Eva, Amber, and A Host Of Leading Ladies

The laughter died down as Eva’s latest observation on women and their incessant need to reaffirm their existences through their significant others (and this applied to her as well) disseminated through her small group of fellow brunch aficionados. Because was there a better way to spend one’s Sunday morning than eating eggs sandwiches with a side of fresh, carefully sliced fruit and low-sodium bacon?

            It sure beat working, and she didn’t have plans to do any of that until Monday afternoon.
            “Every one of us at this table is guilty,” Kathryn, Eva’s best friend in the whole stupid world, said as she finished her mimosa. “Name one woman here who didn’t turn into a spittoon of buffoonery when she started dating.”

            “As long as we get to piss on you first, Katie.” Eva nearly spat out her iced tea when she dared to say the special nickname Kathryn’s boyfriend had bestowed upon her. Nobody but him was allowed to call her Katie. Not even Eva, who had missed that part of Kathryn’s embarrassing life. 

“The girls at Dominatrixes United will barely look at you now.” That was said with a dramatic sigh.
            “Oh, like how you turned into a slobbering mess the moment the girl you liked finally started talking to you?”

            “At least I own it.”

            “Ladies, ladies,” Gwen Mitchell, the third blonde at the table, interrupted. “You’re looking at this from the wrong perspective. Because you came into your relationships with all the money cards.”
            Kathryn scoffed. “Says the woman who boned one of her customers at a bar.

            “Now look at me. Seven years later, I still barely remember James’s phone number.”

            Eva stole Kathryn’s weak mimosa refill before her friend had the chance to sample it. Holy balls, this is the weakest mimosa in the world! Good. Neither she nor Kathryn would get sloshed before one. Not exactly becoming of grown heiresses. “What about you, Char?” she asked Charlotte Williams, the fourth of their current group. “Any embarrassing stories about you falling in love with someone you never deserved?”

            “In the past,” she said. “I’m more likely to say fuck it and only indulge in the occasional one-night-stand these days.”

            “That’s how it starts,” Kathryn muttered. “Then you go back for more, and the bastard says he loves you.”

            Eva held her friend’s gaze while drinking the now communal mimosa. She was about to say something positively scathing and befitting a gabfest at noon on a Sunday, when the final pair of their brunch sauntered into the café.

            Ah, there she was, the illuminous Nadia Gaines, the only woman to ever light Eva’s heart on fire and make her loins ache with… stuff. Weak the mimosa may have been, but Eva was still a little tipsy enough to lose the parts of her brain that called upon enough synonyms to drown Nadia in a whirlpool of verbal admiration.

            She brought with her Jasmine Bliss-Cole (or was it just Bliss? Just Cole? Eva couldn’t keep up with silly name changing games) and the both of them looked as if they had seen a ghost.

            “Hello, lovely.” Eva leaned back in her seat, putting all six and a half feet of her lean body on display. “What’s up with you two? Was that weird guy with the purple hair down on the street corner crowing about the Rapture again?” Last time Eva and Nadia bumped into him, he made sure they knew they were destined for a life of hellfire. Oh, not because they were obviously in a relationship, but because Nadia’s skirt was too short and Eva didn’t smile at him.

            Nadia pulled out the chair next to Eva and flopped down. Jasmine sat across from her, next to Kathryn. Their presence had brought silence to the whole table. Not even the waitress, who brought the iced teas Eva ordered for the new arrivals ahead of time, could disrupt the quiet aura descending upon that corner of the airy café.

            “It’s Amber,” Nadia bluntly said.

            Jasmine gasped, but said nothing. Kathryn’s eyes went straight to Nadia’s face for more juicy news. Gwen and Charlotte lost a speckle of interest – they weren’t as hip with this drama as the rest of the table.

            “What happened?” It couldn’t have been something as extreme as hospitalization or death. Nah. That would’ve been easy. From the way Nadia carried herself and carefully utilized her beautiful voice, it was personal. Something Amber Mayview, a woman very good at being a thorn in Eva’s ass, was a pro at. “Is she spreading rumors about me again?” Eva got giggly when she drank. Amber became a spiteful wench who liked to imply that certain things had once happened between them. Only if you count her kissing me without permission. And that was to piss off Nadia!

            Yeesh. Did Eva really want to know what it was this time?

            “Well, she…”

            “She just walked through the fucking door.” Kathryn almost dropped her mimosa. “Oh. My. God. Don’t turn around, Eva.”

            That meant she should turn around!

            Was she prepared for the sight she soon beheld? Pfft. Of course not. Eva would never be prepared to see the female power couple within a three state radius march through the door, acting like they were going to have a rip-roaring time at brunch. Nobody had invited Amber Mayview and Adrienne Thomas. They were here on their own accord, but they must have known that others in their social circles would be there. This was planned down to the minute.

            So Amber could show off her new look.

            She hung on her partner’s arm wearing nothing but a pair of chic denim shorts, brand-new bright red Converse, and a baggy Gucci crop-top that showed off the flat stomach she had probably spent half the spring toning for the upcoming summer social season. She was the sportiest skinny girl in the room, but that wasn’t what attracted everyone’s attention.

            It. Was. Her. Hair.

            Amber Mayview had built her gold-digging image on being the quintessential hot girlfriend. Long, blond hair, tight bodycon dresses with spaghetti straps, high heels to highlight her smooth legs, and push-up bras to make her look like she had more than God gave her. She may not be my type, but come on, I looked! Since solidifying her long-term relationship with the richest woman in the city, however, it appeared that Amber was embracing a brand-new her that may or may not have been based on other people in the room.

            She had cut off her hair. All of it. All of it!

            Eva was one of the most recognizable women in the city for a reason. Her whole look, which included what genetics gave her and her own impeccable style afforded, was practically trademarked. Aside from her towering physique, her short blond hair told every room she walked into that she was a Warren, damnit, and she didn’t give a fuck if someone wanted to mess with that.

            Well, here it was. Amber had not only chopped off her hair, but had ensured it was nothing short of platinum blond. Her softer makeup and two pastel barrettes in her hair were the only things distinguishing two women who otherwise looked remarkably alike.

            “Wow,” Kathryn whispered. “Does Adrienne have stock in medieval armory? Because her girlfriend just threw down a gauntlet on our table.”

            “Thank you, hon.” Eva didn’t need to be told that. She could see it as plain as day!

            “Looks better on you,” Nadia murmured.

            “Of course it does. It’s also my natural hair color.” Sometimes Eva highlighted the tips of her hair, but that was purely for fashion, not her whole image. What Amber was doing was such a slap in the face of everyone in the room, that the only one not gasping from such garish behavior was Adrienne Thomas, who treated her money-grubbing girlfriend like a beach-bunny princess about to come into sex, money, and probably more sex! “At least we know what Ms. Thomas’s tastes are more about.”

            Nadia snickered. “I don’t think she’s ever looked at Amber like that. Not in public!”

            “I thought you were friends with them,” Jasmine said.

            “So did I.” Eva sighed. “Oh, look, here they come.”

            Everyone was all smiles and compliments to Amber’s new look when the pair came by to say hello. All part of the master plan, undoubtedly.

            “You are so refreshing.” Eva, trapped in the middle of the table with only Nadia to separate her from the doppelganger come to ruin her day, said. “Where did you get that done?”

            “Some adorable place in LA when we were there two days ago.” Amber squeezed her girlfriend’s hand. Adrienne drank up the attention as if she were the one who had changed her whole look. “I decided I was tired of the same hair for the past ten years. Figured I could always grow it out again.”

            “Nice color.”

            “You like it? Who knows? I might go dark next.”

            Six pairs of eyebrows went up around the table. Nadia had once told Eva that Amber wasn’t a real blond but projected the image that she was. Even Adrienne hadn’t known until a few months ago!

            The pair took their leave exactly thirty seconds later, sitting in the far corner where nobody could hear their stupid conversation that was interspersed with raucous giggles. Eva sank into her seat, glad that neither Amber nor Adrienne could see the sour look on her face.

            “Imitation is the highest form of flattery,” Kathryn said.

            Just for that, Eva finished off that mimosa. She needed it.

Eva & Nadia

DRABBLE: Coveting Thy Neighbor


Covering They Neighbor

Preston, Julian & Alyssa

            The weather was pleasant and a balmy eighty-five degrees the day Alyssa Pendleton graduated from undergrad. While parents lined up to watch the festivities with their cameras and applause, one corner of the front row (because of course they scored the front row) was occupied by a contingent of people who would rather be anywhere else.

            All right, so maybe that was just Preston Bradley, who had come on behest of his business partner Julian Marcus. Julian also happened to be the fair Alyssa’s boyfriend of a little over a year. The only people to separate him from the best seat in the house were Alyssa’s parents, who were thrilled to discover that they magically scored the winning tickets in the seating lottery. A wheel that Julian had absolutely greased, and wasn’t afraid to brag about to Preston. Humble-brag, I should say. “Oh, Preston, you’ll have noooo idea how easy it was to scooooore those tickets! Just made my assistant Vern make a VERY NICE CALL to the president of the university! Woo-ee!”

            Preston held in a yawn during the guest speaker. The press was in attendance, a bigshot photographer from the biggest newspaper in the state only a few feet away from the stage – and much too close for Preston’s comfort. The man could catch him yawning at any moment, and that would ruin the shots of Julian Marcus in a polo shirt, oh my God looking proudly up at his girlfriend as she shook hands with the president and received her diploma. Julian would never let his business partner live it down. Nope. He had to be a good boy for three hours.

            Three. Grueling. Hours.

            The man originally had other plans that weekend. His latest lover, a woman with legs that went on for days, had mentioned how much she wanted to visit Trinidad, the home of her mother’s ancestors. Preston had the plane fueled and the lodging arrangements made, but said lover decided at the last minute – as in Friday-last-minute – to go back to her ex-boyfriend who barely had $200 to his name. Preston had the sinking feeling that she was pregnant, but hey, he wasn’t going to judge her for it!

            Too bad being dumped had depressed him. He offered the weekend in Trinidad to one of his employees who had been stressed to hell and back. The man would be more than happy to take his wife on a second honeymoon while a nanny looked after their kids. It was the least Preston could do… but damnit, what made Julian think he should spend his Sunday at a college graduation ceremony? Sure, Preston liked Alyssa just fine these days, but he wasn’t invested in her academic career to the point he wanted a front-row seat in eighty-five-degree heat.

            Or, perhaps, he was afraid of bumping into a certain someone.

            Preston had the worst habit of dating women young enough to be in college (that included grad school, thank you.) For a man now pushing his mid-thirties, that was becoming stranger with every passing year. Even so, that meant he had left a trail of exes all over Portland and beyond, most of them crawling around events like this one. Every so often, he glanced around to make sure one of his exes from the past three years wasn’t shooting daggers from her eyes. Nope. Just a bunch of middle-aged moms, most of whom had no problem flashing him pretty grins and fluffing their hair when they caught him looking at them. Sometimes their husbands sent the death glares, though.

            Let’s see… Olivia went to this school… so did Melissa… fuck, did Pam go to this school? Pam was crazy. Crazy enough to try lighting Preston’s hedges on fire.

            He almost missed Alyssa’s name called out and the woman of the hour, bedecked in a black robe and cap, crossing the platform to claim her well-earned degree. Only reason Preston didn’t miss it was because Julian leaped up and clapped as if this were a fundraising dinner, and the main donor just plunked down his life savings.

            “That’s my baby!” Alyssa’s mother turned around in her seat, pointing emphatically at her daughter. “She did that!”

            “Congrats!” came a chorus of excited parents.

            Preston joined in with the applause while the photographer got some extra shots of Alyssa and the president shaking hands. She soon walked off the platform and sat back in her seat, and the next graduate was called.

            Was it over? Please let it be over…


            “Hawaii,” Alyssa excitedly said, when a friend asked what she was doing with the rest of her month. “Julian is taking me to Hawaii in celebration of my graduation.” She squeezed her boyfriend’s hand, her tassel tossing about on her cap as she shook in excitement.

            “It’s the least I could do.” Julian held her closer to him. The graduation robes made it even clearer how much of an age difference they had. God, is that what I look like when I go out with college girls? Barf. Julian looked old enough to be his girlfriend’s hip, young uncle. Well! He had been old enough to be her boss a year ago! “She has worked so hard, and she’ll be working even harder when she goes to business school in the fall. She should relax this summer.”

            “You’re sooo lucky, Alyssa!” the friend cried. “I wanna go to Hawaii with my boyfriend, but he doesn’t have a job yet…”

            Preston almost jokingly invited the boy – who was not even in attendance – to apply for a job at Bradley & Marcus. Whatever he did, from janitorial to software developing, there must have been something available. They always lost employees at the start of summer. It was when everyone bailed on Portland, ironically. Not the rainy season, but the warm, dry summers!

            “Well…” Preston slapped his hand on Julian’s arm and grinned in Alyssa’s direction. The amicable young lady smiled back at him, and for a moment, he almost forgot why he wanted to leave so quickly. “I’ve got to get going. Have a few things to take care of before the party tonight.” Julian was throwing a veritable soiree that evening for his illustrious girlfriend. Of course, Preston would go. What else would he do? Go to Trinidad by himself? “Congrats, Alyssa. I hope your whole day is amazing.”

            She insisted on a quick hug and two kisses to the cheek, both of which Preston indulged under the heavy scrutiny of his possessive business partner. After Alyssa returned to Julian’s side, Preston had his out.

            He was content to amble to the first empty street and summon his driver to take him home for a few hours, yet since he was in no hurry, Preston weaved between happy parents, children, and the air of a world where hope was the future and the future was imminent.

            He remembered the day he graduated with his bachelor’s. Had it really been ten years ago? More than ten years? His parents and sisters had been there, screaming louder than Julian knew how to clap. His grandmother, God rest her, was in her wheelchair while a nurse asked her to please not climb up on the stage because she thought the commencement speaker looked like Paul McCartney.

            His girlfriend, the love of his life, had been there.

            But like most college relationships, it had fallen apart by the time they went to different grad schools. Today? Ursula Lennox was married with two kids. Preston knew, because they had a mutual friend he hounded for information every so often. He knew they would never get together again – but he was invested in her happiness.

            He was halfway across the grounds when he caught sight of the one person he forgot to ask to stay away.

            At first, he wasn’t sure he recognized Cher Lieberman, the employee he dated until she revealed she was only with him to get his money – any way she could.

            It wasn’t enough for him to spoil her or give her allowances. She wanted as much as she could get, and she would sue him for it. To be fair, Preston had walked into the situation when he dated an employee. Most courts would have sided with her if she could prove he had coerced her in any way. I swear to God I didn’t, but I was dumb. I’m never as lucky as Julian.

            Cher held his gaze for two seconds before turning around and hugging a woman in a graduation gown. A man – much, much older than her – in a linen suit approached and gave her a kiss to the lips. The possessive way he put his arm around Cher told Preston that she had moved on to a new victim, like a viper striking from her nest.

            “Good luck, buddy.” Preston texted his driver and waited for him by the side of a street. It wasn’t until a second later, when the black sedan rounded the corner, that he realized he hated to be leaving the festivities alone.

            Maybe, one day…

            He had to get out of there. Going to Alyssa’s party would be bad enough, especially since he didn’t have a date. Would it be uncouth to hire an escort to take? Yes. It would. So he wouldn’t.

            He’d be alone at the party. He’d have to be okay with it.

            Still, would it be too much to ask to feel good about it? Preston wasn’t looking for a wife, necessarily. But a long, stable relationship would be nice for a change.

            The door shut behind him. AC greeted him in the car. Why didn’t it feel good?

DRABBLE: Seven Years Ago, Part 3



James & Gwen

The car pulled up to a gated property on the far edge of town. Gwen had driven past this affluent division of the city plenty of times, but had never slowed down to give it a hearty look. Why would she, when she always assumed she would never, ever have anything to do with it? The large mansions with intricate landscaping, gated security, and bus stops built and serviced solely for “servants’” use was the stuff of ridiculous daytime TV. Gwen never thought in a million years that she would have anything to do with one of these manors, most of them built a hundred years ago. Some of them had been the homes of more than one family. Others, like the Meranges’, were built to the eternal tastes of the patrilineal people who inhabited them.

            Her eyes rolled back as she vainly attempted to take in the sweeping maple trees bristling in the breeze. It was easier than noticing the details on the gothic fountain or deciphering what dialect of Spanish the landscapers spoke as they tore out an old rose bush and replaced it with a sure-to-be-spectacular rhododendron bush.

            To think, it was a cloudy, humid day, and Gwen was still awestruck by the grandeur of James’ childhood home.

            Until that day, she had only visited his two-bedroom apartment downtown. Granted, that place was luxury-and-a-half, as befitting a young man of old money means, but Gwen didn’t think it could get more ridiculous than an on-call maid or a chef who made the rounds at every apartment to make sure everyone’s refrigerators were stocked and then food prepped for dinner. James had been so proud when he made Gwen dinner for the third date together. It wasn’t until she visited him during the day that she discovered those spaghetti and meatballs were prepped by an Italian chef. All James did was cook the noodles, heat up the sauce, and throw it all together. Also explained how the meatballs were slightly cold. Gwen had loved it anyway, because James had been so proud, and she was convinced she was falling in love with him.

            She wondered how far that love extended when facing the truth of his heritage.

            “Ready?” James had parked his car next to a Rolls-Royce. The vanity plate said MERANGE in giant, yellow letters that suggested its owner wanted everyone in town to know his name before recognizing the make and model of his car. Oh my God, it’s his father, isn’t it? According to James, his father was the reason she hadn’t met his parents yet. They had been dating for over six months, and were only a few weeks shy of the anniversary of the first time they met. Rarely had James mentioned his parents, even though they lived in town.

            Now Gwen knew why.

            Everything, from the gothic façade of the manor to the uniformed housekeepers having a smoke break on the other side of a small entrance, were nothing like the image Gwen had built of her boyfriend. His wit, good-naturedness, and charisma were what pulled her into his gravity. The tender way he kissed her before fucking her hard and his romantic sensibilities he displayed while they visited local sex clubs kept her by his side.

            None of that was broadcasted by his childhood home. Perhaps Gwen merely had butterflies in her stomach, but this did not bode well.

            She also felt woefully underdressed in her green sundress and strappy brown sandals. James had said she looked “perfect” when he picked her up, but she hadn’t failed to notice his three-piece suit and the five-thousand dollar watch on his wrist. He only wore that when he had to see his father. It must be a Christmas present. James usually kept the more expensive and ostentatious accessories at home when he didn’t do much more than go on dates with Gwen or hang out with his college friends.

            Both doors of the car opened. Gwen hesitated before stepping out, the heels of her sandals 
tapping gently against the paved driveway. James rounded the back of his car and offered to take her hand. “Can you believe it?” He grinned as he led her to the front steps of the impressive manor. “Hardly a thing’s been changed since it was built in 1913. One year before the first great war. My great-grandfather considered himself a lucky bastard he finished building this thing before wars broke out.”

            “Did you meet your great-grandfather?”

            “Hell, no. My father’s the first man in the family to not kill himself by sixty.” When Gwen gave him an exasperated look, he explained, “I don’t mean they literally killed themselves, Gwenny. They had shitastic lifestyles.”

            “So does that make your dad a teetotaler and not a fan of adrenaline?”

            “Eschewing adrenaline, yes. Teetotaling? Hardly.” James left it at that as he hauled Gwen toward the gilded front doors.

            Did his mother meet them there? No. They were greeted by a butler in coat and tails, who warmly greeted James and shot Gwen a devil-may-care look.

            Really. The devil couldn’t care.

            “Mr. Merange is awaiting you and Ms. Mitchell in the salon. He’s asked me to escort you there upon your admittance.”

            “The salon, huh?” James’s hold on Gwen’s hand faltered. “Where’s Mom?”

            “Lady Merange has been held up at the country club, due to the road closure on the highway.” The butler stopped before a closed door. “She assures me that she will be home in time to meet Ms. Mitchell, and apologizes that she couldn’t return in time for your appointment.”

            Appointment? This man has to make an appointment to see his parents? That was a level of absurdity Gwen had never heard of before. Besides, James had said his mother had barely worked in her life, and his father only attended a few business meetings these days. He was still in charge of the family company and fortune, but most of the decisions were made by a board, and James was the chief charismatic schmoozer.

            “All right.” James said that, yet the look on his face implied he wasn’t sure he wanted to enter the salon. “Let’s go meet my dad, Gwen.”

            She braced herself as the door opened. Everything James had ever said about his father, Albert Merange, made her think of a man steeped in sophistication to the point he had never seen a real department store in his life. The man had been in one of the most exclusive fraternities in the country, had gone to a prestigious New England boarding school, and spent so much of his life either holed up in his manor or jet setting to other manors around the world. How can I compete with that? Gwen was from a town so small that the richest family claimed a McMansion with a dock overlooking the local lake. That was high living, and the wife still worked as a local bank manager, and the husband compensated his construction job with paid fishing excursions. Gwen had been good friends with their daughter in seventh grade. That birthday party, with the hired Pearl Jam cover band and tiered cake from the bakery one town over, was the most decadent thing Gwen Mitchell had ever seen.

            Until now.

            She instantly recognized Albert. Not based on any pictures James had shared of him, but from the bright, insidious look in his aged eyes. His salt and pepper hair was perfectly combed so no spot had too much salt or too much pepper. His chiseled jaw made him more imposing than the police officer who once pulled Gwen over for speeding. A bespoke suit made of fine Italian fabric made Gwen itch in her department store dress.

            That was what intimidated her before the man spoke.

            “Son.” Albert stood with the grace of a well-trained greyhound. My God. Where did that comparison come from? Have I ever seen any greyhounds in my life, let alone well-trained ones? “So good to see you. You’re looking quite well.” They shook hands and exchanged identical grins. When Albert turned to the tall blonde woman in a green sundress, however, he lost half of his smile. It wasn’t a lecherous look greeting her, but highly critical, as if he surmised her ability to give him grandchildren or embarrass him at high-society functions with one look…

            …and had found her wanting.

            “Dad.” James put his arm around Gwen, forcing one of her feet forward and her hand out to clutch Albert’s. “This is my girlfriend, Gwenyth. You know, the one I can’t stop talking about?” His grin was one of pure joy and love. The careful smile on Albert’s visage, however, remained critical of the woman before him.

            “Gwenyth. How lovely to meet you.” Albert offered her a curt shake of the hand before pulling his away. “Is that a Welsh name?”

            “It is, I believe.” Really. The first thing I say to him is clarifying if my name is Welsh? “Pleasure to meet you, sir.”

            “Different spelling from the actress, though,” James said. “But we all call her Gwen.”

            “Yes, I insist that you call me Gwen, sir.”

            Albert said nothing, let alone any variation of her name.

            They had settled at the table overlooking the gardens when a servant entered with a platter of coffees and light finger-snacks. He also carried with him a message.

            “Lady and Ms. Welsh are here, sir.”

            James’s eyes widened; Albert remained content. Gwen, meanwhile, had no idea what any of that meant. Was that code about her and her name?

            If only.

            “They must be dropping by for a quick chat.” Albert shrugged. “Show them in. I’m sure Cassandra would love to chat with her old friend.”

            James was still speechless. When he turned to Gwen, she offered a shrug like Albert’s and a wan smile that suggested she was fine with anything.

            Two minutes later, an older woman and her grown daughter entered the salon, the both bedecked in matching wrap-dresses that highlighted the older woman’s flawless skin and the younger woman’s bouncing curls. Cassandra, the young woman, took a step back when she saw James and Gwen. Her mother went straight to Albert and shared with him a look that Gwen instantly realized was one of love.

            She should have listened to her gut when it said that none of these people would be good for her.

DRABBLE: Seven Years Ago, Part 2


Seven Years Ago, Part 2

James & Gwen

            Gwen emerged from the back room of the bar to find James there, again.

            She shook her head in nothing but curious amusement. That guy showed up twice or thrice a week at the most awkward time. (Was it too much to ask to have no customers while Gwen cleaned up and prepped for the rush sure to come in the next two hours?) Usually, he kept to himself, but occasionally he made light conversation with her. That didn’t count the amount of times she glanced over her shoulder while she did some dishes or took inventory and caught him staring at her ass.

            Typical. Men always stared at her ass. They often hit on her, too. It wasn’t a Saturday night unless Gwen made a pile of tips because she charmed the men that came into the bar into thinking they had even the slightest bit of a chance with her.

            Okay, so sometimes they did. Gwen didn’t make a habit of it, but for the right guy, she was willing to go home and have a good time. Bonus points if he came into the bar again and continued to give her tips. As long as they didn’t think she was their girlfriend, all was good.

            James was trouble.

            Cute, charming trouble.

            Their conversations over the past few weeks had revealed that he was in training to take over his family’s business, whatever it was. Once guys started talking about business, Gwen tuned them out. Blah, blah, blah. Stocks, bonds, buyouts, and mergers. Whatever. Sounded like a goofy ‘80s movie.

            And James was a goofy kind of guy. He may have looked like he stepped out of a men’s watch catalog – that wasn’t knocking his appearance, by the way – and was affable enough to joke around with, but every time James started saying something serious, he pulled back and turned it into a jest instead.

            At least he was genuinely funny, and he didn’t rely on crass, offensive humor to get his points across. While most of those jokes weren’t fit for a kid’s ear, Gwen didn’t have to hear curse word after slur, and that was always a pleasant night at the bar.

            That night, when she emerged to find her favorite customer waiting for her at the far end of the bar, she spared him a smile and approached with a slight wave of her hand. “Hey, stranger,” she said. “Get you the usual?”

            “If the usual will make me forget that horrible meeting I had earlier.”

            Gwen had a feeling it would, especially if she pumped it with a little extra liquor. “Bad day at the office again?”

            “The worst. My dad is a tyrant. News at eleven.”

            Chuckling, Gwen swiftly made his favorite drink using the same top shelf stuff he singlehandedly made them reorder more than once since he started coming around. “Your life is so hard. Mr. Trust Fund.”

            “Hey, I work for that trust fund.” James winked at her when the glass appeared before him. “I work to keep my father happy. A happy father means a happy trust fund for many years to come.”

            “Is that how they work? I wouldn’t know. I’m from scholarship country.” Gwen braced herself against the bar. She knew her breasts were pushed toward James’s face, but she had long since decided she didn’t care if he respectfully ogled her. The man paid her enough tips to make her think she was in one of those clubs, anyway. Might as well give him a little extra for his time.

            “Of course it’s not how they work. But if I pretend it is, I can feel like I have more control over my fate.”

            “Ah, yes, fate. Is that what keeps bringing you into my bar?”

            “Why, Ms. Mitchell,” James said with a waggle of his eyebrows, “are you finally flirting back with me in earnest?”

            She snorted. “You’d like that, I bet.”

            “I mean, your lovely face and ability to banter with me is the second reason I keep coming back here.”

            “Only the second?”

            “The drinks are top notch, Gwen. I’m telling you, it’s amazing this place doesn’t have more customers.”

            She laughed. “Wanna hear a secret? I don’t water your drinks down.”

            She left him with that nugget as she walked away. She would have been disappointed if he weren’t staring at her ass.

            James was the kind of customer Gwen appreciated while always keeping a careful eye on him. Guys like that? The ones with the big wallets and not afraid to drop in during the slow times to make light conversation and crack jokes? They usually wanted something. Namely, her.

            Gwen had been dealing with guys like James for years, long before she started bartending full time. Apparently, she had a cool je ne sais quoi that made her popular with men of all types and backgrounds. Most of them weren’t worth her time. Occasionally, she picked up a temporary boyfriend or a one-night stand that was adequate enough for her to keep doing it. But there were some men that made her uneasy, and she wasn’t sure why.

            Sure, creeps were creeps, and Gwen smelled them from a mile away. Those were the obvious ones. Sometimes guys were so good at hiding their creep levels that Gwen went out on dates and soon regretted it. After a few years of dealing with one creep after another, she was content to live the single life and ignore any guy who followed established patterns of behavior.

            She couldn’t make out what kind of guy James Merange was.

            Lovable buffoon that had a crush on her? Or a sinister playboy playing the long con? Some unholy mix of the two?

            Gwen returned to the counter to find James glancing at her from his phone. Did he think she was fooling her with the old, I’m just on my phone trick? The screen was black.

            She was curious enough to ask him what his deal was, but knew better than to risk whatever professional bartender-client relationship they maintained. No matter how cute James was, Gwen was better off…

            “Do you have a boyfriend, Gwen?”

            Ah. There it was. His next move would be to hit on her.

            A part of Gwen wanted to see where it went. It had nothing to do with his supposed money, either. (Gwen didn’t bother Googling him or his family until they started going out. What an eye opener that was…) James was intriguing, wasn’t he? Boyish charms encased in a mature, masculine air. A youthful quality that clashed against his expensive clothes and a smart head for business. James wasn’t childlike or immature. He was in careful control of his humor. For all Gwen knew, these trips to the bar were one of his only chances to let his real nature shine. That almost makes me feel special. He chose to be around her when letting off steam. Alone, but was he really alone when Gwen was only a shout away? They had casual conversations for weeks before taking it further.

            Casual enough for him to ask if she had a boyfriend? Maybe.

            “I’m single,” Gwen said, standing a few feet more than usual away from him. Survival instinct. James would either take the news graciously, or he would up the sleaze. As much as Gwen wanted to believe that James was different… she wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t. Life had jaded her.

            James narrowed his eyes, sat back in his seat, and asked, “How?”

            Crossing his arms was a nice touch, but Gwen wasn’t buying it. “What do you mean how? How what? Do I not have a boyfriend?”

            “Yes. Unless you just broke up with someone five hours ago, I’m not sure how you could possibly be single.”

            “Like I haven’t heard this pickup line before.”

            “Who says I’m trying to pick you up? I’m just trying to understand how someone as nice and amiable as you is single.

            She snorted. “Not all of us want to be attached to the old ball and chain.”

            “Who said anything about marriage? I’m talking about having a man who treats you right and puts that extra skip in your step.”

            “And is easy on the eyes, I’m sure.”

            James grinned. Damnit. That’s the kind of grin that gets girls in trouble. Not Gwen, though. She had sworn off getting in trouble. “Let me know if you do find a guy like that. Maybe I’d like to date him.”

            Gwen paled. Oh, no. She had never considered that after all this time…

            James might be gay!

            “What?” He pocketed his phone and pointed to the exasperated look on Gwen’s face. “Got a problem with a guy who’s comfortable with who he is?”

            “Not at all.” Woo, boy. Gwen’s best friend from high school, now going by the drag queen name of Lady Priss-zilla, would love to hear that she had offended a gay guy. “Just didn’t think you were… never mind. You want me to top that drink off for you?”

            James didn’t directly answer the question. Not that one, anyway. Instead, he tugged on his growing facial hair and with a wag of the eyebrows said, “I’ll have you know that I have much more experience with the ladies.”

            “Uh huh.”

            “Just… what happens in Texas, stays in Texas.”


            “Long story. There was this conference, some guy from Montreal with a hot French accent… bah. Loose lips sink ships.”

            “Maybe I should be asking if you have a boyfriend, James.”

            “Why?” Her perked up. “You interested? Because I could tell Ronaldo to pack his stuff and be out of my condo by midnight.”

            “A French Canadian named Ronaldo? Send him to my house instead.”

            “At least we’ve established that you like guys.”

            “And we’ve established the same thing about you!” Gwen leaned against the counter and crossed her arms. “Are you hitting on me or not? I can’t tell anymore.”

            “How could you misconstrue this as anything but intense flirting to get you more intimately into my life, Gwen?”

            “You started talking about some guy named Ronaldo.”

            “You’re confused. He doesn’t exist.” James continued to grin. “Unlike you.”

            “You’re right. I do exist. As I’m sure you’ve established over these past few weeks you’ve come in here to make eyes at me.”

            Chuckling, James leaned forward again and said, “So you’ve noticed?”

            “A guy going out of his way to come in here during my off-hours? Getting to know me through trite conversation?” Gwen met him halfway across the counter, her grin grand enough to suck him into a deadly vortex of her making. Think I’ll let him live, though. Why not? Could be fun. James wasn’t pinging any warning bells. The worst he’d do was get over Gwen the moment she gave in to him. She’d miss the tips, but…

            Maybe it was worth it for the thrill?

            “Yeah, I’ve noticed,” Gwen continued. “Kinda hard to miss in a boring place like this.”

            “So you’re saying I’m not boring?”

            She laughed. “Are you always this self-deprecating? Because it’s kinda cute.”

            “I can be the most self-critical prick you’ve ever met if it means making you smile.”

            Didn’t she give him the reaction he wanted? Gwen could hardly contain the giddiness surfacing in her chest, and when she laughed again, it was with a hearty guffaw that almost made James join her in such madness.

            “Damn,” he said, “does this mean if I don’t ask you out right now, I’ll lose my chance forever?”

            “Why forever?”

            He cocked his head. “I might not have the guts to try again.”

            “Oh, now I don’t believe that.” Yet Gwen swelled with the knowledge that she had the power to fell this man’s ego with a simple “no.” She wasn’t a whim. She wasn’t someone he thought he might have a chance with, so why not ask? Almost like he fancied her so much that he subjected himself to this thrice-weekly charade of being a simple customer in a lonely, mid-tier bar. More customers would show up later and dominate Gwen’s time. James needed to take his chance now if he were going to tonight. “You mean guys don’t do those endless pursuits like I see in the movies?”

            “I’m told that’s creepy, so I’ve cut back on it.”

            “You don’t wanna be creepy?”

            “Can’t say it’s in my nature. Catch more flies with honey, right?”

            He finished his drink, smacking his lips when the glass touched the counter. His large breaths made his chest contract against his fitted dress shirt. Gwen had to refrain from biting her bottom lip as she openly checked out James in his work clothes. He smells like a million dollars. Can you even buy his cologne in department stores? Probably not. His cologne was purchased in an ivory New York tower, where one required a membership to enter, and memberships were only handed out to princely sons and their spoiled sisters.

            Gwen glanced at the clock. She could have this place closed now and reopened later without anyone – least of all her boss – finding out.