell guide, and for her boss an object of aspiration. The art gallery was the bigger surprise—and cause for at least a little anxiety. Fine dining was one thing, familiar enough to her, if only from the side of the server rather than the served, but the art world was quite another. Ashley had never taken much interest in such things as painted pictures and statues and the shapes of buildings. The sort of people she had spent her life around did not collect paintings. She had only been to an art museum once before, on a school field trip, and paid absolutely no attention to the tour guide, thinking of it as just a rare weekday on which she could hang out with her friends without having to skip. Even the art modeling she’d done was just about the money.
“So you’re really into art?” Ashley asked.
“Yes. Professionally as well as personally. I’m an art dealer.”
She was sure she’d never met anyone like that before.
When they arrived at Bernadotte’s it was clear that the maitre’d and the waiter both knew Julian from previous visits. At the next table, enjoying a lobster salad with white truffles in the company of three companions, was a fashion designer whose house’s wares she’d only dared to admire through a shop window.
Julian suggested they have the crispy duck breast, with snow peas and sour cherry sauce, which seemed to Ashley the most delicious thing she had ever tasted, until the dessert course arrived, a dark chocolate parfait. Then it was off to the gallery, where the party was in full swing, and Julian and his companion not merely late, but fashionably late, their arrival drawing several pairs of eyes toward them. One of those pairs belonged to the film producer whose latest movie she saw last month, another to that hedge fund manager who’d just had the Gotham U library named after him.
He had occasion to introduce her to both of them.
Apparently Julian wasn’t just an art dealer, but an extremely successful one. He could have talked himself up dropping names, but didn’t have to, because without really trying he showed her just how many famous people he knew.
Just being there on Julian’s arm made people curious about her, which gave her pause, the Veronesi that had seemed such an extravagant purchase terribly outclassed in these surroundings. But no one said anything about it, or gave a hint of disapproval in a look or gesture, everyone apparently cordial, and she found herself enjoying the attention, just as she did the deference of the waiters, the beluga caviar and the century-old champagne on the platters they carried.
Ashley was impressed, Julian everything he had seemed the night they met, and more, much more, and a gentleman all the way through it, maybe because when a man had everything he did going for him, he didn’t have to be aggressive.
When he dropped her off back at campus he asked her if she’d like to go out again, and she didn’t hesitate to say yes, a second time, and then a third.
At the end of that night they went back to his apartment building, which was right across from the park. Inside she was impressed by the opulence of the lobby (was that real crystal in the chandelier?), the magnificence of the elevator (it even had a padded bench on which passengers could sit), the corridor on the thirty-ninth floor where they got off, and then Julian’s apartment itself. The high ceiling, the sheer roominess of the place (there was so much floor visible, despite the abundance of things there were to look at), the fineness and cleanness of everything inside it. His living room was probably bigger than her parents’ Jersey City apartment, and arranged like several rooms at once, here the entrance area, there the media area, and there a beautiful grand piano.
“Do you play?” Ashley asked him.
“Play something for me,” she said.
“All right,” Julian said, then seated himself in front of the piano. “A little Rachmaninoff.” Ashley didn’t know if that was the name of a piece, a genre, or what, and didn’t ask as he started to play a very dramatic, very complicated-sounding piece as the floor-to-ceiling windows on the other side of the room drew her gaze. She saw that they let out onto a balcony which looked out at the vast sweep of green stretching a full mile to the towers of the East Side, and the skyscrapers of Midtown to the south.
Julian stopped playing and led her out onto the balcony, where they took in that view, and Ashley realized that she’d fallen hard for the man standing next to her.