“In here, dear.”
Leila walked into the kitchen to see her mother stirring some sort of sauce in a pan. It was white and fragrant and made her mouth water. But it looked too thin, and Leila knew it would be a while until the sauce was thick enough for the noodles.
“Dad home yet?” Leila asked, almost wincing at the question. Her mother sighed, shaking her head slightly.
“No, he had to work late,” her mother told her, an edge to her voice.
Leila knew what that meant. The only “work” he stayed late for was getting under one of the females in the secretary pool’s skirts. Most likely his latest conquest, Veronica Plant, his latest in a long line of PA’s.
Her mouth set, Leila gave her mother a kiss on the cheek before sitting down at the table and placing her purse on top of it. “Did he say when he’d be here?” Leila’s voice was tight with frustration. Why wouldn’t her mother just leave the philandering fucker already? Leila would have in a heartbeat if she was in her position.
“He said he’d be here when he’d be here,” Mrs. Winters told her daughter and took a moment to stir the thick, flat noodles in the larger pot on the stove.
Though the Winters had enough money to hire help around the house, her mother always insisted she needed no help cleaning house or cooking. Most other wives in their social circle had housekeepers to do these chores, but Leila had a feeling that her mother’s need to do these things herself stemmed from a deeper issue.
Her husband. Who wanted to add another female to the household that her father could possibly find attractive and fuck? He had his other dalliances at work, and her mother was not one to add fuel to a fire.
Angelica Latham had married Stephen Winters at the age of 23, and by the time she was 24, she was pregnant with their only child, Leila. After giving birth, Stephen seemed to find less time for his wife, and Angelica had always wondered if the once flat tummy, now saggy and riddles with stretch-marks, had something to do with his disinterest in her after giving birth. Mrs. Winters had wanted at least two children, but Stephen had gotten snipped on the sly a couple of years after Leila was born. They had almost divorced over that. In hindsight, Leila thought, it probably would have been for the best.
Leila didn’t mind being an only child. For a while she had envied Violet for having an older sibling. That was until the aforementioned older sibling had turned into a downright pain in the ass.
“Well, maybe it’ll be just you and me then tonight,” Leila said, feigning a chipper tone. “It’ll be like a girls night in. We can watch crap reality TV and gossip like teenagers.”
“Or like two old biddies at Bingo Night,” her mother said as she smiled slightly. She was forever making jokes about feeling old and being past her prime. Leila blamed her father for her mother’s downtrodden and self-deprecating demeanor. If the man gave his wife half the attention he gave his secretaries, Angelica wouldn’t have been the quiet, almost submissive creature she was.
Though Leila got her spunk from her father, she did not carry too many of his other traits. In fact, the only other trait was probably their healthy sexual appetites. Whereas Leila’s could be seen as normal, her father’s was nothing short of two-timing and vile.
Ironically enough, her father was the one that always bothered her about settling down. Or at least dating one man for longer than a week or two. Her mother knew her better, though, and realized deep down why Leila didn’t settle down. With a father like Stephen, who would trust any man?
“Did you pick out a dress for the wedding yet?” Leila established a safe topic for discussion.
“Yes, I did,” her mother told her, a true smile curving her lips finally. “I’ll show you after dinner and maybe we can catch up over a couple glasses of wine.”
Leila didn’t let her smile falter, but it was a close call. Her mother took solace with a few glasses of wine each night, hoping it would blot out the fact that her husband all but ignored her.
“Sure, that sounds nice.”
Horrendous. It sounded horrendous. She hated to see her mother drink her feelings. It was almost as painful as dealing with her own.
Leila described the bridesmaids’ dresses, which were all the same color, though varying in styles. Not surprisingly, they were all purple, Violet’s favorite color.
Since Leila was Violet’s maid of honor, she had a few of her own assignments to deal with, the most pressing being the upcoming bachelorette party. Violet had begged that Leila not go too crazy, and her friend was having a hard time dealing with even that small of a task.
“I mean, what’s the big deal if we go to a strip club?” Leila whined. “It’s not like Carl probably won’t have something similar for his bachelor party. It’s practically a foregone conclusion with Aiden as his best man.”
“I think Aiden will try to keep his wife happy and stick with something a little less risqué,” her mother divulged. “Constance might never let that man touch her again if he gets strippers and such.”
“We could just combine the two parties and have the groom and groomsmen be the strippers,” Leila suggested, smirking a little. “I don’t think any of the women would mind that.”
“It might turn into an orgy if you do that,” Angelica said, winking at her daughter.
“Ew, Mom!” The word orgy should never leave a mother’s mouth, Leila thought. Now that it had, Leila was pretty sure she was scarred for life.
“Oh, come on,” the older woman said with a scoff. “With the likes of Aiden, Ramon, and that brother of Carl’s, you know the odds are in favor of sexual deviance.”
Though Leila silently agreed, it still bothered her. Mathilde and her own mother would be there, and she couldn’t imagine her ogling the groom. Or the married groomsmen. Since Carl wasn’t close to Stephen Winters, he would not be invited to the stag party, though he might try to con his way into getting an invite, knowing him.
“You’re just afraid to stare at half-naked men in front of your old mom,” Angelica told her wisely. “Though I wouldn’t mind it one bit.”
The topic was throwing Leila off. What had sounded like a splendid idea was turning into a horror show of epic proportions.
“I’m thinking maybe we could do something else then,” Leila replied, warily. “I’m not all that keen on watching my mother lick the abs of a baby-oiled stud in only a speedo and a smile.”
“You’re no damned fun!” her mother bit out, smiling. “Why do all you young ladies get to have all the fun? The only time I ever see your father’s chest is when he’s changing, and it’s not as pretty a sight as it used to be.”
Though Leila’s father wasn’t as well-defined as the other men she knew in the muscles department, he was not flabby either. Still, this conversation had gone from bad to worse. She didn’t want to think of her father in the same train of thought as male strippers.
“I don’t need to hear about your sex life—or lack thereof, thank you very much,” Leila told he mother, wincing. This was getting awkward.
Leila and Angelica were honest with each other to a fault, though they had their boundaries. This conversation was skirting the line, and Leila wanted back on solid ground. Pronto.
“Taste this sauce and see if you think it’s ready.”
Though her mother liked to complain about cooking, Leila knew it was one of her few true passions. When she had stopped working over twenty years ago, Mrs. Winters had taken to watching the cooking channel during her days instead of the soap operas many women indulged in. She had become quite an accomplished cook in that time, though her favorite things to make were always the meals that her daughter and husband liked best. Like chicken fettuccine alfredo and lasagna. The Winters may have had money, but their culinary tastes were quite simple.
“Too runny and not enough salt,” Leila told her. She knew how the alfredo sauce should taste just as well as her mother and wasn’t afraid to stick her oar in when it came to seasoning and such.
As they chatted in the kitchen, Leila’s mind began to wander. It had been over a week since Nate’s Coming Home party, and she had yet to speak with Violet about it. Leila had almost been as irritated with her best friend as with Nate. Violet always wanted to include her in her family activities even when she was uncomfortable doing so. She had a good mind to yell at her for making her have to endure a night with the prodigal son with the venomous tongue.
Leila’s head snapped to her mother’s and was jolted from her thoughts. She honestly didn’t understand why she was bothering to dwell on Nate’s hurtful words, but she did. They grated at her until she was doubting herself and her way of life.
“Sorry, just thinking something about work,” Leila lied, forcing a small smile on her face with some difficulty.
“Geez, girl. I thought you had gone deaf I called you so many times.”
“Nope, still not deaf. Dumb maybe, but not deaf.”
“You are a smart and gorgeous girl.” Angelica smiled at her daughter and gave her a small kiss on the temple before going back to stirring the sauce.
Leila knew she’d meant every word.
“What the fuck, Nate?” Violet bit out at her brother. “Why would you say some shit like that?”
Anthony couldn’t hold water, the bastard. He had come over to Chez Charles and had been chatting with Nate when Violet had come over to listen to what they were talking about. Her best friend’s name had caught her attention, and being the good BFF that she was, she had to eavesdrop in on their conversation. She had heard Anthony and Nate describing the little battle that Nate had had with Leila at the dinner welcoming him home.
“Please—that woman has nerves of steel,” he argued back. “She probably didn’t even think twice about what I said.”
Not that he meant the words. They had actually come out completely unbidden before he could even think of what was spewing from his mouth. For someone usually so cautious, Leila seemed to bring out the worst in him. She always had.
“You’re an asshole,” Violet stated, eyes narrowing on her brother. “You would think you’d have better sense than to be such a dick to my best friend.”
“And you would think that you’d have better sense than to be best friends with...with someone like her.”
“She’s caring and generous, and you’re too fucking stupid to realize that,” Violet defended. “You two may not get along, but that doesn’t mean she talks badly about you behind your back. She hasn’t even mentioned a word of what you said to her to me. But you’re here gabbing away with Tony like a bunch of fucking teens jocks in a locker room.”
Nate’s jaw twitched as he tried to think of a good comeback. “It was water off a duck’s back,” Nate objected finally. “Didn’t even bother her.”
“Says you,” Violet spat out, voice gritty with irritation. “And you know nothing about why she is the way she is. Don’t judge what you don’t know.”
“There’s never a good reason to sleep around the way she does,” Nate said, adamant.
“Again—says you,” she threw at him before started to stalk off. If she didn’t leave now, she knew she’d end up with her knuckles buried in Nate’s jaw.
Nate was surprised to see the hurt look on his sister’s face. It was usually reserved for bouts of utter frustration, and he couldn’t help himself when he called out to her.
“Enlighten me, Vi,” he told her. “What’s a good reason to see men as mere objects, tissues to be disposed of once you’ve use them up.”
“As if you deserve to know,” she tossed back at him, her stride not faltering as she walked away.
Looking back at Anthony, the other man shrugged his shoulders. Anthony knew the Winters, but he couldn’t say he was cozy with them. Their parents moved within the same circles, but only just.
Still, it was irritating that Violet wouldn’t spill whatever it was she was hiding about Leila. Maybe if he had known more, he wouldn’t have been so quick to be judge and jury.
Or maybe just being an asshole was something he thrived at.
Leila walked into the bar a little after happy hour had ended. She usually hated the brand of man that happy hour brought in. Cheap, cheesy, and looking for a quick fuck. Emphasis on the quick. They were usually two-pump chumps.
She almost wished Jared was with her. He made a great wing-“woman” as he was so flamboyant after a couple of drinks, people would watch their interactions with amused expressions.
“Manhattan, no fruit,” she told the bartender when the man came up to her. She hated the little girly cherry that so many places popped in the middle of their cocktails.
After the young server had come back with her drink, Leila paid the man and tipped him before heading off toward the only open table in the darkest corner of the establishment.
She pulled her phone out of her bag and started to flip through her social media while sipping the drink. Ugh, it was weak and vile, and she wondered if the bartender owned the place. Anything to save a bit of money.
There was a shuffling off to her left when the other chair at the table was knocked from its place into her knee. The glare aimed at the back of the head of some black-haired gentlemen must have been felt, because the man quickly turned around.
“My apologies, miss,” he told her politely.
“No sweat,” Leila told him with a brief smile. Clumsy oaf.
“Is anyone using this chair?” he asked.
Leila kept her eyes on her phone and waved at the chair so that he could steal it from the table.
On Instagram, she saw that Violet had posted a new photo and smiled. Mason seemed to be growing teeth left, right, and center. Or at least the 42 photos she had taken of the offending bit of bone would have one thinking so.
A throat cleared, and Leila looked up. The man who had tumbled into the chair had not taken it away but had decided to sit in it and was now watching her look through her phone.
“I thought you needed the chair,” she remarked, taking a sip of her drink. Still disgusting, and she grimaced.
“Jerry mixes horrible cocktails,” the man told her. Leila blinked.
“The bartender there,” he said pointing to the man behind the bar who had served Leila her revolting Manhattan. “Waters them down so people have to spend more. Give the drink to me.”
Leila thought about that and finally pushed the glass toward him, offering a one-shouldered shrug. He could have it if he wanted it that badly.
Instead, the man stood up and walked over to the bar and beckoned “Jerry” over with a finger.
Glancing over at Leila, Jerry took the glass tumbler from the man and emptied it out before making another drink, adding a cherry on top as his own little piece of petty revenge.
Leila watched the whole thing go down and saw the black-haired gentleman saunter back over to her table with the fresh drink.
Handing it over with a smile to Leila, she didn’t flinch from his gaze as she took a small sip. This time, it was delicious. How it should have been made in the first place. Unwatered down, the right amount of whiskey, vermouth, and bitters.
“What’s your name?” she asked him as she placed the drink down onto a napkin.
“Jason,” he told her, smiling brightly. She smiled back, but with none of the warmth his grin had.
“Well listen, Jason,” she started to say and moved in closer to him to speak. “You and Jerry have a nice little thing going on here, don’t you?”
“Pardon?” Jason’s eyes widened, and Leila smiled even wider.
“If you and he have some kind of deal going on trying to pick up women, you should probably at least use his real name,” she informed him.
“How did you—” He looked perplexed, a complete deer-in-the-headlights moment for him.
“Name tag,” Leila cut him off. “He had a nametag on when I went up there to get my first drink, so unless Jerry has an alias by the name of Kyle, you should probably go over your methods of seduction before trying this again.”
Jason’s mouth gaped, but he had the grace to blush a bit. He closed and opened his mouth before finally chuckling and speaking. “He wasn’t supposed to wear the nametag tonight,” Jason offered as an excuse.
“You need a better wingman,” Leila told him, smirking. “Besides, many women don’t need the little bit of dinner theater you two have going to be wooed into bed.”
“Is that you telling me that you would have slept with me even if I didn’t make sure your drink was palatable?” he asked with a slow blink.
“Possibly,” she stated. “Or maybe it’s my way of saying that you should be honest in your intentions instead of coming up with idiotic little ploys to have a one-night stand.”
“How do you know it would be a one-night stand?” he asked boldly. “Perhaps it would be so good that you’d want more.”
“Or perhaps you would be the one begging for more.” Leila smiled at him. “Not all women are what you think, Jason. Some want the one-night stand just as much as men do.”
Jason’s surprise was apparent. His eyelids flickered and jaw became slack before shutting sharply with a click of bone. His lips curved up on one side.
“You might just be a woman in a million,” he told her as his smile widened like the sexual predator he was.
“Leila. My name is Leila,” she informed him. “You might want to remember it after tonight.”
Jason’s smile widened to a full-on, megawatt grin.