Lila could hardly contain her excitement. Tonight promised to be big. Huge. Her acting needed to shine brighter than a stage light because Kent was taking her dancing at Dino’s Jazz Club where Robert frequented with his fiancée, Chloe.
She’d heard from an unsuspecting Millie the couple would be there this evening celebrating their anniversary. Missing the opportunity to show off her new fake beaux just wouldn’t do, and so she and Kent had thrown together a hasty plan at the very last minute before they clocked off work for the day. She’d raced all the way to the bus stop, dressed up in the Chanel dress Daddy had gotten her for her birthday (before he’d so cruelly cut her off from his funds) and had Susan do her make up. She’d hitched a ride to the jazz club with Danny, who demanded monetary reimbursement for gasoline. But nothing could bother her tonight. Not when she had acting to do.
In the bathroom mirror, a pretty picture of gaudy reflected back at her. Eyes thick with liner and gray shadow, lips a dark maroon and cheeks redder than a rose in full bloom. Her bangs were rolled back fashionably, letting the rest of her hair go free down to her shoulders. And if she modeled in front of the glass any longer, she might just be struck down by lightning for being so vain.
She stepped away from the mirror and gave herself a stern talk. Kent was waiting for her and she should stop being rude.
An enchanting piano melody welcomed her return to the lounge area. The sweet aroma of cigar smoke and red wine clung to the fibers of her gold sequin dress. It was a busy club for a Wednesday evening, holding patrons eager to escape the brutality of a mid-week work shift. A small band played in the corner dressed in fancy suits. Their range of instruments included a cello, violin, and a sultry saxophone. The fancy establishment had durable black leather seats in the booths and mahogany tables with candles as centerpieces, creating a romantic ambiance and the perfect place to carry out her plan. Waiters dressed in crisp white blouses and trousers with ties zipped by her carrying trays of martinis and mixed alcoholic beverages. She plopped down at the booth where Kent sat reading the menu.
He leaned in and shook his head. “This place is one heck of a spend. Are you sure you want to eat here?”
“I’m starving,” she answered, digging her wallet out of her purse. “Though I’m pretty sure I have enough to at least cover half our meal and drinks.”
“I can get the other half,” he muttered, giving a low whistle as his finger settled halfway down the page. “Caviar? Is that even good?”
“Never had it.”
They weren’t really on a date, so she allowed her gaze to flit about in search of Robert. There was no sign of him still, even though her watch clearly pointed at precisely seven, the time when Millie said he’d arrive.
Kent flipped over the menu. “Maybe I’ll just hold off and eat at home.”
“Oh, don’t do that.”
“Why not? A plate here will cost me the same as a week’s pay.”
“It won’t look real if you don’t eat.”
“Fine. Have it your way.”
“We’re doing this for you, too,” she insisted. “Think of how Opal will get wind of you bringing me to this fancy club.”
But Kent seemed none the content about any of it. He loosened his bowtie and stuck his lip out in disapproval. “Twenty dollars for a bottle of Merlot? Who even drinks that tart stuff?”
“I do,” she whispered, trying to contain the harshness she wanted to add. “Just pick whatever. The waiter’s on his way. Hurry.”
A tall and lanky waiter arrived at their table. “Good evening sir and miss, welcome to Dino’s Jazz Club. May I start you off with a beverage of your choice?”
Lila gently nudged Kent’s leg with her heel. “Go on, darling. Order the martini you’ve been eagerly awaiting since we got here.”
“But I don’t drink mar—” Kent cut himself off. “Sure. A martini.”
The waiter scribbled the order on his notepad. “Would you like it dirty, sir?”
“What? No. Clean. I want my drink clean.”
Lila cleared her throat so loudly the older couple dining at the table next to them glared over. “My boyfriend loves telling jokes. Don’t you, dear? Yes, he’ll have his martini dirty.”
The waiter sighed annoyingly. “And for you, miss?”
“Merlot. The finest you have.”
“I shall return momentarily with your drinks. Excuse me.”
Kent gave her a perplexed look. “What’s a dirty martini?”
His confusion made him somewhat endearing. But his bowtie was crooked.
Lila grinned. She got up and sat next to him, straightening his tie. “It’s just gin or vodka with a little vermouth and olive juice. Dirty means you get more olive juice in your drink.”
“So it’s salty, then?”
He smelled delicious, like spicy cologne, and she sniffed an extra whiff of his scent just for fun’s sake. She had to admit he looked rather elegant in a suit compared to his daily overalls. If only she could take a picture to share with him later.
The shift to sourness in his voice disrupted her thoughts. “Looks like your dear Robbie is finally here.”
Lila’s heart nearly came to a stop. She froze, unable to turn her head to even look. “Is he now?”
“And he’s got his lady hanging off his arm.”
She spun around in a hurry.
Surely enough, being escorted to a nearby booth by a hostess was Robert, dressed elegantly in a black suit with his blonde hair gelled to smooth perfection. Trailing close behind him with her arm wrapped around his was Chloe, smoky-eyed with ebony curls down to her exposed shoulders and skin the color of rich olives. She was beautiful and carried an aura of high society about her. It made Lila jealous.
“Let’s go,” she said, her stomach turning. “I can’t do this.”
Kent lifted his eyebrows. “Is she getting you bad?”
He smirked and leaned back in his seat. “Suppose it would be a bad time to tell you they’re on their way over here.”
“Kent O’Connor.” Rob’s voice boomed behind Lila. “What a pleasure to see you here, cousin. And who’s this you got—oh. I didn’t know you two were—”
Lila turned around, forcing the widest, happiest smile she ever mustered in her twenty-one years of life. “Fancy meeting you both here. Evening, Chloe.”
Chloe, in her ladylike demeanor, had only lost her temper on Lila once enough to prove her point. Since then, she’d returned to being amicably cool and reliably snooty. “I love those sequins. Is that the latest New York fashion?”
“Chanel,” Lila answered proudly with a toss of her head. “Daddy’s birthday gift.”
“So, last season?”
Robert coughed loudly. “Ahem. Boy, I think maybe there’s something stuck in my throat. Think I might need a drink of something strong. Sugar, let’s go get our seat. It looks like the hostess is waiting for us.”
Chloe stuck her head in the air and waltzed away to their booth.
Kent stood and gave Robert a brotherly pat over a sitting, and very much stewing, Lila. “Enjoy your time, friend. Congratulations on the engagement again.”
“Don’t mention it.” Robert laughed nervously. “I better get my lady settled in. Uh, see you at the theater tomorrow, eh?”
When they were alone again, Lila took the opportunity to vent. “Did you see the size of her ring? It must have cost him an entire year’s wages.”
“Thought he was ancient history,” Kent said, chewing on the inside of his cheek as he read through the menu again.
“He clearly is.”
“I don’t care if you believe me or not, Kent O’Connor.”
She couldn’t help sulking even though she knew it would ruin everything. And it was only by the saving grace of wine when the waiter returned to the table that she got her mojo and will back.
“This martini tastes terrible,” Kent said, his lip raised and nose wrinkled. “Don’t they have beer in this joint?”
Lila gulped the entirety of her wine glass down. “I need another.”
He looked concerned. “Slow it down, babydoll. They’re at least out of sight.”
“But still in the same building.”
“Which you wanted to come to, remember?”
She flagged the waiter down. “Another for me and a beer for my boyfriend.”
The waiter groaned. “What kind of beer?”
“Anything light,” Kent interrupted. He turned on Lila once the waiter strolled away. “So are we not dining then? Because if you keep drinking like this all our money will be gone in beverages alone.”
“Sure. We can skip dinner.” She buried her face in her hands. “What was I thinking?”
“Hey, get it together.” He rubbed her arm and it felt nice. Real nice. “We can still make something of this yet. Did you see Rob’s face? He was shocked to see us here together.”
But Lila didn’t care about Robert.
Chloe had just insulted her and gotten away with it. And it had occurred in much the same way before. She was tired of being made fun of for having a past she had no control over.
“Can we please go?” she pleaded.
“Don’t you want to dance first?” Kent thanked the waiter and sipped his beer. “We can have a grand time here. This place is so fancy we’ll probably never be able to afford to come again.”
She nodded, acknowledging his common sense in the situation. “You’re right.” She pulled the full glass of wine close to her chest. “Just give me a few of these and I’ll be good to go.”
Kent was doing better at filling his end of the bargain than her. She hadn’t planned on the overwhelming jealousy and arc of emotions hitting her all at once. Truly, she wanted to make Robert feel bad over losing her but he seemed way too happy with Chloe to even care about anything or anyone else in the world.
Face it, Lila. You’ve lost.
However, giving up had never been part of her nature. She was going to go through with her plan if it was the last thing she ever did in life.
She downed her second glass of wine, much to Kent’s dismay, and yanked him out of the booth when the saxophone started to play a familiar sounding solo.
“I hope you’re a good dancer,” she said. “Because this tune is one of my favorites.”
* * *
Kent escorted a giggling Lila to the front gate of her apartment building. Their night out had been a success in his eyes but not in the way she would perhaps assume. In her drunken state, she’d gushed on and on about how real they looked as a couple, fooling everyone including Robert and Chloe. But he knew a thing or two about what chemistry felt like with a woman, and he swore to not tell her he’d been getting good vibes from her all evening. It wasn’t proper to push her buttons while under the influence of alcohol, so he quietly and patiently waited for her to find her housekeys in the abyss of her purse.
She hiccuped. “Damn it. I thought they were in here.”
“Do you need help?” he asked, glancing back at his running car to make sure no one had run off with it yet.
“Nah.” Lila dropped to one knee and drunkenly managed to pour out all the contents in her purse, searching through the pile of lipsticks, fragrances, money, and change scattered about on the concrete with increasing desperation. “They’re in here. I just know they are.”
“Sure you didn’t leave them inside?”
She blew out a frustrated breath through her fluttering lips and glanced at her dark living room window. Not even the porch lights were on. “Susan must be out still. Damn.”
Kent eyeballed her belongings on the ground. There were no housekeys. “I can wait here with you until she shows.”
Lila shifted uncomfortably on her knees. “She might not be coming home tonight. She and Danny, well, they—she probably won’t come home until morning, okay? Don’t tell her I said anything about it.”
“But I can’t just leave you here,” he said, feeling a hungry turn of his stomach at the same time he heard hers grumble. “Look, why don’t we go back to my place and I can fix us up something to eat? Besides, we both have to work in the morning and your drinks might not wear off by then if you don’t get something in that loud belly of yours.”
“And you’ll bring me back here afterward?”
She glanced up at him with big doe eyes full of hope.
“It’s late, Lila. I can bring you back first thing in the morning.”
She pouted. “That won’t do. No, no, no. It just won’t do. What will I wear to work if you don’t wake up in time? I must have access to my apartment, my things.”
“You forgot your keys. What else is there to do?”
He let her marinate on the facts for a moment, standing stoically while she cried her way to acceptance and shoved all her belongings back in her purse.
“Daddy would kill me. In fact, he likely might not hesitate if he knew about this.”
“Well, it’s a good thing daddies are not meant to understand these things, much less learn about them.” She wiped away a stream of tears with the back of her hand. “Damn it, Kent. Wipe that smile off your face.”
“It’s funny, is all.”
“Me going to work dressed like this tomorrow is humorous?”
She stomped her way to the car and slammed the door once she hopped inside. He followed her.
“Stop it, all right? It’s not that bad.” He sucked in a breath. “Listen, I’ll get up first thing and bring you back here. We can ride to work together and it’ll be swell, just like we planned. Okay?”
She sniffled, hiccuping through a stream of tears. “I’m sorry, Kent. Wine makes me emotional.”
He restrained a grin and shifted his Lincoln to drive. “Relax. I’m not bothered by it.”
“So long as you aren’t yelling and breaking things we’ll be fine.”
She giggled drunkenly. “Your sense of humor is something else.”
“Is it strange?”
“I like it.”
“Good.” He gave her a once-over, unable to contain his lustful thoughts. “I never told you how beautiful you look in that dress.”
Lila blushed. “Thanks. Your suit. It looks fine on you.”
He turned left on his street and parked on the side of his building. It was a small fourplex with a fenced yard across from a motel. On most days it was a quiet neighborhood with the exception of weekends when the kids played outside at all hours or in the summer when visitors flooded the city.
He led Lila inside, a bit embarrassed he hadn’t cleaned in days. “It’s a bachelor pad. I’m apologizing in advance.”
She dug a cigarette out of her purse. “Mind if I smoke in there?”
“Just make yourself at home.”
He unlocked the door and tossed the keys on the counter, rummaging through his cabinets for a can of Spam. There was one left, and so he fried up slices for sandwiches while Lila smoked on the couch and flipped through his stack of comic books on the coffee table.
His apartment, while humble with basic furniture and belongings, had the benefit of being cozy. He turned up the heater a few degrees when he noticed Lila shivering in her dress and grabbed her a wool blanket from the hallway closet. It had started to rain and the wind lashed wet against the windows.
“You’re a lifesaver,” she said and took a bite of her sandwich, the blanket draped over her shoulders.
“Don’t mention it.”
He ate quietly, observantly, listening to her go on about how Chloe had hurt her feelings.
“So last season,” Lila repeated in a snarky tone. “Whyever must she be so cruel to me?”
“I wouldn’t dwell on it.” He plopped down beside her and kicked his feet up on the coffee table. “You warm enough?”
She burrowed deeper into the blanket. “You’re so kind. You fed me. Got me all cozy. I appreciate it, you know.”
He couldn’t help but stare into those big blue eyes of hers, breathing in the musk from her perfume and feeling the tingling in his arm when she leaned against him. She cuddled with him, the alcohol on her breath carrying a hint of grapes and tannins when she exhaled.
Head on his shoulder, her voice was soft, sleepy. She yawned. “I could dream all night like this.”
“Why don’t you take the bed? I can sleep out here tonight.”
“Don’t be silly. I couldn’t possibly inconvenience you that way.”
“I want you to be comfortable.”
She didn’t answer. Instead, her light snores filled the quiet of the room.
He waited a few minutes to see if she would waken but she never did. With tender caution, he hoisted her in his arms and carried her to his bed. He removed her heels and placed them by the door. The wool blanket sprawled nicely over her thin frame and she smiled in her sleep like an angel.
He watched her for a moment, her face illumined by the streetlight outside the window. What he wouldn’t give to kiss her, but he resisted the temptation by tossing it out of his head.
“Goodnight, Lila,” he whispered, shutting the door quietly behind him.
* * *
The next day, Lila had the mother of all hangovers. Her breath smelled like sour grapes and her hair like old tobacco, but she had none of her things to freshen up with except for two sticks of hot pink lipstick in her purse. Under the flickering light in Kent’s bathroom, she rinsed her mouth, face, and stared sternly at her own reflection.
Spending the night in his room, in his bed, just wasn’t proper, even if he hadn’t joined her. It was a good thing her parents lived half the country away in Grand Rapids where they were shielded from the consequences of her poor decisions. She tensed her grip around the edge of the sink, the ever-rising sensation of nausea running hot up her throat. By a miracle she contained it, leaning against the wall for support as the room spun.
The last time she’d spent the night in a man’s bed, the aftermath hadn’t gone so well for her. She had vowed never to let her guard down again. Granted, Kent had been much more of a gentleman than Robert.
She couldn’t entirely blame Robbie though. It wouldn’t be fair. She had been more than a willing participant against her prodding conscience after a night on the town with his good looks. That one foolish evening had been the start of several intense months and the entire reason why they’d ended up engaged in the first place. In the end, he had only used her, somehow forgetting she was a human being with feelings. And now she was alone. Had been for a length of time since he’d left Boston and fallen for Chloe. In a way, his betrayal had prevented Lila from loving again. Trusting her heart seemed all the more difficult.
Why did she even care anymore? What difference did any of it make? Every woman experienced heartbreak at some point in her life. She was no one special to be excluded from the trial. She had been infatuated with Robert fiercely and paid an equal amount in pain and suffering.
The muffled sounds of Kent banging pans and dishes in the kitchen gave her pause for wonder. She got on well enough with him to have fun. He was well-mannered. Kind. Entertaining. Everything Robert was not. Then again, many of her friends back in Boston had said she and Robert were more like oil on water, unable to mix. So why did she miss him still?
She didn’t care to think about it anymore.
In the kitchen, Kent cooked breakfast, and he shoved a salty piece of bacon in her mouth when she leaned over his shoulder.
“No more.” She chewed slowly. “Don’t think my stomach is ready for food just yet.”
He scrambled eggs in a skillet. “I thought we could walk in the gardens today.”
“Wait,” she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “What about work?”
“I called us in.”
“You can’t be serious. Mr. Arnold must be fuming.”
He buttered toast. “I told Millie we were sick as puking dogs. She was so grossed out she hurried to get off the phone.”
Lila didn’t know whether to be annoyed or relieved. She inclined towards the latter. “You do realize what this means? They’ll for certain believe we’re sick together because we’re in love and even share colds. You’re a genius. Absolutely brilliant.”
She playfully squeezed his arm and took a seat at the breakfast bar, her mood lifting but her hangover still intact.
“This oughta cure you up.” Kent handed her a cup of black coffee.
“No food though,” she objected. “Or else I’ll be sick again.”