by Maggie Brown
Corporate lawyer Winter Carlyle is the first to admit that she’s become jaded with romance after a very messy public breakup.
When her bossy aunt asks her to visit a high-end nightclub to check on her young cousin, Winter reluctantly agrees. Poking her nose into her cousin’s love life is the last thing she wants to do. So what if he has a giant crush on Pandora, a lounge singer thirteen years his senior? The cougar just might teach him a thing or two.
For Pandora, the sultry siren with the slinky low-cut gown façade is all an act. It’s showbiz. She dislikes the adulation and the numerous advances, especially from the Russian gangster and the aging playboy. Besides, she has an ulterior motive for being at the club, and romance is definitely off the agenda.
But uptight, reserved Winter is a complication she hasn’t foreseen. And even with the best intentions, love has a way of striking at the most inopportune times.
|Publication Date||April 16, 2020|
|Cover Designer||Judith Fellows|
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Writing a book is like cooking. Authors can make it as complicated or as simple as they like.
I followed this recipe for my new book:
• Make a full-bodied, robust story with a tangy setting. Add the two main characters: a smoky-hot lounge singer and a sharp, zesty corporate lawyer. Marinate with a spicy plot. Throw in a sweet romance, a salt and pepper supporting cast, and then add an nasty ex for a dash of bitters.
• Mix well.
• Put in the steamer to cook.
• Garnish with crispy dialogue.
And presto! You have Pursuing Pandora on a platter."
Winter stopped briefly at the door of the office to savour the feeling. After nearly two years, the bitter wrangling was finally over.
She was free.
When she entered the room, Lionel Miles QC, her legal representative and one of the finest divorce lawyers in the city, ushered her to a chair. “Welcome, Ms. Carlyle. The documents are ready for you to sign.”
She smiled at the formal title, even though he knew her well. Politeness in a business that brought out the worst in people. When he took the seat next to hers, the leather groaned under the weight of his expanding body. No doubt a side effect, she thought as she eyed the sagging chair, of the expensive dinners paid for by his exorbitant fees. But he had been worth it. Though the settlement had cost her, most of her investments remained intact.
Without another word, he placed the papers on the desk and handed her a pen. After a quick perusal, she scrawled her signature on the dotted lines at the bottom of the three pages. With a satisfied nod, he gave her arm a pat before he slid the documents across the polished top. A long slender manicured hand reached over to take them. For the first time since her arrival, Winter looked directly at the woman opposite who was co-signing the agreement.
At the sight of Christine, she was surprised how quickly old resentments came rolling back. Even though Winter had moved on with her life, she couldn’t forget what happened. Not that she had cared for her by then—it had been a minor miracle they had lasted five years. But the shock to her self-esteem and pride had hurt like the devil. All she wondered was how the hell their relationship had deteriorated to such trash.
It had been easy to be charmed by Christine Dumont. As soon as Winter met her, she had been captivated. The TV presenter was perfectly groomed, with a mature attractive face and slender body that turned heads. But it wasn’t only her looks that had claimed her attention—it was the way she could converse with wit and intelligence. It wasn’t surprising she was so articulate, for over the years she had interviewed everyone imaginable: prime ministers to royalty, murderers to millionaires.
Their dating had been mostly social events and dinner parties to fit in with Christine’s lifestyle. After a year, she had given up her inner-city apartment to move in with Winter.
Maintaining their relationship was another thing entirely. The woman she admired and respected soon proved a figment of Winter’s imagination. Christine was the master of pretence and an expert in emotional manipulation. Whether it had been love Winter had felt for the TV star was immaterial, for all feelings were systematically destroyed by the games Christine was adept at playing. But ultimately, it was infidelity that finished their relationship.
Winter could never—ever—forgive that day when everything blew up. Two thirty in the afternoon to be precise.
Funny how she remembered the trivial details. They seemed just as indelibly etched into her mind as the scene in the bedroom.
* * *
Two years ago, the first of March hadn’t been a pleasant day. The city sweltered in the summer’s muggy heat, and dark grey storm clouds were already forming on the horizon when Winter exited her office building. She rubbed her temple to lessen the headache that still throbbed behind her eyes even after two painkillers. The morning’s meeting had been a bitch. The merger negotiations hadn’t gone well, and it had taken all her diplomatic tact to calm frayed tempers. By the time the meeting was over, she was mentally exhausted. Though it was rare for her to take time off, she figured the logical, sensible thing was to go home to lie down.
She ignored the surprise on her personal assistant’s face as she said briefly on her way out the door, “I’m off home, Nancy. Only ring if there’s an emergency. See you tomorrow.”
When she rolled her dark Lexus sedan beside the red Lamborghini in the garage, she glanced over at the other car in surprise. Christine always left for the studio by noon. Damn! So much for peace. She wouldn’t have come home if she had known she was still in the house. For a moment she simply sat to enjoy the quiet, knowing she was going to get a frosty reception after their row last night.
An argument that wasn’t new.
She’d learned through bitter experience that Christine hated to be told she didn’t have free rein with Winter’s money. Nor did she seem to understand that Winter’s sizable savings were the result of hard work and astute investments and weren’t Christine’s to squander. Christine liked the good life—the very good life—and expected to be provided with the expensive things she couldn’t afford even on her own lucrative salary.
As quietly as she could, Winter crept through to the kitchen. Relieved to find it empty, she made herself a sandwich before she slipped out the back to the area beside the pool. With a contented groan, she pulled her hair out of the French twist with quick flicks of her wrist and stretched out on a deck chair. She closed her eyes to let her head settle. After the throb finally subsided, she turned to her lunch.
The sandwich was half-eaten when her gaze latched on to a discarded bikini top on the pavers. Winter’s vision wavered in the heat and she blinked to clear it. Another flash of red— the other half of the bikini, she presumed—was further down past the end of the pool in front of the guest bungalow. She continued to doze in the chair until she was woken by the rumbling of thunder. Time to go inside. By the darkening sky, the storm wasn’t far off.
She glanced at her watch. Nearly two thirty—Christine should have definitely left by now. On the way, she made a detour to pick up the bikini, but when she scooped up the bottom half, she caught snatches of sound inside the bungalow. Puzzled, she peered at the small building. No one had used the place since Christmas. It had also been the subject of one of their most bitter arguments. As far as she was concerned, it was just another extravagance of Christine’s that was unnecessary. Six bedrooms were enough to accommodate any friends and family.
Winter had lost the argument of course.
Curious, she jogged up the three steps and pushed open the door. The kitchen cum living room was deserted, but an empty bottle of wine, two glasses and the remains of a plate of cheese and antipasto sat on the table. From the cries coming from behind the closed door of the bedroom, the action had moved there. It didn’t take any imagination to know what was happening. Christine was always vocal during sex. Tightness crept into Winter’s muscles and a drop of perspiration trickled down her back. Her brain went into overdrive as she tried to come to terms with what was happening. She was being cuckolded and she didn’t have a clue who was in bed with the woman who shared her life.
She knew their relationship was in big trouble, but that Christine was unfaithful had never entered her head. Mentally she tried to tick off the possible women who could be the other party but gave up in the end when she realized with a dejected feeling that they hadn’t socialized much together the last couple of years. While in the beginning they made time for each other, now they didn’t bother or care. As their lives became busier, they had become strangers living in the same house. She couldn’t even remember when they had made love tenderly or held each other through the night. Sex had become as impersonal as it was infrequent.
In two minds about what to do, Winter looked at the door. By the shouted words of pleasure from within, Christine was reaching her climax. She could wait in the kitchen until they came out, but that would save them humiliation, not her. Aware that if she caught them in the act it would be irrevocable, she hesitated. But then she had wanted out of the relationship for some time now. As much as the cheating clawed a hole in her insides, a feeling of release was also there. She could be free.
For some reason in the midst of her turmoil, her mother’s words floated into her mind as if she had prophesied this very scenario. “When a woman acts without constraint, it always ends in tears.” There was no way this wouldn’t end in tears. Any good memories would be lost in the recriminations to follow.
Moisture filled her eyes. She brushed it away irritably, squaring her shoulders, reclaiming her anger. She knew she had better make sure she had watertight proof. Christine knew how to shift blame and was malicious if crossed. Winter reached into her pocket for her phone and set it ready to take photos.
Time to sever the ties forever.
Not giving herself a chance to second guess, she opened the door with a determined twist of the knob. As her eyes focused on the two people in the bed, she had to steady herself on the doorframe to keep upright. Christine had her back to her, her head thrown back, her hips pumping with abandon as she straddled someone on the bed.
Winter snapped off two photos before her gaze settled on the legs under her. She gave an involuntary cry, “What the hell!”
Christine’s head whipped around at the sound and her eyes widened in alarm. She scrambled off, then tried to jerk up the sheet. It was too tangled to cover them. Winter took another photo before she realized who the other person was. She stared in disbelief. It was their yard and pool handyman. Furious, she bared her teeth. The woman was having an affair with a young man in his early twenties.
God damn the bitch!
Winter pulled herself together with an effort. “Get out of here,” she barked at him, “and don’t ever set foot on my property again.”
Christine finally reacted, her eyes darting in panic. “You’d better go, Jason. I’ll call you later.”
He didn’t hesitate. After hastily dragging on his underpants, he bolted out the room with the rest of his clothes bundled in his arms. When the door clicked behind him, they glared at each other. Winter’s hands formed into fists. She couldn’t remember when she had been so angry. Given her place in the corporate world, her temper was something she could control, particularly if it accomplished nothing. But the emotions she was experiencing here were another matter. Anger seeped across her skin, into her mind, through her bones, until it took all her willpower not to slap the woman.
With a deep breath, she shifted forward until they were face-to-face. “I expect you to be gone in half an hour, Chris,” she said coldly. “Take what clothes you need for the night and I’ll have the rest packed and sent to you. Email your forwarding address and leave your keys to the house on the dining room table on your way out.”
Christine paled. “Damn you, Winter. I won’t be tossed out like this. I have my rights. This is my home too.”
“Not anymore. You forfeited that right. It’s my house and you’re not welcome here.”
“And if I don’t?”
Winter smiled, though it didn’t reach her eyes. “There’s no use arguing and you know it. I’ve photos to prove it. If you have any brains, leave with some dignity left.”
“No, Chris. That’s what this is all about. You screwed someone else. A man. A young one and an employee. How could you?”
“Because I like variety. Because you’re married to your fucking work. You never—”
“Enough. Don’t make this about me,” interrupted Winter, feeling bone weary. “Now for shit sake get into the bathroom and clean yourself up. You stink of him.”
Unable to control the tremors, she turned her back on the bed. The room was so claustrophobic with the smells of perfume and sex that Winter barely made it out the front door. When she hit the fresh air, her stomach began to heave. A few seconds later, she succumbed to the turmoil and vomited into the bed of azaleas. Thunder rumbled in sympathy as raindrops began to mingle with the tears on her face.
* * *
Winter brought her mind back to the present as, with precise strokes, Christine signed her name. After her lawyer added her signature as a witness, she pushed the papers back across the table. “There. We’re finished with each other now. I hoped you’d show more compassion, more gratitude. But you always were a self-serving businesswoman.”
Winter’s mouth thinned and her eyes hardened. Christine knew how to hit her buttons. “Get over it, Chris. You’ve done very well out of me.”
“Whatever.” She glanced at her solicitor. “If that’s all, I’ll be off. I have an appointment at twelve.”
Her legal representative, a brash fiery redhead with the tenacity of a bulldog, gave a nod. “That wraps up everything.” She glanced across at Lionel Miles. “My office will be in touch to finalise payment.”
Christine rose to follow her out the door, but on the threshold turned to look back. “We can all point fingers, Winter, but you do have to take some responsibility in all this. You were never invested in our relationship. There were always three of us in it: you, me and your work. And quite frankly, I was very tired of coming in a distant third. You have no idea what passion means. The only thing you’re really good at is making money, because you certainly were a disappointment in bed.”
Feeling as though she’d been kicked in the stomach, Winter gulped. This could easily be her most humiliating moment. After Lionel finished shuffling the documents into his briefcase, she avoided his eye when he looked up. Instead, she concentrated on a small brown stain on the desk, trying to think of something to say. Nothing came. The settlement had been negotiated through their lawyers. This meeting to sign the papers was the first time she and Chris had been face-to-face in two years. All very civilized, but that façade had flown out the door.
She cleared her throat and raised her eyes. When she saw he was looking at her with compassion, involuntary tears welled up. She blinked them away hastily.
“Don’t take her words to heart, Winter. Breakups are never pleasant. She’s just venting her anger,” he said with a shake of his head.
She fought for restraint and calm. Above all, she admonished herself, keep away from self-pity. But, how could she? Her personal life was a train wreck. Even though she hated to admit it, she knew Christine was partly right. From the beginning, she had never felt that fierce longing depicted in love stories. She had liked her, been charmed by her, but the first sexual pull hadn’t blossomed into something deeper. She should have realized after dating for a year that they should never have moved in together. But Winter had become comfortable with the status quo—it was very pleasant having an attractive, bright woman share her life.
She pushed aside the embarrassment and held out her hand. “Thanks, Lionel, for all you’ve done. It’s time to get on with my life.”
As she spoke, she wondered if it were indeed completely over.
No one broke free from Christine without some scars.
Seven months later
A shade of uneasiness fluttered through Winter as she rang the doorbell of her aunt’s house. The lunch invitation had sounded more like an SOS than a social visit. When her eighteen-year-old cousin, Tracey, answered the door and announced, “She’s in a fluster. Go on through…she’s waiting in the lounge,” she knew something was definitely wrong. Except for advice on financial matters, Augustina Hamilton was usually unflappable and handled her own problems.
Winter bent over to give her a kiss on the cheek before she took a seat opposite. “Hi, Aunt. You wanted to see me?”
“I did, Winter. I’ve just brought the tray out so the coffee’s hot. You’ll have a cup?”
Winter nodded and watched as she added milk and sugar. Gussie, as she was known to friends, looked the epitome of everyone’s favourite aunt: pleasantly plump, with a soft pretty face and a jolly disposition. Her blond curls were stylishly cut, the grey kept at bay by regular touch-ups at her hairdresser’s. Underneath her cheery exterior though, like all her four sisters she had a stubborn streak.
The youngest of the sisters, Gussie had been widowed at forty-seven when her husband died in a motorbike accident. Left with two children, the eldest just turned twelve, with a determined attitude she took whatever life threw at her. The sale of their large cattle property left her a wealthy woman, and she moved to Brisbane to raise her children.
Today she looked out of sorts. Her usual bright smile was missing and dark shadows smudged the pale skin beneath her eyes. Winter sipped her coffee, content to wait rather than ask what was wrong. Gussie never liked to be rushed. Once she had inquired briefly after Winter’s mother, her eldest sister, Gussie came to the point. “I asked you over because I want you to do something for me.”
Winter studied her. By the way her aunt was nervously fiddling with her cup on the saucer, it must be something serious—or delicate. Intrigued, she replied with a lift of her eyebrows, “Oh?”
“It’s about Michael.”
Now Winter was surprised. Tracey was the wild child of the family. Michael was a nerdish boy, and the apple of his mother’s eye. “Is he in trouble?” she asked, then added with a wave of concern. “Not sick, is he?”
Gussie’s soft chin quivered as a look of unease crossed her face. “No, it’s nothing like that. But…well…I’m very worried about him.”
“What’s he up to? Knowing him it wouldn’t be too much.”
“He’s taken up with a most unsuitable girlfriend. Let me rephrase that—not a girl but a woman well into her thirties.”
“So?” Winter drawled. “He’s twenty-one. Guys that age are obsessed with girls…or women. And we both know Michael’s no different. He was dating Nanette when he was nineteen.”
“I’m well aware of that, but he’s so fragile emotionally,” groaned Gussie. “You know how dreadfully depressed he got after breaking up with her, and this is far more serious. He’s obsessed with this woman and claims he’s in love with her.”
Winter nearly rolled her eyes. In her opinion, Michael wasn’t fragile just spoilt rotten. “Let him alone. Even if she’s a lot older, there’s nothing you or I can do about it. I wouldn’t fuss. At his age, it won’t last. Besides,” she added with a shrug, “he might learn a thing or two from an older woman.”
“I’m going to ignore that last remark,” said Gussie solemnly. “It is not funny. This has been going on for months. He’s talking about marrying her and he’s still got two years left at uni. He’ll be lucky to pass.”
Winter was suddenly struck with a feeling of déjà vu. Was the woman another Christine, wanting a toy boy? “I’m hardly an expert on the subject,” she said with a bitter edge.
“Of course you are. Christine had an affair with a young man. That’s why I’m asking you to help.”
Winter grimaced at the words. She had only discussed her breakup with her mother and in private, but given Christine’s high profile in the media, their failed relationship had become public gossip. Somehow, her extended family had found out there was a young man involved. Her broken life had been painful enough without having to face that humiliation as well. She pushed aside the feeling of hurt and said in a disapproving voice, “You’re not seriously asking me to interfere in your son’s love life?”
“Well…not interfere exactly. Just get him to see it will never do.”
“And how do I go about doing that? He’ll probably tell me to get lost and I wouldn’t blame him,” Winter sharply replied. What did her aunt think she was…a sex counsellor?
“Nonsense! He thinks the world of you, Winter.”
“Huh! So…what does this cougar do?”
Gussie flinched at the word. “She’s a singer at a nightclub.”
“What’s the problem? She probably has more talent in her little finger than that giggly airhead, Nanette.”
“Her occupation is not the biggest problem—it’s the club where she works. I have on good authority that it’s something to do with the Russian mafia. And apparently, Michael haunts the place.”
“How do you know where he hangs out?” Winter asked, narrowing her eyes.
“I have my sources.”
Winter stared at her aunt. It was about time she cut the apron strings. Gussie was such an indulgent and clinging mother. Tracey was already rebelling and if she continued with this, Michael would do the same. “What’s the name of the nightclub?”
“The Silver Fox. Have you heard of it?”
“I was taken there once by clients, but that was a few years ago. It seemed respectable, very nice actually…certainly not a dive. It wasn’t one of those gaudy loud nightclubs but catered for a classier set. The drinks were expensive enough. Who told you it had something to do with Russian gangsters?”
“I play bridge with a friend whose husband is a judge. Apparently, the place is known to be pedalling drugs and laundering money,” answered Gussie.
Winter shook her head in disbelief. All this drama came from the damn Bridge Club gossip vine. “What do you expect me to do? Drugs are everywhere and I know nothing about organized crime.”
“I want you to go there and have a look at what kind of woman my son is mixed up with,” said her aunt.
“You want me to go to the club?” Winter asked incredulously. But then gave a resigned sigh, knowing she didn’t have a choice. She loved her aunt dearly and hated refusing her anything.
“Well, I can’t very well go. Please, Winter. For me. Michael will listen to you.”
“Whoa there. I’ll go there for a night out with a couple of my friends and have a look but that’s all. I’m not interfering in Michael’s love life.”
Gussie relaxed back in her chair with a smile. “Thank you, dear. Now come and I’ll show you the sculpture I bought at that auction last Saturday.”
Winter followed her out the door, aware she had been adroitly manoeuvred into agreeing. And it was just as obvious that the Russian mafia was fabricated rubbish. Her aunt had no intention of letting her son marry a penniless lounge singer from a bar. It all sounded ridiculous. Besides the fact he was far too young.
* * *
As soon as Winter opened her front door, a black furry body twined around her ankles. When she reached down and tickled the cat under the ear, she was rewarded with a satisfied purr. “Miss me, Jinx sweetie, did you? Come on and I’ll get you something to eat.”
She chuckled as he immediately padded off to the kitchen—she swore he knew what she was saying. A friend had given her a kitten after her breakup and she had accepted him gratefully. Mainly because, although she loved cats, it was the first step in claiming back her life. Christine hated cats. Winter could never understand why she disliked them so much, she thought them ideal pets: cute and cuddly with a mind of their own, loyal but not cloying and could look after themselves. Jinx proved a godsend. It had been difficult to remain too depressed when listening to the soothing purr of a contented kitten curled up in her lap.
Winter filled his bowl with Meow Mix, then kicked off her shoes and rummaged in the fridge for the open bottle of sauvignon blanc. After pouring herself a glass, she headed for her study to her laptop. When she typed The Silver Fox into the search bar, up appeared a number of sites. She settled herself more comfortably in the chair, logged on to their main web page and began to scroll through the images.
The club appeared as she remembered: a long silver bar curved in a semicircle, surrounded by a troop of silver stools with thick black leather cushions, a shiny ceiling covered with myriads of small LED lights, solid rectangular tables on pedestals that rose up from a stone-grey floor and a row of booths nestled against the back wall. All the furnishings were black and silver, with touches of rusty red trimmings to set off the fox colour scheme.
It looked smart and edgy, a very classy lounge bar for higher-end clients with more disposable income than the average sports-bar patrons.
The blurb contained the usual enticing tropes. It also boasted of its unique range of cocktails for “serious drink connoisseurs.” Winter smiled at that. In layman’s language, it meant that a night out on the town was going to cost. She clicked on the entertainment section and a small stage with a piano appeared, along with the name of the main artist: Pandora. Excited now that she had reached her goal, she shifted the cursor down to the name.
The image caused her to take in a sharp breath. The woman sitting on the stool next to the baby grand was above stunning. A modern version of a vintage 1940s femme fatale: sexy, mysterious and darkly dangerous. She wore a body-hugging low-cut gown, gloves, and high stilettos. Her shoulder-length hair was glossy black, her lips ruby-red and her eyes long-lashed and hooded. As she sang into the microphone, a flash of fine black mesh fishnet stockings peeped out from the long split in the side of the dress.
Confronted with such unbridled sensuality, Winter’s nether regions tightened into a sudden throb. She swallowed, unsettled by her body’s reaction. Her libido was never this receptive. As she squirmed in her seat to dispel the ache, she put the acute response down to need. Two and a half years was far too long without a special someone. She had to forget Christine’s last scathing words and shrug off the feeling of failure. It was time to get back to the dating scene—her body was wound up like a tightly coiled spring.
With a snap she clicked off the computer. Little wonder that Michael was so enamoured. And she had to agree with her aunt who had obviously done her homework. Pandora wasn’t a suitable girlfriend for her son. She could understand Michael’s crush, but why would a woman who looked like that even give him a second glance? He was so far out of her league it was laughable. Maybe it was all in the boy’s mind. But then Winter was struck with a perturbing thought. Perhaps she did have some ulterior motive for leading him on. He was, after all, very well set up financially by his mother.
Determined now, she reached for the phone. At the second ring, it was answered.
“Dr. Drummond speaking.”
“Hi, Jessie,” she replied, smiling as she heard the familiar deep drawl.
“Hey, Winter. Sorry for answering so abruptly. I’m on call so I thought it was the hospital. What’s up, babe?”
“Well…I was wondering if you’d like a night out.”
A laugh resounded in her ear. “You’re kidding, right? Winter Carlyle never goes out. She works all the time.”
“Very funny. I’m serious. I figured it’s about time I got back into the social scene. Would you be interested in going to the Silver Fox on Saturday night?”
“Shit yes. I’ve been meaning to give it a visit. I heard they’ve a really hot singer there. Dana will be itching to go as well. She’s not with anyone at the moment. Would you mind if Linda came along too?”
Winter bit back the groan. She had met Linda at the party Jessie had put on after her split from Christine was finalised. The following week, she’d asked Winter on a date which proved a disaster. Though the woman was nice enough, they hadn’t clicked at all. She was more interested in trying to get her into bed than getting to know her. “If you want to ask her then go ahead. I think I eventually got across I wasn’t interested.”
“She can be annoying but she grows on you.”
“Yes, like mould. I had to scrape her off at the door.”
“Don’t worry. She got the message,” said Jessie with a chuckle. “You can be intimidating sometimes when you’re cranky.”
“Yeah…yeah. What time Saturday?”
“Let’s say we have something at that new Thai restaurant up the road from my place, then go on from there.”
“It’s a date. See you at seven.”
With a satisfied hum Winter tapped off the phone. Even though she had an ulterior motive for the night out, she felt a flush of excitement. Cruising a bar with Jessie would be like old times and she had missed their close friendship. Christine hadn’t liked her, which made socialising together too awkward. Not that Jessie had objected—they were too staid for her. She remained the perennial player, never forming any lasting relationship as she drifted from one woman to another.
They’d been friends for years, beginning as roommates in the on-campus women’s college of the university. That first day, Winter was unpacking when she looked up to see a lanky, wildly handsome girl studying her from the doorway. She wore a clingy shirt, tight faded jeans with a big buckled belt, and black chunky boots. Her short hair was tipped blue to match her eyes, and a row of silver studs ran down the side of one ear. Two more studs winked above her eyebrow and the side of her nose.
The smile she turned on Winter was friendly enough, but there was a measuring gleam in her eye. Then seemingly satisfied, she announced she was a lesbian and if she had a problem with that then she’d better ask for another room. Taken aback, Winter, who still half-hovered in the closet, blurted out she was one too.
Jessie had simply remarked, “Thought so,” and dragged her battered suitcase through the door. From then on, they became fast friends. By the time Winter began work as a corporate lawyer and Jessie as a medical intern, they had formed an enduring friendship.
To this day, Winter never knew how Jessie picked her sexuality so quickly. She was just an ordinary looking fresh-faced girl with freckles, who dressed a little conservatively. Prior to meeting Jessie, she had been too shy to ask anyone out.
Pandora attended to her makeup carefully in front of the long dressing room mirror. Though she had arrived a little late, it wasn’t something she could hurry. Not if she wanted to look the perfect part. And now thirty-four, she seemed to have gained a few fine lines that needed to be covered up. She worked methodically, first smearing on a dark foundation to sharpen the angle of her jaw and the cheekbones, then applying a lighter foundation, followed by powder and blush. Her last touch was a rich creamy lipstick, the expensive type that slipped on like satin and set like velvet. It was a bold vibrant scarlet that held a hint of promise, a touch of wantonness. Not a colour many women wore. She would never consider it herself in real life.
After she studied her face critically for a moment, she pulled off the shower cap confining her hair and fanned out the thick strands with her fingers. The hair spilled to her shoulders, the longest she had ever worn it. She preferred it much shorter, more manageable, less flamboyant, but this woman she had created was all about illusions and fantasies and seduction.
A rap on the door was followed by a man’s voice. “Ten minutes and you’re on, Pandora.”
“I’ll be there,” she called back and picked up the pace. She brushed the black waves down the side of her cheeks, then swept the right side as far as the corner of the eye and tucked back the other side against her ear. With another quick glance at her reflection, she rose to put on her dress. She smoothed down the patterned net tights before wriggling into the long black gown. Specially made, it hugged her curves without a crease.
Satisfied all was in order, she reached for the glass on the counter and took a mouthful of the warm Throat Coat Tea mixed with a pinch of salt. She didn’t swallow immediately, instead gargled for a full minute, letting the liquid slide over her vocal cords. A pre-performance routine she did unfailingly before going onstage. Too many singers suffered from voice problems. Her throat muscles now exercised and protected, she pulled on the black gloves and eased her feet into the high heels.
Before opening the door, she glanced around the room to see two new bouquets of flowers on the table against the wall. There was no need to look at the attached cards to know who sent them—they had been coming to her dressing room every Saturday for weeks. Tonight, she was tempted to dump the roses in the garbage bin.
Enough was enough. It was beginning to feel like she was being stalked.
As usual, the large bunch of red roses was from Lawrence Partridge, a twice divorced wealthy playboy with an abrasive personality and an inflated ego. No matter how many times she told him no, it didn’t seem to register. She would like to tell him where to stick his attentions, but then she would have to contend with Yuri. The owner of the club wouldn’t take it lightly if she pissed off his best customer. So, she continued to be polite but firm as she fended off his advances.
With more misgivings Pandora reached for the card tucked into the much smaller posy of pansies. She was at a loss to know what to do with this one. Nearly five months ago, she had spent some time having a few drinks with a group of young people celebrating a twenty-first. Usually after her last bracket of songs, it was expected she remained visible in the club for at least half an hour before she left. Yuri insisted it was good for business and she didn’t argue. It was always nice to wind down before she went home.
She had stayed much longer than usual that night, finding them a fun crowd. Then ended up spending a deal of time late in the night talking to Michael Hamilton, a shy, awkward engineering student. She indulged in a little light-hearted flirting to bring him out of his shell, which proved a huge mistake. He had taken her attentions to heart and began to turn up regularly every Saturday night at the club. It didn’t take her long to twig he had developed a major crush on her. Without being hurtful, she tried to subtly discourage him but to no avail.
The weekly visits increased to twice a week. When his posies began to arrive, she was at her wits’ end. Knowing she had to do something, she resolved that if he continued with the infatuation much longer, she would have no choice but to be downright rude. But she hesitated going down that path—she wasn’t quite sure how he’d take that sort of rejection. A few things he had said made her suspect he wasn’t very stable emotionally. She didn’t want him to take things to heart and self-harm.
After a few deep breaths, she exited the dressing room and made her way down the corridor to the back of the stage. As she passed the open door of the main office, Yuri called out from his desk, “Come in for a second, Pandora.”
She turned and walked to the door. It was a large room, split into business and pleasure. The front was designed for efficiency, housing his desk, a smaller workstation for his office assistant, filing cabinets, and a wall monitor of the club area. The back was for entertaining, filled with four plush leather chairs, a state-of-the-art TV, and a well-stocked bar. The windows were shielded with blinds.
She smiled at the other man in the room, her friend and mentor, Kurt, the pianist. When she began singing at the club a year ago, he had taken her under his wing immediately. In his early forties, he was a graceful handsome man, with wavy black hair, charming and charismatic, and a favourite of everyone in the club. Though most nights he walked with her the two blocks home to her apartment, he’d never once crossed the friendship line.
Yuri waved a hand at the monitor. “The place is packed tonight, Pandora. I’d like you to socialize longer afterward if you’re up to it. Keep ’em happy.”
She nodded, though hoped it didn’t mean his brother Boris was in the club. While Yuri was likeable enough, Boris was someone to be avoided. He was an arrogant cruel pig of a man. The brothers were in their mid to late thirties, both unmarried. She’d learned that the gender dynamics in this close Russian family were very patriarchal, and women were expected to look and act a certain way. Yuri had always accepted that as a non-Russian, she didn’t have to live by their rules, but then so he should. They both knew her popularity was one of the main reasons the club was always so full. He couldn’t afford to lose her.
“No problems, boss,” she murmured, and smiled as Kurt gave her a wink.
“Right-oh. You two had better get along then.”
When Pandora walked onstage, the room died to a hush before applause broke out. She let it wash over her as Kurt took his place at the piano. He began to caress the keys, giving her a cheery nod before he began to play a short solo piece as an introduction. She scanned the audience to take in its demographics as she waited at the microphone for her cue. It was a good mix of age, and she was pleased to see more women than usual. They always upped the tone of the night.
Lawrence Partridge was sitting in a booth with a man and a woman around his age. Michael was at the bar with two friends, gazing at her adoringly.
Pandora ignored them both and began to sing.
As she crooned out her songs, a table of four women took her eye. A pang of longing swept over her. Just for one night she wished she didn’t have to cater to the men in the room. This job had been too long, become too stressful. She was getting hyper edgy, needing to feel a woman’s arms around her again, and if she wasn’t mistaken the women were gay. Two were definitely anyhow. But she wasn’t her own boss, wasn’t able to mix freely with them. With an inward groan, she went back to her routine, becoming the enchantress, the siren.
As the night wore on, she felt more and more restless. She needed to vary her act, stop being so one-dimensional. An idea hit in the last bracket. A walk-through finale would be a change. She had two songs left in tonight’s repertoire: Adele’s “Someone Like You” and Selena’s “I Could Fall in Love.” Ideal for the purpose. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Kurt lift his eyebrows in surprise when she took the microphone out of its stand. Then he gave her a grin and nod as he caught on and held off playing until she had descended the two steps to the main floor.
Silence fell as she began to glide through the tables. With her low husky voice, she was power and charm, the embodiment of the ageless courtesan, the stuff of fantasies. Three guys in suits with ties loosened, looked at her expectantly when she slowed. With a shake of her head and a wink, she moved on. She paused at a table where a young couple held hands and sang a few bars to them. They blushed and wriggled closer together. She stopped to sing to a man who looked well into his sixties, while his wife smiled fondly at his embarrassment.
The song finished—she began the last. She stopped here and there, though only briefly after a line or two. No one touched her, nor did she expect anyone would. The crowd knew it would have destroyed the intimacy of the moment. As the song neared its end, she reached the booth with the four women and looked down at them. With a slow deliberate motion, she leaned over the one in the black dress who had been frowning at her all night, and breathed the last line into her ear, “I could fall in love with you.”
Smiling as she heard the sudden hissing intake of breath, Pandora turned away to bow and wave at the crowd. When the applause died down, and she’d returned her mike to the stage, she walked back to the table and decided for once to do what she wanted for a change. “Would you ladies mind if I joined you.”
“We’d love you to,” answered a devilish good-looking woman with short spiky hair, clearly the spokesman of the group. They shifted around to make room.
“It’s a relief to get off my feet,” said Pandora with a sigh as she eased herself onto the seat. “Too long on these heels. Now…who are you girls?”
“This is Linda, Dana, and Winter. And I’m Jessie,” the woman replied, flashing her a practised smile so full of charm and arrogance that Pandora nearly laughed. Jessie clearly had an inflated sense of self-worth and used to getting her own way. She’d probably only rarely had a knock-back from a woman. Pandora knew her type very well. Charismatic but a perpetual player who was afraid of commitment, no different from the aging playboys who frequented the club.
Pandora eased back in the chair, sizing the women up as they were introduced. Linda was a curvaceous pretty blonde who looked like she knew how to enjoy herself. Just like any average person who frequented a bar—uncomplicated in pursuit of a good time. And sex. If she fancied women, Pandora doubted she would be her type. Too feminine. Nor was she sending out any vibes that she was interested.
Dana was a tall redhead with an angular androgynous face framed by cropped short hair. She was looking at her self-consciously, as though a little intimidated. She’d probably be more at home in a bar with a pool table than in an upscale club. Both were in their mid-thirties and appeared pleasant women with no agenda other than a night out on the town.
But it was the woman in the black dress who tweaked her interest. Light-brown glossy hair tied up in a back twist, mature strong features and very foxy. Elegant and aloof Winter. Even the name was interesting. Pandora had no idea why she had been studying her with dislike, but she was intrigued. And all that pent-up hostility was rather sexy. Her libido thought so—it was giving definite twitches.
She held her gaze quizzically for a moment. Yes, there were still sparks of temper in her eyes and simmering resentment. Underneath though, there appeared to be a hint of interest as well, but maybe that was only wishful thinking on her part. Winter might not even be a lesbian.
“What would you like to drink?” asked Jessie.
Pandora turned her attention to her and replied with a smile. “This round is on me.” She signalled to Frankie, their most experienced waitress and who also, she knew, preferred women.
When she reached the table, Frankie beamed at them. “What’ll you have, ladies?”
“Hallelujah,” murmured Dana. Pandora smiled to herself as she caught the whispered words. It seemed the waitress was Dana’s type. And Frankie was looking at her with a light in her eye as well.
After the others placed their orders, Frankie cocked her head at Pandora. “Your usual?”
She nodded then added to Jessie, “I’m not a big drinker, but I do enjoy a brandy at the end of the night.”
“I’m a beer drinker or maybe an odd vodka, but occasionally I’ll have a Coke to surprise my liver,” Jessie replied with an engaging grin. “So, what do you do when you’re not at the club, Pandora?”
She shrugged. “I jog, watch movies, read…you know…what most people do.”
“Oh, you’re anything but like most people,” murmured Jessie, angling her body until their knees were pressed together. Then she casually draped her arm over the back of the chair.
Far too close for Pandora. She considered her for a moment before she deliberately eased away. She left the sharp retort on the tip of her tongue, instead said mildly, “I’m just here to have a quiet drink and a friendly chat, Jessie.”
“Sorry. But you can’t blame a girl for trying.”
“Just so long as you know where I stand,” Pandora said with a smile to take the sting out of her words. “Tell me now…what do you all do?”
Jessie slid her arm off the backrest with an embarrassed hum. “I’m a paediatrician. Linda’s a nurse in the children’s ward, Dana’s a construction engineer and Winter…well…she’s a corporate lawyer and a workaholic, hey babe?”
Winter sent Jessie a good-natured shrug. “Some of us have to keep the wheels of commerce running to pay for your hospitals, my friend.”
“Touché, Jessie,” chuckled Dana.
Pandora watched the exchange with a small pang. They were good friends and she envied them. When the drinks arrived, she sipped her brandy, enjoying the light-hearted banter and the low recorded background music. She covertly studied Winter as they talked. Her voice was as polished as her designer dress. She didn’t say much, but when she did it was worth listening to. A no-frills type of person.
As they swopped stories, Pandora realized she hadn’t enjoyed herself so much for a long time. The women were a breath of fresh air. But when Jessie was in the middle of a complicated joke, she noticed Winter’s eyes suddenly widen as they focused on something behind her. Curious, she swivelled her head to look.
Michael was heading for their table. He was the last person she wanted to see at the moment. She watched alarmed as he stumbled toward them. Normally only a moderate drinker, something must have set him off tonight. She winced—he looked very tipsy and very aggro. This could be a nasty scene.
When he reached their table, he gripped the edge to steady himself then spat out, “What the hell are you doing here, Winter?”
Taken by surprise, Pandora turned to look at Winter. Judging by her glare, she wasn’t too pleased with the greeting. “I imagine the same as you. I’m having a night out,” she said coldly.
“Mum sent you, didn’t she?” he asked truculently.
“Be careful, Michael. I’m not going to answer that. I don’t expect you to talk about your mother in a bar when you’re half-drunk.”
“What I do has nothing to do with you.”
Winter’s eyes ran over him like a scanner and she curled her lip. “You’re embarrassing yourself. Go back to the bar and I’ll talk to you later.”
“Fuck you, Winter. Don’t order me around.”
“Then act like a man.”
There was an uncomfortable silence, before Jessie said soothingly, “You’re Aunt Gussie’s son, aren’t you? Winter took me out to your property one Easter when we were at uni.”
He glanced at her distractedly. “I remember. We thought you were great fun, Jessie.” Then for the first time he directly faced Pandora. His voice rose with emotion. “Sorry about that. I guess I was out of line. Will you have a drink with us? I’m with a couple of mates.”
Conscious the women were waiting for her answer, Pandora shook her head. “Some other time perhaps.” Then turned to Jessie before he could say anything more. “Now what about giving us the punch line of that joke.”
Jessie launched back into the story immediately. At the rebuff, Michael stood for a moment swaying from one foot to the other before he shuffled off. The uneasiness hovering over the group melted away when he vanished back to the bar. Pandora cast a look across at Winter. Her eyes were downcast, locked on her drink. Pandora felt a sharp jab of anger. And hurt. Winter wasn’t here for a night out—she had come to check on her cousin. That explained the antagonism.
Obviously, the family thought Pandora was unsuitable for their precious boy.