We were meeting Jake at a restaurant that was within the confines of his ‘zone’. This was a change of plans and Lila had called her friend to let her know where we would be. It was supposed to be a celebration, a ‘rehearsal dinner’ of sorts. We were doing it unconventionally, I guess, without the family-and-friends crowd that most pre-wedding celebrations might have called for. Which was fine. Lila had no family. Her father had abandoned her mother a week before she’d been born. I’d looked into it. I’d had my investigator that dug into stuff like that for me track down information about who the guy was and where he might have disappeared to. Turned out he was as elusive as smoke. There’d been a string of men that had come and gone from Lila’s mother’s life in the few years before Lila’s birth. The one that seemed most likely to be her father had vanished into thin air and I’d let it go. I could have taken it further but it wouldn’t have helped her anyway, I figured; rehashing old mysteries and regrets would bring her more pain than satisfaction. And her mother had died years ago. A foster mother that had taken Lila in at one point, who Lila had mentioned she’d never felt close to, had also died. There’d been friends – and a few not-too-serious boyfriends – in her life along the way but none that had stuck. She was a girl who had spent most of her life hiding, and running, and studying her way to a future that bore no resemblance to her past.
We would keep it small, and intimate. Just us, and Lila’s friend Eva, and Jake. I’d discussed it with the legal team and they’d agreed to allow Jake one visit to the Hamptons this weekend to attend his brother’s wedding. It had been programmed into the high-tech monitoring device they’d fitted him with, a bracelet that looked sort of like a tight-fitting metal watch. Beyond this one outing, he was allowed nowhere except his home, his office and the direct path between the two, for a period of three months.
He seemed to be taking it seriously, for once. Maybe it had finally sunk in: a breach this time would mean definite and prolonged jail time and they weren’t fucking around. Jake had been subdued in court, uncharacteristically obedient. I could only hope he would finally, at long last, toe the line.
To be honest, the last thing I felt like doing was meeting up with Lila’s friend. I’d met the girl before and she was a little annoyingly over-the-top about the whole money angle. The fact that Lila was dating and was now marrying a billionaire seemed to be a detail she fixated on. There was something a little crass and over-enthusiastic about her that rubbed me the wrong way but I’d just have to put up with. Hardly a major hardship, in the broader scheme of things. I was glad Lila had someone, after all, to be there for her. A female companion to help her primp and prepare for her Big Day.
“I’m a traditionalist,” I told her in the limo on the way to the restaurant. We’d just had some kind of breakthrough. The sex this afternoon had been … crazy-intense. Even moreso than usual and that was saying something. We’d explored a direction that could have easily backfired. Thankfully, it hadn’t backfired. It had broken something open in Lila. She’d worked through a childhood trauma that could now begin to heal and she was different tonight: fragile but at the same time emotionally stronger than I might ever have seen her. She was sitting next to me, sipping a glass of champagne I’d given her. Her green eyes were smoky yet bright and she contemplated me with something that looked almost heart-breakingly like gratitude. I didn’t want her to be grateful to me, not for anything. Her gratitude was a drop in the ocean compared to mine. I was so goddamn grateful just to be sitting here with her, to be able to drink in the colorful glow of her, it was hard to express. She was my oasis. My beacon of stellar beauty in a starless night. Beyond her everything seemed dull, unimportant. With her, I felt more whole and more myself than I ever had. Lila made me feel like the best possible version of myself. Even with all the fuck-ups I kept continually making, in her presence I was more honorable and decent and good than anything I had ever attempted or even imagined. This was only one of the many reasons I was so thoroughly addicted to Lila Carmichael. Soon to be Lila Wolfe. I could hardly believe my luck.
“In what way?” she said, her hand small and warm in mine.
I was so deeply in thought and in love I’d almost forgotten what I’d meant to say.
“In what way are you a traditionalist?” she said again.
“I’ll leave you just before midnight tonight.”
“Why?” she smiled, but not before a glint of almost-alarm flickered. “Will your limo turn into a pumpkin?”
“I thought Eva could stay in our apartment tonight, with you. I’ll go to Jake’s. A driver will pick you both up at eight tomorrow morning and take you to a day-spa in Southampton. Your dress is already at the house in Water Mill, where there’ll be a team of attendants to assist you with anything you need. The ceremony will start at three.”
“You think it’s bad luck to see your bride before the wedding,” she said, understanding. Her smile held, as though she found this unexpected. “I would never had picked you for being superstitious, Alexander Wolfe.”
“I just want everything to be perfect.” I’d never been superstitious before, but here I was, about to marry the girl who was a million times more dazzling than anything my feeble brain could have dreamed up. I didn’t want to take any chances, just in case.
“That must be a difficult compromise for you to make.”
I watched her, mesmerized by color of her lips.
“Considering all your … tendencies.” My over-protective tendencies, she didn’t need to say; we both knew about those all too well.
“Yes, well, I did hire a few bodyguards. I hope you don’t mind. Twenty of them. You’ll travel in a … motorcade.”
She laughed. “A motorcade?”
“Yes. I didn’t want to take any chances.”
“Don’t be mad.”
She chewed on her plump little pink bottom lip, her white teeth square and neat. Contemplating me. “I’m not mad.”
“You don’t mind?”
“I don’t mind, I guess. It seems a little excessive, though.”
“Think of it as a wedding procession.”
“Are they going to swarm around Eva and me at the spa while we’re getting our manicures?”
“They’ll be outside. The two of you will be exclusive guests.”
Her eyes narrowed. I was struck, once again, by the cat-like shape of her eyes, framed by those naturally long lashes. “You’ve rented out the entire spa.”
“Yes. You’ll get the full treatment. Anything you want.”
She laughed again. “You’re crazy.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant by this. “Crazy.”
“Yes. But I love you anyway.”
I was relieved, that she seemed to find it all somewhat amusing. Either she was getting used to my style or she didn’t feel quite so confined by my reluctance to let her out of my sight for a whole day without … insurance. She’d won today, after all. I’d called Mark Faber and apologized while she watched me. I’d offered him his job back at her insistence. He’d been so shocked he went quiet for a few seconds. Then he agreed to come in on Monday, as usual. I may or may not still end up quitting, which I’ll deal with when we get to it. Today I had other things on my mind. Her, mostly.
I kissed her. I simply couldn’t resist. Those pouting pink lips. That wide-eyed look she gave me whenever she couldn’t quite believe what I was willing to do for her. My heroin and my heroine, all rolled into one feisty little innocent who could bring me to my knees with one look, and one kiss.
“We need to talk about a honeymoon,” I said. “We’ll probably have to wait a month or so, just because I’ve been away –”
“We can count Paris as our honeymoon.”
I stared at her, mildly affronted. “No. Paris was our … getting-to-know-each-other trip. A honeymoon comes after a wedding,” I reminded her. “Name it. Wherever you want to go.”
She smiled again. “Crazy.”
“Think about it,” I said. “And get back to me.”
The limo pulled up outside a small restaurant where we’d booked our table for four. It was a relatively new place I’d seen written up recently. According to the write-up it had a ‘superb New World menu’ and ‘the best apple pie in New York City’. Apple pie just happened to be Jake’s favorite food. And the restaurant was just around the corner from his apartment. I was hoping it would be good, so he could have a place to go that was in the zone. There weren’t all that many restaurants on this street. It was mainly retail and offices.
Eva was already there and she rushed up to Lila, hugging her in that over-excitable way girls have. “Oh my god!” she gushed to Lila. “You look more and more gorgeous every time I see you! The lifestyle of the rich and famous totally agrees with you!”
I smiled and kissed Eva’s cheek. She smelled like smoke and cheap perfume. “Hi, Eva. You look lovely tonight.”
“Hi, Alexander,” Eva beamed. “I wish I looked half as good as the two of you!”
“Is Jake here yet?” Lila asked.
“I wouldn’t know! I mean, I looked for someone resembling his handsome billionaire brother but no one fit that description.” Eva giggled.
I was relieved to see Jake walk in just then. He’d ditched the suit and was back in his usual garb: leather jacket and jeans. He looked tired, as he had earlier, but he’d lost a degree of that quiet dread that had clung to him lately. Nothing like dodging a three-year sentence in a maximum-security prison to lighten the mood. I gave him a hug.
“Thanks for venturing into my jurisdiction,” he said sardonically. “Sorry to mess up the plan.”
Lila kissed his cheek. “Jake, this is Eva Collins. Eva, Jake Wolfe.”
Eva’s eyes lit up. “It’s nice to meet you, Jake.”
Jake nodded politely, delivering a light peck to her overly-bronzed cheek. “Eva. The pleasure’s mine.”
It was easy enough to read the dynamic. Near-convict or not – and I had no doubt Eva had either been filled in on the recent drama by Lila or read about it in the papers – Jake never failed to get the ladies’ attention. They practically threw themselves at him, and always had. He was tall, dark and mysterious with a twist: a hint of renegade angel edged with the sincerity of a white knight. Eva was practically drooling.
Jake, on the other hand, looked mildly bored. I sincerely hoped he wouldn’t go for the easy lay, which it was pretty clear was already on offer. I didn’t want Lila to have any emotional melodramas to have to deal with on her wedding day. Because I knew Jake would never stick with a girl like Eva beyond one carefree night; she’d drive him mad almost before he’d even vacated her bed: this was obvious. So I was already spinning a plan about how we could draw this dinner out until midnight, at which time Lila would leave with Eva and I’d drag my brother back to his place. Secretly, I’d hoped Lila and I might have a few minutes alone together … for one last pre-wedding lovemaking fest. But I was just being greedy again. It wasn’t like we hadn’t just spent the entire afternoon in bed, immersing ourselves in simultaneous orgasms like it was going out of style.
“This place is so cute,” Lila said, looking around the restaurant.
I guess it was. It had round tables with comfortable-looking chairs and leather booths. Lots of windows and mirrors gave it a spacious, interesting feel. Thousands of fairy lights had been attached in draping strings from the ceiling, creating the illusion of a starry night. And if the aromas from the kitchen were anything to go by, the food would be as good as the write-up had suggested. I was ravenous, I realized. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Neither had Lila. I’d interrupted her coffee/lunch break. My throat tightened at the echoing memory of seeing her sitting there with Mark Faber. But it was easing: the quiet, lingering rage. I trusted her. Not him, but her. I had no other choice.
God. The way she’d looked at me when she’d said those words. The way she’d moved. That little gyrating nymphette body on top of mine. Squirming and squeezing, clenching and –
Luckily, the hostess appeared just then and led us to the window booth. I’d requested the best seat in the house when I’d made the reservation, as I always did, and had promised a 100% percent tip for the privilege.
My focus was all about Lila but as the girls slid into the booth and Jake and I took the aisle seats, something about the look on his face struck me. He was watching the hostess.
She was dressed in black. Maybe it was some kind of casual uniform rule. Her t-shirt and pants were tight-fitting and showed off a figure that was lush and reminiscent of a fifties movie star. Not plump but curvaceous; hour-glass, they used to call it. She had wavy strawberry-blond hair that she’d tied up in a bun that was skewered with a pencil to keep it in place, which wasn’t quite working; strands had escaped and curled in bouncy loose ringlets around her face. Her skin was pale and her eyes were almost incongruously dark for the color of her hair. She noticed the way Jake was looking at her and her cheeks turned pink. She had the faintest ring of a bruise around one of her eyes that had nearly faded, but not quite.
“Hi, and welcome to Sugar’s,” she said. “Your waitress will be with you in just a minute with your menus and our specials list for this evening. Can I get you started with a drink from the bar?”
“What’s your name?” said Jake. I couldn’t help noticing the way he was suddenly, totally riveted.
“Sugar,” the girl said.
“Sugar,” he repeated.
“And this restaurant is called Sugar’s,” he said slowly. “Don’t you think that’s just a little bit of a coincidence?”
She met his gaze, mildly intrigued by him. He’d taken off his jacket and his sleeves were rolled up, revealing both the metal bracelet and several of his tattoos. “It’s my restaurant,” she said.
“You’re a chef?” Jake asked.
“Yes. And a baker, a hostess, sometimes a bartender. I sort of do it all.”
“A baker,” Jake mused, mildly wide-eyed, like the occupation was the most erotic-sounding on earth.
I hadn’t mentioned it to Jake yet: “Best apple pie in New York, according to the Times.”
“No shit,” he said, wildly impressed. He looked at Sugar. “Do you make the apple pie?”
“I sure do.” She was clearly proud of this and I guess she had a right to be; it’s not everyday you get the kind of NYT review her apple pie had just enjoyed.
“What kind of name is Sugar?” Jake pressed. “Is that your real name?”
“Nope. My real name is Aphrodite Calliope Diana Penelope Helena Malone. My mother went through a Greek mythology phase, which my father wasn’t all that pleased about, since he’s Irish. But most people have been calling me Sugar since I was about five. Ever since I baked my first apple pie, actually. I got all covered in sugar, from head to toe.”
Something about the detail seemed to unfocus Jake. He just stared at her, like all the information she’d just babbled to him was the most fascinating thing he’d ever fucking heard. He was so quietly overblown about it, I almost wondered if he was joking. But then, when he asked his next question, I could tell by his manner that this was no joke. “What happened to your eye?”
It wasn’t even appropriate, to ask something like that to someone you’d never even met, but Jake had a way about him that could get away with that kind of thing. The girl didn’t look pissed off about it, just self-conscious. Instead of going pink, this time she paled a shade, and her hand ghosted to her cheek, where the bruise was barely visible. Her stricken expression was replaced by a smile so practiced, I think we both saw it then: a habit we recognized. “Oh, that? I walked into a door, can you believe it?”
I walked into a door. Wasn’t that code for ‘my motherfucker of a boyfriend beats me’? Or ‘my old man’s favorite hobby is domestic abuse’? Maybe my interpretation was outdated. I might have just been paranoid, given my – Jake’s – history. Maybe when running a restaurant, with all that rushing in an out of doors, well, maybe you did occasionally bump into one. Jake had gone all quiet, contemplating the girl, scanning the other employees to see if one of them might have been the one who’d made her … walk into a door.
“So, what can I get you?” she asked.
I looked over at Lila. She and Eva were talking about the spa visit. I didn’t need to ask her what she wanted. I knew her favorite drink. We’d drunk it like water in Paris. And I figured Eva for a girl who wouldn’t say no to a four hundred dollar bottle of bubbly. “We’ll have a bottle of Krug,” I said, “1998, if you have it. And a scotch on the rocks and, Jake, what’ll it be? You want a beer?”
Jake was still staring at Sugar. Finally, he said, “Yeah. I’ll have a Dos Equis with a wedge of lime. And a slice of apple pie. Served warm with vanilla ice cream on the side.”
“I always serve it warm with vanilla ice cream on the side. Homemade vanilla ice cream,” Sugar smiled, as though he’d just given her the biggest compliment in the world by ordering a slice of her pie. She didn’t even question the fact that he’d ordered dessert as an appetizer. “Coming right up.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at the expression on his face as he watched her walk away. I had a feeling that Eva was shit out of luck with Jake tonight, even if Lila and I did escape for a few hours before the stroke of midnight, which was probably wishful thinking on my part.
And I had a feeling that Jake, once he’d tasted a slice of her homemade apple pie, which he ate like he was having some sort of orgasmic experience, was going to be frequenting Sugar’s on a very regular basis.
I was silently exceptionally relieved Sugar’s was in the zone.