If I had my way, my job would be like watching my favorite romance on repeat; unfortunately, it’s a lot more like … The Real Housewives meets TMZ … in a street fight.
I’m Hazel Yuri Donato, the fly on every wall in Hollywood. My floral shop, Donato’s Budding Deliveries, brings eccentric and exotic floral arrangements to all the A-listers with the utmost discretion. From the philandering Hollywood husband, to the two-faced TV wife, to the corporate CEO with a fetish for wild sex parties thrown by the underground kingpin who has more money invested in major movies than the general public knows … my husband, Lorenzo, and I service them all … thoroughly.
I guess I should credit Lorenzo for our extensive clientele, seeing that his parents are Hollywood heavyweights, but I doubt they would have been so eager to fund our storefront if they knew the true nature of our business.
Publicly, we were no more than newlywed high school sweethearts who made a brilliant decision in opening a floral shop that provided exclusive deliveries no matter the egregious event that may have led to the affectionate display, but in reality, we were the low-profile leaders of an underground escort service, secretly supplying Hollywood’s elite with discreet private partners.
At first, when Lorenzo presented me with the idea, it was only supposed to be a short-term ordeal, but here we are … three years later … with twenty employees and more clients than we can keep up with. Part of me wants to walk away, go back to the simple life I originally imagined us having when we got married at eighteen, but we’re in too deep now.
We are the glue holding this town together, and the scandal silently threatening to tear every person in it apart.
I couldn’t walk away if I wanted to, and because Lorenzo didn’t want to, I couldn’t even dream of existing outside of the double life we were already leading.
The fog outside our two bedroom windows was not abnormal for a spring morning in the Crescenta Valley, and neither was the radiating glow from my honeyed skin against his light tan. My heart took to the sky when I lifted my head from Lorenzo’s chest to see his silvery eyes smiling into mine to greet the day with our daily ritual.
“Morning, handsome. How’d you sleep?”
“Like a baby. I don’t know how our female clients would feel if they knew that you possessed the secret weapon they wished they had between their thighs to keep me running back every night.”
I shook my head with laughter as he lightly stroked my long black hair. “That’s why I’m your wife, and they’re not.”
“You’re right, and I’m glad you don’t share your gift with other men. You … still don’t, right?”
I heard a heavy sigh leave my chest as my forehead hit his upper rib. “Really, babe? From day one, you were the one making home deliveries while I was at the store designing floral arrangements and managing the books. The only reason sex got added to the equation is because you cheated on me with your own Mrs. Robinson, and she said she’d pay you to do it on a steady basis. Any other woman would have left you, divorced you just as quickly as we eloped.”
“And part of me still thinks you will, Hazel.”
The somber tone of his voice urged me to return my attention to his eyes. The tears welling up in them … caused a sudden hitch in my normal heartbeat. Him and I had this conversation once or twice before, where he seemed to need confirmation that I was still his despite his infidelities, but never during any of those times had he gotten as emotional as he was in this moment.
“I always wonder why you stayed, why you believed in me … why you still do.”
“Because I love you. Ever since we were assigned to sit next to each other in freshman homeroom.”
“I knew then that I wanted to change your last name from Esperon to Donato, but I know this isn’t the life you imagined living after you said yes to the son of academy award winning actors.”
“I know your family wanted better for you. Hell, my family wants better for you.”
“Okay, stop. I don’t know why you keep beating yourself up like this. You’re fine. We are fine.”
“You’re fine? Being the wife of a struggling actor and male prostitute? We are supposed to be living in the lap of luxury; I was supposed to give you that life.”
“Lorenzo, the only kind of life I’ve ever wanted is one with you in it. I never asked for anything more. As long as we have each other, everything is fine.”
“If only my parents would have done more to help my career …”
“Now you can’t get mad at them for wanting you to pay your dues and earn your stripes on your own. It builds character.”
My human pillow stiffened and lightly jerked away from me. “Are you defending them?”
“No! I’m just saying that when we got married, they said …”
“They said be a man and figure out a way to provide for you and your wife.”
“And you did! We are only doing this until your acting career takes off, and then you’ll get to live your dream, babe.”
“It’s been three years, longer if you count the auditions I did as a kid. I don’t even know why you still believe in me.”
“Because you have the passion, and we live in a place where dreams come true every day, as long as you keep fighting for them. Although, I really think you should reconsider asking one of our clients to help you book a gig.”
“No! I don’t want to be a charity case.”
“Babe, you’re providing them with sexual favors and have more dirt on them than they could ever know about us. I don’t think you’re in any danger.”
His deep chuckle brought a smile back to my face. My cheeks flushed with glee as he kissed my forehead, and my fingers found a home in his short black curls. “Have I ever told you how much I love you?”
“Every day, but I never tire of hearing it. Hey,” I called, pulling his gaze to mine. “No matter what, I will always support you, and this audition you have today is going to be the one that changes our lives. I can tell.”
“Because I can feel it.”
Ordinarily, Lorenzo and I would drive to the storefront together, but since he had to rush to his audition, we grabbed breakfast for the crew, and I sent him off with a good luck kiss before entering Donato’s Budding Deliveries on my own. I was happy to see that our worker bees were bright-eyed, busy-tailed, and waiting for me to unlock the door so they could start on their assignments.
Our well-rounded roster was like ripping open a giant bag of Skittles; our customers were always tempted to savor every flavor of our rainbow. Our list of escorts included two sun-kissed Middle Eastern beauties named Yasamina and Darius; two blond-haired, blue-eyed dolls named Amy and Thomas; two fair-skinned deer with red hair named Autumn and Reed; a warm-hued Asian sibling duo from the Bay Area named Cam and Hiro; Dark-haired, deep brown Native American undergraduate students named Chenoa and Alan; two lovely Latinos named Ana and Sebastian; light-skinned, light-eyed island jewels named Jade and Jasper; and deliciously dark pieces of chocolate named Novia and Zane.
Our phone operators, Chloe and Frank, were two of my dearest cousins that were happy to escape the dull environment of the call center they previously worked in. And our high school work-studies turned personal assistants, Talia and Andreas, had been with us since we first opened as a regular floral shop. Once Lorenzo and I decided to make the change over to an undercover escort service, I personally had an extensive conversation with the two of them to see if they still wanted to be a part of our company. It warmed my heart when they chose to stay, citing that they couldn’t imagine being employed by anybody better than me and my husband.
“Good morning! How was everyone’s night?” I greeted as they responded positively. “Fantastic. A round of applause is in order as we had another day of rave reviews, so congratulations. Yay. Uh, does anyone have a negative review or rumor to report?”
Yasamina readily raised her hand. “Patrick Penn has a new film that was just green-lit. He said I was the only one he told.”
“Did he give you a name for it?”
She shook her head. “Just said that it was a superhero remake and it was guaranteed to revitalize his career because he’s having an affair with the director, and his wife.”
Simultaneous ohs echoed through the room as my head dropped with a smirk. “I’ll remember to write that down for The Vault. Did he say who the director was?”
“Leo Wayne?” Thomas shouted. “He’s one of my regulars, and he said he only started coming to us because he thought his wife was cheating on him.”
“She is,” Amy jumped in with a mouthful of sausage and egg croissant. “With me.”
“Oh goodness. Remind me to put extra contraceptives in all of your floral baskets. Anything else? Yes, Novia.”
“Are the clients allowed to do drugs in front of us?”
“I prefer that they don’t as they may try to coerce you into joining them, and I don’t want them to try to use the customer satisfaction policy as a manipulative tactic to do so, but …”
“That’s exactly what happened.”
“The boxer?” Ana screeched. “He does drugs?”
“Apparently. He called a bunch of people over for a party, and when I said I wanted to leave and refused to do cocaine with him, he threw me out of the room and refused to pay me.”
“Wait, he invited extra people to your room, and then outed you as an escort?” I asked as she nodded sadly. “I was wondering why the log said you checked out of that appointment early.”
“I didn’t know how to tell you. I was still so shook up from the experience, but he’s been all over the news this morning because somebody called the police about the noise, and they found him with a bunch of strippers and drugs. His PR team is holding a press conference about it later today.”
“That explains why the police scanners were going off in here. We didn’t give it a second thought because we knew you were already done with the appointment with him,” I sighed. Even though I was glad she had the courage and ability to walk away, a riotous frenzy burned deep down in my soul. I hated when my girls or guys had to face situations like that. It was the scariest part of our business. “Well first off, every client makes the payment to us before we send you to the hotel, so you will still get your money. Don’t worry about that.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Donato.”
“You’re welcome, dear. Secondly, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you are ever faced with a situation that makes you uncomfortable. That’s why Chloe and Frank are here to man the phones. That’s why we have an intricate system in place. This is what we are all here for. That goes for all of you. Do you understand?”
“And thirdly, no one here will be seeing Ivan Hoe … ever again, unless it’s on TV. He is no longer a customer of ours. I will make a note to have a farewell package sent to him as soon as possible. Andreas?”
“I’ll check for a Black Rose Arrangement in the back, and then, I’d be happy to deliver it to him.”
“Thank you. Any other problems, rumors, or questions? Yes, Jasper?”
“Yeah, uh … I know I’m new here, but why are you taking down any rumors that they tell us?”
“Because if they attempt to disrespect or harm any of you or this company, we have something called The Vault which is full of files with unflattering information that none of our clients would like leaked out to the public. Being that we form trusting relationships with them, they are so open with us that we know all the juicy gossip before it even gets to the tabloids or television, and that is why our clients love coming to us; we are well-known and appreciated for our discretion.”
“So … we blackmail people?”
“Well, we’ve never really had to enforce it since, you know, the threat alone is enough to make them reconsider turning on us but …”
“But at least we can feel safer knowing that the option is there,” Cam happily interrupted. “I know I do.”
“Yeah, me too. Sometimes these celebrities get beside themselves and think they’re paying for sex slaves or something. We provide a service, and it’s our job to live up to their fantasies, but not if it compromises our sense of self.”
“Very nicely put, Chenoa. Now, if there’s nothing else, y’all finish enjoying your breakfast. Rounds start in one hour. Here are your schedules for the day. As per usual, make sure you check in with Chloe or Frank before and after your appointments so we know you’re safe. Protect yourselves, press record if you feel threatened in any way, call us if you need emergency assistance, and I will load all of your floral arrangements into your cars.”
“Do you want me to help you, Mrs. Donato?” Andreas sweetly asked. “I don’t mind waiting to eat since I’ll be here at the store with you all day.”
I wasn’t too proud to take him up on his offer either. Those flower baskets, pots, and bowls could feel overwhelmingly heavy when you piled them up in boxes. I had way more complaints about my back than I should have at the age of twenty-one, so since Lorenzo wasn’t there to help me out like usual, I anxiously took any and all the help I could get!
I always stood outside to wave goodbye as our fleet of delivery vehicles left the lot. I wanted our employees to know that they were cared for, cared about, and that we greatly appreciated their time and tactfulness. Hell, if it weren’t for them, Lorenzo and I wouldn’t have been able to live in an affluent Los Angeles suburb surrounded by lush greenery and unsuspecting neighbors.
La Cañada Flintridge was a beautiful little city with an amazing view of hills and mountains, and one of the top school districts in the state of California. We didn’t have children on the brain yet, but it was nice to know that when we were ready, we were already living in an area that would be perfect for our family.
“Mrs. Donato,” Talia exclaimed from the doorway of our his and hers joint office. “That reality TV star Silvana Nicol just called and said that your husband is late for his usual delivery.”
“Ugh! Don’t tell me he forgot to have you call her and say that he wouldn’t be available today.”
“Uh … should I call him and see where he is?”
“No, I know exactly where he is. Hey, Andreas!” I yelled out. It didn’t take him long to occupy the space next to her. “Could you do me a favor and grab one of our Anemone baskets from the freezer? I have to make a run, and they’re the clients favorite.”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“Oh no, but thank you, sweetheart. I think this is one I’ll need to make on my own before we lose one of our most faithful clients due to my husband’s forgetfulness.”
I wasn’t sure if it was a good or bad thing that I had Lorenzo’s favorite meeting spot for sexual rendezvouses with his favorite customer burned in the forefront of my brain. I knew he was spoiled by how high-class the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Los Angeles could be, and sometimes I was insanely jealous of the fact that he felt more at home in its lavish surroundings than the peaceful vista we were sharing our life in.
The valet attentively greeted me; I imagined he was used to seeing our company cars on a daily basis considering the fact that a lot of our escorts met our customers there. I wasted no time in tearing my Anemone Arrangement complete with an expensive bottle of wine and accompanying cheese, fruit, and cracker plate out of the passenger side before rushing up to their preferred room of choice: The Ritz-Carlton Suite.
It was almost 3,000 square feet of unnecessary self-indulgence with a panoramic view of the city, grand foyer, large master bedroom, multiple sitting rooms, formal dining area, and marble and mahogany floors. In short, it was a fully furnished apartment, which in my opinion was way too idyllic for a ruthless roll in the hay. Lorenzo didn’t even take me to places as extravagant as The Ritz-Carlton when we had date night! He always argued that the home I made for us was filled with more love and romanticism than any hotel in the state of California or beyond could provide.
Hearing that always made me smile …
But walking into the room and seeing their usual meeting place for myself …
Made me green with envy …
And seething with animosity.
I fought my inner demon’s fiery desire to take the wine bottle in my complimentary basket, and smash it up against the side of Silvana Nicol’s flawless face.
She may have been a middle-aged Real Housewife type of reality TV star, but her physical appearance was that of classic Hollywood glamour. Her light wavy hair effortlessly framed her round face and accented her high cheek bones while her deep set eyes sneered at me. My stomach twisted with nausea when she attempted to exhibit the phoniest smile I had ever encountered, and that was saying a lot for having grown up in Tinseltown.
“Hazel! I wasn’t expecting a personal visit from you.”
“Hmm, I’m sure. My husband is otherwise occupied at the moment. Prior engagement. I apologize for his inability to notify you of such, and as a thank you for your continued business, I brought you a fully loaded arrangement for your trouble. The next appointment you have with him will be on the house to make up for any inconvenience.”
“Oh! That’s so sweet of you, but that won’t be necessary. You see, I will no longer be requiring your services.”
“Because of one missed date? Come on, Silvana. That’s unfair.”
“Oh, no, it’s not that. What I mean is, I will still be serviced by your husband, just not by you.”
Silence filled the room as my face crushed with confusion. “I think you may have an unclear understanding as to how our company works, which is unfortunate since you are one of our oldest customers. My husband and I are a team. We work together. You will never be serviced by him without my say.”
“Actually, I have been serviced by him without your say … for quite some time; you just didn’t know about it.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“You thought we kept it professional after you caught him the first time? The time that got you to start this so-called business you have in the first place? We must have really done a good job of keeping it under wraps by continuing to order through your company, but just to update you, as of a few months ago, your husband has personally returned every nickel I invested into him … back to me.”
“Okay, I’m really beginning to lose my patience with you, and I have other things to attend to today so …”
“Oh, I’m sure, but you know what? I think that you would be more inclined to listen to what I have to say if you heard the good news from him.”
I sighed exasperatedly. “What are you talking about, Silvana?”
“Oh, Lorenzo? You can come out now, dear.”
Vexed, my eyes squinted and rolled at her pitiful attempt to interfere in my marriage. But when her head tilted to the side to try to look past me … and behind me … my heartbeat quickened to an unhealthy pace.
It froze and crumbled down to my uneasy stomach when I slowly turned to see Lorenzo emerge from the shadows, his bare upper body covered in a light mist, his adorable curls freshly slicked back from a shower.
Those liquid metal eyes I loved to stare into every morning were icy and solid like stone as he walked around me … to stand next to her.
The tears that previously swelled within him, were now welling up in the core of my bodice, finding their way up to my baby blues.
I saw him tenderly touch her hand.
She lovingly gazed at him …
The same way I remembered doing hours before in our bed.
And then …
Her lips sleazily crashed in connection to his.