“Come here, ya little rug rat,” Carl chuckled as he slowly followed his giggling infant son across the living room floor. He exaggeratedly pretended he was too slow to catch the 9-month-old as he crawled over thick, carpeted floors. Mason thought he was getting one over on his father and giggled with unfettered glee as his chubby arms and legs propelled him across the room.
“Stop playing around. He needs to eat,” Violet admonished Carl, frowning. She didn’t know who was worse, the baby or Carl. Both were difficult to pin down in any situation. Bath times, mealtimes, bedtimes—well, maybe not so much bedtimes with Carl. Beds meant sex to him, and he took advantage—at every juncture—of a nice, soft bed.
“Five more minutes, Mom,” Carl called to Violet as he folded himself to the floor to crawl after Mason. It seemed to light a fire under the baby’s tiny rump, and his limbs spraddled as he tried to get away.
Violet watched as the two of them crawled away on all fours.
“Be honest,” Leila said with a chuckle. “Which is the bigger child, Mason or Carl?”
“Physically, it’s Carl,” Violet told her as she set down a dish of pasta for them to all eat. “Mentally...still Carl.”
Leila hooted with laughter at her friend. With Violet’s budding career as a Family and Marriage Counselor and Leila’s work as an architect, it was hard for the two of them to make time to see each other. Add on a sophomoric fiancé and a baby, and it was almost an impossibility.
“Oh, did I tell you that my brother is back in The States?” Violet asked as she twirled a bit of fettuccine on her fork.
“No, you didn’t,” Leila said with a frown. “You only live within twenty minutes from me and yet you are the world’s worst correspondent.”
“I know, I know,” Violet muttered and placed a forkful of food in her mouth.
“Is he here for the wedding or will he become a permanent fixture in our lives?”
“I’m here for good, if you’re talking about me,” Carl spoke. He was carrying a wriggling Mason in his arms as he came into the room and bent over with the child to kiss Violet’s temple.
“Why would we talk about you?” Violet asked. “You’re here and you’ve got my anchor to you in your arms.”
Carl placed Mason in his high chair and smiled. “Yes, I sure did trap you with this little guy, didn’t I?”
“Isn’t it the female that’s supposed to trap the unconquerable man?” Leila asked with a smirk.
“Not in this case,” Carl retorted. “I had to impregnate her before she got smart and realized she could do better than a recovering manwhore. Plus, I didn’t even have to try. I have super sperm to spare.”
“Little ears,” Violet warned him, pointing to Mason.
“What? It’s not a curse word,” Carl told her and sat down next to Mason, who had a bottle in front of him and some baby food in a tray. “If it makes you feel better, I can call it ejaculate.”
“What would make me feel better is if we dropped the subject of your baby batter while I’m eating,” Leila tossed back. “Talking ejaculate while eating fettuccine alfredo is making me want to gag.”
“Fine. Consider the topic of my super swimmers to be dropped,” he remarked and went to pick up a tiny little spoon so he could feed Mason. Leila wanted to laugh since his hands were almost too large for the task.
“So...back to my bro—” Violet began to say.
“Ah, my second favorite topic of conversation,” Leila interrupted. “My gag reflex is hereby maxed out.”
“I don’t know why you and Nate don’t get along,” Violet sighed.
“It’s because he is an insolent little prick whose arrogance knows no bounds,” Leila reminded her. “Vi, Nate and I haven’t gotten along since I was 17. That’s when he got involved with a different crowd. The country club crowd. The rest of the school just wasn’t good enough for him then.”
“Most of the school was country club,” Violet reminded her.
“Ah yes, but there are even echelons amongst the wealthy country club elite,” Leila explained. “You have a hierarchy within a hierarchy. It’s ridiculous.”
“Agreed, but maybe he’s changed since living in London,” Violet said, defending her older brother.
“When pigs fly,” Leila rebuffed. She stabbed some noodles with her fork, irritated at the topic of conversation. Nathan Charles always seemed to bring out the bitch in her.
“Regardless of the prick my brother can be,” Violet said. “We are having a welcome home dinner for him next weekend, and this is me officially inviting you.”
“Then this is my official answer,” Leila replied. “‘No, thank you’.”
“Come on Lala,” Violet whined. Leila had to laugh when Mason glanced at his mother and looked like he was about to cry.
“No way,” Leila retorted. “And what’s with that face that Mason’s got on? Is he gassy?”
“Either he’s about to fart, poop, or he just plain doesn’t like your answer to my offer,” Violet told her.
“Too bad he doesn’t have a say then,” Leila said while lifting her fork to her mouth again.
“Yeah,” Carl grunted, his nose crinkling. “We have our answer. It was poop.”
“Take him away, Carl!” Violet urged him, shooing him into another room. The smell of Mason’s dookie had been known to kill wildlife and fauna hundreds of feet away from his soiled diapers. It could have been a catalyst to the ever-expanding hole in the ozone layer.
“This is your fault for feeding him that organic crap,” Carl stated as he lifted Mason out of his high chair. “I was fed on that regular corn-syrupy deliciousness and look at me—I turned out fine.”
“Well, he is right,” Leila said in a low voice after Carl left. “He is still fine.”
In the three years since Carl and Violet had been a couple, Leila had seen her share of new faces cross her own threshold. While her friend was playing house and perfect family with Carl and Mason, Leila was the same old love ’em and leave ’em girl she always had been.
Come to think of it, she was almost the female version of what—or rather, who—Carl used to be, though not in such dramatic terms. While she wasn’t anti-relationship specifically, she just didn’t find anyone entertaining or enjoyable enough to try to make a real go of it.
Before she had left Violet and Carl’s place in the Hayward hills, Violet had cajoled and coaxed her until she had finally given in. In one week’s time, she would be at dinner with the Charleses and their friends, celebrating the return of Nate. Or at least everyone else would celebrate. Leila had no love for Nathan Charles.
That hadn’t always been the case, though. She’d had a fleeting crush on him when she was 16. He was the cute, older brother of her best friend. It was almost cliché that she would have had a crush on the 19-going-on-20-year-old.
But as all fleeting crushes went, it burned bright before fizzling out slowly. By the time Nate had turned 21, she had decided his arrogant ways were less appealing than his beautiful exterior.
Nate had been quite popular when he went to business school, and there wasn’t a time when he didn’t bring some lady friend back with him when he visited his home in the South Bay. They may have stayed of couple weeks or the whole summer, but he never kept one with him for long, maybe a few months at the most.
Unbeknownst to Leila, it wasn’t due to Nate being fickle. It was exactly the opposite. He hated fickle women, and he was always the one to fall headlong into love while his girlfriend wanted something a little less monogamous.
And something more than what Nate could give them.
Danger. Many women wanted the dangerous bad boy and not the stable, down-to-earth academic. It was an irritating fact of life and love. No woman wanted the man they could have a future with. They wanted to be the one to tame the bad boy, make him kneel to their beauty and wit. No female wanted a relatively friendly, kind-hearted man who thought with his head as much as his heart.
The women Nate had brought home as a college student dwindled when he had moved to England and Leila lost touch. Not that there was much touching—or talking anyway. Leila only heard about Nate when Violet mentioned him, which was relatively rare. Vi knew there was no love lost between the two. She had only mentioned him tonight because she had invited her to the dinner to welcome her brother home. Violet’s mother, Mathilde, saw Leila almost as one of her own children.
If it was up to Leila, she wouldn’t go anywhere near Nate. They were like siblings with their rivalries and clashes of will. They fought like cats and dogs every time, and it was always bound to get heated when the two were in the same room.
Maybe it would be different this time. Nate was now 26 and an adult. At least more of an adult than the last time Leila had seen him, and that had been quite a few years ago. It was easy to ignore a man who was thousands of miles away and rarely came home to the West Coast of the United States from the UK.
As soon as Leila walked into the upstairs apartment of the duplex she owned, her cell phone rang. Checking it, she recognized the name of her friend and personal assistant, Jared.
“Hey, Jare,” Leila greeted as she searched for a place to set her purse down. She really needed to clean up around here. It was starting to look like the seasonal aisles at Target the day after Christmas. Utter mayhem.
“Lovely lady, I call bearing bad tidings,” Jared told her, his lilting voice one part angelic, one part fiendish.
“Oh God, what now?” Leila blurted out, cringing.
“That new tenant you have lined up just called and stated she’s moving back to Texas or something,” Jared told her. “Her mother has cancer.”
“She was from Kansas,” Leila stated offhandedly.
“Kansas, Texas—the same thing really,” Jared told her airily, sighing. “Those middle states are full of cowboys and homophobes.”
“Not true,” Leila disagreed. “Reggie’s from Texas and he’s gay.”
“Not the point, but bless you for thinking of Reggie. I now have enough fodder for tonight’s spank bank.”
“Anyway, so Lisa or Leslie or whoever can’t come to sign the contract and will be exiled to the Midwest until either her mother goes toes up or falls into remission,” Jared said, powering on. “Would you like me to put another advert out? I can head to Craigslist or contact the realtor again. Your choice, love.”
“Sit on it for now,” Leila replied, sighing. It’s not like she was in a hurry to rent out the bottom floor of her duplex, and she definitely wasn’t hurting for money, at any rate. “I have too many appointments and meetings in the next two weeks, so I won’t be able to meet with anyone anyways.”
“Good thing, too,” Jared retorted sarcastically. “I was getting so bored working my normal 60 hours per week.”
“You get overtime for those extra hours, Jare,” Leila reminded him. “I don’t see you complaining when you get those fat checks deposited to your bank account on paydays.”
“True, I do love to spend my extra dough,” he said wistfully. “Mama needs her bling.”
Rolling her eyes, Leila found an empty space on her kitchen table to lay her purse down. “Is that all you called about, or is there drama in your dating life again?”
“You know me so well, sugar,” Jared simpered, and he was off.
His on-again-off-again boyfriend—whom Jared sometimes lived with and sometimes not—was now off-again. This time he was making noises about it being for good. Mickey could be a real prick when he wanted to be.
“Then leave him finally,” Leila told him. “Pack your shit up in that lonely little Louis Vuitton bag you carry back and forth from his place and call it quits. The guy is a douche.”
“Mickey is...well, he’s complicated,” Jare defended.
“Life is complicated,” Leila spat back. “That doesn’t give him a free pass to Asshole Island.”
“Now that’s a place I might like to see one of these days.” Of course her gay friend would focus on the word asshole in the most literal sense of the word.
“Listen, Dr. Phil here has to go get ready for bed,” Leila stated, giving up on talking any sense into the man. “Mama needs her beauty rest for tomorrow.”
“Okay, sugar bear,” Jared said. “Let me know when you need to put that bottom level up on the market again.”
“Can’t you just call me Leila like a normal friend?” Jared never called her anything other than a term of endearment unless they were at the office.
“Now, pookie! Why ever would I do such a thing?”
“Leila!” Mathilde cried as the younger woman met her at the door to the Charles estate. If Leila didn’t know any better, she would have thought that Mathilde was already sampling the champagne she’d probably flown in from France for the celebration tonight. Mathilde Charles was sometimes over the top with her gestures and parties.
“Hi, Mathilde,” Leila’s voice rang out. She had long gotten over the woman’s insistence on calling her by her first name. Mattie liked to think of herself as “just one of the girls”—even if she was twice her daughter’s and daughter’s best friend’s ages.
“My dear, it’s so good to see you again,” Mathilde told her, giving her a kiss on each cheek. “It’s been ages!”
“Blame your daughter,” Leila told Mattie pointedly with a wry smile. “She’s impossible to get hold of, and when we do hang out it’s usually at her house since she’s got Mason to care for.”
“Hey, Leila,” another female voice called out.
Looking over at Constance, she could see that the woman was pregnant again. Her baby bump looked to be only four to five months along, if Leila had to guess.
Leila couldn’t say she was friends with Constance, but they were acquaintances that got along, so she gave her a hug and a low-toned congratulations as she wandered deeper into the opulent home.
“How far along are you?” she asked Constance as they strode toward the sitting room. A lot of noise was coming from it, and much of it had all to do with a squealing Lizzie an excited, babbling Mason.
“Four and a half months,” Constance told her, rubbing her belly slightly. “I think we are going to find out the sex at the next appointment, so don’t even ask yet. I’m tired of telling everyone I don’t know.”
Walking into the sitting room, the large space was packed with people. Ramon had brought along Mariana with his three children, some who were entertaining the squealing youngsters, Lizzie and Mason. Carl and Violet were already there and watching the proceedings as eight-year-old Luca Gutierrez showed Lizzie and Mason a magic trick he had perfected only the week before. Mason was doing his best to try and unravel the secrets of the “never-ending scarf” trick that Luca was trying to pull off. The oldest Gutierrez had an active little audience that seemed bent on his early retirement from magicianhood.
Of course, Mathilde and Harry were there, and Aiden walked into the room right after Constance and Leila arrived, bringing a couple of tumblers full of an amber liquid on ice that Leila guessed was probably scotch. They were nothing if not consistent on their favorite liquor.
Mathilde offered Leila a drink, but she declined any hard liquors as she had to drive later, though she would probably partake in a glass of wine with dinner as she usually did.
Even if the party was in his favor, Nate was nowhere to be seen, and Leila figured he was either getting himself a drink or was up in his room, not ready to face the raucous crowd that awaited him below in the sitting room.
Leila spoke with Carl and Violet for a while before excusing herself to use the restroom. On the way, she ran into the guest of honor.
“Nate.” She greeted him briefly with a nod. “Welcome back. Your welcoming committee seems to have started without you.”
“Hello, Leila.” His tone was clipped and dry. “Good to see you got your invite to this dinner. I suppose I have either my mother or Violet to thank for your presence here this evening.”
“Well, it certainly wasn’t my first choice for a Saturday night, but I’ll make do,” she told him.
“Well, I certainly hope my party’s not keeping you from screwing your flavor of the week,” Nate bit out, giving her a thin smile that spoke of his irritation of her mere presence at the party.
“Just as I hope your party’s not keeping you from striking out talking to women at the bar.”
Smile bright but fake, Leila shoved past him, regretting ever having agreed to attend Nate’s welcome home party.
“So, are you staying until the wedding?” Constance asked as she cut up some of the veal on her plate before slipping the fork into her mouth.
“I’m staying for at least a good few months,” Nate told her, shocking the entire room.
“What about the businesses in England?” Aiden asked, looking between Harry and Nate. The former looked to be gritting his teeth, and it was obvious he was not happy with his son’s announcement, though he had known about it already.
“I have fully staffed the businesses and all of the managers and execs on staff are more than capable of running them on their own,” Nate advised him. “I will still be reachable by phone in the event they need my assistance, but otherwise I will stick to my side of the pond for a bit while Jenkins, Ackerly, and Farnes make most of the decisions.”
There were a lot of questions for him, and Leila had to admit, he answered them all with grace and civility. He didn’t seem annoyed or irritated as the queries were flung at him in a rapid-fire progression. It was all Leila could do not to tell everyone to quit with the third degree. She didn’t feel like hearing a bunch of questions about businesses she had no interest in, or a country she most likely would never visit. It bored her to tears.
She turned to Constance, who was speaking with Violet.
“When are you going to expand and given Mason a little sister or brother?” Constance was asking of Violet.
“Dear sweet Jesus,” Violet said, paling. “At least let me get one out of diapers before you give me ideas about having another one.”
“Yeah, she’s only just been able to potty-train Carl,” Leila added with a smirk.
“I heard that!”
“You were meant to, Carl.”
“And what about your job, Leila? How’s that treating you?” Constance questioned. She knew Leila was an architect and had her own business, but not much else.
“Business is booming, thank goodness,” Leila told her and took a sip of merlot. “I have some more contracts I have to bid for in another month, but otherwise I couldn’t be more pleased.”
“Yes, tell us more about the fascinating world of blueprints and floor plans,” Nate said snidely. “It’s absolutely riveting stuff.”
Leila pierced him with her eyes, ignoring his sarcasm. “Well, it’s probably loads more interesting than mergers and Excel spreadsheets,” Leila quipped. “I could fall asleep at terms like accounts receivable and accruals. They’re like my own little lullaby.”
Nate scowled at her and turned to his father who had asked him a question.
Snobby prick, Leila thought to herself.
Nathan hadn’t always been so rigid and formal. At some point before going to an Ivy League school, he had been fun to hang out with. Well...when he was around. Then overnight he had turned into someone Leila no longer knew and cared even less for. He’d turned into Harry, his father. Authoritarian, egotistical, shut off to the world. All stiff lines, ledgers, and irritatingly knowledgeable figures.
And Leila wondered why. He didn’t seem to actually enjoy his work and only learned his father’s business for the sole purpose of taking it over when he came of age. It was like Nate had learned the biz for his father, not for himself. It was no wonder he was already burned out on the practice of it.
The Nate Leila had known prior to becoming business savvy had been fun, playful. He enjoyed sports and music and had time to mess around and be free. One or two semesters at college was all it took for him to become a completely different person. One Leila no longer looked up to nor yearned for the way she had the year prior.
Though she still hated his haughty attitude and that ever-present and growing chip on his shoulder, she found herself looking over at him and hoping the chip had at least worn down some. The man was going to have a heart attack at 30 if he kept up his prickly attitude and stiff demeanor.
But there was no sign of the Nate he once was when he was younger, and Leila sighed in frustration. London did nothing but build up his icy comportment and further the distance between himself and his family and friends.
After dinner, they all went to the sitting room where drinks were being served. Again, Leila declined any liquor and was starting to count down the minutes she would have to stay at the house before politely advising she needed to leave. She could fake an early and rare Sunday morning meeting if she had to.
T-minus thirty minutes until it would be time for her to make her excuses and leave the “Welcome Home” party. It was close to torture to be in the same room as someone she despised so blatantly. The feeling was mutual, it seemed. They could barely be civil to each other and almost sought the other out to irritate.
For instance, now. Nate had made the rounds of the room, thanking people for coming. He had left Leila for last.
“I wanted to thank you for coming to this party, though my mother and sister had more to do with that than I did,” Nate said, his tone stilted and forced.
“Are you at all capable of being civil?” Leila questioned. “I would have thought out of all things you could learn in England, it would be a little civility. The people there seem fretfully polite.”
“Not in London,” he told her. “There are many that can’t stand foreigners. What you see as being polite is merely the Londoners tolerating the tourists and transplants to the city. Hell, they don’t even like those from the country. It’s all about where you come from.”
Leila wondered if that was true or if Nate was once again being contrary. He loved to fight her on any little issue.
“And how do they treat the native northern Californian in Ye Ole London Towne?” she asked.
“Like I should have come straight off the plane on a surfboard and wearing swim trunks.”
“You mean you didn’t?” she asked, arching a brow.
She watched as he rolled his eyes and took a sip of his drink. “Don’t be an idiot. Of course not.”
“How should I know? It’s not like we’re friends or even close. You could have come off the plane naked and it wouldn’t surprise me.”
“That sounds like something you would be more likely to do, honestly,” Nate remarked. “At least that’s what a few of my friends have said. You seemed to have slept with at least one of them since I’ve been gone, and they gave me the distinct impression that you’re loose.”
Leila’s eyes widened. She didn’t remember fucking anyone Nate was friendly with. Not that she remembered all of his friends. Of course Nathan had to remind her, looking like he wanted to beam from ear to ear.
“Parker? Don’t you remember him? Brown hair, small scar on his chin from a skateboarding accident when he was younger?” Nate studied her. “Honestly woman, how many damned men have you fucked that you can’t remember? He certainly remembers you.”
“I only remember the memorable ones, perhaps.” Leila’s eyes went from wide to mere slits on her face. She didn’t feel like discussing her love life—or lack thereof—with Nate. It was none of his damn business.
“Or you’ve fucked so many that the recollections of a few of them had to fall out of your head to make more room for the newer conquests,” he said, voice like icicles.
“Fuck you, Nate,” Leila bit out at him, glaring daggers. “You brought home plenty of skirt when you were off in college, so don’t you dare judge me.”
“I was serious about all those women,” he rebuffed, frowning.
“Is that why you had a new love interest each time you came home? Or were you so horrible in bed that they dumped you after you fucked them?”
“Says the Whore of Babylon,” Nate ground out.
“I’m not a whore,” Leila spat. “I’m...relationship challenged.”
“Meaning that I don’t waste my time on one man if I know off the bat that he and I won’t work,” Leila drawled, irritated.
“Maybe if you gave them more than one night you’d find you were acting too hastily. Or possibly date them before fucking them. How novel an idea that is, eh?”
“Why does my sex life interest you so much?” Leila asked. “Is yours so dull that you have to snoop around mine to live vicariously through me, or do you simply enjoy demeaning women for sport? Perhaps that’s why all your ex-girlfriends left you. Or maybe because your dick’s minuscule compared to your inflated ego.”
“At least I’m not a gaping crevasse threatening to suck in the population of the Bay Area with the gravitational pull your cavernous pussy maintains. I’m a bit concerned at my proximity to it, to be honest.”
“I’m done with this bullshit.” Leila slammed her drink down on the nearest flat surface before heading toward the door of the sitting room. Their conversation had been quiet enough for no one to overhear, though the tension between the two should have engulfed the entire room and rendered it silent with its intensity.
“Good, I won’t miss your face during the rest of this idiotic shindig,” Nate told her, not caring if she heard or not as she walked away.
“What the fuck, Nate?” Violet hissed at him. She had noticed the tension between the two and had left Carl in charge of keeping an eye on Mason, who was still fighting sleep to play with the older children.
“What? You know I can’t stand Leila,” he grated out, shrugging his shoulders.
“What the hell did you say to her?” Violet questioned. She was caught between going after her friend and reaming out her older brother.
“Nothing she didn’t already know, Vi.”
Throughout the acidic banter, Leila had been fighting back her emotions. She knew that she’d hated Nate, and their encounter had just confirmed it.
Judgmental, cocky Nate who probably knew nothing about her other than what Violet and his so-called friends must have said about her. She knew Vi would have been on her side, but Lord knew what his friends had told him. Not that she cared.
Or at least that was what she told herself.
I’m not a fucking whore, Leila thought as she walked quickly to her car. She had grabbed the keys from the valet on her way out, though what the man or woman looked like she had no clue. By that time her vision had blurred, hot tears threatening to spill over.
Just because she slept with a man and called it a day didn’t mean she was a whore. She had a healthy sexual appetite, and if she felt the relationship was Splitsville waiting to happen, she cut it off at the pass. Why waste time when he’s “not the one”.
The problem with that argument was that there never was “the one”. They just were.
And that’s what had hit home.
Leila didn’t lead people on and doubted that half the men she slept with were after more than a one-off. Only a few had honestly protested when she had told them it was just not going to happen between them. And those men were...well, sweet.
So, she usually kept away from those men as a rule. She hated to see the looks on their faces when she told them it was fun but the chemistry just wasn’t there. She couldn’t give a fuck about what snobby Nathan Charles thought about her.
So why was her face wet and her chest hitching with sobs as she drove her car out of the circular driveway at Chez Charles?