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The Fifth Avenue Story Society

The Fifth Avenue Story Society

by Rachel Hauck


Learn More | Meet Rachel Hauck

CHAPTER 1

JETT

AUGUST IN MANHATTAN

Well this was a fine mess. Spending the night in Central Booking for instigating a fight at a wedding reception. What was he thinking?

He glanced at his sore hand through the dull light beaming in from the hallway fluorescents and flexed his fingers, wincing at the pain swelling from his bruised flesh.

He hadn 't thrown so many punches since he was a boy in Chappaqua wrestling with his brother.

The next time he got an invitation, especially a wedding invitation, he 'd RSVP with a big fat no.

Though he could hardly blame the invitation. He alone earned this all-expenses-paid night in holding. For defending a bridesmaid from a drunken groomsman.

Yet he was no hero.

Jett Wilder, associate professor of English at the prestigious New York College, lover of words and literature and the occasional ride through class-five rapids, was a criminal.

Perhaps criminal was an exaggeration. Nonetheless, he 'd been cuffed, read his rights, hauled off in a paddy wagon, and thrown behind bars, where he spent a long, odiferous night with drug dealers, pimps, drunks, petty thieves, and civil violators.

So he too was counted among the transgressors.

What happened to him? He deplored violence, prided himself on diplomacy and statesmanship.

Rising from the bench where he sat next to the big guy, who had also jumped into the fight, Jett made his way to the iron bars.

The cell 's shadowy confinement robbed his sense of time. Had he been here for one hour or five? The booking officer took every time-keeping device he owned — watch and phone — before leading him away to rot.

However, by the rumble in his belly, the hour was well past breakfast.

He gripped the bars and fought a wave of claustrophobia. He wanted out. But he deserved to be here. In fact, for the rest of his life, anything that came his way, he 'd deserve.

Divorced? Deserved it. On the rocks with his boss? Deserved it. Tense relationship with his parents? De-served.

What was it about being locked up that made a man assess his life? Besides the jailhouse smells and chorus of snores and moans?

"Hello?" Jett pressed against the gray, flaking bars. "Hey, does a guy get a phone call around here?" If he used his, he 'd forgotten.

Last night was not one for the memory books.

"You refused your phone call." The big guy came alongside and threaded his arms through the steel squares. "Nice punch you threw at the Harness-Neville wedding."

"I 'd say thanks for giving me a hand, but look where we landed."

Big Guy offered his hand. "Chuck Mays. Uber driver. Civil offender. The dude had it coming."

Jett clapped his palm against Chuck 's. "Jett Wilder. Associate professor of English, NYC. Civil offender."

"If I need a witness that you started it, can I count on you?" Chuck 's somber request was accented by his swollen and protruding lower lip. "Even though you were pretty lit?"

Jett pressed his fingers to his throbbing temple. "I don 't drink much."

"Then why were you knocking them down like water last night?"

"I 'm not a fan of weddings."

"Same." Chuck linked his thick fingers together around the bars.

Jett glanced at him. "You a friend of the bride or groom?"

"Groom. Went to high school together in Jersey. You?"

"Bride. She 's a colleague."

The men jutted chins toward each other as some sort of grunted acceptance.

"So, if you don 't like weddings and you don 't drink, what happened last night?" Chuck said.

"Long week. What about you? Why 'd you jump in?" Weddings agitated Jett as much as alcohol. The two together? Disaster.

"Longer week."

Jett laughed. "Eight days?"

"Without the Beatles singing background."

"I 'm on the same calendar."

"This will cost me." Chuck gripped his hands into fists and the line of his jaw was taut with tension.

"Both of us. I expect a bill from the bride 's father."

"That? So what? This will cost me more than ... Did they read you the charges?"

Jett pointed to his head. "Took me a minute when I woke up to figure out why I was in here."

Chuck relaxed his hands. "Disorderly conduct. Public intoxication. Assault." His composure changed as he rattled off the charges. His voice rattled with anger. "Stupid, stupid, stupid —"

Stupid was one word for it. Jett should 've stayed home.

Apologized to the bride, Jenn, after the fact.

"I wanted to come, but weddings —"

But weddings what? Reminded him of what he 'd lost? Awakened the heartache he 'd finally put to rest?

Yet he couldn 't go through life hiding from the happiness of others. Besides, being on faculty at the illustrious, private, elite New York College came with certain obligations. He 'd be considered aloof and unsupportive if he avoided Jenn 's nuptials.

And he sort of owed her. She had listened to his sob stories when his wife walked out, and rallied the rest of the faculty around him. Attending her wedding was the least he could do.

It was any man 's guess how much the reception damage would set him back. A lot more than a humble apology.

"That groomsman was a piece of work." Jett glanced around to see Chuck pacing in tight circles, muttering to himself. "The brides-maid told him to leave her alone, what? A dozen times? This will ruin me."

Jett recognized the underlying darkness in Chuck 's expression, shadowed even more by his dark, hooded eyes.

"Ruin you?"

"Ruin me." His reply came fast and hot. "She 'll find out. She will. I 'll lose them."

"Lose who?"

Chuck sat on a bench someone had vacated for the toilet and covered his face with his wide hands.

"Seems ironic, doesn 't it?" Jett walked over and patted his stone-hard shoulder. Once. "The two of us behind bars for defending a bridesmaid 's honor while the offender walks free. What happened to chivalry?"

The big guy never raised his head.

"You okay?" Jett angled forward to see his face.

"No." Chuck stood, rising to his full height. Hard to believe he folded himself into an Uber job all day. "I 've probably ruined my life."

"Come on, can 't be as bad as all that, man. A tussle at a wedding reception." He cheered himself as much as Chuck. "Nothing more than a civil violation." Surely such a petty crime wouldn 't ruin anyone 's life. "We 'll pay a fine and go home."

"You don 't understand. I can 't afford anything like this." Chuck touched a laceration on his cheek. "You throw a mean punch."

"Sorry, man."

"Don 't be. I should 've kept my nose out of it." Chuck pointed to his knuckles, then Jett 's. "You 're pretty banged up. Will this get you in trouble with your college?"

"Not sure." Jett extended his fingers once more against the swelling and aching.

His knuckles were scraped and bruised, and when he ran his hand along his jaw, he grazed one cut, then another. When he touched the area around his eye, he winced.

With that Chuck returned to his hunched position, head in his hands.

What else could he say to the guy?

"Yo, Mr. Police Officer?" Jett peered down the corridor for a sign of deliverance.

A fellow inmate roused with a laugh. "You stuck here until they come for you, man."

"What happened to swift justice?"

With a sigh, he sat next to Chuck, his ripped tuxedo collar dangling over his shoulder. He noticed two coat buttons were missing. And his shirt was torn and stained red. Wine. Not blood.

He needed to get home, showered, and to work. Put last night behind him. In the annals of yesterday.

He also had two classes this morning, papers to grade, a dissertation to finalize for publication and present to the Roth Foundation Reception in November. His boss, Renée, the literature department chair, had finally put her foot down. Her words, not his.

"The publication of that dissertation means a great deal to the Roth Foundation and the college, Jett."

Showing up on campus meant he 'd have to face Renée. Maybe the English department dean. He hadn 't read far enough in the faculty handbook to know what happened to delinquent professors. Especially ones who ruined another professor 's wedding.

So, this was life at thirty. A divorced professor who couldn 't quite find his footing, his excuses no longer able to belay him.

Losing his brother, Storm, that day on the Eiger mountain was hard enough. But when the one person who made his very breath worthwhile walked out ... well, sometimes it was just too much.

Jett sat back against the wall and succumbed to the fatigue of his two-year journey.

Could he be tired? Just for a moment?

As he exhaled, his eyes drifting closed, a buzzer sounded. A steel door opened and closed.

Jett sat forward, gently rousing Chuck. "Wake up, Sleeping Beauty. I hear footsteps."

"John Wilder and Charles Mays." A uniformed officer swung open the door. "You 're free to go. No charges."

Jett shot out with a curt nod. "Thank you, Mr. Jailer." "You 're welcome, Mr. Prisoner."

In the precinct house, another officer walked him out, handed him an envelope containing his things — imagine, his most prized possessions fit in a manila envelope — and he bolted for daylight. For freedom.

"Jett Wilder." Chuck followed him down the courthouse steps, his smile burning away his former despondency. "That was lucky. No charges."

"I 'll take it." Jett offered the big man a hearty handshake. "Until the next wedding."

"May it be a long time away. And about back there, in the holding cell. I got a bit emotional."

Jett raised his palm. "No need. It was a long day."

Chuck shot him a sideways grin and turned to go. "By the way," he said, coming back around. "Are you any relation to Bear Wilder, the adventure guy?"

"He 's my father." Jett walked backward toward the curb.

"Your father. What was that like growing up? And didn 't your brother —"

"Chuck." Jett stepped into the street to hail a taxi. If he hurried, he could make his first class. "We spent one night together. Let 's make a note in our diaries and in years to come, we 'll look back on it fondly."

"Just asking, man." The big guy started off in the opposite direction.

"Sorry, but I 'm in a hurry." A cab pulled to the curb. "I have a class in two hours."

"I was going to offer you a ride home. On the house."

"Thanks anyway." Jett slipped into the back of the cab, rattling off his Greenwich Village address.

He dumped the envelope 's contents onto the seat and a thick cream-colored card dropped out. He ignored it while he checked his phone for messages — there where forty — and fastened on his watch.

After tucking his wallet into his inside jacket pocket, along with his keys, he examined the card, expecting to find an inventory of the envelope 's contents.

Instead, he found an invitation.

You are cordially invited to the Fifth Avenue Story Society.

The Fifth Avenue Literary Society Library

The Bower Room

Monday, September 9 @ 8:00 p.m.

Jett laughed. An invitation? He flipped it over and back. There was no RSVP or return address. This wasn 't his.

He 'd never even heard of the Fifth Avenue Literary Society Library. And in light of his night in a holding cell, he had no plans to say yes to any invitation any time soon.


CHAPTER 2

LEXA

Getting ahead required courage. All she had to do was muster some from the recesses of her being, walk into Zane 's office, and ask. Or better yet, tell him.

"I 'm your CEO."

He 'd posted the CEO position nine months ago and had yet to interview anyone.

To be honest, on the org chart Lexa was nothing more than Zane Breas 's executive assistant. He 'd hired her seven years ago when she moved here as a newlywed.

She was fresh out of Florida State business school. He was fresh out of Nebraska launching ZB Burgers, a fast-growing gourmet hamburger chain.

In those lean, early days, there was no organizational chart. From the get-go, Lexa functioned as the executive of the fast-growing ZB Enterprises, the parent company for Manhattan 's hottest new restaurant.

At her desk, she ate her power bar while combing through email. Hers as well as Zane 's. The coming fall season brought one of their biggest promotional events, Zaney Days.

ZB Burgers in cities such as Manhattan, Miami, Omaha, Dallas, and Denver sponsored a family day of fun and food at a local park.

Last year, videos and pictures from their big bash in Central Park with celebrities mingling with "ordinary" people went viral.

The idea began three years ago as her brainchild to marry food with community, and to expose hamburger connoisseurs in those major markets to the quality and freshness of Zane 's family recipes.

And it had been wildly successful.

"Morning." Zane stopped at her desk looking as if he stepped from the pages of GQ. A rich cloud of cologne wafted around him, and the New York Post was tucked under his arm.

"Morning." Lexa stood, covering her mouth with her hand as she swallowed her bite of power bar. "Your iPad is on your desk. We have a Zaney Days meeting at ten." She removed the pen holding her twist of damp hair on top of her head.

"What would I do without you?"

Was he charming? Yes. But his Nebraska farm boy swagger gave him an edge. An "it" factor lacking in most young, Manhattan entrepreneurs.

Everyone loved Zane. And if they didn 't love him. They liked him. Respected him.

Lexa considered herself lucky, no, blessed, to be on his team.

After her divorce, work kept her grounded. Sane. Able to breathe when she felt underwater.

Up at five, she exercised, then readied for work, hopping the short subway from her Greenwich Village apartment to ZB 's new Tribeca offices by 6:45.

At her desk by 7:05, 7:10 at the latest, she prepped for the day, cleaned up email, shuffled items from her calendar to Zane 's and back again, answered messages from managers at their more than twenty locations, and reviewed reports from every department.

If she was acting like a CEO, then she should be the CEO.

Zane arrived a little after eight, after which Lexa took a few minutes to flat-iron her hair in the women 's lounge.

And her day was off to the races.

"Do you have the tear sheets from the Forbes article?" Zane walked toward her while scanning his iPad.

"On your desk."

Zane Breas was the latest entrepreneurial wunderkind, and he liked to collect his media clippings.

Once he opened the Forty-Sixth Street store, the business exploded. Now, scrambling to meet the demands of franchisees and cities wanting a ZB Burgers, Lexa had ideas on how to get ZB to the next level.

Which led her back to asking, telling, Zane to make her the CEO. "How was your weekend?" Zane perched on the side of her desk and handed her his iPad, calendar in view. "I don 't see Thursday afternoons blocked off."

Lexa glanced at the screen, then handed back the device. "I did.

Last week. You want it blocked off every week?"

"Until further notice, yes." He took a piece of candy from the dish on her desk. "So, good weekend? I don 't know how you live in that eight-hundred-square-foot walk-up."

She launched Zane 's calendar. "I worked on Saturday. The Zaney Days commercial scripts were all wrong. We 're not hiring that marketing group again. Then I slept most of Sunday." Speaking of working on Saturday ... The CEO job would be — "What 's going on Thursday afternoons? Don 't tell me you 're taking up golf again."

He had tried to golf with a couple of pros last year. Ended up hitting a ball into the course 's parking lot and smashing the windowof a Lamborghini.

"No. But one of these days, I 'm going to master the green." He started for his office and Lexa followed. "Any news on the food cart? I 'd love to hit the streets of Manhattan with a portable ZB Burgers stand, see if we can make an alternative style of restaurant for people in big cities."

"One giant to slay at a time, Zane. I moved that project to next year."

He raised a steely gaze to her as he moved behind his desk. "You should ask me before you move things. I am the head of this company."

"And I 'm the neck." Her determination locked with his. Steady. Don 't break. She exhaled when he flashed his charmed grin.

"My neck is a little stiff right now." He kicked out his chair and sat, flopping the paper open over his laptop and yesterday 's coffee cup. Lexa reached for the cup and set it on the corner to take back to the employee kitchen. "I trust you, but let 's be sure to address it in January. That cart vendor offered us an amazing deal."

"Did you read the contract? The small print on his maintenance offer was ridiculous." She read every vendor and supplier contract multiple times, on alert for twisted wording and provisional clauses. "By the way, I 've made Quent my assistant."

The Harvard MBA grad was a Zane hire. He reasoned the Boston blue blood gave the Nebraska boy some clout, if not a bit of swagger. But so far, he had proved to be as ordinary as they come, if not a bit lazy and entitled.

“Quent? The man with a Harvard degree in marketing and business strategy?”

“Don’t be wowed, Zane. Apparently Harvard needs to add a class on how to show up on time and do the work you’ve been assigned. I’ve asked him four times for an update on his Zaney Days projects. So far, crickets.”

“He’s young.”

“You were launching a business at his age. No excuses. Anyway, he’s my assistant until he grows a better work ethic.”

Zane regarded her for a moment, chin raised, quizzing her with his eyes. She braced for a fight.

“Fine, but have him see me when he gets in.”

“I’m doing what’s best for the company, Zane.”

“It just feels like you’re cutting me out, Lex.”

“I’m doing the CEO job, and I think you should hire—”

“I know, I know. Hire someone for the job. You’re right. I need to fill the position. I’m just nervous to rock the balance of our little family company.”

“Yes, you do need to hire someone.” Lexa pulled a chair forward to sit. “As a matter of fact, I was thinking—”

Zane’s cell rang and he answered it with vigor. “Tim, yes, hello.” He pressed the phone to his chest. “Lex, can you give me a minute?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Back at her desk, her inner voice mocked her. Coward.

What was she supposed to do? Blurt out her request? He always said no when asked a question he wasn’t prepared to answer.

The timing had to be right. Perfect.

She’d just started her to-do list when Zane appeared again. Grinning. Like a lovesick teen.

“Yes?” Lexa said.

Zane offered his phone. “Sabrina just texted.”

Ah, his new love. A Hollywood starlet he met at a charity benefit in London.

“By the size of your Nebraska smile, I take it she said yes to the Gottlieb Gala?”

The Gottlieb Gala for Young Entrepreneurs had named Zane their Young Entrepreneur of the Year and were honoring him next Friday night at a fancy soiree atop the Waldorf Astoria, in the enchanting Starlight Room.

“She’s catching the red-eye next Thursday. Can you order flowers for her room?”

“Done. I figured if she didn’t come I’d take the room myself for a luxurious weekend of bubble baths and champagne.”

“Why don’t you move?” Zane huffed and puffed, but he could not change her mind. “A girl needs a bathtub.”

“Not if it costs another two hundred a month. Or more.”

“Are you hinting for a raise?” Zane pushed up from the desk and started for his office.

“As a matter of fact, Zane, I would like to talk to you about—”

“Oh, what about my speech? For the gala?” He turned back toward her. “Did you get my notes on your draft?”

“I sent the updated version three days ago. Do you ever read your email?”

“That’s what you’re for.” He laughed without conviction as he aimed for his office again. “I’ll go find it.”

“You do that.”

She had refused to write his speeches at first, but he worked her soft side, her team-player heart, and she caved. She should’ve never told him she’d aced a speech-writing class at Florida State.

Lexa had a love-hate relationship with her “soft side.” It was the one she used to make friends every time the family moved. The one that got her into the in-crowd in high school. Yet it was the side that opened her up to wounding and hurt.

“Oh, one more thing? What about the mini ZB Burgers for the gala?”

“Really, Zane, read my emails if you don’t read anyone else’s. The Forty-Sixth Street store is making them. You know if they’re a success we’re going to have to add them to the menu.”

“That’s the idea. See you at ten o’clock.” And he disappeared into his office.

With a sigh, Lexa stared at her computer screen. She should just ask him. Right now. Go into his office and ask.

“Will you make me your CEO?”

She’d been noodling on this plan for almost a year. Without an execution plan, it gnawed at her. Rooted deep and kept her awake at night.

She saw herself in the role to an extent she wasn’t sure what she’d do if he said no. So she hesitated. Waited. Surely Zane could see for himself she was the woman for the job.

Lexa gazed out over the common work area called the Think Tank. When she started with Zane seven years ago, they were in a crowded Canal Street office working around the clock to open the Forty-Sixth Street store.

With her husband in grad school, she had been the sole breadwinner, and she loved it. Loved doing her part to help him achieve his dream while living out hers.

Working for smart and savvy Zane was fun, if not wild. There were so many eleventh-hour wins in that first year, they created a Wall of Fame.

Most of all she loved being on a team. Moving eight times from first grade to twelfth, she barely had time to fit in before her air force doctor father would be reassigned.

Her parents and little sister, Skipper, were her best friends. Yet, how she longed to be accepted by the cool kids at school.

She glanced at Zane’s door. He was a cool kid. And he’d accepted her. Almost.

The trouble with longing for acceptance was inequitable conditions. What one considered acceptance, another did not. Lexa learned long ago to see her inclusion into her peer groups for what they offered, not what she expected.

She might see herself as CEO, but Zane might not. Then what? Did she just have to accept it?

“Lex, is Zane in yet?” Fatima from the test kitchen flashed a requisition form. “I need him to sign it unless you can.”

Lexa pointed to his office. “He just complained I don’t let him know what’s going on.”

Fatima laughed. “Doesn’t he know you’re the neck?”

Lexa raised her hands. I know, right? Seeing Fatima reminded her to text Quent.

See Zane when you get in.

What’s up? Just heading into the shower.

It was a quarter to nine and he was just getting out of bed?

Not sure but try to make it before lunch.

Gathering herself, she worked on the Zaney Days update for the meeting. But her attention landed on a meme she’d printed out a few months ago and taped to the side of her computer: “‘Courage!’ he said and pointed toward the land. ‘This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.’”

The Tennyson poem had been a favorite of her dad’s every time they moved. Every time Lexa and Skipper started a new school.

Courage isn’t the absence of fear,” he would say. “It’s going forward anyway.”

So why the big chicken imitation over asking Zane to make her CEO? It’d be a huge job-title change and enormous raise.

But could she make such a giant leap? A thin fear twisted in her chest.

No wasn’t necessarily a rejection, but it always felt that way to her. If he said no would it ruin their relationship? What if she didn’t want to be Zane’s executive assistant the rest of her life?

Besides her business degree with a focus on corporate governance, she knew ZB Enterprises inside out.

In the last seven years she’d hired and fired more than half the Think Tank, scouted vendors and suppliers, written the employee handbook, set the job titles and salary ranges, and created every job. Met with accountants and outside contractors. Even sat in on board meetings.

So . . . could she leave? Put herself out there and find a position as CEO or close to it?

The truth was, she’d envisioned an entirely different life for herself. But it didn’t pan out, and now she was twenty-nine. Time to get going. Move on.

Even Dad was encouraging her to raise her wings.

Last Christmas, as the fog of her divorce began to lift, old Dad sidled up to her with a cup of spiked eggnog.

“You can’t stop living, Lex. I know this divorce isn’t what you wanted, but it’s time to get a new plan.”

“I have a plan.”

“Tell me about it.”

“It’s a work in progress.”

He chuckled and hooked his arm around her shoulders. “I did you no favors dragging you, your mother, and sister around the world from post to post, but it made you a strong, independent woman.”

“It also made me an insecure woman. Will they love me? Will I fit in?”

“You’re a big girl now. Time to command your own life. Don’t get stuck, Lex. The time for mourning your marriage is over. Though I have to say, he surprised me. I thought he’d love you until his last breath.”

So did she. He pledged to do so in his vows and repeated it to her often in their first year of marriage, in the afterglow of lovemaking. Or over breakfast, or during a walk in the park.

Lexa handed over her heart the night he proposed and never expected it back. He was a man she could love and trust without fear or regret.

Then they imploded. In the quiet, between awake and asleep, her heart sometimes asked her soul, “What exactly happened?”

A new email dropped into her in-box. The cast of the Broadway hit Lost in Nashvegas agreed to appear for Zaney Days.

Outstanding. Zane would go nuts for this. The cast rarely made appearances and had turned down everyone from the governor to late-night talk-show hosts.

Lexa added the news to the Zaney Days robust agenda.

By nine thirty she had the data she needed and sent the agenda to the printer, then searched her desk for a loose dollar bill to feed the drink machine for a sparkling water.

As she rounded the corner for the employee kitchen, Quent zipped toward her in a wrinkled blue button-down splattered with drops from his dark, wet hair.

“I’m here.”

Lexa pointed to Zane’s office door. “Go on in. When you’re done, grab the Zaney Days agenda from the printer and take it to the conference room.”

At the drink machine, she fed the slot her dollar bill and selected a cherry-flavored water. Her ex liked cherry-flavored water. And pie. Ice cream. Pretty much anything with a cherry flavoring. Even her cherry lip gloss.

The reminiscing irritated her. She was over him. At least ninety percent. Maybe eighty-five. Eighty. For sure eighty percent.

Yet love was such a powerful potion. It made a girl dream of things she never wanted before. Like being a wife and mom, nesting in New Rochelle or a Long Island fixer-upper Cape Cod, where she’d raise three kids and a dog while proofing her husband’s manuscripts and secretly hunting for a vacation house on the beach in Florida near her folks.

Heading back to her work space, she peered into Zane’s office. He and Quent were sitting under the large picture window that framed a million-dollar lower-Manhattan scene.

They chatted like a couple of bros. Probably about football instead of work.

Lexa set her drink on a coaster, took a sticky notepad from the middle drawer, and wrote September 30 on the top sheet. Tearing it off, she stuck it to the bottom of her computer screen.

The date was her deadline to be ZB Enterprises’ first CEO. Or else.

Or else what? She had no idea but left the answer for tomorrow. For now, back to work. She might as well get the printouts. Quent would be in there until Zane left for the conference room.

It was then she noticed the plain, cream-colored envelope resting on the edge of her desk.

Bending back the flap, she tugged out a matching invitation.

You are cordially invited to the Fifth Avenue Story Society.

The Fifth Avenue Literary Society Library

The Bower Room

Monday, September 9 @ 8:00 p.m.

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