“Fuck, I hate shopping with a passion.” Clay glanced over the racks at Nordstrom and gave up. He wanted to get Muse something special for their first Christmas together, but he didn’t know what. Fashion usually wasn’t her thing, but he’d seen her eyeing a clothing catalog of some sort the week before. He thought that maybe she’d become enamored with this season’s fashions for some reason.
He should probably start paying more attention to her foibles and idiosyncrasies.
Right now, he was with his best friend and assistant, Jim Lavezzo, on Christmas Eve, trying to buy his wife something special. He’d gotten her a few things already for Christmas, but he wanted something that would really dazzle her. They were only briefly married, and there was nothing he knew of off the top of his head that would knock her socks off. She loved singing and dancing and acting, and he’d mulled over his options for weeks beforehand prior to running out of time. Now he was desperate and irritated and had enlisted the help of his friend to try and figure out what he could get Muse for Christmas.
Jim was nonplussed and scanned a couple of racks before popping his head back up at his friend. “What about a trip to New York City to see the musicals there? She’s a theater geek, so why not wow her that way? You can’t get better than Broadway. The real shit—not this National Tour crap you see like roaming gypsies in tap shoes. She will love you forever, not that she already doesn’t.” He wanted to add, why, I will never know. His friend had a good heart, better than he’d ever known, but he was difficult and crass and sometimes tested his limits. He had to admit, though, Clay had gotten better over the past 7 months, and that was all due to the fiery little half-Latina he’d take as a wife.
“Jim, that’s brilliant!” Clay sounded as ecstatic as a man of his repose could. He was usually droll and reticent in tone, if not a downright bully at times when at work. That too was getting better with time and some effort on his part. “You know what Muse’s father told me? He said he’d brought her mother to New York for their honeymoon. She loved it, and when they came home, she found out she was pregnant.”
“With Muse or with her brother?” Jim asked as he inspected a soft sweater he thought was made of Merino wool. Softer than cashmere, it was a pretty dark blue that would have gone well with Muse’s tanned skin. He hadn’t gotten her a gift yet either, so he continued on a different tack. “What’s Muse’s sweater size?”
“Medium,” Clay informed him offhandedly. “She has a larger than normal chest for her waist size, so she’d rather not have it too tight up top.” He paused before shrugging. “TMI, maybe.” Jim grinned when Clay answered his question. “Drew is older than Muse by a few years, and they don’t have any other children. Speaking of that, I’m actually enjoying having a brother. I always wanted one as a child.”
Of course, he was talking about his half-brother, Michael, whom he’d found out about the previous summer. Michael was his housekeeper Mary’s son and his father’s illegitimate child. It was like a soap opera, but they’d all made the best of it that they could.
Though he’d tried to convince Michael to come work for him in the tech department at CBC, his brother refused. He liked having the leniency of a private contractor’s schedule, and he could pick and choose his clients instead of taking orders from someone above him. It was how Clay would have wanted it too, so he couldn’t fault him.
“I’m glad, Clay, truly. Siblings can be great, at times. I love my sister, but I’ve known her for so long, I sometimes picture a Dexter-type situation where I have a kill room covered in plastic sheeting. She can be a bit much at times, being all mother hen with me.”
Clay grinned, because he’d met Jim’s sister a few times, and the woman was a worrywart if there ever was one. If Muse was like that with him, he’d probably have an embolism, so he knew it irritated Jim more than he let on. His friend was just like him in some ways, only more mild-mannered. “Luckily she lives on the east coast of Florida and not the west. She’d be driving both of us nuts then.”
Jim absentmindedly hummed in agreement. “I think I’ll get this for Muse, what do you think? You’re not the only one who doesn’t know what to get women. I’m just lucky my mom and dad live in Arizona. If I had to buy them material shit instead of sending off a gift card to them, I’d go nuts when it came to my mother. The last time she asked for anything physical, I ended up getting an Ugly Sweater photos from her for years. Never again.”
Clay snorted and started toward the checkout. “Then let’s buy that and get out of here. We’ll hit Jake’s Place on the way back from that vacation planner on NE 42nd Street.” Jake’s was a little bar and grill Clay had taken a liking to that was new, and there was a travel agency just a few doors down from the local Zale’s, which was a couple miles away from the mall. He couldn’t remember the name of it, but he knew where it was located since he’d driven past it on his way to and from work for almost a decade.
“On my way, buddy.”
After making his purchase and calling his Christmas shopping done for this year, Jim followed Clay out of the mall to his car. Even though they both hated using drivers instead of driving themselves, they did it today because they believed they would probably drink a little on their way home. Muse wasn’t a worrier, but she was the daughter of a man whose addiction to pain pills made him a menace on the roads. She would have chewed him out something fierce if he were to drink and drive—not that he would have anyway.
Inside the car, their driver, Jean-Paul, was reading a book by Georges Simenon in the front and nodded to them briefly before placing it facedown in the passenger seat in the front of the Mercedes Benz. Clay and Jim slid into the back and greeted him.
“Toulouse, do you know where the travel agency place is over by Zale’s? I want to go there before heading over to Jake’s.” Jean-Paul was born in France, just outside of Toulouse. Clay and Jim had called him JP for short until Muse remarked he looked a lot like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec from one of her favorite movies, Moulin Rouge. Jim pointed out that the part was originally based on the painter of the same name, but Muse didn’t care. It tickled her that he looked so similar, and the name stuck.
“Yes, sir,” Toulouse replied before starting up the car. “Are you going to Jake’s afterwards?” The man was well-aware of his employer’s habits, and he always ordered the fish and chips when they went to Jake’s pub, though he only ever drank water or iced tea with his meal.
“Indeed, we are. Funny that you always request a very British meal when you’re from France.” Jim’s tone was light, but Clay knew that he was only barely holding in his curiosity at the driver’s odd food tastes.
“My mother was from Leeds, England,” the man explained. My father met her on a business trip, and they fell in love. He worked for Renault, a large automotive company. My mother was a waitress at a pub and had never left the town she lived in even for a short vacation to the sea. Very poor, very sheltered, and she was swept up by the handsome foreigner. Novelties are always attractive, especially when you were as shielded as she was. The bar she worked at was owned by her mother and father, and they just barely made ends meet.”
Toulouse was chatty when you got him talking about his family back in France. He had a pleasant, lilting accent, so it was nice to hear him speak about his childhood in Europe. Bonus was if you got him a little tipsy on wine, he would tell the raunchiest jokes and snort with laughter. It was actually quite endearing.
“I didn’t know that,” Clay muttered. “I thought you were half-French, half Italian.”
“No, though my mother did have some Italian running through her, and it’s very possible my father does as well. It’s not uncommon since the countries are neighbors.”
They continued to talk about Europe, and Clay chatted about his recent honeymoon to Ireland. Muse had loved it, the lush green hills she didn’t get to see in Florida, the castle ruins, the quaint little pubs, and delightful accents of the locals. She’d spent half her time trying to emulate their patois and hadn’t gotten to be too bad by the end of their two-week trip.
But if he ever heard the term ‘kiss my shillelagh’ again, he was going to find out what one was and spank the woman with it. He was pretty certain it had enough power to make a nice mark on her ass.
As they sat down in the pub a little later, they sipped their ice waters, just waiting for their drinks. Jim ordered some wine, and Clay was going with a scotch on the rocks. Toulouse was quiet, once again reading his novel in its original language.
“We have a few new people joining the company, as you know, Jim.” Clay seemed happy about that prospect, and his friend pondered aloud about that.
“And you seem excited. Why is that, I wonder?” He took another sip and waited for Clay to divulge his reasoning to him. “One’s not your brother finally, is it?”
Clay shook his head. “No. Michael likes what he’s doing, Though Dad still really wants both his sons to work together at CBC, I think he knows it’ll never happen. He’ll try to woo him, but I think it’ll be more out of habit after a while. The reason I’m excited is because I hired a new architect. Practically stole him from the competition with better pay and a fierce headhunter. I’ve wanted him to join since I started up as CEO, so I’m pleased as punch. Also, Mary’s niece will be starting in administration. I talked with her myself. Auden is looking for a new start, and she has some experience with filing at a doctor’s or dentist’s office, or something. Mary got her set up in a studio apartment for now, but I’m not sure I like the area she’s living in. The crime rate is high, and the building is insecure, in my opinion. I think I might invite her to stay at the house for a bit if she comes across any trouble. Still might even if she doesn’t. Reading between the lines, I would say the girl is looking for a fresh start to get away from some ex-boyfriend or a bad home life. Doesn’t need danger in and around every corner while living in downtown Tampa.”
Even though the name suggested a bustling, lucrative financial district, it had one of the higher crime rates in the city. More violence and property crimes occurred there and Historic Ybor than anywhere else, and Auden was smackdab in the heart of it all. She had an old car that she could use to get to and from work, but there was always a 1 in 10 chance of it being burglarized or vandalized than anywhere else, even in its shoddy state. For Mary’s sake, and because he had taken a liking to the girl, he didn’t want to see anything happen to her. Mary was like a second mother to her, or so she said. Clay knew she was close with her sister, so it was completely probably that this was the absolute truth. He only wondered if her attachment had anything to do with not knowing where her firstborn son had been his entire life. Now that they were reunited and getting to know each other, Mary seemed to be taking especial care of all her kin, Clay and Muse included, who she considered part of her extended family. Jim…well, no one knew what she really thought about him.
Jim nodded at his friend’s words and took another sip of his water. He wondered who this Auden was, and if she was cute. Like Clay before him, he was popular with the ladies, but almost untouchable at the office. He got away with a lot. Before he could ask, Clay was continuing.
“Speaking of new employees, there are a few interns that are coming onboard, as well as the new architect and Auden. I don’t want you hitting on any of them, Jim. No need to scare the newbs off with your incessant flirting.” Clay frowned at his friend. Generally, he didn’t mind his light flirting with some of the middle-aged women working for him. Many of them found it flattering or charming. They allowed it up to a point. When any of them got too pink in the cheeks, Jim knew to back off and go on his way.
“Fine, fine.” Jim waved him off. He’d do what he wanted. For all he knew, the girl would be too simple to even bother with. Jim only liked to banter with women who were a little bit witty or could sass him back when needed. He enjoyed the innocent repartee with the ladies, and even teased some of the gay men who worked for Clay. The man had no shame and was unaffected by most rebuffs. He’d flirt with anything with a brain in its head, because most of the time, it was just out of habit.
Jim Lavezzo never let anything get deeper than his skin, and he was fine with that. Everything bounced off him, and that could go on for a good long time—possibly for the rest of his life.