DISCLAIMER: The Devil Wears Prada and its characters belong to Lauren Weisberger and 20th Century Fox. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: AU — What might occur in an alternative universe where Miranda Priestly's assistant is one Nate Cooper and Andrea Sachs is an aspiring chef.  The first five installments (of 15) in the first arc of an AU series I'm calling "Life is a Banquet." No writer can promise that you will always find what she or he writes entertaining, but I can promise, on my honor as an editor, that my offerings will be literate, well-punctuated, and (mostly) free of typos.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To medoramacd[at]yahoo.com

Life is a Banquet: Starters
By Medora MacD



New York City

Friday, November 16, 2007

"For God's sake, Nate. The only thing you haven't thrown up yet is your Bruno Freakin' Magli bootlaces. Find someone else to deliver the Book tonight."

Andy Sachs grimaced as the sound of yet another dry heave emanated from the partially open door of the private bathroom in Miranda Priestly's office. "Are you sure you don't want me to...?"

An upraised hand stopped her in her tracks, cutting off her offer of aid. She ground her teeth. Jesus! What kind of jerk won't let his girlfriend wipe his brow or pat his back when he's heaving his guts up?

Probably the same kind, she decided, who spent seventy hours a week kowtowing to the unreasonable demands of fashion's effing Ice Queen and who then effed up the first date night she'd managed to schedule with him in months by contracting food poisoning. So much for going dancing tonight.

What the hell. Like he's going to approve of what I picked out to wear anyway…

She fingered the fabric of the dark plum pants she had put on after work, studied the slightly scuffed toes of the dress boots she'd bought on clearance. Not Armani for sure, but wool and genuine leather — a definite upgrade from the drawstring poly-cotton blend pants and Crocs she wore on the job. And what she could afford if they were going to pay the rent in two weeks. Nate was supposed to pick up half, but he was wearing his share, a pre-Thanksgiving shoe sale at Saks having proved irresistible. Again.

A stifled groan drew her attention back to the bathroom. Nate was standing in the doorway, cupping a hand over his belly as if afraid his intestines might fall out. He was still green around the gills, but barely mussed despite having worshipped the porcelain goddess for the last half hour. Typical.

She watched him walk unsteadily back to his desk. He braced himself on the glass surface, fingers spread wide, swallowing cautiously, then determinedly reached for the Book.

"Sit!" Andy shoved his Herman Miller Aeron chair into the back of his knees, guiding him into it with a steadying hand. She pushed a sweaty flop of wavy, dark brown hair from his forehead and studied his slightly glazed eyes. Those eyelashes are so wasted on a guy, she thought distractedly.

"Bite the bullet, bud. If by some miracle you could even make it to 78th Street without passing out, you'd probably end up ralphing all over Miranda's marble vestibule. Not exactly the impression you want to leave with La Priestly. Let me call Emily..."

A vehement shake of his head halted the progress of her hand toward his phone. "In L.A.," he gritted. "With Nigel. Preparing for the shoot on Monday."

Right. "Oscar at the Oscars," the retrospective of Red Carpet gowns designed by Oscar de la Renta that Miranda was going to supervise personally. Nearly everyone below the rank of CEO was out there trying to assure that everything ran smoothly so that Miranda — and they — could get back in time for Thanksgiving meals with family and friends.

"Give me the key."


She plucked his trench coat from the closet. This season's retail phenomenon, Nate had told her in one of his unending monologues on all things Runway. Or had that been last season? She'd been reading Gourmet at the time and only half listening. Whatever. She slipped the coat on, belted it loosely, and adjusted the sleeves. She scooped up the Book and held out her hand. "The key."

He gazed at her, still not comprehending.

"C'mon. It's past ten. I'll slip in, put the Book on the hall table, slip out. She's never downstairs you said, and if she happens to catch a glimpse of me coming or going...Well, I'm 5'9," an inch shorter than you, but our hair's the same color and about the same length since I cropped mine. And despite my best attempts to get you to eat like a normal human being you've kept your girlish, er...boyish figure. She'll probably only notice the clothes anyway."

She frowned. "Unless..."

"Unless what?" Nate asked with trepidation.

"Unless...Didn't you have lunch with Miranda today? At that sushi place my boss told me about?"

Nate buried his head in his hands. Nuf said. "You both had the same thing?" He nodded weakly. Christ!

"I'm dead." He opened his desk drawer, started pulling out his personal belongings in preparation for stashing them in the messenger bag he'd bought at Coach the day he was hired. "So dead. Dead and damned to hell."

She placed a restraining hand on his wrist. "Maybe not."

He looked up, a whisper of hope in his hazel eyes.

"She eats like a goddamned bird, right? So what she'd have? One piece of sashimi? Two?" He nodded. "She's probably fine. I read that it took five cyanide-laced cakes, four bullets and an icy river to kill Rasputin..."

She colored, briefly, at the look of reproach he threw her way. "Just kidding."

"Sorta," she added under her breath.

"She'll be fine," she repeated, placating him while indulging in a brief, harmless fantasy about his boss moaning and groaning and thrashing about uncontrollably on a cold, hard floor. "Ticktock, buddy. Hand it over."

He handed her his ring of keys, pointing to the one that would open the front door to the townhouse, then slumped back in his chair. She pulled it off and handed the ring back, then bent forward and lightly kissed his jaw, taking care not to rasp her lips on the stylish stubble there. Hmmm. His skin tasted salty, a little sour. But it felt only a little warmer than it should be.

"Rest a little more, chum, and then tidy up the biffy in case Her Highness decides to pay a visit to her throne over the weekend. I'll meet you at the apartment." She rummaged in the pocket of her pants and pulled out a twenty, all that was left of her share of the day's lunch tips after her trip to the bank to replenish her checking account. "Take a cab. Tuck yourself in as soon as you get home — well, after you drink four or five glasses of water. You need to hydrate or you're going to wake up with the Miranda of all headaches."

She grabbed his bag, slipped the Book inside, slung it around her neck, then checked her trusty Timex. Ten thirty. Fifteen minutes to the townhouse if she found a cab right away. A minute inside and then half an hour back down to the Lower East Side. If she were lucky, she'd be trudging up the four flights to the studio apartment by eleven fifteen or so. If not ... it was going to be midnight or later.

Another exciting Friday night in the Big Apple.

She sighed and headed for the elevator.



Andy asked the cabbie to wait and walked quietly up the limestone steps of the townhouse. The City That Never Sleeps was doing its best to obscure the sound of her footsteps — police and ambulance sirens blending with the scream overhead of outbound international flights and the bass beat of the music at a loud party across the street — but there were lights shining on the townhouse's second and third floors as well as in the entryway and she wasn't taking any chances. Well, except for that gigantic one of offering to take Nate's place and enter the lair of the Dragon Lady uninvited. She glanced left and right before easing the key into the front door, half expecting to find the scorched remains of previous intruders littering the landing.

She walked noiselessly to the table in the marble tile foyer, pulled out the Book, and laid it precisely halfway between the onyx vases sitting there. She turned to leave and ... froze as almost directly over her head a toilet flushed. She plastered herself to the nearest wall and tried not to breathe.

Move along, move along! This is not the droid you are looking for ...

She heard the sound of retching, another flush, and then a door opened one floor up, spilling light down the stairwell. God, Miranda had gotten some of the tainted sushi too! If she caught Andy here, knew that she'd been overheard while blowing chunks, she'd eviscerate her.

"Bobbsey. Sweetheart." It was Miranda's voice, familiar to Andy from the times she had answered Nate's cell when he was in the shower, but roughened by fatigue. And ... by something else, Andy thought.

"Why are you up, Caro?"

Fear. Abject fear. That's what it is. What in the world could terrify someone who routinely reduced grown men and women to tears?

She tried frantically to recall everything, anything, Nate had told her about Miranda's home life. She hadn't paid much attention, too resentful of all the plans the woman had torpedoed by demanding that Nate tend to some whim of hers or another. And for what?! For ... fashion?! For God's sake, there were children starving in the Bowery while the likes of Paris Hilton and "LiLo" were swanning about in thousand-dollar T-shirts that would get worn but three or four times before being turned into dust rags.

"What now?!" a flustered voice exclaimed. One of the Terrible Two, as Nate called them. What were they? Ten? Eleven? "What's your problem? Is it against the law now to go to the bathroom? Jesus, Mom!"

"Language, Caroline!"

Ah. That was the Miranda Andy had come to know and hate. Dictatorial. Peremptory. A stone cold bitch ... Then,

"Please, sweetheart. Please ... Tell me you're not doing it again."

Miranda sounded ... broken, thought Andy uneasily.

The note in her voice must have pierced the girl's heart too. There was a little sob and something that sounded like slippers shuffling across the floor and a muffled thud as two bodies came together.

"I'm sorry, Mum. I tried. I really did. But Chelsea called me a cow today and then at recess Cass got picked for basketball three whole turns before I did. It's not fair that she can eat anything and never gain an ounce and I ... " Tears overtook the girl before she could finish. "It was just today. I swear. Don't be mad. I won't do it again. I promise."

"I'm not mad, baby." Miranda clearly was weeping too. "I'm not mad, I swear. I'm just sad. Sad that you feel so bad about these things. And scared that I'll lose you before you discover what a beautiful and precious person you are."

God. Realizing suddenly what they were talking about, Andy put one hand on the table to steady herself. It wasn't right. She shouldn't be here, shouldn't be overhearing this. And it wasn't right that ... For God's sake! The kid is only ten!

"Beep beep!" The cabbie out front was getting impatient. Crap! She hoped Miranda thought it had something to do with her neighbor's party.

"We'll call Doctor Hsu in the morning, shall we, Caro?" Miranda stood, casting a tall shadow on the wall next to the stairs. "She'll help us get things sorted out again."

Andy saw the shadow of an arm reach down, two shadowy hands clasp, a small body drawn under a sheltering arm.

"In the meantime, would you sleep with me tonight, Bobbsey? Keep away the boogie man? Like Cassidy did when she had that bad dream last week?"

Miranda was in the midst of a second divorce, Andy recalled now. That couldn't be easy for any child. Or for Miranda either, she grudgingly conceded. Nate had said her asshole husband was not only dumping her for a much younger woman, but had also served her with divorce papers in the midst of this fall's Paris Fashion Week, one of the most important and stressful events of her working life.

The light on the second floor landing clicked off and two sets of footsteps made their way to the back of the townhouse and up some stairs there. Speeding to the entrance, Andy let herself out, throwing a quick wave to the cabbie to forestall another impatient honk. She locked the door, dashed to the taxi, and ducked in, shivering from relief at not being found out, from the cold of the November evening, and ... from a different kind of chill altogether.



"The FDR, south to Clinton and Houston." Reassured by his nodding dreadlocks that the cabbie had registered that she wasn't a tourist and therefore would not be trying to take her home by way of the Bronx, Andy pushed back thoughts of what she'd just overheard and allowed herself to doze as the cab made its way down the socio-economic food chain to the Lower East Side.

She roused when the driver made the turn onto East Houston. She rubbed her eyes, glanced at the meter, then rubbed them again. $38? Before tip? Jesus H. Christ!

Damn. She was really going to have to start watching her language. Potty mouths were an occupational hazard in the restaurant business — it was high stress work — but if she didn't clean up her act her mother would be after her with a bar of soap when she went home for Christmas. Which fell on a Sunday this year, thank god. Since the restaurant was always closed on Mondays that meant she'd have TWO glorious days off in a row — for the first time in more than a year! She'd fly to Cincinnati Saturday night, after the Christmas Eve crush, and back Monday at midnight. They'd have less than 48 hours together, but she could hardly wait. She hadn't seen her folks since shortly after graduating from Northwestern, almost two and a half years now.

Wonder what they'll think of the hair? She'd had it cropped to jaw-length in October, tired of all the fuss required to wash and style it when her dark brown locks had reached halfway down her back. She missed not being able to pull it back into a ponytail sometimes, and Nate (the A-hole) had said she looked like some kind of escapee from a boy band, right down to the cargo pants and hoodies she felt most comfortable in. But she liked it, as had several of the servers at Verdi, aspiring actors who knew a thing or three about style, thank you very much! It was a breeze to cook in, in any case, and she certainly didn't miss the strain the longer hair had put on her neck.

She dug around in her pants pocket and pulled out her Visa card. She reminded herself to add the cost to Nate's tab — and to make sure he paid it in full and soon. He'd been habitually short of funds since moving in with her last spring. She was so lucky, he told her again and again, that appearances weren't at all important in her line of work. She could wear any damn thing as long as it was clean, white, and relatively wrinkle free. On the other hand, if he showed up in the Marc Jacobs his parents bought him last year, Miranda would purse her lips, Emily would sneer, and Reg, his buddy in ad sales, would mock him mercilessly.

Oh the humanity! Nate conveniently forgot, it seemed, that her parents hadn't been in a position to pay off her college loans as his had and that culinary school scholarships didn't grow on trees in any of the five boroughs of New York City.

Andy shot a quick, wary glance up and down Clinton and to both sides of the street, then clambered out of the cab, keys interlaced between her fingers like porcupine quills, ready to use them as a weapon if anyone approached. There weren't all that many people out and about at night this time of year, but eternal vigilance was one of the prices you paid for living in any big city. It was a far cry from the outskirts of Cincinnati, where her parents tended to not even lock the house unless they were going on vacation. Not that they'd been able to do that much since her dad's diagnosis. She dashed to the front door at 25 Clinton, unlocked it, and pulled it closed behind her.

After a quick stop at the mailbox — if Nate had checked it he'd pulled out only his own mail, graciously leaving the ConEd bill for her...again — she grabbed hold of the grimy railing and began hauling her tired ass to the fourth floor. Some days she was able to view the trip as the impoverished woman's alternative to Bally Total Fitness — "Stairmaster! For Free!" — but today it felt more like the Bataan Death March.

Letting herself into the apartment, she found Nate sprawled across the futon bed, drooling and snoring deafeningly. Next to the bed were five empty bottles of San Pellegrino.

"Naturally," she muttered. "I mean, why drink tap water for free when you can drink something that cost $2.50 a pop?" She growled in exasperation, then set to working herself out of her funk before it was time to try to get to sleep. She tossed the glass bottles into the recycling bin, taking no particular care to prevent them from clinking together, and shrugged out of her club attire and into sleep shorts and a T-shirt from Northwestern. After a quick trip to the john, she squeezed between the wall and the left edge of the bed, shoved Nate none-too-gently to his side, and tried to empty her mind.

First — The frustrations at Verdi where the sous chef had reamed her out for not doing something he hadn't told her to do in the first place. Her instructors at I.C.E. had warned her that this not only could but would happen when they'd jumped her over several grads with more experience, but less aptitude, and recommended her to Verdi for the job of fish cook or, as it was referred to so elegantly by French epicures, the poisonnier.

Tomorrow after she visited Fulton Fish Market and placed the restaurant's weekly order, she'd report early for her shift and have him show her the drill. That's why she was there, after all, to learn.

Nate rolled over noisily, jabbing her with a sharp elbow and very effectively putting himself next on the agenda. This issue was not as easy to banish. She wasn't sure how they had ended up together in the first place. They'd met at an opening at the gallery her friend Lily was working at — she managing the catering crew, he in search of free food — and discovered they were both from Ohio. That tenuous connection had led to a few dates to watch indie movies at Landmark Sunshine Cinema, concerts at the Bowery Ballroom, and one fateful, drunken night to a roll in the hay. It hadn't exactly rocked her world — what she could remember of it — but apparently it was meaningful enough to Nate to warrant suggesting that he move in. Only afterward — when she learned that the college friend he'd been staying with had gotten married a few weeks later and moved to the Upper West Side — had it occurred to her that the timing had been particularly convenient for him.

Humph. She punched her pillow. Not helping. And not all his doing anyway, she had to admit. He'd been charming, handsome, and moderately interesting. The chance to have someone pay half the rent for a while had been too good to pass up. And it wasn't as if she could advertise for a female roommate to share her full-sized futon, right?

So, where to go from here? Should I give up on the relationship or try to make it better? What would Oprah say? Or Ann Landers, that ancient advice columnist Mom loves to quote? Probably "Are you better off with him? Or without him?"

She decided to give it a little more time. Things had been relatively okay — well, slightly better — before he'd been hired as second assistant to the editor-in-chief of Runway magazine and turned into some kind of crack fiend. They rarely had sex any more, but that was no big loss. Crap, she barely saw him any more, given the hours they each worked. When she did, he often ended up making some sniping comment about her clothes or her size.

It was an occupational hazard, she supposed, like her potty mouth. He was surrounded all day by people obsessed with appearance, their own or somebody else's. And she was no supermodel. She had the height for modeling and the eyes (at least her mom always said so). But she was not a whisper-thin freak like that runway model who had died last year from an anorexia-induced heart attack or the Brazilian model who died a few months after that, incidents that had been all the talk at Runway, for a short while at least, according to Nate.

Her drowsy mind connected those victims of fashionable malnutrition to the next dot, Caroline Priestly. Poor kid. And poor Miranda, she thought, amazed at actually having a charitable thought about the woman. She wondered muzzily how the Dragon Lady would handle the situation. Turn the L.A. shoot over to someone else, despite the personal commitments she'd made to de la Renta and to the Oscar-winning actresses who were rearranging their schedules to model the vintage gowns? Leave the twins in the care of their nanny as planned, despite Caroline's eating issues?

How would I handle something like that? Andy wondered. Best option, of course, was to not get yourself in a fix like that in the first place. Family and friends first, she vowed. She tugged at the covers, reclaiming her portion from Nate's grasp. She pictured Caroline nestled in her mother's protective arms. At least tonight they have each other, she comforted herself and drifted off.



Saturday, November 18, 2007

"Yes, Miranda. Certainly, Miranda. I can't think of any better way to spend my whole freaking weekend, Miranda!"

Andy had returned from her Saturday shift in time to hear Nate's voice rising precipitously and his feet stomping back and forth in the studio apartment's narrow confines. Could it be? Had he finally found the balls to tell his boss off? She peeked around the corner from the closet where she'd been hanging up her coat...

No, she decided. Not unless he had Miranda on speakerphone. His precious BlackBerry was at the end of an arm that was flailing around in fury. Lord, what now? She girded her loins. Time to lend a sympathetic ear, even though she had been up for — she checked her watch; it was just after two — going on ten hours now and had already put in a full day's work overseeing a Saturday lunch rush that had been more grueling than usual. Was she imagining things or was everyone on the Upper East Side becoming a pescatarian? Didn't anyone eat red meat anymore?

"What's up, dude? What's the biotch done this time?"

She felt a little guilty for the putdown, knowing more now about Miranda's situation, but damn it! She'd been hoping to finally lure Nate out for some dancing tonight or maybe a movie tomorrow afternoon.

"She's decided that she's going to take the twins to L.A. with her." He made sarcastic air quotes with his fingers. "'Cassidy has long expressed an interest in seeing the Pacific Ocean and Caroline wants to visit the Getty. This is a marvelous opportunity to do both and to have them miss only two days of school. I'm surprised I didn't think of it earlier.' Arrrgh!"

He pivoted and rifled his BlackBerry across the room. Andy might have been impressed if she hadn't noticed that he'd aimed it not at the wall, but at the overstuffed chair she'd inherited from her grandmother, the only other piece of furniture the tiny studio could accommodate, and that it almost hadn't made the distance. The guy threw like what her high school volleyball coach had called "a goddamned pre-Title IX girl."

"I'm supposed to get last-minute tickets on the same flight," he ranted. "First class only, of course, even though everything's undoubtedly booked solid, and make sure they don't serve Caroline calamari cuz she is severely allergic to it, shrimp or lobster would be fine, arrange for an adjoining room at the Beverly Hills Hotel and for a nanny, preferably a soccer-playing art history major from Stanford, while they're there. Oh yes, and contact their teachers at Dalton and find out what their goddamned homework is for next week. By ten tonight. Or before. Or else."

So — Miranda had found a way to do her job and to keep an eye on Caroline as well. Good for her, Andy thought with grudging respect. Miranda wouldn't let anyone know why she was making them jump through all those hoops, of course. She'd rather have people think her a raving bitch than let them see her human side.

"And tomorrow! Tomorrow I'm to walk the fucking dog, scooping heaping, steaming piles of St. Bernard shit off Fifth Avenue, since the girls won't be able to, and then take her to the pet motel! Along with a forty-pound sack of 'that special dog food Patricia likes. The kind that comes in a fuchsia bag.' So much for going to the eyewear trunk sale at Burberry! I've been looking forward to that for weeks!"

The news that Nate was more upset about missing a sale on designer sunglasses than about the scores of plans he'd canceled with her over time killed whatever sympathy Andy might have had for the burdens Miranda was imposing on him.

"Well, you better get to things then. But do it at Runway." She walked to the window and pulled down the shades. "I'm gonna crash. I didn't get home until near midnight and was up again at 4 to get to Brooklyn to check on our fish order for the week."

She waited to see if he'd have the common decency to thank her for saving his ass by delivering the Book to Miranda. Or for just standing by him when he got sick. He didn't.

Fine. She shucked off her jeans and crawled into the unmade bed, pulling the covers over her head to shut out light. "Your bag and keys are in the closet. Do not wake me up when you get back unless you want me to go all Miranda on your ass."

She waited, listening for the creak that accompanied the opening of the front door. "Speaking of which..." She heard the door begin to close. "Hope she didn't mind me leaving the Book on the doorstep last night. The cabbie wouldn't wait."

The front door clicked shut. Seconds later she heard something thud against it — his fist probably, though it was fun to imagine him pounding his head on it. "You trying to scare the shit out of me? Funny, Andy! Very fucking funny! Screw you!"

Timing is everything, she thought exultantly. She heard his designer-shod feet stomp down the hall and then the stairs. "Suck on that, jackass." She shook her head, punched her pillow, and with nary a qualm drifted off to sleep.



Sunday, February 17, 2008

London Fashion Week — That was the beginning of the end. Or to be more accurate, Andy decided later, the middle of the end, since things between them hadn't been good for months.

With repeated prodding in December — and the presentation of an itemized bill — Nate had paid his share of the household expenses through February. Then Emily got sick, first with the flu and then double pneumonia.

Through no virtue of his own, Nate was tapped to go to England with Miranda. He came back with enough designer wear to fill three closets the size of the one in the apartment and a head almost too big to fit through its door. He was in seventh heaven. It was "Vivienne Westland" this and "Alexander McQueen" that. He hadn't stopped babbling since he'd schlepped his bags up to the apartment from the taxi. London Fashion Week would have been an absolute disaster without him, it seemed, and he was convinced that he would be advancing to first assistant when Emily moved on.

He didn't miss any opportunities, either, to make sniping remarks about Andy's ignorance of the role that haute couture and Runway played in world affairs. Stock markets around the world were plunging amid fears of a U.S. recession fueled by the sub-prime mortgage crisis? Big effing deal. Aquascutum had showed fitted leather corsets worn with casual raincoats. Now that was fierce!

The two weeks he'd been away had been eye opening for Andy. She hadn't missed his companionship. At all. She had, in fact, felt free. Liberated. She had peed with the bathroom door open. And traipsed through the apartment naked, comfortable again in her own skin and freed from concerns that he'd view her nudity as some kind of invitation to engage in mediocre sex. Or take the opportunity, again, to compare her body unfavorably to that of some Size Zero waif.

The answer to the Ann Landers question was now self-evident. She was better off without Nate. Without his leaving the toilet seat up and never washing the dishes. Without his lack of gratitude for, nay his lack of acknowledgment of, all she did for him. Without his narcissism. Without his sponging. Without his criticism of how she dressed, how she walked, what she ate, the movies and music she liked. Without his supercilious attitudes toward her work, toward her family and friends, toward "quaint" notions like living within one's means, walking gently upon the Earth, and believing in the inherent worth and dignity of all people, whether on the B List, Size 24, or living in a double wide in Dubuque.

A scintilla of lingering affection (and the strong desire to avoid a confrontation) almost led her to consider giving him the benefit of the doubt, of leveling with him about her feelings and asking him to try to meet her halfway. But something snapped in the middle of his babbling about how the "sexy shift" was looking to be autumn's key piece and what a fool Miranda was becoming.

"Can you believe it? She had me put Lagerfeld on hold while she listened to the Terrible Two ramble on about their book reports. Lagerfeld! And her support of that cockamamie crusade to use Size Six porkers as models instead of stars like Kate Moss? She's starting to lose it..."

She waited for him to take a breath. "We need to talk."

"Sure, babe. What's up? Do you mind if I unpack while we do?"

"This isn't working." Her chest tightened at the frown that appeared on his face.

"Damned customs agents! Look what they did when they inspected this bag. If they so much as scuffed my Berlutis, I'm suing..."


"I'm listening. What's not working?"

"This! Us!" She watched as he lovingly removed a new pair of balmorals from the socks he'd wrapped around them.

"Berlutis," he crowed, holding them up for her admiration. "Handcrafted and at least $2000 if you can get one of the few pairs Barneys is going to be allowed to stock in May. Aren't they gorgeous?"

"Marvelous. They'll come in handy when you're out pounding the pavement looking for a new place to live."

"Bite your tongue! You don't 'pound the pavement' in Berlutis.* You argue before the Supreme Court, you dance at the annual benefit at the Met, you..." His face scrunched up. Finally! "What's this about finding a new place to live?"

"I want you to move out. Vamoose. Skedaddle. Make like a drum and beat it. Make like a tree and leave."


"Why do you want to stay?"

The bewilderment on his face might have been amusing if their whole affair hadn't been such a monumental waste of her time and energy. She waited for a reply, wondering if he'd manage to offer up a reason that was even vaguely persuasive. Marveling at how little she would care if he did.

"But ... I love you. I mean, I probably don't say it enough..."

How about ever?

"And I could probably show it more..."

How about just showing up when you say you will?

"But..." He placed the Berlutis carefully back in the suitcase and moved toward her, opening his arms to encircle her. She stopped him with a glare.

"We're not lovers any more, Nate. Hell, we're not even friends. We share a bed and once in a great while a few hours together — but only when you're not at the beck and call of Miranda or somebody else at Runway."

"That goes with the job, babe. You know I don't have any control over that."

"You have control over whether you continue to work at Runway..."

As she expected, he looked at her as if she'd just espoused wearing white after Labor Day or something equally heinous.

"My God, woman, have you lost your freaking mind? Thousands of people would kill for that job. I can't just..."

He broke off. His cell phone was ringing, the "Imperial March" from The Empire Strikes Back trumpeting who was calling. "Sorry," he said. "I really have to answer this."

She looked at him steadily, awaiting his decision. He managed to withstand a few more bars of the music, then cracked, flipping open the phone and silencing the ring.

"Yes, Miranda?" His voice was deferential, but the look Andy saw on his face before he turned toward the window was anything but.

"Certainly, Miranda. I'll deliver it later this ... I mean now. I'll deliver it now. I'll grab a cab and be in the office in thirty minutes." He jabbed an upraised middle finger in the general direction of the Upper East Side. "No problem." He flipped the phone shut. "Bitch." He swiveled back toward Andy. "She needs the flash drive with the snaps from the Marc Jacobs show. It'll take an hour tops. We can continue this when I..."

"There's nothing to continue, Nate. Of this conversation or of this ... whatever it is. I was going to say 'relationship,' but it hasn't been that for months now. The person whose calls you always take? That's the relationship you're in. I hope you two are very happy together, though I'm not going to bet the family farm on it. It doesn't seem like you have any more respect for Miranda than you have had for me."

She held up a hand as he started to object. "Ticktock, dude. The Dragon Lady awaits."

He clenched his jaw, then shrugged and gathered up his carry-on bag.

"Take what you need for tonight too. Ask your friend Reg if you can sleep on his couch. I bet he's dying to examine some Berlutis up close and personal. You can pick up the rest of your stuff tomorrow. It's Monday. I'll be home all day."

Glaring at her balefully, he slammed shut the lid of the suitcase on the bed, slung its strap over one shoulder, and balanced his carry-on atop the largest of the three other cases. She held the door and watched as he stomped down the hall and out of her life.

It wasn't that simple, of course.

When he showed up after work on Monday, Nate unleashed a major Charm Offensive. Andy was right, he admitted. About everything. He had only himself to blame for the failure of their relationship. He didn't expect her to forgive him or even understand why he'd acted the way he had, but he wanted her to know that he had heard her and that he was going to try to become the kind of person who deserved someone like her.

And then he convinced her to let him stay with her until June 1 when he and Reg were going to move into an apartment they'd just rented at 85th and York. It wasn't Gracie Mansion, mind you, but you could see the East River if you stuck your head out the window and looked to the left.

He'd pay rent to her, of course, and stay out of her way as much as was humanly possible. He'd sleep on the floor, in the bathtub, wherever she wanted. Before she knew it, he was reshelving the box full of hair and skin "product" she'd cleared out of the bathroom the night before in anticipation of his departure.

She was being used, Andrea knew. It rankled, but it wasn't as if she hadn't used him to some extent, too. Having him sharing the rent for the last year had been a godsend, even if sharing her bed with him hadn't been. She salvaged a shred of self-respect by telling him he couldn't stay unless he paid the rent for March and April in advance. Then bit off a curse when he reached into his bag, pulled out a bank envelope, and counted into her palm eighteen crisp hundred-dollar bills. His sudden liquidity pissed her off, but she wasn't in a position to quibble about it, having just received a very stern note from Sallie Mae about the importance of remaining current on her student loan payments.

Within days, things were pretty much back to the way they had been. Including their sleeping arrangements. Even if he could have fit in the tub, having him sleep there posed real issues for showering after her morning runs. Having him on the floor proved to be equally problematic. Short of jettisoning Bubbe's chair, there wasn't any place he could sleep where he didn't pose a serious tripping hazard.

So she'd permitted him back into her bed — but only after assuring him that if he inadvertently or advertently touched her body with any part of his, said part would suffer instant and irreparable harm. He'd taken the warning to heart, diving off the edge of the futon the first morning her semi-conscious body had tried to indulge in its natural tendency to snuggle. Crawling into bed after work the following night, she found that he'd built a short wall of bolsters there and not straight down the middle but making sure she didn't lose even an inch of real estate in the deal. The warm feeling this engendered lasted about twenty-five seconds. Until he rolled over and farted in her general direction.

Part 6

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