In The Darlings—what we called “two parts Too Big to Fail, one part The Devil Wears Prada”—debut author Cristina Alger presents a portrait of Paul Ross and the family of blue-bloods he marries into, the Darlings of Manhattan. In this excerpt shared by the good folks at Viking imprint Pamela Dorman Books, Paul has just arrived late to a black-tie charity event thrown by his mother-in-law, Ines Darling, at which Paul’s wife, Merrill, and her sister, Lily, are already contemplating the after-party.
“There you are!” Merrill said. She was flanked by Lily; both were dressed in blue. Or perhaps it was Merrill who flanked Lily: Lily bloomed at these sorts of social events, unfurling her petals like a flower in a hothouse. Her cornstalk blond hair had been spun into a complex series of braids, not unlike that of the dressage horses she still rode on summer weekends. From her ears dangled two teardrop diamonds, each stone larger than her engagement ring. Her father had given them to her, Paul knew, on the occasion of her wedding.
Merrill looked quietly beautiful—the simplicity of her dress brought out the blueness of her eyes, the tone of her shoulders— and though she was smiling, her face was taut with frustration. Paul sensed that he was about to be reprimanded. He leaned in, kissing both sisters on the cheek.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said preemptively. “And I know I’m supposed to be in black tie. I came straight from the office. You both look great, as always.”
“You’re here now,” Merrill conceded.
“You missed Mom’s speech, though,” Lily protested. She blinked her big eyes impetuously at him.
“I know. I’m sorry. How was the party?”
“Great,” Lily said absently. He had already lost her attention. Her eyes scanned the room just beyond his shoulder. “Are you guys coming to the after-party? Looks like things are winding down.”
“Of course,” Merrill said.
“Doubtful,” Paul said, in tandem.
They stared at each other, and Lily let out an awkward laugh. “I’ll leave you guys to discuss,” she said. “I think you should come, though. It’ll be fun. Even Mom and Dad are stopping by.”
Lily turned and flounced off, the bustle of her dress trailing behind her. The dress was cut low in the back, and Paul noticed how uncomfortably thin she was. He could see the articulation of all her vertebrae, and small hollows beneath the blades of her shoulders. Lily was forever dieting. She had an evolving list of foods to which she claimed to be allergic. Sometimes Paul wondered if she had cut out food entirely.
“We have to go to the after-party,” Merrill said once Lily was out of earshot. Her voice was strained. “Tonight’s important to my parents.”
Paul pulled in a deep breath and let his eyes flicker shut for a half second. “I know,” he said. “But I’ve got to weigh that against sheer exhaustion. I’ve been working around the clock. Which is important to your dad, too, by the way.”
“There are things he values other than work.”
Paul ignored the snappishness in her voice. “Look, I’m doing the best I can. I’m just exhausted. I’d love to go home and just fall asleep with you.”
The crease in Merrill’s forehead relaxed. “I’m sorry,” she said, and shook her head. She reached up and wrapped her arms tenderly around the back of his neck. Paul pressed his nose against her golden brown hair; he could feel the slope of her skull beneath, and she smelled warm, like maple syrup. When she pulled back, she kept her hands resting on his shoulders. He slipped his grasp to the small of her back and held on to her, admiring her at an arm’s length. “I really do understand,” she said, and sighed. “Work’s been crazy for me, too. I barely had time to change. I look terrible. I didn’t even do my hair.”
“You look stunning, actually. Great dress.”
Her eyes lit up. “You’re sweet.” Her round cheeks flushed, the color of peonies. She smoothed her dress at the hip. “You should see my mother’s. She’s literally been talking about it for months. She had it made by some Latin designer.”
They both looked over at Ines. She was basking in the attention of Duncan Sander, the editor of Press magazine. Duncan’s hands fluttered like birds’ wings as he spoke, and Ines was laughing grandly. It was the kind of image that would end up in the Styles section of the Sunday Times. Press had run a two-page spread on the Darlings’ home in East Hampton the previous summer, called “The Darlings of New York.” Ines loved to reference “the article” in casual conversation, and she spoke of Duncan Sander as though they were old friends. In truth, it wasn’t really an article, but more of a blurb attached to a glossy photograph of Ines and Lily, inexplicably attired in white cocktail dresses, frolicking on the front lawn with Bacall, the family Weimaraner. To Paul’s knowledge, Ines never saw Duncan except at events like this.
Tonight, Ines’s dress was long and emerald green, festooned with a ruffle that looked as though a python were in the process of consuming her whole.
“I really do appreciate you being here,” Merrill said, staring cynically at her mother.
“Of course. It’s a great cause. Dogs? Cancer? Dogs with cancer? Remind me.”
“Tonight’s New Yorkers for Animals. Jesus, Paul. Pay attention.”
“I’m for them, myself. The groups against animals just seem so heartless.”
Merrill burst out laughing. “They auctioned off a rescue dog,” she said. “For eight thousand dollars.” She stared at him, allowing him to absorb that information.
“That’s possibly the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard.”
“I think it’s nice!” she exclaimed, her eyes wide in mock seriousness. “It’s for charity. The poor thing was so sweet. It’s a retriever or something, not a pit bull. They actually had him out on stage, wearing a little bowtie.”
“Mmmm. One of those rescue retrievers.”
Unable to help herself, she laughed again. “It’s for charity,” she sighed. “Anyway. The bowtie was from Bacall.”
Bacall was Lily’s year-old line of dog accessories and clothing. It was her sartorial nod to her family, a first and only attempt at gainful employment. Merrill was convinced that the enterprise was costing their father nearly twice what it was earning, though to Lily’s credit, it appeared to be staying afloat, despite the market crash.
In the background, the band had started playing their last reprieve before the clock struck the witching hour. The band leader swayed around the mic, summoning his best Sinatra baritone. Paul couldn’t think of a black-tie event in Manhattan that didn’t end with “New York, New York.” It had been the last song at their wedding. Now, they stood together on the edge of the dance floor, watching as the last few dancing couples slid by with varying degrees of grace.
“Want to dance?” Paul asked, though he was a bit too tired for it. What he really wanted was a drink.
“God, no. I think what we need is a drink,” Merrill said. She slipped her hand into his, leading him in the direction of the nearest bar.
From The Darlings by Cristina Alger, Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, Copyright © 2012