CONNIE GRAY STOOD IN THE PLAYGROUND, watching her sons on the monkey bars.

Look at them. So innocent. They have no idea their world is crumbling around them.

Cade was six and the spitting image of his father, Michael. Dark-haired and olive-skinned, he had the same open, happy, guileless face as Mike. Cooper had more of Connie in him. His coloring was fairer, his features more feminine. And he was altogether a more complex child. Sensitive. Anxious. Both the boys were highly intelligent. With parents like Connie and Michael, how could they not be? But four-year-old Cooper was the deeper thinker.

I wonder what he'd think if he knew what his mommy has been up to? Perhaps one day, when he's older, he'll understand? How desperate times called for desperate measures?

THE ELDEST OF THE KNOWLES SISTERS, Connie had been a straight-A student since first grade. Her mother's pride and joy, Connie had had to make do with her father's respect and affection. Cooper Knowles's heart was already spoken for. It belonged to his youngest daughter, Grace.

Like Honor, Connie recognized early on that the baby of the family was "special," a uniquely compelling, lovely child. Unlike Honor, however, Connie had no intention of taking a backseat to little Grace, or of giving up the limelight. She played her role as the brains of the family brilliantly, graduating top of her class in high school and getting accepted into all the premier Ivy League colleges. Though she feigned a lack of interest in beauty and fashion, Connie knew she was attractive, albeit in a strong-featured, masculine sort of way. She did all she could to maintain her flawless alabaster complexion and the trim, long-legged figure that men so admired. She might not be able to compete with Grace in terms of looks, but being eight years older, she didn't have to.

By the time Grace is old enough to come out in society, I'll be happily married. She'll be Honor's problem then.

And of course, she was. Like all the Knowles sisters, Connie married for love. Michael Gray was a knockout in those days. He was pretty gorgeous, but back then he still had his football player's physique, as well as the chiseled, Armani-model features that made all the secretaries at Lehman Brothers swoon.

Connie kept working as a lawyer until Cade was born. After that, there didn't seem much point. Michael was a partner at Lehman, earning millions of dollars a year in bonuses. Of course, most of that came in the form of stock options. But back then, who cared about that? Bank stocks were only moving one way - up. If the Grays spent multiples of Mike's basic salary every year, they were only doing what everybody else was doing. If you wanted something expensive, like a Hamptons beach house or a Bentley or a $100,000 necklace for your wife on her anniversary, you borrowed against your stock. It was a simple, tax-efficient system and one that no one questioned.

Then Bear Stearns collapsed.

In hindsight, the failure of that venerable old New York institution in March 2008 was the beginning of the end for Michael and Connie Gray, and for thousands like them. But of course, hindsight is 20/20. At the time, Connie remembered, it still felt as if something seismic and awful and unimaginable was happening to someone else. Those were the best kind of tragedies. The kinds that were close enough to give you a frisson of terror and excitement, without actually affecting your life.

It was nine months now since the awful September day when Connie's own world had collapsed. She still woke up some mornings feeling happy and content for a few blissful seconds...until she remembered.

Lehman Brothers went bankrupt on September 16, 2008. Overnight, the Grays saw their net worth drop from somewhere around $20 million to about $1 million - the equity in their heavily mortgaged New York town house. Then the housing market dropped through the floor, and that million dollars fell to $500,000. By Christmas they'd sold everything but Connie's jewelry and pulled the kids out of school. But the real problem was not so much the financial catastrophe itself, but Connie and Michael's polar opposite responses to their predicament.

Michael Gray was a good man. A trouper. And you couldn't keep a good man down. "Just think how many millions of people are worse off than we are," he would tell Connie constantly. "We're lucky. We have each other, two terrific little boys, good friends, and some savings. Plus we're both young enough to get out there and start earning again."

Connie said, "Of course we are darling," and kissed him.

Inside, she thought, Lucky? Are you out of your mind?

Connie Gray didn't want to "get out there and start earning." She didn't want to dust herself off and try again. She didn't want to pack up her troubles in her old kit bag and smile, smile, smile, and if Michael spouted one more inane fucking platitude, so help her she would strangle him with his one remaining silk Hermes necktie.

Connie had no interest in becoming one of the credit crunch's stoic, plucky survivors. The American Dream wasn't about surviving. It was about winning. Connie Gray wanted to be a winner. She had married a winner, and he had let her down. Now she must find a new protector, someone who could provide a decent life for her and her children.

The affair with Lenny Brookstein had not been planned.

Affair! Who am I kidding? It was a two-night stand. Lenny made that very clear last night.

Connie had always gotten along well with Grace's illustrious husband. In happier times, she and Mike would have dinner with the Brooksteins regularly. Inevitably, it was Connie and Lenny who ended up screaming with laughter at some private joke. Grace used to tell Connie all the time, "You know, it's funny. You and Lenny are so similar. You're like two peas in a pod. Whenever he talks to me about Quorum and business, I have no idea what he's going on about. But you? You know everything! It's like you're really interested."

And Connie would always wonder, How on earth did those two get married?

Lenny Brookstein was brilliant and engaging, tough and ambitious and alive, the most alive person Connie had ever met. Grace was...sweet. It made no sense to Connie. But she didn't dwell on it too much. Back then she and Michael were happy and rich, albeit in a modest way.

Back then...

The first time it happened was in Lenny's office, late at night. Connie had gone to see her brother-in-law privately, to talk to him about a bridge loan, and the possibility of his helping Michael find another position. The Lehman MDs had become Wall Street's lepers, tainted by failure, untouchable. Michael was a good banker, but no one was prepared to give him a second chance.

Connie had started to cry. Lenny put his arm around her. Before they knew it, they were on the floor, tangled in each other's arms, and Lenny was making passionate love to her.

Afterward, Connie whispered, "We're so alike, you and I. We both have the hunger. Michael and Grace aren't like that."

"I know," said Lenny. "That's why we have to protect them. You and I can protect ourselves."

It was not the response Connie had hoped for. But she did not leave Quorum's offices that night disheartened. On the contrary, a new and interesting door had just been opened. Slipping into bed beside Michael an hour later, she wondered excitedly where it might lead.

IT LED NOWHERE.

Two weeks later, Connie slept with Lenny again, this time at a cheap hotel in New Jersey. Lenny was crippled with guilt.

"I can't believe we've done this. I've done this," he corrected himself. "It's not your fault, Connie. You and Michael are under terrible stress. But I have no excuse."

Connie whispered huskily, "You don't need an excuse, Lenny. You're not happy with Grace. I understand that. She was never right for you."

Lenny's eyes widened. He looked at Connie with genuine incredulity. "Not right for me? Grace? My God. She's everything to me. I love her so much, I..." The sentence trailed off. He was too choked to finish it. Eventually he said, "She must never know about this. Never. And it must never happen again. Let's put it down to a moment of madness and move on, okay?"

"Sure," said Connie. "If that's what you want."

Driving home to Michael, she could barely contain her rage. Move on? MOVE ON? To what? What have I got to move on to? A life of middle-aged penury with my formerly successful husband, living off scraps from my little sister's table? Fuck you, Lenny Brookstein. You owe me. And now you can pay me. You think I'm going to let you walk back into Grace's arms scot-free?

"MOMMY, WATCH ME!"

Cade was on the swing. He rocked his skinny legs back and forth to gain momentum, then leaped into the air, landing with a satisfied thud on the sand.

"Did you see how high I went? Did you see?"

"I saw, honey. That was awesome." Connie drew her finely woven summer shawl more tightly around her shoulders. Cashmere, from Scotland, it had been a birthday present from Grace. Soon everything we own will be a present from Grace. The food on our table, the shirts on our backs.

The thought of spending next week with Lenny and Grace at their magnificent beachfront estate was enough to make Connie feel nauseous. Especially after her little tete-a-tete with Lenny on the dance floor at the Quorum Ball last night. The bastard had actually had the temerity to get angry with her. With her! As if she were the one who'd pursued him. Lenny had led her on, then dropped her like a piece of trash, scuttling back to her baby sister and their oh-so-perfect life together. And now Connie was supposed to be grateful to have her airfare paid so she could sit in their $60-million home and watch the two of them canoodling?

It was Michael who forced the issue.

"I'd like to go. It was generous of Lenny to invite us, and I could use a break from New York. Some sailing, some sea air."

Michael had always liked Lenny. But that was Michael. He liked everyone. When Lenny extended the invitation last night, Mike practically bit his hand off.

If he knew where Lenny Brookstein's hands have been - on my breasts, my ass, between my thighs - he might not be so quick to bite.

But Michael Gray did not know.

As long as Lenny Brookstein did the decent thing and gave Connie what was coming to her, he would never have to.




Line : 47

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