The Wrong Wife by Maya Alden
Iwas marrying the wrong woman, I thought as I slid the wedding band on the ring finger of Esme Hartley in my cousin's chambers in the Beverly Hills Courthouse. She probably wanted a proper wedding, but I was too heartbroken to go through that.
She was shorter than Viv, about five-two to Viv's five-eight and my six-two. She was curvier than Viv. Her hair wasn't blond and straight; it was black and wavy…a little out of control and messy. Her eyes were dark, not blue. She didn't wear much makeup, and I knew she wore glasses, which her mother had yanked off her nose as she entered the chambers.
Judge Forest Knight was supposed to officiate Viv and my wedding, but instead, he was marrying me to my fiancée…no, ex-fiancée's stepsister. Viv was now someone else's wife. And I was someone else's husband; I reminded myself when Forest said we were husband and wife, and I could kiss the bride. She looked up and smiled as if trying to comfort me for being second best. I gave her a perfunctory kiss—a brush of my lips against hers.
I had married a woman eleven years my junior—she was fucking twenty-three years old. Viv was a grown-up compared to Esme. She was twenty-nine and a high-powered lawyer at one of the most prestigious law firms in Los Angeles. Had Esme even graduated from university? What was she studying? I wasn't sure. I didn't know Esme. I knew she went to the University of Washington in Seattle. Viv had gone to Harvard, as had I. We were an Ivy League family, and here I was with someone who couldn't get into an Ivy despite her father's wealth and position. Not the sharpest pencil in the box, Viv had said about Esme. Then I shrugged it off. Now she was a noose around my neck.
My mother was stiff; her parents were solicitous. My father was in Asia and sent me a thumbs-up emoji when I told him I was getting married to the wrong Hartley.
No one was happy about this.
I had no choice. The Hartley family business bylaws set up a couple of generations ago were clear. Mergers require marriage—to keep the business in the family. Who the fuck still did such archaic shit? I hadn't had a problem with it because I'd been in love with Viv—and she'd been in love with me. We had been friends for five years and dated for one. We had been engaged for six months, and the day before we were to be married, everything changed. Viv announced she'd fallen in love with some tech bro in San Francisco and had married him. She was, obviously, sorry, but there was nothing she could do about how she felt. She broke up with me through the Hartley family lawyer.
We were going to have two weddings; one in private with Forest officiating to ensure that the merger was not delayed and six months later, a public one with all the pomp and show a Knight wedding demanded and deserved.
Julien and Monica Hartley suggested I marry Esme to keep the merger going. I had said sure, why the hell not? So, on the day when I should have been marrying Viv, I was marrying Esme.
I looked at the diminutive woman standing next to me with a champagne glass in her hand. Forest had opened several bottles of Dom Pérignon to celebrate the occasion. She looked happy. Well, why the fuck wouldn't she be. She was married to someone whom she would never have a chance with. Granted, her father's money would get her a decent match but not a Knight. She was a wallflower, far removed from the vibrant woman Viv was.
"Welcome to the family, Dec." Julien hugged me. He wasn't happy about this either—but guess what, he wasn't marrying a twit, which made him better off than me.
"Yes, Dec, welcome," Monica added and hugged me. And I thought maybe Julien was not doing all that much better.
Speaking of twits, Monica Hartley had the not-so-rare distinction of being a trophy wife. Esme had not managed to get her mother's looks—just her personality. Christ, talk about the wrong wife!
"Take care of my little girl," she whispered. Her eyes were filled with tears.
"Of course," I said, my smile tight.
When we exited the courthouse, I was angrier than before the wedding ceremony. I was tired, and this woman was now my wife. A woman I had no interest in.
We got into the back of the Escalade, and I immediately pushed the button to pull down the privacy screen. My driver knew where we were going.
"I'm going to drop you off," I told Esme. "I have to go into the office."
She nodded and took her glasses off. She'd gotten them back from her mother right after the ceremony. I was confident the glasses did not have any designer label. Just essential and unflattering.
She leaned back, her eyes closed. I watched her. She had opted for simplicity and worn a sleeveless cream-colored dress with nude heels. Her hair was a dark cloud around her shoulders. She was, I thought as I observed her, not unpresentable. Not a statuesque Scandinavian beauty like Viv. She wore minimal makeup. Her lips were painted pink. With a little bit of money thrown at her via salons and boutiques, she could look like someone I might be interested in being with for the following year.
She didn't have a purse with her. Viv always wore an expensive handbag that matched her outfit. I had bought her a few in orange boxes with the Hermes logo on them. Viv loved presents. I wonder how Esme would react if I bought her a designer bag. But why would I?
She sighed and opened her eyes. She flashed a smile at me.
"I'm sorry. It's been some long days," she told me. "I finished my thesis defense yesterday and then got on a flight early this morning, so my brain is cotton."
"What are you studying?" I undid my tie. I felt like it was choking me.
"I just finished my master's in Social Work," she said excitedly.
"Social work?" I asked.
"Yes. I already have interviews lined up here in LA. If I'm lucky, I should have a job very soon."
She tilted her head and grinned. "Even though we had to have an arranged marriage, I'm hoping you're not too archaic to say something like; my wife doesn't work." She said that last part by changing her voice to sound masculine.
I couldn't help it. I smiled. "No. I'd never say that. Where would you work?"
"We'll see," she sighed. "I'm hoping for a health center like UCLA or Keck. I specialized in pediatrics, and LA county has a child maternal program that I'm hoping I can…why are you looking at me like that?"
I shook my head. "I'm sorry. I don't know anyone who…well…."
"Has a government job?"
"Forest is a judge as was my mother"
"True," she yawned. "I'm not that lofty. I'm just a licensed clinical social worker." Her eyes closed again. Her breathing slowed as the car drove through the Los Angeles traffic.
I had not expected this to be our first conversation. I had thought she'd talk about the marriage or…well, anything but that she had finished her master's program and was exhausted.
I got a text from Forest and smiled when I read it: She seems like a nice girl. Maybe it won’t be a horrible year for you.
I texted back: Yeah. She has a master's in social work.
Forest responded immediately: No kidding. From U Dub? That's a damn good school for social.
Me: She wants to work with some child maternal program.
Forest: Nice. Only a few people in our circles want to do social work unless they're elected for something and have a PR team to put it on social media.
Before I could respond to his last message, she woke up with a start and looked at me with blank eyes that turned sheepish. "Did I fall asleep mid-sentence?"
"No. You completed your sentence."
"Whew! I sometimes do that. God, I'm sorry. You said something about dropping me off at my parents' place?"
"No, at my place," I corrected her. The place where Viv and I had lived for the past three months. That home.
"But all my things are at my parent's place."
"They've been moved," I informed her. She behaved like she didn't come from money like she was expected to pack her stuff.
"Really?" she frowned. "Who'd do that?"
"I asked my assistant to take care of it."
Her eyebrows rose. "Your assistant takes care of things like that?"
I sighed. "Esme, you're a fucking Hartley. Your father and mother have assistants. Viv had a personal assistant and two of them at the law firm."
Something shifted in her eyes when I mentioned her sister. But it was fleeting, and I didn't know her well enough to deduce what that meant.
"Oh, I've never had…I mean…look at me?" she said, rolling her eyes. "I don't do much on the…ah…social front. And so, I've never needed assistants, personal shoppers, or whatever else everyone around me seems to have. Now that we're married, am I expected to attend charity blah blah and all that stuff?"
"Sometimes. If you're into social work, charity galas should be up your alley."
She shrugged. "It’s all theatre. If you want to do social work, then show up. This going to a fancy party and buying a table is for show. Most of the money goes to the people arranging the gala, not the porpoise, hungry kid, or whatever the event purports to save."
"As my wife, it will be expected. I'll keep it to the minimum."
"Thanks. My mother warned me that I'd have to do lots of stuff I didn't like." She yawned again. And her eyes were half closed as she mumbled, "I'm pretty annoyed with Viv. I mean…come on, she does this a week before the merger? Right before the wedding?"
I couldn't stand that she was bad-mouthing Viv.
"Please stop talking," I snapped.
"I'm sorry." Her eyes opened wide, and I could see she was sincerely apologetic. I ignored her and looked away.
The car stopped, and I looked out of the tinted windows. We were at my high rise.
"I'm on the 53rd floor."
I pulled out the extra key fob that I had gotten that morning from Baker, my assistant, and handed it to her. "My housekeeper, Calliope, has set up your bedroom. If you need anything, she can take care of you."
She took the fob from me. "Okay." She put her glasses back on.
"Well… that's it," I said because she seemed to be waiting for something more.
She smiled again. "Thank you."
She stepped out, and I saw her put the key fob in her dress pocket. She seemed to look around for a moment, unsure, and I almost rolled down the window to ask if she wanted me to take her upstairs, but I didn't. I was being unfair. This wasn't her fault. But I was angry with her. Angry because she was now my wife. Angry that she wasn't Viv.
I looked away from her and tapped the privacy screen, telling the driver to take me to my office in Bunker Hill. Esme was my wife for at least one year. That was what the bylaws said—one year. And then I could get rid of her.