My brother was sitting in my office. As per his usual insolence, he’d chosen to wear his black leather jacket – over a shirt and a tie, at least – to the meeting with the lawyers. Now, the top two buttons of his shirt were undone and his tie was loosened, reminding me eerily of a noose. We were alone, after a grueling three-hour session with our legal team that had cemented the fact that Jake would do time. Even with the pay-out, which was significant, the most they could do was plead to settle out of court for a one-year sentence in a minimum security prison, with the possibility of parole at three months. That was the absolute best case scenario and they would give it all they had. Which happened to be a shitload of my money, but whatever.
Jake knew where I kept my scotch and he helped himself to a generous helping, then poured me a glass. It wasn’t my usual style to drink during the day but today I’d make an exception. He could be put away as soon as the following week. Plus, when I looked at my watch, it was a lot later than I thought: 5:21. One of those days that simultaneously flies by and feels like it’s lasted about a week.
“It was a stupid fucking thing to do,” I told him. He’d traded insider information to the tune of almost two million dollars. And got caught red-handed doing it.
“No shit, professor. Thanks for the tip.”
“I could’ve paid you. Instead I get to hand my money over to lawyers and you get a ten-by-ten cell.” Square footage was the very least of Jake’s problems once he was inside.
“Next time I’ll ask you first.”
His complete lack of remorse pissed me off, but it was nothing new. Jake had been a punk from the word go and showed no sign of reforming. Lecturing him, I knew only too well, would only make things worse.
I could tell by his slouch he was already moving on from the topic. “So. She said yes, huh?”
I watched him take a swig of his drink, wishing there was more I could do to shield him. His hair was dishevelled and he looked tired. I wished I could rewind time, somehow, and do more to protect him. Erase certain things and add other happier memories that would fortify him and equip him better for the pitfalls and the dark nights. “Yeah, she did.”
“You lucky bastard.”
I couldn’t help almost smiling at that, even though I probably should’ve punched him instead. We’d already fought over Lila once. He’d proven himself that night. I knew I could trust him. He’d saved her and he’d saved us.
“Yeah. I only hope I’m worthy.” It sounded cheesy, but I meant it. I’d worked my entire life without consideration of other people’s feelings or sensitivities, with only my own interests – and my brother’s – in mind. I’d already made so many mistakes with Lila. Stupid mistakes. Mistakes only an asshole would make. I wasn’t used to caring about anyone like I cared about Lila. I wasn’t used to wanting and lusting and loving to this degree and the whole fucking thing was a minefield. I was still trying to get my bearings.
“Trust me, you’re not worthy,” Jake generously informed me.
He laughed and took another drink. “Seriously, though, congratulations. Looks like I might miss the wedding. When’s the big day?”
“Maybe we could do it this weekend. Before you—” I stopped.
“Before I get put away? Sure. A happy family get-together.”
“It might be good for you to get out of the city, for a night or two.”
“Sure.” We were quiet for a minute, savoring the rich burn of the scotch. “When did you propose?”
”A couple weeks ago.”
“You sure don’t fuck around, bro. But I can’t blame you for that. She’s a catch, man. A real catch.” There were only two people on the planet that could make me feel like I wasn’t made of the stone I usually forced myself to be, through fuck-you business takeovers, king-of-the-world executive meetings, do-it-my-way investment decisions. Jake was one of them. Knowing that my brother shared a connection with Lila made me love her even more, just because he did too.
“If it’s too soon for her,” I said, “we’ll wait. Until you get out.”
“Don’t wait, just on my account,” Jake said. “I wouldn’t want you to do that. You two go ahead and get started with your life together. Don’t let me hold you up.”
Fuck it. It wasn’t fair, that even all the money in the world couldn’t save my brother. He just about broke my jaded heart sometimes. “Well, that’s too fucking bad. Because I’m not getting married without a best man. We can wait three months, if we need to. Lila might prefer to anyway.”
Jake paused, and for a second he reminded me so much of his seven-year-old self I almost went to him, to give him a goddamn hug or something. Sick regret churned in my stomach, at an old memory that still had the capacity to cut like a knife. My brother could read the turn of my thoughts, and quickly changed the subject. “So, what about that other chick you were dating? The supermodel. What ever happened to her?”
I couldn’t help a heavy sigh from escaping. “Yeah. I have a feeling that particular topic probably reared it’s ugly head today. Ashley Lynch was showing Lila around, at my request. I have no doubt Ashley was on her phone to Shawna as soon as I left the room this morning. But fuck it. Whatever there was between me and Shawna was over the minute Lila walked into that job interview.”
Jake laughed lightly. “Jesus. Why didn’t you get someone else to show Lila around?”
“Because if it wasn’t her, I had a feeling it would somehow end up being Mark Faber, and –” Actually, I didn’t feel like going into all that right now.
He contemplated me, and raised an eyebrow. “And what?”
I sighed again. “And I’m a fucking idiot, that’s what.”
“You’ve got a jealous streak, is what. Which must mean this is the real thing. You’ve never been the jealous type before.” Jake smiled a little but he didn’t prod, which I appreciated. He had an uncanny knack for sensing emotional boundaries, even if he actively sought to break every legal and professional boundary there was to break. “Hey, at least she said yes. It’s pretty obvious she loves you. No one can blame you for not wanting to play-by-play your previous relationship.”
“No. But I probably should’ve ended that relationship before I started up the next one.”
Jake exhaled a slow chuckle. “Shit.” He finished his drink, setting it on the table with a thud. “So what, you got carried away. Lila will find out about Shawna, you can talk it through, she’ll understand, you’ll have some killer make-up sex, you’ll say your vows. Done and dusted.”
“Yeah, hopefully. Anyway. You hungry? We can go to my apartment and get something to eat. Better if we avoid public places. This shit’ll probably be all over the papers already. Those fucking sharks will frenzy off this for a while, I have a feeling.”
“Sorry about that.”
He was sorry. I could see it. Jake didn’t think ahead when he defied authority and ignored the law. His rebellious streak was so ingrained he didn’t even realize what he was doing half the time. It didn’t even occur to him that he was risking not only his own ass, but mine too. Jake’s experiments with embezzlement (at a previous company he worked for, not mine) and insider trading were more of a case of him playing a game, seeing what he could get away with, creating some fun where before there was none. When – if – he was caught, he’d usually laugh it off, and charm his way out. For someone who had screwed over as many people as Jake had, he had a surprising number of friends – many of which were the screwees, and knew this. But Jake was smart, and extremely likeable. There was something about him you just couldn’t stay mad at.
And he was doing it now. He was exuding that bruised, smirking vulnerability that never failed to cool my anger and replace it with protective empathy. I got him, and I forgave him.
“Come on,” I said. “I’ll have my cook make us something. Some steaks. Filet mignon. And a nice Bordeaux. Okay?”
We went through to my apartment. My housekeeper, Claude, had a knack for making the place look presentable. Delicate spotlights and a few arty lamps somehow matched the city lights outside the huge windows, melding the twilit night with the luxury of the softly lit modern furnishings. The whole scene looked comfortable, clean and very expensive. I guess this is what I’d worked my whole life to be able to come home to: a space like this. Mozart was playing quietly – one of my favorites, which Claude was aware of. I told Jake to take a seat and I got two beers from the fridge.
It felt empty, though, without her presence. I’d become used to having Lila with me and now that the stress of the day had dissipated into the background, the force of her absence was distractingly huge. I missed the softness of her, the scent of her skin. The silky honey-blond glow of her hair and the pink pout of her lips. But it was probably a good thing that she wasn’t here now. I had a feeling she’d be angry with me, for not telling her about Shawna. Women got pissed off about stuff like that; I’d figured that much out from experience. It was best if Jake and I could spend time together wit-hout any feminine frostiness that might be awkward for my brother. I could deal with it later, once Lila and I were alone.
Claude appeared out of nowhere, like a magician. He does that. Diminutive and light on his feet, I often don’t even sense his presence until he’s standing right in front of me. I don’t mind this. He’s good at his job, which he’s been doing for me for more than five years. He also put up with some shit recently that I give him a big fat bonus for, for his loyalty and for keeping his mouth shut. It had to do with one of my fuck-ups with Lila, the worst of all my many fuck-ups. The Mother of All Alexander Fuck-ups. We worked through it, though. I’m learning about what makes her tick. Since the bonus, Claude’s been even better at his job.
“Can I make you something for dinner?” Claude asked. To Jake, who’d basically just chugged his beer: “Another Heineken?”
“We’ll have filet mignon, for three,” I told him. In case Lila did show up, which I was hoping would happen. I didn’t care if she was mad at me. My craving to see her was getting worse. “And something from the wine cellar. A Bordeaux. How about a ‘98 Pomerol.”
“Very good, sir.”
Jake laughed as soon as Claude left the room. “Holy shit. He calls you sir? That’s fucked up.”
I just shrugged and took a drink. I’d asked Claude to stop calling me sir the day he started working for me but he still did it, fuck knows why. He’s a theater type and gets off on shit like that, maybe. Playing a manservant role or whatnot. I didn’t really care one way or the other.
Claude served the wine and disappeared into the kitchen. Jake and I sat in comfortable, companionable conversation for a few minutes, inclined on the plush couches, drinking the velvety wine and appreciating the view. We might both have been trying just to fill our minds with the good things this moment had to offer, concentrating all our efforts onto not dwelling on Jake’s sentence.
I heard the slide of a key in the front door lock and felt a surge of relief. She was home. My Lila was back. I’d already come to terms with the sop I’d become over this girl. My honey girl. My wife-to-be. It had always seemed like a dirty word before: wife. Before Lila, countless women had practically stalked me, throwing out hints, shamelessly asking for gifts, pulling that noose tighter and tighter with each dinner and each fuck. Like Shawna. Like all the women I’d dated before her. Lila had changed all that. Not just changed it, but blown it to smithereens. Now it was me who did the stalking. It was me who couldn’t get enough. It was me who begged and pleaded and craved more. With Lila, I couldn’t wait to get my rings on her fingers, as many as she would accept.
She shut the door and walked into the room. For a second, she just stood there in all her slightly-disheveled glory. A few strands of her hair had come loose, framing her face in loose, platinum ringlets. Her face was pale aside from a barely-there pastel-pink blush on her cheeks. This was Lila’s natural glow, an effect make-up artists the world over attempted to create, but quite never got as perfect as this. Her parted lips were that only-Lila color, of new, dewy roses on a misty spring early-morning. The fit of her silk dress clung to her young curves in a way that broke my heart. There was nothing overly provocative about the cut of the dress itself, but the shape she gave it, of that lovely, peach-sweet body … I stood up.
Her sea-green eyes met mine and I could see the complexity of emotion there, of happiness and frustration, exhaustion and excitement, irritation and love. I wanted nothing more than to understand her, to get every nuance of who she was. A little billow of happiness shot through me, that I could. That she’d said yes to me. That my time, whenever she allowed it, could be spent with her, lavishing in anything she would give.
She let me kiss her on the corner of her mouth, lightly, appropriately for a familiar, observant audience of one. Just that feather-light contact was enough to make me light-headed. The scent of her, the taste. That milk-honey purity that fucking undid me. Every single time.
“We have some things to talk about,” she said casually, almost too low for Jake to hear, but not quite. He was listening, expecting it. To him: “Hi, Jake.”
She walked over to him and he stood to greet her. She gave him a gentle hug and he returned it, drinking her in, letting her comfort him in a way that was real. She released her hold, delicately, before he did.
“Good to see you, beautiful,” he said, smiling, giving her the full glow of his badboy appeal. Lila blushed. “Congratulations. I heard the big news.”
“Thanks, Jake.” She didn’t elaborate, possibly because of the Shawna elephant in the room, but it was cool. We had all night to work through whatever she wanted to work through. I was nothing if not dedicated, and thorough.
“You know what?” Jake said, reading the vibe. “I think I might get going, after all. I’ve got some stuff—”
“You will not,” Lila said, brushing off his excuse with a firm, easy dismissal. “Stay and have dinner with us.” She didn’t have to finish her thought: We won’t be seeing you for a while. Let’s spend some time together while we have the chance, before you get locked up behind bars for God knows how long.
So Jake stayed, and we ate filet mignon and new potatoes and green beans, and we drank another bottle of wine. We didn’t talk about Shawna or jail or lawyers or work. Or even the weekend. Jake seemed to sense that now was not the time to bring up my idea for a wedding in the Hamptons this Saturday. He’d taken my hint and refrained from mentioning or any of my other baggage. I loved him for that. And after we’d eaten, Jake got up to leave, and we said we’d talk tomorrow.
As soon as Jake was gone, Lila turned to go upstairs. She held her shoes in her hand. Barefoot, padding across the floorboards, she looked impossibly young. Fragile, almost.
“Hey,” I said gently, following her, but at a non-threatening distance, in case she wanted space. I kept my hands in my pockets.
She stopped, her slim hand on the staircase bannister, and turned to look at me. Her eyes were unfathomable, pools of dark mystery. I was reminded in that look of what had happened to her when she was a child and I felt a rage inside myself that was so deep and so fierce it was almost unnerving: I knew I would kill anyone who ever tried to hurt her like that again.
“Are you all right?” I didn’t care if she was mad. Mad I could handle. Breakable was what I was worried about. I would do absolutely anything she asked of me. “I love you,” I said. Just the declaration, out there in the open like that, between us, made me feel lighter, happy: a word I would never have used to describe myself until very recently. Until Lila. I wanted to say it to her over and over. “I want to talk to you. To hear about your day. How it went.” I searched in her eyes for our connection, and found the guarded fringe of it. But she was holding back. “And I want to say I’m sorry. I forgot to tell you about something. Something that ended, as soon as I met you.”
There it was, a hint of clemency. An invitation. I was allowed to follow her, that small torch-like glow in her eyes said. She’d listen to what I had to say.
As soon as we were in our room, she put her shoes down and crawled onto the bed, curling up against the pillows. She made no move to undress but she said, “I should take a shower.”
I sat next to her, not touching her, not pushing her in any direction she wasn’t ready to go. We’d been apart for the whole day and all the jagged effects of reality, of other people intruding into our world, still held us in its cold grasp. But I could feel her warmth from here, calming me. “Or you could take one in the morning.”
She shrugged a little, lightly petulant. It was the kind of gesture you might see on one of those teen t.v. dramas. “I guess.”
I leaned back against the plush pillows, folding my arms. Her bare legs were tan, the shape of them sublime. Astoundingly perfect. I had never seen or imagined anyone as flawless as Lila. Every time I looked at any part of her I was struck by this, again and again.
Maybe it would help if I just started talking. If I talked all the way through it, she might begin to understand. “I hired Ashley Lynch two years ago. Headhunted her from Catwalk. She’s good, don’t you think?”
Lila looked over at me. She wasn’t holding a grudge exactly. She’d been hurt, once again, by something I’d done. Always, my crimes were committed for one reason and one reason only: I loved and lusted so hard for Lila that I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t be trusted to do the right thing, if it meant not getting more of her.
“Yes. She’s very good.” She’d replied to me, and this felt like a small triumph. I couldn’t help almost-smiling. Like a fucking idiot. I’d never had to work to play it cool before: one more thing to add to my list of B.L. Before Lila, I hadn’t been a lovestruck, pussy-whipped, idiotic psycho. “I’m pretty sure she introduced me to everyone in the entire Fashion department.”
Okay, so we were straight into it. Good. Cut to the chase. “Including Shawna Beale?”
I watched as the hard aloofness flickered back into her expression at the mention of my ex’s name.
“Yes,” she said, and the frostiness in her tone was positively arctic. I might have felt irritated by this juvenile game we seemed to be mired in, but I was only too aware of the reason we were mired in it: because she was so fucking young. As it was, I was so deeply in love with her I didn’t really care what game we were mired in. If this is the game she wanted to play, then count me in. I’d play it all night and all day until I learned the goddamn rules and won. Or at least tied.
“I dated her for a while,” I said. “Before I met you.”
“Oh?” she said heatedly, clearly already aware of this.
I was watching her, but she was staring straight ahead, at the far window. She was wiggling her toes and I was momentarily fascinated. Her toenails were, sort of predictably, painted pink. I even knew what fucking shade of pink it was because I’d painted them: Cotton Candy. She’d been in a much better mood that day.
“Actually, she did mention that,” she said. “Several times. Among other things.”
“I can explain everything, if you’ll let me.”
“Go right ahead. I’m all ears.” The toes wiggling. The long, tan legs. The pout.
Usually, when a woman got mad at me – and they always did – I felt almost relieved. Finally, an out. I can get the fuck out of here. She wants to be left alone to stew in the quagmire of my misdemeanors. I can go home and drink a scotch and watch the business news until I fall asleep in my chair, alone. Without anyone criticizing or bitching or inflicting their pettiness onto me.
Now, all I wanted to do was kiss her and hold her and tell her how much I loved her and how deeply sorry I was for putting her through even the tiniest bit of pain.
So that’s exactly what I did.
I rolled onto my side, cupping her jaw gently with my hand, turning her face to me. “I was dating Shawna when I met you. I’d been seeing her for quite a while – around five months, I think, more or less. But it got rocky, towards the end. In fact it was rocky all the way through. She wanted me to commit to more than I wanted to give. I didn’t love her. I tried to but I just didn’t. She kept telling me she loved me and I didn’t say anything back. She cried about that and I felt fucking bad, so I said it to her. I said it. Twice. I lied. I’m not proud of it but I did: I lied to her. I was thinking here I am, I’m thirty-two years old and I still can’t commit to anyone. I thought maybe there was something wrong with me. Like something in me was broken. Like maybe, because of the life I’ve led, maybe I’m just not normal that way. Maybe I can’t love. So I said it, just to see what it felt like. I’d never said it to anyone before, ever. Besides Jake a couple times when he was a little kid because he needed to hear it from someone, but that’s different. So I said it to Shawna because she was crying about it. But you know what?: it felt wrong. Just completely, totally wrong. As soon as I said it I knew I didn’t love her. I think I hoped that by saying it, it might make me feel it. But it did the opposite. It made me feel like distancing myself, because I knew then for a fact that I didn’t love her. The problem was, once I’d said it, she believed it. She kept going on about how she wanted us to be exclusive and I didn’t want to do that. I told her no but she refused to listen. She started getting carried away and talking about getting married and shit. Rings and locations and honeymoons. It was stupid, really. I should have broken it off earlier but she was so emotional about it and I didn’t want to hurt her. She was beautiful and good to me and I thought maybe I should try harder, that maybe the feelings would come if I gave it some time. But it didn’t work. Time didn’t help anything. At all.”
I paused for a second. I couldn’t remember ever spilling my guts like this, to anyone. It felt good. It felt fucking amazing. Because it was Lila. And her eyes were all shiny and bright. But I was barely getting started. There was so much more I still wanted to tell her. “And then you walked in. You just showed up and walked in. This goddess. This sweet, gorgeous creature with these green eyes and this shy, sparked smile. And just like that, I knew. I think I loved you that very first minute, you know that? Right there, when you were standing there in the doorway. Your eyes were so green, and so sort of … shocked. Like you couldn’t believe it. Like you couldn’t believe me. And then you came in and you sat down and I just had never seen anything so beautiful. All I wanted to do was touch you, and kiss you. I wanted to get close to you. Closer than I’d ever been to anyone. Even though I didn’t know the first thing about you except that your hair was like silky wheat in the sunshine and your smile was the sweetest thing. And that if I didn’t get to kiss those lips I would go insane. Absolutely fucking insane. Right then and there. I had to do it. And I knew you wanted me to. The way you leaned into me. The way you were getting all hot and bothered – hell, just thinking about it … and I couldn’t stop. I wanted you so much and I could see it there in your eyes, that you wanted me just as bad. You did, didn’t you? I mean, Christ, I’d never had sex within half an hour of meeting someone. I’d never had sex without a condom. I didn’t even care. I don’t think I cared, deep down, if I got you pregnant. Because then you would have had to stay with me. I mean I wasn’t actively thinking that but deep down, I was already prepared for the consequences: they would mean I could see you again, and stay with you and be with you. I’d never committed to anyone as much as I committed to you, right then, and every second since. We were so fucking hot for each other but it felt deeper than that, too. It felt all-encompassing, like I’d just been lit up like the sun. You have to know: I was already all in, sweetheart. Just like that, I understood what I’d been missing all that time, when I’d been wondering if I was broken or deranged or had a commitment phobia or whatever. No. It was only because I hadn’t met you yet, Lila. You. You answered all my questions when you walked into my office that day. Just like that. I thought: this. This is what I want.”
Lila had tears in her eyes. One of them spilled and made a glossy line down her cheek. I wiped it away with my thumb. And I kept going. “And then, there was just absolutely no way in hell I was going to risk not getting close to you. I’d already let Shawna go because I got it. I knew I wasn’t broken. And I didn’t want to feel guilty or beholden or trapped anymore. I realized how forced it had all been, with her, and how doomed I’d felt. Because the difference, with you, my sweet honey girl, was a revelation. It was. And I didn’t want to let go of it. I didn’t want to introduce into our new, beautiful world some outside relationship that in my heart I already knew was over. I didn’t want you to doubt me. I wanted you to know I was already yours. All yours and only yours. Because suddenly, with you, I felt whole and happy and good.” I felt my lips barely twist into a mildly guilty grin as I said it to her, but it was hardly something she didn’t already know, “And so fucking horny I thought I might go mad with it. There was no way I was disengaging from you until I was forced to. And that’s why I did what I did. I waited. In my mind, Shawna and I were already finished. I called her and broke it off as soon as it was reasonable to do that. I made it very clear that I didn’t want to be with her anymore, I was sorry about it, but that’s just the way it was. I told her I’d found someone else and I’d call her in a few weeks to see how she was doing. And then I turned off my phone for a while.
“She called. She called a lot. I took one or two of the calls, when you were sleeping. I didn’t want to take the calls. I wanted to lie next to you and touch your hair and kiss your lips so you’d dream about me. I took a few minutes to try to do the right thing, if it was the right thing, to placate her and make sure she wasn’t going off the rails. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to dirty the time we spent together by talking about someone who was now firmly a part of my past and only my past. You are my present and you are my future. No one else. Okay? So I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I should have. I should have prepared you for what would happen when you ran into her. To be perfectly honest, with all the other stuff that’s been going on, it didn’t cross my mind. I’d already forgotten about Shawna, and moved on. I’m sorry I forgot. And I’m sorry if she was horrible or spiteful to you. I should have been there. I’m sorry. I love you.”
I was prepared to keep going, as long as it took to convince her. But she was climbing onto me. She took my face in her hands and she slowly, slowly kissed my lips.