ABOUT THE BOOK:
A sophisticated page-turner about a wealthy New York family embroiled in a financial scandal with cataclysmic consequences.
Now that he’s married to Merrill Darling, daughter of billionaire financier Carter Darling, attorney Paul Ross has grown accustomed to New York society and all of its luxuries: a Park Avenue apartment, weekends in the Hamptons, bespoke suits. When Paul loses his job, Carter offers him the chance to head the legal team at his hedge fund. Thrilled with his good fortune in the midst of the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression, Paul accepts the position.
But Paul’s luck is about to shift: a tragic event catapults the Darling family into the media spotlight, a regulatory investigation, and a red-hot scandal with enormous implications for everyone involved. Suddenly, Paul must decide where his loyalties lie—will he save himself while betraying his wife and in-laws or protect the family business at all costs?
Cristina Alger’s glittering debut novel interweaves the narratives of the Darling family, two eager SEC attorneys, and a team of journalists all racing to uncover—or cover up—the truth. With echoes of a fictional Too Big to Fail and the novels of Dominick Dunne, The Darlings offers an irresistible glimpse into the highest echelons of New York society—a world seldom seen by outsiders—and a fast-paced thriller of epic proportions.
Reprinted by arrangement with Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Darlings by Cristina Alger. Copyright © 2012 by Cristina Alger
TUESDAY, 9:30 P.M.
Paul slipped in through the side door just as the applause was ending. He stood at the edge of the ballroom until the clapping faded and the music started up again. His wife, Merrill, was up front near the stage. She looked on as a photographer snapped pictures of her mother, Ines, the gala’s chairperson. Around him, partygoers wafted from table to table; a giant amoebic mass, shimmering in the incandescent light of a thousand cocktail glasses and candles. As Paul wended his way toward his wife, he caught a couple of cold stares tossed in his direction. His hand shot reflexively to the knot of his tie, straightening it. It was one of his favorite ties; part of what Merrill called the “first-string rotation” in his closet. He felt good in it, usually. Tonight, amid the sea of tuxedos, it felt woefully inadequate. He kept his eyes trained on his wife and tried, without luck, to recall the name of Ines’s charity. The live auction, it seemed, was over. This was a slight disappointment; he had been told it would be a spectacle. This was his mother-in-law’s first year as chairperson, and she wasn’t one to be outdone. For months, she had run around soliciting the most extraordinary auction items she could think of: a weekend at Richard Branson’s house on Necker Island; private piano lessons with Billy Joel; a baseball signed by Babe Ruth. While Paul couldn’t imagine someone throwing down six figures at a charity auction in the middle of a recession, Ines seemed unfailingly confident that she would raise more money this year than ever before. Bullheaded confidence was part of Ines’s charm. She hired a Sotheby’s auctioneer, ordered oblong bidding paddles with the name of the charity stenciled on the back in gold, and called in favors to get as much press buzz going as possible. She wheedled her way into the pages of some social magazine or other, posing with a handful of other women who also listed their occupation as “philanthropist.”
From the looks of the stage, Ines had been right. Posters of the auction items had been set up on easels behind the podium. Each one now bore a bright red Sold sticker, the kind that got put on car windshields at the dealership. On the last easel, the auctioneer was using a thick marker to ink a staggering “Total Dollars Raised” figure on a large placard.
Ten yards short of Merrill, a hand reached out of the crowd and snagged him by the shoulder. “Bro!” Adrian appeared before him. “I was wondering if you were going to show.” Adrian’s cheeks were flushed and a mist of sweat had appeared at his hairline, from dancing or drinking, or both. His bow tie, a polka-dot number that matched his cummerbund, hung undone around his neck. Adrian was married to Merrill’s sister, Lily. Even though he and Paul were the same age, it was hard for Paul to see Adrian as anything other than a younger brother.
Paul went to shake his hand, but Adrian held up two bottles of beer instead. “Want one?” he said, offering it up.
Paul suppressed an eye roll. “Thanks. I’m all right. Just came straight from work.”
“Yeah, me, too,” Adrian nodded thoughtfully and took a swig of beer. This seemed highly unlikely to Paul. Adrian was in a tuxedo, for one thing, with those velvet slippers he loved to wear to formal occasions. Also, he was suspiciously tan. Now that he thought about it, Paul hadn’t seen Adrian in the office since last Thursday.
“I mean, not the actual office,” Adrian added quickly. “I was down in Miami with clients for the weekend. Had to run here from the airport.” “Looks like you got some sun.” “Weather was killer down there. Got in nine holes of golf this morning.” With a big grin, Adrian drained the beer. “Mother’s milk,” he said, with an approving nod. “You sure you don’t want this one?” Paul shook his head. “Glad you had fun,” he said, turning away.
It was, he recognized, Adrian’s job to entertain. But the market had been bouncing all over the place, and the call volume from clients was up nearly five times, and Paul’s patience for anyone at the firm who wasn’t working at least eighty hours a week was limited.
As he glanced over Adrian’s shoulder, Paul saw Merrill slipping farther into the crowd. “Hey,” he said, “I’ve gotta go find Merrill. I’m already late as it is.”
“Yeah, yeah, go do that. She was asking where you were. You coming to the after- party?”
“I don’t think I can swing that. I’m pretty shot. It’s late.”
Adrian shrugged. “East Hampton tomorrow? Lily and I are going to leave around lunchtime to beat the traffic.”
“Doubtful. Work, and all that. We’re planning to drive out Thursday morning.”
“Cool. Gotta be there by 12:30 p.m., though, to see the kickoff . Darling family tradition.”
“Who are they playing this year?”
“Tennessee. Looks tough. Okay, Bro. We’ll look for you before we hit the after-party.” Adrian threw Paul a “you-da-man” nod and dropped the empty bottle on a passing waiter’s tray.
“Right. Later, then.” Paul watched Adrian roll off like a tumbleweed, hands in his pockets with signature nonchalance. He joined his brothers at the bar. All four were tall and thin as matchsticks, with thick heads of charcoal-black hair. The oldest, Henry, was telling a story while Griff and Fitz, the twins, laughed riotously. From all sides, women instinctively slowed as they passed by them, like stars getting sucked into a black hole. The Pattersons were so handsome that each had his own magnetic pull; together, they became the universe’s gravitational center. When Adrian pulled up, Henry tossed his arm casually about his shoulder. Perfect white teeth flashed as they greeted each other.
Adrian wasn’t as stuffy as Henry, and he wasn’t as frivolous as Griff or Fitz. He was actually a reasonably nice guy, the kind of guy that Paul liked in spite of himself. As Adrian laughed with his brothers, Paul wondered briefly if there was any way he could find Adrian’s total indifference to stress inspirational instead of infuriating. He was trying to be more understanding with Adrian now that they worked together, though market conditions were making that tough.
A light touch on his arm stirred him from this consideration.
“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 fl ower 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 fl uttered 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.
The bar was stacked three deep and the bartender was topping off last- call orders. As Paul and Merrill waited their turn, Merrill’s father appeared behind them.
“What’s going on over here?” Carter asked good naturedly, clapping them both on the back. He was tall enough that he easily captured them both in his wingspan. “Paul, who let you out of the office?”
“You’re working him too hard, Dad,” Merrill said.
“Yes, well. It’s been an interesting two months, hasn’t it, Paul? Opportune time to come over to the investment side.” Carter laughed lightly.
Cristina Alger graduated from Harvard College in 2002 and from New York University School of Law in 2007. She has worked as an analyst at Goldman, Sachs, & Co. and as an attorney at Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale, & Dorr. She lives in New York City, where she was born and raised. The Darlings is her first novel and she is currently working on her next book.
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