DISCLAIMER: Any resemblance to real people or situations is completely coincidental and unintentional.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thank you to my betas, you know who you are!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To imaginus75[at]gmail.com
I was never one for the dancing video game or any dancing that was PG-rated that would've been appropriate in front of my family, so I decided to sit out on the competition that had started to get into full swing as song after song was played. They started with Uncle Sal and my dad competing to see who was the better dancer. Sal won and so he held court for the next challenger, Aunt Grace, who beat him hands down. Then my mom challenged and beat Aunt Grace. Eventually it was Kris who remained undefeated against Madison and Kenzie. After I refused to join in on the shenanigans, Alex stepped up to the plate.
The music came on and I couldn't take my eyes off of her. She didn't just follow the directions on screen, but had moves that involved her ass, hips and hands slithering over her body that made my jaw drop, literally. I was just staring wide eyed and mesmerized when I felt a hand on my chin. My mom was pushing my mouth closed.
"Try not to drool, sweetie," she whispered into my ear.
"I'm not..." I tried to deny it but I knew better than to argue with my mother. "I need some more water." I headed into the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and downed about half of the bottle. 'Down boy,' I told myself. Confident that I was able to return to the group without my eyes wandering over Alex's ass and wondering what she looked like naked, I headed downstairs to the family room.
"You should go with Riley," I heard my father say. "She knows a lot about that stuff."
"What stuff?" I asked, sitting down next to my dad.
"Cell phones," my father answered. "Alex needs a new one. You can take her tomorrow, no?"
I opened my mouth to answer in the affirmative until I saw the death stare that Aunt Grace was throwing my way and changed my mind. "I, um, I have to work tomorrow," I said lamely. I gave Alex an apologetic smile.
"You don't go into work until the afternoon," my mom chimed in. "There's this part of the day that comes before the afternoon called morning when the majority of people are actually productive instead of sleeping off a hangover."
"We're going to Mass tomorrow morning," Grace interjected.
"Right!" my dad said and put his arm around me. "Come to Mass and then you can take Alex out shopping." My mother gave me a look which pretty much said "don't you dare say no to Mass."
I sometimes appreciated my dad's cluelessness. "Does after Mass work for you?" I asked Alex.
Alex looked at me as if to apologize for having put me in an awkward position and said, "I'm not in any hurry. If you're busy, I understand."
"She's not busy," my dad answered for me. I simply shrugged and repeated his sentiments, "I'm not busy."
I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen counter and started eating a bowl of grits and fried apples.
"You're up early," Lenny came into the kitchen and poured herself a cup of coffee. I looked at the clock. It was shortly after nine. "You're usually stumbling into the house at this time."
I swallowed a mouthful of food. "I'm going to Mass and then I'm helping a friend shop for a cell phone," I told her.
Lenny almost choked. on her coffee. In fact, she did choke. Once the coughing subsided and she regained her breath, she looked at me. "You haven't been to Mass in over ten years. Why start now?"
"You don't know what it's like to have a Catholic mother," I answered and Lenny conceded.
"But I do know all your friends and none of them are in need of a new phone," Lenny eyed me suspiciously. She was right.
"Alex, Grace's sister," I told her and I could see the gears turning in her head.
"Oh, right, the hot vegetarian," Lenny and her cursed photographic memory recalled. "I thought you weren't allowed to tap that."
"No one said I wasn't allowed," I rationalized. "It's just strongly discouraged. Besides, who said anything about flirting? I like her and I wouldn't mind being friends with her."
"You don't get up before noon for any of your friends," my housemate and best friend continued to harass me.
"I get up before noon for you," I reminded her.
"True, but that's because I'm special," she said.
"A special case yes," I teased her.
She playfully gave me the evil eye and then just plain out eyed me suspiciously. "You're gonna hit that aren't you?"
I shook my head and got up, placing my utensils and bowl in the dishwasher. "She's straight."
"Never stopped you before," Lenny continued to pester me.
I shook my head again and headed upstairs, but not before slapping Lenny's ass first. I changed into a pair of jeans, threw on a dark red t-shirt and a black blazer over top so that I wouldn't look too casual for church. My black eyes had faded significantly and the swelling in my nose had gone down. It was still painful so I popped a couple of pain killers and jumped into the car and headed to a church in which I hadn't stepped foot inside for over a decade. I found my family right where they always were, second pew from the back, on the right hand side. Aunt Grace and Alex and the girls were with them as well. Alex was at the end of the row and slid over as I approached and so I sat down beside her.
Claire wormed her way out off my father's lap and weaseled her way past Aunt Grace, the girls and Alex and onto my lap. I gave her a tight squeeze and we stood up for the procession entrance. Soon enough Claire was sent off to her Sunday School class and returned back in my arms before Communion. After communion, as we sat back in our pew, Alex leaned over to me and whispered, "I didn't take you for a Mass attending kind of girl." I felt a tingle in my spine when her breath touched my ear.
I turned to her and whispered back, "I'm only here for the crackers and wine." She smiled and shook her head and I thought I caught a hint of blush in her cheeks and goosebumps on her arms.
After Mass, my parents took Claire shopping to give my sister and brother--in-law a break and I led Alex to my car. As we walked away from Aunt Grace and the girls, Aunt Grace gave me the "I'm watching you" warning by pointing to her eyes with her index and middle finger and then pointed her finger at me.
"Riley, you don't have to take me shopping," Alex said to me. "I know you're busy and you're only doing this because your dad volunteered you."
I offered her a smile. "No, it's okay," I told her. "If I didn't want to, I'd have come up with an excuse."
She looked at me as if she wasn't quite convinced but she let it slide. When we got to my Audi R8, she let out a laugh. "You really do have an weakness for fast vehicles."
"It was my thirtieth birthday present from my parents a few months ago," I told her. "Believe it or not, running a restaurant, a new one, isn't that profitable."
Once we got strapped in and I started driving, she asked, "What's going on between you and Grace? I couldn't help but notice that she's very stern with you and last night when you were coerced into taking me shopping today, she was practically throwing daggers at you with her eyes."
"Nothing," I tried to say innocently. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Don't give me that," she told me. "Grace is my sister. I know when she's up to something."
I exhaled. "She doesn't want me around you," I revealed. "Actually, it's more like she doesn't want me flirting with you, and so if I'm not around you, there won't be any chance of flirting."
Alex let out a sigh of disbelief and then she looked at me sideways with a mischievous smile. "Have you been flirting with me?"
"No!, No, no, no...I haven't been flirting," I stuttered and then took a deep breath. "Alex, if I was flirting with you, you'd know it."
"Oh really?" she asked, apparently quite amused. "So you're just naturally charming then."
"Wait, do you think I've been flirting with you?" I asked. I thought she had said that night in Malibu that she wasn't going take every statement or gesture as flirting. Then again, I had promised that I wouldn't flirt, and truth be told, I hadn't stuck to my promise completely.
"No, of course not!" she protested and then paused briefly. Then she added quietly, "I do think you are charming though."
I had never heard such a soft and tender comment like that before from anyone and I couldn't help but smile and I felt myself blush. "Thank you," I told her.
"So then, what does it sound like when Riley Carson flirts with a girl?" she asked, teasingly.
When I shook my head and smiled, she teased me further. "Come on, out with it," she continued. "What's your opening line?"
I pulled up to a red light and stopped. I turned to her, blinked slowly and when I opened my eyes, I fixed my gaze onto hers and smiled. I softly said, "Hi, I'm Riley."
She grinned and I thought she was going to bust out laughing, but instead she blinked a few times as if she was breaking out of a daze. "That really works does it?" she asked, almost breathlessly.
"Yeah, most of the time," I said keeping my voice low and quiet, my eyes fixed on her incredibly bright blue eyes, my smile still intact. After what felt like an eternity, she blinked and broke eye contact and smiled. I turned back to the road and started driving again, smiling smugly as I knew I was having an affect on her.
"I'd like to see you in action and see if that really does work," she challenged me.
"Come out with me sometime," I suggested.
"You're on," she accepted. "Just let me know when."
I nodded and we started to discuss what she wanted in a new phone and what she planned on doing with it. After driving for a bit more, I pulled up to the store and she looked out the window.
"iPhones are so popular - everyone's got 'em," she said, almost in a whining tone.
"Come play with one and you'll find out why," I told her and we got out of the car and headed into the apple store. We headed over to the display models and I started to show her the phones and it's different features. She perked up and really took an interest in the phone when I started telling her about how she could blog with the iPhone, complete with pictures too.
"Hi, is there anything I can help you with?" a young blond asked us and there was something familiar about her.
"My friend here is looking for a new phone," I explained, "so she's just trying it out."
"If you have any questions, just let me know," the girl said to Alex and then looked at me. "My name's Payton."
"I'm Riley," I said to her and gave her one of my crooked smiles, which earned me a grin and I knew I had her. I turned back to Alex who rolled her eyes and shook her head at me. "Are you gonna be okay for a couple of minutes? I'll just be over there," I told her with a jerk of my head towards the back wall of accessories.
"Yeah, I'll be fine," she answered and laughed. I turned back to Payton and she led me to look for an accessory for my iPhone - her phone number.
I hadn't wanted to give her the satisfaction that her opening line in the car had affected me so I had tried my best to hold onto my nerves, but in all reality, there was something about how she introduced herself. The smokey eyes with an arched left eyebrow, the crooked smile that brought out the tiniest hint of laugh lines at one corner of her mouth, and those full lips were absolutely mesmerizing. I wondered how long it had taken her to perfect that look and it was clear she knew the look worked in her favor. It worked on the Apple girl as she all but drooled as soon as Riley said her name. I'd be lying if I said the image of Riley walking away with that girl didn't stab a pang of jealousy that ran through me. But why was I jealous? I'm not gay, I'm not interested in Riley. Was I just jealous that she had this uncanny ability to charm anyone and everyone? That's probably what it was.
As I started to tap and slide my finger around on the iPhone's touch screen, I became aware of someone standing next to me. "Alex?" a deep voice asked and I looked up. His face was familiar but his name escaped me.
He must have saw the hesitation and confusion on my face because he added, "Mark Weiser. We met at that luncheon at The Plaza a couple of weeks ago," he reminded me. "I"m the travel writer."
"Right, how are you?" I asked. We continued with some idle chitchat about how I was settling into the city and he gave the iPhone a glowing endorsement when I told him that I was here with a friend to look for a new phone.
"Hey, I've been meaning to try out this French restaurant in town. What do you say, sometime next week, we can go for dinner?" he asked and when I hesitated, he added, "I know the owner." Was he trying to impress me?
"I"m not sure what my schedule's like this week," I tried to decline. I never was very good at saying no.
"Come on, it's just dinner," he added. "You can tell me about how your column's coming along. How about Friday?"
"Yeah, sure, I think Friday's alright," I gave in. I gave him my email address so he could send me the name of the restaurant. Thankfully he got a phone call and left me in peace. Just then, the iPhone I had been holding in my hand rang and vibrated. I pressed on the touch screen to answer it, "Hello?"
"Now look at the phone and accept the invite," a voice told me. I pulled the phone down from my ear and looked at the screen. An invitation popped up for something called FaceTime. After a few seconds, I saw Riley's face on the phone. She smiled that same one sided smile again and said "Hi."
The combination of her smile and the way she said a simple 'hi' made me smile instantly. I looked around and then saw a familiar head of blond hair at the other end of the table of iPhones. "Pretty cool hey?" she asked and I nodded in agreement. "Yeah, it is. Alright, I'm sold."
We got Payton to set me up with a phone and an hour after we had entered the store, we were walking out and I was in possession of a new mobile and some accessories to boot.
"So that curly haired guy a friend of yours?" Riley asked as we got into her car.
"Which curly haired guy?" I asked, surprised by her question.
"The one who was talking to you before I called you," she clarified.
"Oh, right," I finally realized she was referring to Mark. "I met him at a luncheon a while back. He's a writer for the L.A. Times." I saw her nod and when she didn't reply, for some reason, I added, "He asked me out for dinner."
Riley took a quick glance in my direction and turned her eyes back to the road. "And?" she inquired. I couldn't quite read her facial expression.
"And I gave in and said yes," I admitted. "I don't really have many friends here, and well, he's a fellow writer so, just a little networking, you know?"
"I'm pretty sure he wasn't asking you to network," she said and it sounded like she was teasing but there was a slight edge in her voice. Was she jealous?
"I have no interest in him whatsoever," I felt compelled to tell her. "I haven't really been out socially since Ive been here so hopefully it'll be nice to get out finally."
She nodded but didn't say anything further on the topic. "And what about Payton? Did you get a date out of her?" I teased her and she smiled but shook her head.
"I was going to ask her to meet up at a club tonight, but then found out that she's one of my best friend's ex-girlfriends," she answered. "Despite what you may have heard from Aunt Grace, I do have rules, and one of them is to never hook up with any of Lenny's exes."
"You're a loyal friend," I stated.
"Well, that and I want to avoid as much drama as possible," she explained.
"So what are your other rules?" I asked, curious to know more about this female Casanova.
"Actually, I only have one other rule," she answered. "I don't hook up with anyone under twenty-one. If they can't drink legally, it's hands off. Safer that way."
"I notice you don't say 'date', but rather you use 'hook up'," I observed.
"That's because I don't date," she replied simply and smiled.
I had insisted with Mark that I'd meet him at the restaurant as I had no interest in having him know where I lived. When he told me the name and address of the restaurant, I was quite amused and decided that I'd go with it and see if he really did know the owner of the establishment.
After we were seated at a table by the window, I saw Lenny, the manager walking towards our table and a wave of recognition washed over her face. I quickly gave her a shake of the head and wink and the clever girl knew what I meant. She introduced herself and took our drink order and informed us who our server would be.
Throughout the entire dinner, Mark basically talked non-stop about himself and his travels and how he became a writer for the L.A. Times. He revealed that he had met the owner of Claire de Lune years ago while traveling through Spain, before she was even a chef. To stress his point, when Lenny came by to check on us, he said "Send our compliments to the chef, from an old friend."
The restaurant had nearly emptied out, save for three other tables, by the time we had our coffee and I saw a familiar figure enter the dining room in black pants and a white chef's jacket. Obviously Lenny had passed on that I didn't want to let on that I was familiar with Riley as she came up to us and said "Good evening folks. And how was your dinner?"
"Riley, hey, it's Mark Weiser," he told her, shaking her hand. "We met in Barcelona back in '98. You were making your way to Asia and I had just come through there."
"Oh yeah, right, we hung out at the hostel and you told me all about Indonesia and Malaysia," Riley said with genuine recognition. "You were writing a book. How'd that go?"
"The manuscript got me into the L.A. Times and I've been writing their Travel column for a few years now," he answered. That was a pretty clever way of saying his book never got published. He went on to say how he'd been meaning to check out the restaurant and asked about how Rod and Sarah were as if he was a long time family friend. Riley, ever so politely, let him have the spotlight as he tried to impress me with is connections. Finally Riley took leave from us but not before she leaned down and kissed me on the cheek and said "It's good to see you again, Alex. You look beautiful." She had a mischievous grin on her face, but in her eyes, I saw sincerity which was also reflected in her tone.
She left us and went over to the other tables to visit with them, leaving Mark to look at me, his mouth agape. "You know her?" he asked, realizing that Riley had called me by name. I was looking beyond him, at Riley who glanced back at me and gave me a wink. I inexplicably found myself smiling in return. "Yes, I know her," I finally told Mark. "My sister is her godmother."
"Oh," was all my dinner companion offered.
After Mark left, I left my car and headed back into the restaurant. I thanked Lenny for catching my non-verbal communication and asked if I could go back into the kitchen to say goodnight to Riley. Lenny led me to the back and through the kitchen doors. She looked around for a bit and then finally pointed to the back and I saw Riley standing at the sink, her back to me.
The symphonic metal music poured out from the speakers over the sink as I grabbed the spray handle and sprayed down the pots and pans I had just finished scrubbing. It was a routine of mine to kick the dishwasher off his station to scrub down the counters and grill with the rest of the crew while I washed the dishes. He tried resisting the first couple of times when he first joined us, but after getting sprayed and my threats of letting Jason loose on him with the broom, he stopped resisting and just fell in line with my routine. He tried asking me once why I wanted to wash the dishes at the end of every night. The reply he got was, "Jorge, move your ass or I'm letting Jason have it." Threats of sodomy by my sous chef were always quite affective.
Jason understood me as he's been known to do the dishes sometimes in between seatings on some nights. Scrubbing and washing the pots and pans brings us back to our humble days of our first jobs. It reminds us of the shit we've had to take from other chefs in the past and calls up the shit we give to our line cooks and dishwasher on a daily basis. It grounds us, but at the same time, it also takes us back to a simpler time when all we had to worry about was making sure the dishes were clean. It's a stress reliever and a break from the hectic pace of pumping out plates of food every night. Being up to your elbows in hot water and suds allows you to re-group your thoughts and relax your mind.
"They still make the boss do the dishes?" I heard a female voice with a British accent ask from behind. I turned around and saw Alex and smiled. Although I had told her she looked beautiful out in the dining room, it wasn't until now, seeing her in the dark red plunge neck halter dress that my breath caught in my throat and I saw just how sexy she was.
I swallowed hard and found my voice. "Since I stopped smoking, I need to find another way to relieve the stress without killing anyone," I told her. "Where's your date?"
"He left," she answered. "I met him here. I didn't want him to know where I live." She came and stood beside me and I rinsed off the last pan in the sink.
"He was left dumbfounded after you, um, put him in his place," she said, a smirk tugging at the corners of her mouth. "He thought he was being very clever letting on that he knew you, implying that you were close friends."
"He's a douchebag," I told her before I could stop myself. I decided to change the topic before my mouth ran off on me. "So what are your plans for the rest of the night?"
"Go home and curl up with a book and glass of wine?" she answered with a shrug of her shoulders.
I looked up at the clock and checked out the cleaning progress of the crew behind me. "Lenny and I were going to go out for a drink after we're finished," I told her. "Wanna join us?"
She seemed to pause for a moment and then said, "I don't want to intrude."
"No intrusion," I told her, wiping my hands on the towel, and she smiled and nodded. I led her out to the bar and asked Lenny to get her a drink while she waited for us and went back inside to clean up. Surprisingly, I had a slight spring in my step and we finished cleaning up ten minutes faster than usual.
We were standing at the bar, Lenny and Alex on one side of the corner and me on the other, at our favorite after hours watering hole, which was just down the street from the restaurant. Lenny and Alex were talking animatedly, with Alex asking Lenny about my habits and peculiarities when it came to picking up women, and Lenny was more than happy to share every bit of information and detail that she could think of.
"So do you ever strike out?" Alex asked, after Lenny had informed her that I had probably slept with half the women in the bar tonight.
"Don't ask, don't tell," I answered and she shook her head.
"You can't hide behind that one with me," she informed me.
"It's a game of probability," I told her, without answering her question and looking around at the crowd of women in the place. "You don't go for the one who's here with her girlfriend. You go for the one who's been eyeballing you and whispering to her friends, or looks at you and then looks away as soon as you catch her eye. Then you're guaranteed a home run." At that moment, I locked eyes with a curly haired blond and she smiled. I had been catching her eye periodically in the hour or so that we had been here. I smiled back and held her eyes for a couple of seconds. I turned back to my companions and Alex had followed gaze. She looked back at me questioningly.
"I give her five minutes," Lenny told Alex and they ordered another round of drinks. After about a few minutes, I felt someone come up beside me and I turned to look. Sure enough, it was the blond. She flagged down the bartender and ordered a drink. He produced our beers and some fruity alcoholic drink for the woman standing beside me.
"It's on me," I told the bartender who nodded.
"Thank you," the blond said and smiled, revealing perfectly straight white teeth.
"You're welcome," I told her and introduced myself. "I'm Riley."
She smiled again. "I know. My friends told me who you are. I'm Chelsea."
"What else did your friends tell you about me, Chelsea?" I teased her.
"They told me that given the way you'd been looking at me, that if I came over here, you'd probably introduce yourself," she answered.
"Smart friends," I complimented her.
"They warned me that you were trouble though," she added, smiling teasingly and took a drink from her glass.
"I have been called that on occasion," I conceded. "Did they also warn you not to kiss me?"
"No, why?" she asked, intrigued and leaned in closer to me.
"Because once you kiss me, you will fall for me," I told her. "And I don't do relationships."
"You are trouble aren't you?" she asked, smiling. I nodded, smiling.
"Good thing I like trouble," she said and reached out, grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me in for a kiss. Her lips parted and I reciprocated, her tongue invading my mouth. I tasted the vodka on her tongue and lips from her drink. Despite the painkillers I had taken and the fact that the swelling in my nose had practically disappeared, a pain shot through me when she turned her head slightly and her nose brushed against mine. I pulled away as tactfully as I could without betraying my discomfort.
"Do you wanna get outta here?" she asked breathlessly.
As cute and a sure thing that she was, I remembered that I wasn't alone. "I can't," I answered. "I'm here with some friends. But give me your number and I'll give you a call." I handed her my iPhone and she inputted her name and number and handed it back to me. She left the bar and went back to her group of friends. I turned back to Lenny and Alex. Lenny had a shit eating grin on her face while Alex just looked at me in either confusion or awe, I wasn't sure which.
"I can't believe that line worked," she finally said. "Once you kiss me, you will fall for me?"
"It's all in how you deliver it," I explained.
"Why didn't you leave with her?" she asked and I couldn't read her expression, whether she was being sarcastic or just curious.
"Present company is more interesting," I told her with a wink.
When we finished our round of drinks, we decided to call it a night and walked back to the restaurant where the cars were. As we approached the cars, Lenny's phone rang. "Shit," she muttered before she answered it. "Hey, baby."
"Don't 'hey baby' me," I could hear Gabriella's angry voice coming through the phone. "Where the hell are you?"
"I went out for a drink with Riley," Lenny explained meekly. "I'm sorry, I know, I'm on my way. Actually, I have to drop Riley off at home first, but then I'm coming straight over. Come on, baby, I'm sorry."
"Go, I'll grab a cab," I told Lenny. I knew that Gabriella didn't get to see Lenny as much as she wanted to given the hours that we work, and when the girl is pissed off, I duck for cover as quick as I can.
Lenny looked at me as if to ask "are you sure?" and I nodded and Lenny tried to soothe a steaming Gabriella with promises of going to see her right away.
"Stop talking rubbish, I'll give you a lift," Alex scolded us after Lenny hung up the phone.
I opened my mouth to repeat that I would hail a cab, but the look that Alex gave me quelled any further protest. I closed my mouth and nodded. "Thank you."
Lenny hauled off to what I would hope to be awesome make up sex and I walked with Alex over to the Range Rover. I heard a growl and I knew it wasn't my own stomach. I looked at her and she gave an embarrassed smile. "Excuse me," she giggled. I reached out and took her hand. "C'mon," I said and led her to the back door of the restaurant.
After turning off the alarm system and turning on the lights in the kitchen, she went into the office and grabbed a high stool for me and set it down at the counter space beside the grill. I settled down onto the stool with a bottle of sparkling water that she had left me with and waited as she disappeared into what I can only guess to be the refrigerator. She came out with eggs, a green apple, a carton of milk, butter and some Brie cheese. She placed the ingredients onto the counter and disappeared again and returned with some sugar, a bottle of vanilla extract, ground cinnamon and a French Baguette.
She turned on some music and wrapped an apron around her hips and pulled out a black case from a cupboard under the counter. She opened it up and revealed her tools of the trade. She pulled out one of her knives and quickly and expertly sharpened it with a sharpening steel. I thought she couldn't look sexier. After she cleaned off the knife, she put the eggs, sugar, milk, cinnamon and vanilla extract into a bowl and handed me a whisk. I whisked the ingredients in the bowl together while she sliced the baguette diagonally into two thick and long slices and then cut slits into each slice. Next, she efficiently sliced up the apple and the Brie and then stuffed both ingredients into the slits in the bread slices. The stuffed bread was dipped into the egg mixture and then placed in a hot pan with some butter. The aroma of the bread cooking was delicious and my stomach commented positively with a growl. When the toasts were perfectly golden on both sides, she plated them and then took out a container and poured some kind of syrup into the pan, presumably to heat it up. Then she poured the syrup over top of the two slices of stuffed french toast and slid the plate over to me with a knife a fork.
The first bite held a combination of creamy cheese mixed with the tartness of the apples and the sweetness of the syrup confused my taste buds, but then soon enough, they sang out loud which resulted in a moan that escaped my throat and lips. I closed my eyes and savoured every flavour that assaulted my mouth. When I opened my eyes, she was looking at me with a hesitant smile on her face, as if she was trying to gauge whether or not I'd like her cooking.
"You like?" she asked after I swallowed the first bite.
"Absolutely," I said, regaining my senses. I cut off a bite and offered it to her. She leaned in and accepted the offered morsel. "Not bad if I do say so myself," she said after swallowing the bite.
"I hope you're not seeing him again," she said right before I fed her another bite of food.
"Who?" I asked, not quite following her change in subject matter.
"The douchebag tonight," she clarified and put the dirty dishes in the sink.
"No, I doubt won't be seeing him again after tonight," she answered chuckling. "At least not socially."
"Good," she said, spraying down the mixing bowl and pan in the sink. Was she jealous?
"Blimey. Riley Starks Carson, are you jealous?" I teased her.
A brief flash of realization of what I had said washed over her face and she promptly shook her head. "No, of course not. It's just that I think you can do so much better than a guy like that."
She started to wash the bowl and pan so I got up and brought the plate with me. I fed her another mouthful of food.
"Who can I do then?" I asked before I could stop myself. "That would be better than him?"
She gave me a quick glance, probably trying to judge whether or not I was joking or flirting or serious and to be quite honest, a part of me was hoping she'd realize I was actually flirting with her. But bullocks, why was I flirting with her. It had to have been the fact that she had cooked for me and seeing her in her element that made me feel more comfortable with her. Was I curious? Of course I was curious about this mysterious girl who had women and girls throwing themselves at her every where she turned. But just how curious was I?
"From what I can tell, you need an intellectual equal," she said, having set the dishes aside to dry and was now wiping down her knife. She went back over to the prep counter and leaned back against it, contemplating her words as she ran a towel along the blade of her knife to dry it. I went over and stood beside her, offering her the last piece of french toast off the plate. "You have it," she told me. "Your stomach needed it more than mine."
She continued to wipe down her knife. "You need someone who's honest; someone who'll let you get a word in edgewise; someone who gets who you are and you're comfortable with, but at the same time, can take you out of your comfort zone without making you uneasy."
"Sounds like you have someone very specific in mind," I dared her to continue, looking at her sideways.
She placed the knife down onto the counter and turned towards me. Slowly she came closer and I held my breath, feeling my heart threatening to erupt from my chest. Finally she was inches away and I felt her soft, warm breath on my cheek. I locked my eyes onto her naturally red, curved, pouty lips which were slightly parted. She bit down on her bottom lip and I couldn't help but mimic the action. I was about to close my eyes when she started to move away and I realized what she was doing. She picked up her knife case from the counter behind me and brought it over to her side and slid her knife into it's compartment. "I think you'll know who's right for you when you meet them or when you're ready for them," she answered cryptically.
"And what about you, Riley Carson?" I asked and paused, letting the double meaning hang in the air.
"What about me?" she asked coolly, putting her knife case away. Either she wasn't taking the bait, or she was oblivious to what I was implying. She looked at me with an arched eyebrow. "Blimey. Alexandra Martin, are you flirting with me?" she mocked, complete with a British accent and all.
I couldn't help but laugh and soon enough, we were both laughing. She left the dirty plate and cutlery in the sink, citing that her dishwasher needed something to do the next day and closed up the restaurant again. She directed me to her house in Brentwood, which was a modest home, compared to the mansion that her parents lived in, but still quite a large home for a single person. I pulled into the driveway and parked the vehicle.
"Do you want to come in?" she asked and just as I opened my mouth to answer, I had to stifle a yawn.
"Maybe another time," I reluctantly declined. "I should get home and get to bed."
She nodded. She reached up to the GPS unit on the dashboard and with a few finger taps, she had my path home routed for me. "Thanks for the ride. Goodnight."
"Good night, and you're welcome," I told her and she slipped out of the Range Rover. I watched her enter her house and she waved before closing the door behind her. I pulled out of the drive way and started to follow the instructions to Grace's house. As I pulled up to a traffic light, the street lights lit up the passenger seat and I realized that Riley had forgotten her jacket. I turned the vehicle around and headed back to her house. As I pulled up on the other side of the street in front of her house, I saw her car running in the drive way. She came out of her house, talking on her mobile, smiling and shaking her head.
My heart and stomach dropped. Of course, she was heading out to meet up with that woman she had met at the bar. Why did she even bother to invite me in if she was going to try to 'hook up' with that woman? I mentally shook my head. Why was I feeling betrayed or disappointed? It wasn't like there was anything between us. Besides, I wasn't gay, so why was I feeling this jealousy that was bubbling inside me. As I pulled away from her house, I felt angry at myself. I had let myself get wrapped up in her flirtations and charm tonight, especially when we had gone back to the restaurant. I thought I had felt some kind of spark between us and as foolish as it sounded, she made me feel quite special, cooking for me and only me. 'That's who Riley is,' I told myself. 'She's a charmer. That's why women fall for her. She makes everyone feel special but as soon as she's done with one, she moves onto the next. Get a grip, Alexandra. You're not even gay, so why are you fretting about this?'I resolved to put Riley Carson out of my mind and focus the next few days writing up my article on what I had observed.
I was slightly disappointed that Alex was too tired to stay for a while but I saw how tired she was. I was pretty tired myself as we had had a busy night at the restaurant, so I was ready to go up to my room and go straight to sleep, but as soon as I closed the door behind me, my iPhone rang. It was my dad.
"Hey, Dad," I answered. "Why are you calling me this late? Aren't you seniors usually in bed at like ten?"
"Funny," my dad answer without humor in his voice. "Listen, you still have a key to our house?"
"Yeah, I should," I answered and went into the kitchen and pulled out the drawer in which I kept spare keys to my parents house, Sam's house and to the restaurant. "Why?"
"We've seemed to have locked ourselves out of the house," he answered, trying to sound nonchalant.
"Really?" I asked. "Where's Mom?"
"She's here," he answered and after a couple of seconds, my Mom came on the line.
"What happened?" I asked, knowing full well that my father probably had something to do with their situation.
"Your father, in his usual frantic self sometimes, fat fingered the lock code to the door, not once but three times, and now it's locked us out. We can't get in without a key," she explained.
"You didn't bring a key with you?" I asked, rummaging through the key drawer and finally found their house key.
"No," she answered with a loud sigh. "The first and only time we decided to go keyless, Rock Star here locks us out.'
"What about the garage? Can't you get into the house through the garage?" I interrogated them. I loved my parents but being beckoned in the middle of the night was a bit much.
"Someone forgot to change the battery in the garage door remote, so no, we can't get in there either," my Mom answered, having placed the emphasis on the 'Someone' part of the sentence. I could see her rolling her eyes at my dad. I was going to ask them about using the control panel to open the garage with their house code, but thought better of it. I'm sure if there was a way into the house without having to call me, my Mom would've figured it out.
"Okay, I found the key. I'm coming over," I told them and hung up the phone. I headed into the garage and backed the car out of the garage. A nagging feeling made me check my pockets and sure enough, I had forgotten their keys on the stairs when I went to put my shoes on. I ran back into the house to grab the keys and my phone rang again.
"Hi Auntie Riley," Claire's quiet voice came through when I answered the call.
"Claire? What are you still doing up? You're supposed to be sleeping," I asked, instantly concerned.
"I was sleeping," she answered. "But then I woke up. Jojo snores. He waked me up."
Jojo was their dog who often snuck into Claire's room to sleep beside her bed. "Where are your mom and dad?" I asked.
"They're sleeping," she answered conspiratorially. "I miss you, Auntie Riley."
The kid knew exactly how to pull at my heart strings and bring a smile to my face. "I miss you too, Claire-bear," I told her. "Now go back to sleep and think of ice cream cones and jelly beans."
"OK," her little voice complied. "Good night, Auntie."
"Good night, Claire-bear," I told her. "I love you."
"I love you too," she said and I could hear her yawn. After I hung up, I backed out of the driveway and headed towards my parents house. When I pulled into the driveway, their car was parked in front of the garage. They got out and I handed them their house key and they were finally able to unlock the front door. Once inside my Mom handed me the garage remote and pointed me to a drawer in the kitchen for new batteries. "You're kidding me, right?" I asked her.
"You've seen what happens when I left your father to do it," she pointed out and I conceded and took the remote. She went upstairs to change and I rummaged through the drawer for some batteries but couldn't find any. "There's no batteries in here," I yelled up to her from the bottom of the stairs.
"Go check your dad's office!" she shouted back.
I headed over to my dad's home office, or his "domain" as he liked to call it, which was full of memorabilia from the various decades his band had been around. The shelves were full of figurines, toys and magazines. He had a few guitars in one corner of the room and of course, the walls were adorned with posters of the band and gold and platinum records. My dad was sitting at his desk, checking his emails and voicemails.
I held up the remote. "Batteries," I told him and he pulled open a desk drawer and handed me a pack of batteries. I sat down on the couch and went about fixing their remote.
"How was business today?" he asked.
"It was good. Full house, both seatings," I answered and he nodded approvingly.
"Have you thought about expanding?" he asked and I could tell he was getting into his businessman mode.
"I'm just trying to keep my head above water right now, Dad," I told him. After three years, the restaurant was starting to turn a profit and I was finally relaxing a bit. I wasn't quite ready to go through another start up just yet.
"You gotta think ahead," he advised me. "I mean look at Ramsay, Flay, Legasse, those guys didn't stop at one. They've built a brand and hell, Ramsay's built a frickin' empire."
"I know," I answered, having finished replacing the batteries I tossed the battery box back to him. I slouched back into the couch. "I'm just enjoying the fruits of my labor right now. And maybe in a year or so when I can hand things over to Jason and Lenny can find someone she trusts to manage Claire, we'll start thinking about a new place. But I need to figure out what kinda cuisine first."
"You're smart, like your old man," he complimented me and himself. "You'll come up with something. Thanks for coming by tonight, kiddo. I hope we weren't interrupting anything." He gave me a wink. My father knew me well.
"Nah, Alex had just dropped me off at home and I was actually gonna call it a night and turn in," I answered.
He arched an eyebrow at me, one of his trademark expressions. "You were out with Alex?"
"Yeah, she was on a date with some dick head," I explained. "He was trying to impress her, passing off that he knew me."
"Did he know you? Do you know him?"
"I met him long ago when I was travelling," I answered. "Didn't like him then, still don't like him now."
"Don't like who?" my mom asked, coming into the office. She had changed into her silk pajamas and she went over and sat down on my dad's lap.
"Some guy Alex was on a date with," my dad took the liberty of answering.
"Alex? Grace's Alex?" my mom questioned. "She's dating already?"
"I think she was bored, and he's a fellow writer at the L.A. Times so I think she was just humoring him," I replied. "I don't think he's got the balls to see her again now that he knows she's much more connected to our family than he'll ever dream of being."
"So how did she end up driving you home?" my dad asked, a curious look on his face, which led to my mom giving me a questioning look.
"Her date was at my restaurant," I answered. "So she stayed afterwards and we hung out for awhile, went for a couple of drinks."
"She's pretty," my dad observed, which earned him a slap on the shoulder from my mom. "What? I'm just stating a fact. She's pretty....but not as pretty as you, my beauty queen." I rolled my eyes when my mom gave him a kiss.
"Please, not in front of the child," I joked, covering my eyes.
"I'm going to bed," my mom said and stood up. She gave my dad another kiss and then came over and gave me a kiss. "Thanks for coming to the rescue, Rye. And be careful with Alex. Godmother or not, Aunt Grace will kill you if you mess with Alex."
I shook my head, knowing better than to protest and she left.
"She's right you know, Grace will kill you," my dad reiterated.
"You of all people know that when you tell me to not do something, what do I do?" I asked.
"What we told you not to do," he answered, knowing me well. "I also know that if you get involved with Alex to spite Grace, you'll only do exactly what Grace expects and Alex is the one who gets hurt in the end."
"Alex isn't even gay," I pointed out, ignoring the fact that what he said was right. "Dad, can I ask you something?"
He sat back in his chair and shut off his computer monitor. "Shoot."
"You love mom, right?"
"You're not going to ask me to marry her are you?"
"No. I've accepted that you'll always live in sin. Besides, if you got married, then I'd be expected to get into relationships."
"Yes, I love your mother, very much so."
"When did you know that she was the one, you know. that you didn't want to marry?"
"I knew she was the one I didn't want to marry when she refused to sleep with me," he answered laughing at my question. "You know the lifestyle, girls and women everywhere throwing themselves at you so you're getting a little sumpin' sumpin' left right and center. One day, I'm at a charity fundraiser and I get introduced to this beautiful super model and she wouldn't give me the time of day. At first, I thought she was just being prissy and stuck up but then I found out that she just didn't want to be another groupie."
"And in all honesty, you really did just want to mount her," I commented and he paused and nodded.
"So after much persistence, I finally got her to agree to go out with me," he continued. "I took her out to a nice dinner at a jazz club, we enjoyed the music and wine and at the end of the night, she not only didn't invite me in, she didn't even let me kiss her."
"She was playing hard to get?" I asked.
"She was being herself - a good girl who wasn't just going to let some musician treat her like a..." he trailed off.
"Ho," I finished for him.
"So at that point, for me, it became all about the chase and trying to get the girl," he continued. "We went on three dates before she let me kiss her, and then it was five months before we...," he trailed off again. I held up my hand, indicating that I didn't need for him to spell it out for me.
"But by the time I got to make love to your mother," he said and I closed my eyes and tried to block out the image, "I had gotten to know her, and I had fallen in love with who she was. I realized that she was the one I wanted to share my life with and raise a family with."
"Have you ever cheated on her?" I asked, not really sure why because after I asked the question, I didn't think I wanted to know the answer.
"Have you ever cheated on a girl?" he turned the tables on me without answering.
"I'm not committed to anyone, so no," I answered. "You and Uncle Sal taught me that, remember? You can't cheat if you're not committed."
"I taught you to be careful about marriage," he corrected me. "I'm committed to your mother in my own way. I don't need a marriage certificate or some priest pronouncing my commitment to make it any more real than it is. Tell me something, Rye, is your reason for not having a girlfriend because you don't think you can stay faithful?"
"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't run into a girl I'd like to..." I replied, "get to know better."
"You're young, you're beautiful," he told me. "Live life to the fullest. Just remember to keep your eyes open so that you don't miss it when someone special comes along."
"What if I don't have it in me?" I asked him. "What if I don't have that gene that makes people want to be monogamous?"
"Well, only you can know that," he answered. "Sometimes we live our lives the way others perceive it, but whatever you do, you stay true to who you are inside. Be honest to yourself. Capisce?"
"Capisce," I answered and went over to give him a hug. "Goodnight, Dad."
"Goodnight, kiddo," he said and got up and walked me out to my car.
"You know, the thrill of the chase is an addictive feeling, especially when it comes to forbidden fruit," he said as I got into my car. "But don't get too wrapped up in the chase that you miss the 'Eureka!' moment."
I took my father's advice and drove home. Crawling into bed, the image of a brunette with bright blue eyes and deep dimples wearing a dark red dress was the last thing on my mind before I drifted off to sleep.
It felt like I had just fallen asleep when I my phone rang and jarred me out of my slumber. I looked at the clock. It was past noon.
"Hello?" I answered the phone.
"Hey, Rye," Lenny's voice came through the line.
"I'm not coming home this morning so don't wait for me," she told me and she sounded like she was grinning from ear to ear.
"I take it Gabriella forgave you?" I asked, sitting up in my bed.
"Oh yes," Lenny answered. "Many times over."
"Congratulations, my friend," I told her. "At least one of us got laid last night."
"Many times over," she repeated.
"Yes, I got that the first time," I told her, rolling my eyes.
"What happened with Alex? She didn't give into your charms?" she teased me.
"We went back to the restaurant after you left and I made her something to eat," I recounted. "Then she drove me home."
"And?" my best friend prodded.
"No and," I told her. "She went home. She was tired so I didn't want to keep her."
"Riiiight," she dragged out. "And since when did you get so chivalrous?"
"Since I've been threatened with physical harm if I touch a hair on her head," I answered.
"Like you've ever heeded threats in the past," Lenny commented.
"Is there a point to this discussion?" I asked irritably.
"Someone's on the rag," Lenny half joked. "Either that or you're in dire need of a woman."
'Perhaps a brunette with dimples and an accent that can strip me naked?' a voice in my head called out. I clamped down on the thought. "Goodbye, Lenny. I'll see you at the restaurant."
I hung up the phone and the alarm on my iPhone rang out. I reached over and grabbed it and turned off the alarm. I started to check Facebook and Twitter for updates. Twitter updated that I had a new follower. Someone named Chelsea. Fuck! Why were lesbians so stalker-like that way? I went into my contacts and looked up her entry and deleted it. There was no way in hell I was going to call her up now. Then I saw Alex's new iPhone number and wondered if I should give her a call. To thank her for the ride home of course. I pressed the call button before I could change my mind and waited while it rang. And rang. and rang. Her voicemail greeting came on.
"Hey, Alex, it's Riley," I said. "I just wanted to thank you for the ride home last night and I hope I didn't keep you out too late. Anyway, um, yeah, thanks." I ended the call and dropped my head into my hands when I realized how idiotic I had sounded. What the hell was wrong with me? I shook it off and jumped into the shower. After the shower, I checked my phone. Nothing. I got dressed and headed out to the cafe down the street for a coffee and a bite to eat and then I headed to the restaurant.
When I walked into the kitchen, the delivery guy had just finished unloading our order from his truck and the boxes were stacked near the fridge. Jason was looking over the order form and when the guy finished stacking the last box onto the delivery pile, Jason handed him the order and said, "Now take it all back."
"What?" the delivery guy asked him.
"You're two fucking hours late," Jason told him, his hands on his hips. Jason may be the gayest guy I know, but when it came to being assertive, he had a six-foot three, two hundred pound frame and a gleaming shaved head that could intimidate even the most belligerent of delivery guys, and trust me, there were lots of them we've had to handle.
"I needed this shit at noon," Jason continued. "We pay you to be here on time, so noon means noon, twelve o'clock. Not twelve fifteen, not twelve thirty, and most definitely not fucking two o'clock. So haul this shit back to your boss and tell him to call me if he's got something to say to me!"
The guy swore under his breath but then packed up the boxes onto his dolly and took them back to his truck. After about twenty minutes, he was gone. "So do we have what we need?" I asked Jason after I had changed.
"Yeah," he answered. "I called another guy from West Hollywood and he brought me everything we need."
"Good," I told him, pulling out my knife case to help with the prep. "I was sick of this guy anyway."
"Jorge thinks you're a piss poor dishwasher," Jason told me as worked side by side cleaning and cutting up vegetables. "Said you missed a plate and cutlery last night."
"I no said piss poor, chef," Jorge shouted from the back as he flattened out some boxes for the recycling bin. "I said you missed something."
Jason smirked. "I'm just fucking with you, Jorje."
"Pendejo!" Jorje shouted back.
"Are you offering me yours, Jorge?" Jason shouted back at him and our dishwasher simply shook his head and took the flattened cardboard out the back door.
"I swear, one day Jorge's just gonna bend over and get it over with," I said, shaking my head. "I came back here last night. A friend was hungry."
"Tell me you scrubbed down the counter after you had sex," Jason said without looking up from his work.
"Maybe I did, maybe I didn't," I teased. "Maybe we did it over in your area."
"Christ," he exhaled. Then he stopped working and looked at me. "Seriously, did you scrub it down?"
I laughed and shook my head. "I'm just fucking with you. Alex was hungry so I made her a late night snack."
"Was she the one in the red dress last night?" he asked, resuming his peeling and slicing.
"Yeah," I answered and images of how the dress clung to her figure in all the right places flashed through my mind.
"She's pretty," he commented and I had to do a double-take when no further snarky comment was forthcoming.
"Yeah, she is," I agreed and we continued working in a companionable silence for awhile. As we worked, I thought about the menus we had put together over the years since we first opened and realized that we didn't have much to offer in terms of vegetarian dishes. Granted that French cuisine focused more on rich flavors which were often derived from animal products and fats, it wasn't like vegetarianism was foreign to me. It's likely that half the lesbians in the world were vegetarian, if not vegan, and our restaurant and staff were no strangers to the LGBT community.
"We should try having a vegetarian menu," I said, still lost in my thoughts.
Jason stopped dead in his tracks and looked at me. "Are you asking for a kick in the crotch?"
"No," I said, shaking my head. "I love meat as much as you do -- okay, well maybe not in the same way, but come on, there are lots of vegetarians out there and by not having much of a choice for them, we're limiting our clientele to a certain group. Or rather excluding a certain group of consumers."
He looked at me speculatively and then a smile crept onto his face. "You like her don't you?"
"What?" I asked, not following his question.
"The red dress. Alex," he clarified. "You like her."
"I...don't...I-I mean...," I stuttered and before I could recover, he winked and whispered, "It's okay, your secret's safe with me."
As I was sipping my coffee at the breakfast table, Grace came in, still in her robe and sat down across from me. She held out the paper she had brought into the kitchen and proceeded to read aloud from it. "I have, in the past, had the misfortune of having had a lying, cheating and manipulative ex-boyfriend. Although it took some time and a physical move to a new continent, I was able to see that although I was not completely blameless for the failed relationship, he was the liar and cheater. Armed with the knowledge of things to look for in potential philanderers who crossed my path, I was recently introduced to a new breed of the womanizer persona. This time, in the form of a woman. Do not kid yourself, womanizers do come in both genders and although their techniques may be different, their ultimate goals are the same - to bed as many women as they can."
She looked up from the newspaper and looked at me and then continued reading. "This new predator, at first glance, is much more charming and comes across as honest and the way she captures her prey is by using blatant honesty. She makes no pretenses as to what she wants from her targets and draws on that fantasy that many women have - that they can change the player to be a committed lover. So despite all logic and common sense, they find themselves attracted to her and succumb to her attractiveness and seductive words. However, the situation begs the question - does her upfront disclaimers and truths that she's not looking for anything other than a night of passion absolve her from the trail of broken hearts that she inevitably leaves in her path? Or do we put the blame on the women who fall for her, for letting themselves be fooled, or who didn't heed her words?"
Grace put the newspaper down and looked at me. "Come on, then, out with it."
"Out with what?" I asked innocently.
"What's happened then?" Grace continued to prod. "I can only presume that the article is about our beloved Riley Carson."
"Nothing's happened," I answered. "I've had a chance to see her working her charm and am simply making an observation."
"Do you think she'll take kindly to this?" my sister inquired. "Or are we going to see a blood bath tonight at dinner?"
"I've merely called it like I saw it," I answered. "I haven't embellished anything nor have I called her anything that she's not already professed to being."
Grace nodded slowly and stood up. "I'm glad you've, for lack of a better term, seen the light. I love Riley, but I love you more and the last thing I want is for you to fall victim to her wily ways." With that, she went upstairs to change for work and left me to contemplate whether or not Riley would have seen my article and what she thought of it. Was reading the truth going to be too much for her to handle?
We entered the restaurant and were greeted by Sarah and Rod who were already there. I had learned that it had become tradition since the restaurant opened, that for Thanksgiving, Riley would shut down the establishment for the entire holiday and she and her crew would cook up a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for their families and serve it up buffet style for what I guessed to be well over sixty people. I saw Sam and Claire come out from the kitchen.
"Hi, Lenny," I greeted a familiar face. "Is she back there?"
"Yeah, but I wouldn't go back there," Lenny answered hesitantly. "She's, um, not happy."
I should have listened to the sinking feeling in my gut but I went ahead and pushed open the door to the kitchen anyway. From what I could tell, the food was near ready and were being loaded into chafing dishes to be brought out to the front. I caught her eye as she was moving the turkey meat into one of the dishes.
"Hi," I said and walked closer to her and I saw her spine stiffen minutely.
"What can I do for you?" she asked coolly.
"I just wanted to say hi and as foolish as it sounds, wondered if you needed any help," I answered.
"I do this for a living, Alex," she answered tersely. "I'm pretty sure I can handle feeding sixty plus people Thanksgiving dinner."
"Something the matter?" I asked, knowing the answer by now.
She put down the tongs she had been using and walked over to the kitchen doors to the dining room. She opened a door and stepped through it and I followed her into a quiet corner. She turned to face me, her hands on her hips. "You announce to all of Los Angeles that I'm a predatory womanizer who'll say and do anything to get into a woman's pants and you ask if something's the matter?" she practically spat out.
"I was simply making an observation," I tried to defend my article. "Everywhere I run into you, you're flirting with a girl, or they're falling over their feet flirting with you. You've made no pretenses, from when we first spent time, that you're anything but someone looking for a good time and nothing more. Isn't that who you are?"
She opened her mouth to answer but then paused and I saw something shift in her posture, as if the stiffness in her spine from earlier had morphed into a slight slump of the shoulders. She let out a long breath. She bit down on her bottom lip and slightly nodded her head. "You're right. You're absolutely right," she finally said. "That's who I am. I just didn't realize I was being researched for your article. I thought we were just friends hanging out. And for the record, I've only lied to you once, and that was when you asked if I was jealous."
I opened my mouth to respond, but she cut me off, "I have to get back. Have some wine. Enjoy yourself." And with that, she spun on her heels and disappeared back into the kitchen. I watched her disappear all the while still trying to remember when I had asked if she was jealous. And then the memory hit me. Bloody hell, it was in that very kitchen when we were talking about my date that night. I had teased her if she was jealous about my date and she said she wasn't. So she was lying then? Blimey.
The chafing dishes were brought out to a long table at the front and soon enough, everyone was seated with plates full of food. We ate, we drank and talked. Although we were seated at the same table, I noticed that she avoided my eyes throughout the entire dinner. When dinner was winding down, they brought out a TV from what I could only guess was the office or a storage room and soon enough, a football game was turned on. I noticed that Riley and her staff had quietly dispersed and cleared away the dishes from the dining room, leaving the guests to enjoy the game and their drinks.
I went to the bar for another glass of wine. Rod was there waiting for a club soda.
"That's quite a debut article, Alex," Rod said to me after I told the bartender what I wanted.
"You're not going to tell me I was too harsh are you?" I asked him.
"No, I think you got it spot on," he said, to my surprise. "Riley's created a certain lifestyle and image for herself and I'm sure my lifestyle and past probably has had somewhat of an influence on her choices."
"Rod, I wasn't judging her choices," I told him. "I was making an observation." I felt like I had been saying that too many times already.
He nodded. "I'm gonna tell you about an observation I made about ten, eleven, years ago," he began. "Riley was away in New York at school, and she came home during spring break and brought a friend with her. I say friend because Riley didn't refer to her as a girlfriend, but I knew there was more to it than just friendship. Anyway, for the week she was home, this friend of hers brought a demo tape and was quite persistent at trying to get me to listen to it, if you know what I mean."
I nodded my understanding.
"For the record, as a producer, I did listen to the demo, but I kept the girl at an arm's length. At any rate, that was the last time a girlfriend was ever in the picture for Riley," Rod concluded.
As I took in what Rod told me, my analytical brain took over and started to spin its wheels. I returned to the table with Rod, but my mind was occupied by all the thoughts flooding my brain to take part in the discussions at the table. When the game ended, we all got up to leave. We paid thanks to the chefs and cooks, and still Riley barely looked at me. I walked out with Rod, Sarah, Grace and the girls to the parking lot.
"Hey, Rock Stud, do you have the house keys?" Sarah asked Rod as they got to their car. He fished out a key ring from his pocket triumphantly.
"I thought you guys were going keyless nowadays," Grace asked.
"Yeah, last time we did that, we got locked out of the house," Sarah replied.
"You're kidding," Grace half asked.
"No, I kid you not," Sarah answered. "My darling boyfriend here got the code wrong, not once, but three times and the system shuts down for a certain amount of time," she scoffed.
"In my defense, you were the one who picked the code," Rod retorted.
"And I told you what it was," Sarah countered. "But you and your nimble fingers. The irony of it all is that Mr. Rock Star who plays a guitar for a living, fat fingered the numbers."
"Well, I've set up a code for myself now so I won't forget it," Rod threw in before opening the car door for her.
"When did this happen?" Grace asked Sarah.
"Last Friday night in the wee hours of the morning," she answered. "It would've been fine, but someone didn't change the batteries in the garage remote either so we couldn't even get into the garage. Thank god I raised *my* child right and she came over with the keys."
"Hey, are you saying Riley's not mine?" Rod joked.
"No, I just happened to find a guy who looked exactly like you to father her," Sarah said, rolling her eyes. "Good night, ladies."
We hugged them goodbye and Grace unlocked the Range Rover. Maddi and Kris climbed into the back seat and Grace turned to look at me. "Aren't you coming?"
"I need to talk to Riley," I told her. "Go ahead, I'll hire a taxi home."
"You can call her tomorrow," Grace told me.
"No, I need to talk to her now," I insisted. "I'll see you at home." I turned before she could stop me and headed back into the restaurant. The last of the guests and staff were leaving as I got to the door and I asked Lenny to let me talk to Riley. She quietly acquiesced and let me into the kitchen.
"Hey, Rye! Gabriella and I are heading back to her place for the night. You okay to lock up?" Lenny called out to Riley who was once again at the sink. Riley turned and nodded to Lenny. She finally looked at me when Lenny had left us and said, "Sorry, kitchen's closed."
I walked over to her and stood beside her as she dried her hands on a dish towel. "I owe you an apology," I said.
She shook her head. "No, you don't. You were just calling a spade a spade. It's like knowing you have a pimple on your chin but when you actually see it in the mirror, you're horrified by what you see. I know who I am, I know how others see me, but it was still a bit of a shock to see myself described in words in your article."
"You were right to be angry at me," I told her. "I didn't intend on using you for my article and I am sorry that I betrayed our friendship. To be completely honest, I was...I was jealous."
"Jealous?" she asked, puzzled.
"That night I drove you home," I began to explain, realizing that there was nothing left but to be truthful. "You had forgotten your jacket and so I turned around to bring it back to you. When I pulled up to your house, you were leaving and talking on the phone. Naturally I just assumed that you were going to hook up with that girl you had met at the bar."
She seemed to ponder the memory, hanging her head low and then finally raised her eyes to look at me. "I was talking to Claire - she couldn't sleep. And I was heading over to my parents house. They had locked themselves out."
"I know that now," I admitted. "At the time, I just thought and felt like you had just finished flirting with me and just like that, you were onto the next girl. I was jealous and disappointed and that all came out in the article."
She looked at me suspiciously, and when she spoke, her tone was without anger. "I thought you were straight."
"That didn't stop you from flirting with me, did it?" I asked, half teasingly, relieved that the tension between us was lifting. "As much as you deny it, I know you've been flirting with me.
She shrugged. "Maybe," she simply said with a smirk tugging at the corners of her mouth. She broke eye contact and took off her chef's jacket. She tossed it into a bin against the wall and leaned back against the counter her hands resting on the its edge. She nodded slowly and looked up into my eyes. There was a softness in her gaze and the smirk was gone, replaced by a hesitant smile. "You're right, I have been flirting with you. And I was jealous when you were out on your date with that douchebag."
I returned her smile and took a step closer to her. "So where do we go from here?"
Good, God. It took everything in me to not slip an arm around her waist and pull her to me when she smiled and asked me in a low and none to innocent tone, "So where do we go from here?"
My mother's voice rang in my ears. 'Godmother or not, Aunt Grace will kill you if you mess with Alex.'
I took a deep breath and fought all the instincts within me and shook my head. I exhaled and gave her a resigned smile and arched eyebrow. "No where. Because you're straight, and on the rebound, and I'm...not good for you."
"I might have only dated men before, but I do know that ever since I met you, I haven't stopped thinking about you," she told me. "I can't stop thinking about you and frankly, I don't want to stop."
Her voice - her soft, calm and soothing voice and British accent pounded away at my resolve. "I"m sorry, Alex," I told her and gripped the counter's edge in a death grip as I fought back my own wants. "I can't."
"Have I misinterpreted your flirtations and what you just told me about you being jealous?" she inquired and took another step closer to me until we were inches apart.
I swallowed hard and slowly shook my head as I peered into her bright blue eyes. There was something about this woman that made it practically impossible for me to lie.
"Then what's holding you back?" she continued to question me and her eyes flitted from my eyes down to my mouth and back up to my eyes.
I broke eye contact with her and stared down at my feet, taking a deep breath and exhaling, trying to calm the rapid beating of my heart. I hadn't had these feelings in a long time - sweaty palms, heart pounding in my chest, dry throat, difficulty breathing. Her proximity and the smell of her perfume was making me nervous. This feeling was foreign to me. The last time I was this nervous around a girl was when I was fifteen and kissed my first girl, Heather Law, captain of the girl's basketball team.
"Riley," she said softly, a pleading tone in her voice. "Talk to me."
I forced myself to look back into her eyes. Her crystal blue gaze was intense yet soft at the same time if that was even possible. I licked my bottom lip and bit on it momentarily. I took a deep breath. "I made a promise," I admitted to her one of my two reasons for holding back.
"A promise? Wait, I thought you were unattached," she said, a hint of hurt in her tone as she was reaching the wrong conclusion.
"I, ah," I clarified. "I, um, I promised Aunt Grace that I, uh...that I'd keep my distance."
"Well," she said slowly. "You haven't been doing a very good job of that, now have you?"
"Flirting is one thing," I explained and found myself unable to continue.
She looked at me expectantly and when I didn't continue she attempted to finish the sentence for me, "Hooking up is entirely different."
"Actually," I said slowly and corrected her, "Dating is entirely different."
She narrowed her eyes and paused. "Are you taking the mickey?"
"Pardon?" I asked, confused at the British slang term she just used.
"Since when did you use the term 'dating'?" she asked, an amused smile on her lips.
"Since that night you came into my kitchen wearing a red dress," I confessed. Damn this woman. She was my Kryptonite.
"You liked the dress?" she asked, teasingly, her lips curved into a self-satisfied smile.
I nodded, not trusting my own voice. Her gaze grew intense again and I had to do something to move away from her before I did something that we'd both regret. I exhaled quickly. "It's getting kinda hot in here. Lemme give you a ride home." She gave me one last look, smirked and acquiesced.
I led her out of the restaurant and to my car. On the ride to Grace's house, we chatted idly about what we had been up to in the time we had last seen each other. Despite my initial anger over her article, I had to admit that it was indeed a well written piece and complimented her on it. She revealed that the editor liked it as well and liked her idea of a series of articles on relationships. She promised me that I would not be the subject of any articles for the rest of the series.
When we pulled up to the house, she turned to me. "You know, Riley, I'm a grown woman. Grace can't tell me who I can or cannot date."
"Yeah, but she can no doubt rain down a world of hurt on me," I retorted.
"Are you really that scared of her?" Alex asked, laughing. I chuckled, not answering. The truth was, I wasn't scared of Grace. I was scared of Alex. I was scared of how I felt whenever she was near. I was scared of letting someone into my life again.
"Goodnight, Riley," Alex finally said and reached for the door.
"Alex -" I called out before she could open the door. She turned back, an inquiring look on her face.
"Do you wanna have dinner tomorrow?" I blurted out before I lost my nerve.
She smiled and I felt something melt inside of me. "Absolutely," she answered.
I returned her smile. "I'll call you tomorrow," I told her and she smiled one last time before she got out of the car. I watched and made sure she was inside the house before I drove off.
"Shit!" I cursed out loud. Where the hell was I going to take her for dinner? Ideas started to fly through my head - farmer's market? Santa Monica Pier? West Hollywood? Oh, bloody hell, I had forgotten - I needed a vegetarian friendly place. I pulled out my phone and scrolled through my contacts list. I found the number and dialed.
"Bobby, it's Riley, how you doin'?" I asked into the phone. Bobby and I attended the CIA together and he moved out here as soon as we graduated while I stayed in New York. A couple of years before I opened Claire de lune, he and some investors opened up an upscale vegetarian restaurant called "Fresh" in Santa Monica. I had never been, because quite frankly, I had had no desire to try vegetarian food. It wasn't anything against Bobby because I knew he was a great chef. And I loved vegetables. I just liked them to accompany meat.
"Riley, long time no hear," his New York accent greeted me. "How you doin'?"
"Can't complain," I answered. "Got my health, got my work."
"Still getting the girls?" he teased.
"Still getting the girls," I confirmed. "You?"
"Got two of my own now," he answered and I could hear the pride in his voice. "Two year old twin girls,"
"Congratulations," I told him. "Hey, I know this is totally last minute and I'm livin' on a prayer, but I don't suppose you got room for two tomorrow night do you?"
"Hang on a minute," he answered and I heard him calling out to someone for the reservation book. After a few minutes of chattering, he came back on the line. "Sorry Riley, we're completely booked tomorrow. Since when did you eat vegetarian?"
I chuckled at the question, amused that he had remembered how much of a carnivore I was. "Since I just asked out a vegetarian on a date."
"A date? You?" he questioned in amused disbelief.
"Yeah, me, on a date," I answered. "Who'da thought huh?"
"Hang on a minute," he told me again and I heard some more talking off line. Soon enough I heard his voice again. "I'll set you up with a chef's table. We'll make room for you. How does eight o'clock sound? I gotta see who this woman is who's got you on a date."
"Funny," I told him. "Eight sounds great. Thanks, Bobby. I owe you."
I hung up the phone and drove home, a flurry of emotions stirring inside of me. When I got home, I went upstairs and showered before going to bed. I contemplated just texting her about our date but then realized that firstly, that was just not classy enough for someone like Alex, and secondly, I wanted to call her and hear her voice. Fighting the urge to call her right away, I slipped into bed and eventually fell asleep, a smile on my face.
It took a lot of self control for me to not call Alex as soon as I woke up the next morning, but I forced myself to go shower and change first before I made the phone call. I told her about the dinner and she was curious as to where I was taking her but I refused to tell her. I was informed that Aunt Grace had gone shopping for the day and evening with my mother and the girls, and so I was clear to pick her up from her place for our date. We chatted for a bit and after some insistence that she needed to know what to wear, I told her that we were going for dinner at a friend's place in Santa Monica and hopefully take a stroll on the pier as well. After I got off the phone with her, which I really didn't want to because I couldn't get enough of hearing her voice, I pulled my knees up to my chest, sitting on the window seat, I looked out the bay window of my bedroom. The back of the house overlooked a park which was busy with families and kids having picnics and guys playing football on the grass.
I remembered spending days out at the park with my parents and Sam when we were younger whenever my father wasn't on tour. Despite being a rock star, whenever he was home, my father always made a point of spending as much time with us as he could. Our parents wanted us to have as normal of a childhood and life as possible, which meant that they would take turns driving Sam and I to school, participating in the parent advisory council at our schools and even taking on coaching stints for our soccer teams. I think it surprised a lot of other parents at first when they realized that a famous musician and a super model would even care to take an active role in their children's lives, but once they got over their initial shock, they would see that my parents were just that - my parents. Sam and I didn't know them as anything other than Mom and Dad, but to the rest of the world, they were Rod Carson and Sarah Starks - celebrities.
I suppose I had grown up and shaped my adult life a certain way to the world. I had seen how essentially my parents had two different lives - a life in front of the cameras and the life they led at home with Sam and me, and I fell into the same pattern. At first, I was merely followed and got attention for simply having famous parents. Then, in college, I built up my own reputation with the lesbian crowd in New York City which then followed me to L.A. After I opened Claire de Lune and it became a success, I was getting recognized on my own merits and it felt good. But I continued to live my personal life the best way I knew how and it worked for me. I had different lives - the party life and the professional life. Somewhere along the way, I had lost sight of my own personal life and I hadn't realized it until Alex came into the picture. She saw what everyone else saw - the chef by day and player by night who slept with anyone and everyone.
Had it been anyone else, I would have been fine with it, but after I read her article, I realized that I had wanted her to see more than the public Riley. I wanted her to see the private Riley. The problem was, it had been so long since I had seen the private Riley who had fears and insecurities that I wasn't sure I even knew how to show that side of me anymore. All of a sudden, I felt nervous, scared even, about the date.
There was a knock on the door. "Come in," I called out and Lenny poked her head in.
"Hey," she said and then paused, a look of both surprise and curiosity on her face. "I don't think I've ever seen you sit there before." She came into my bedroom and sat down across from me.
"Where's Gabriella?" I asked looking back at the doorway.
"She's gone shopping with her mom and sisters," Lenny answered. "You okay?"
I gave her a "what are you talking about?" look.
"You look... off," she elaborated.
I was going to brush off her concern but then decided against it. Lenny was my best friend. If I couldn't talk to her, then what was the point of having a best friend, right? "I guess you can say I am feeling a bit 'off'."
"You still pissed off at Alex?" she asked. "I thought you might have made up last night."
I shook my head then shrugged. "We did make up," I answered. "I wasn't ever really pissed off at Alex. I was more pissed off at myself."
"Because that image, that vision that she has of me," I replied. "That's not how I wanted to be seen by her." I looked out the window, prepared for the teasing that was about to come my way.
"You really like her don't you?" Lenny asked in a surprisingly soft tone. I looked at her to see if she was smirking or setting me up for a good bashing but I saw nothing but sincerity in her face.
I nodded. "I can't stop thinking about her."''
"I know you said she's straight, but I've seen the way she looks at you," Lenny started. "I think she's gay for you."
"I know," I said, a smile threatening to explode.
"What do you mean you know?" Lenny inquired, her eyes accusing me of holding back information.
"We talked last night after you and Gabriella left and I drove her home," I told her. "I asked her out. On a date."
Lenny's eyebrows hit the ceiling. "You, Riley Carson, asked someone out on a date?"
I nodded in the affirmative. "We're going out tonight."
Lenny shook her head as if she was waking herself up from a dream.
"I'm scared as hell, Lenny," I confessed.
She must've heard the fear in my voice because she stopped her joking and grew serious. "Why?"
"I haven't been on a date in over ten years," I admitted.
"But you have been out with women," Lenny pointed out.
"Yeah, but it's always just been about sex," I answered. "It's different with Alex. I...I actually want to get to know her."
"Well, then I think we should go have lunch, go pick up some nice flowers that you're going to bring to her, and figure out what you're going to wear," Lenny said and stood up. She held out her hand and smirked. "Come on, Casanova."
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