The twinkling party lights woven into the hedges and trees brightened the amber glow of the chardonnay that was no longer in Jennifer Lamont’s glass. Droplets of wine shimmered in an arc away from her, and in each Jennifer fancied she could see snapshots from the A-list soiree that surrounded her.
In the nearest drop was the face of her ex, cuddling with the new love. The next reflected the swathed sculpture up for auction. The ribbon of shimmering wine just leaving the fluted mouth of her glass gleamed with a hundred eyes that had turned from their vivacious conversations toward her crescendoing cry of alarm.
There were at least seventy Beautiful People gathered in the expansive cliffside backyard of some Southern California Internet tycoon, and all of them were eager to talk about women in politics while they showed their support for breast cancer screening and research. All of them were now witnessing La Lamont falling off her five-inch Jimmy Choo heels.
A producer had bought the coveted, high-priced tickets for the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the wealthiest and most famous women in the country. Jennifer had agreed to be arm candy because of the auction of the new Leah Beck sculpture. Even though it was midweek and she had a five a.m. makeup call in Los Angeles, she’d passed up sleep and gotten herself A-list dressed in a Michael Kors off-the-shoulder cocktail sheath. When her date—name to be forever cursed—had canceled at the last minute, Jennifer had demanded the address and made the drive to La Jolla on her own.
In the small pool of wine left in her glass, Jennifer thought she saw the white flare of at least one cell phone flash. Then the glass followed the wine arc across the terra-cotta patio and she had one final split-second choice: fall hard, fast, and then roll her face away from most of the probable witnesses and cameras, or windmill, flail, and try to stay upright. Which one would make the worst picture on SLY or Buzztastic? Which one would she prefer to explain on talk shows? Which one would look more like she had caught her heel between the flagstones—the truth—and less like she was drunk—the likely headline?
All the while the clay tiles rushed toward her nose and an increasingly urgent part of her brain screamed, “Protect your face!”
She twisted to take the impact on her side, threw her arms around her head.
Later, pictures confirmed that the back of her skull was a scant inch above the tiles. Not that most people looked at that part of the tableau. Instead, all eyes were on the wardrobe malfunction of the year—of two years, more accurately.
To her credit, her rescuer glanced only briefly at Laverne and Shirley in all their glory, then met Jennifer’s panicked gaze. With one eyebrow arched she asked, “You get regularly scheduled mammograms, right?”
Jennifer scarcely heard the laughter from the partygoers near enough to have heard the question. White flashes from cameras didn’t blot out the face of the woman who had caught her.
She knew the sardonic edge, the light blue eyes. She knew the strong arms lifting her. Not again, she thought helplessly. Not again.
Twenty Years Earlier
Eighteen, nineteen, twenty.
The elevator’s faint ping coincided with the doors easing open to reveal concrete floors, exposed steel beams and tall, broad windows lightly frosted with snow. A red carpet runner led across the foyer to ceiling-high wooden double doors that stood open. Two of the other women in the lift let out a unison “ooh” at the sight of Central Park, and, across the treetops, the roof line of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But nobody moved until Jennifer stepped forward. A show runway or an entrance into a high-end society party—Jennifer Lamont walked and people watched her. Picking up the rhythm of a jazzed up “Holly Jolly Christmas” that poured through the doors, she strode along the red runner in a cloud of Shalimar. Her agent said she wasn’t old enough to carry off the cologne, but tonight’s designer hadn’t specified scent or footwear, so she had chosen what she wanted.
Her client’s Stormy Nights line of nightclub dresses and lingerie had led to the indigo hair color that had teens in New York draining salons dry of similar shades. She was pleased that her stunning lion’s mane hairstyle had led to a new nickname. She’d already been Baby Jennifer, Sweetheart Jen, Luscious Lamont. Now she was Hurricane Jennifer and she liked it. She liked it a lot.
Beyond the open doors she could see the chilly glass and steel of a lavish Upper East Side corner loft. Her gait deliberately long, she strode through the open doors, not deviating from her runway strut for another six strides. She paused, quarter-turned, treated the nearest server bearing a tray of champagne flutes to a long look and was pleased when he scurried over to offer one. Flashes popped.
Ninety percent of her job was done.
Her client, whose designs didn’t live up to his ego, was the next to scurry in her direction. She dropped about half of her runway bearing, returned the air-cheek kisses and shifted to become his literal arm candy.
“You look divine!”
“How could I look anything else in your gorgeous clothes, Lucius?” The shadow they cast together in the long, last light of the setting December sun only magnified her height advantage, turning her additional eight inches into several feet.
They sipped champagne and began a circuit of the party. In spite of the bright holiday dresses and scattering of Santa hats on the guests, the room was sterile and cold compared to the old, tiny East Village apartment she lived in. This loft, mostly concrete and steel with an open-plan brushed stainless steel kitchen in the middle, lacked for personality until she saw that an enormous mural replica of Starry Night was painted on the ceiling. The real Van Gogh was one of her favorite paintings to visit at MOMA. The view across Central Park was indeed stunning and Jennifer would have liked to have lingered and picked out more landmarks, but she was being paid to be part of the scenery.
Halfway around the loft, after dozens of air kisses, her repetition of how wonderful it was to be wearing Lucius’s divinely retro princess-cut cocktail dress with lavish rhinestone trim, along with darling lace ankle boots she “just grabbed out of the closet,” was sounding only slightly tired to her own ears.
She was diverted from a tedious Lucius monologue by a server hovering in her line of sight, offering canapés and cheese. He was cute enough—a twenty-something scrubby-shaved New York aspiring actor currently playing the role of waiter. She met his eager gaze, lifted an eyebrow at his outstretched tray and then deliberately looked down at the sewn-to-fit gown that molded her 38-24-32 silhouette.
He gulped and hurried away.
“Well done. Not a clue why he thought you ever ate anything,” someone with a husky voice said in her ear.
“Oh, I eat.” She didn’t bother to turn around. “Every third Tuesday.”
“Aren’t you a little young for the champagne?”
That made her turn.
At five-seven, she was not used to having to look up at other women, especially when she was wearing four-inch heels. But the woman who had spoken to her was still an inch or two taller and a quick glance confirmed she was wearing flat-heeled, square-toed Steve Madden boots below a plain black custom-tailored men’s suit and James-Bond-meets-Devo narrow tie. Light blue eyes stood out against a smooth tan that was the product of time in sunlight, not a salon booth. Sun was also responsible for the slight bleaching at the very tips of the short-cropped hair.
She wasn’t going to admit she didn’t like champagne. “A mentor told me that three months in Manhattan equaled a year in the University of Life. I came here a year ago when I was nineteen.”
The light blue eyes lit up. “Oh, a math word problem. You’re flirting with me, aren’t you?”
The smug smile brought out a stiff one of her own as Jennifer answered with, “Do you want me to be?”
The smile deepened. “Anyone with a heartbeat wants you to be. So you’re saying you’re twenty-three in Manhattan years?”
“You’re making me feel like a kid trying to sit at the grown-up table.” It was not a feeling she had ever liked. After a slow, substantial swallow of more champagne she added, “It’s all on the inside.”
“And you don’t look a day over twenty.”
Being mocked always brought out Jennifer’s bad side, but her bitchy response was squashed by the arrival of Lucius, who oozed, “Darling, this is our host, Suzanne Mason. The CEO of Connecks.”
“Former CEO,” Suzanne said. “Our stock was just bought out by AOL and I’m unemployed at the moment.”
Unemployed and looking like a California surfer, Jennifer mused, and probably with millions of dollars to go with her bad-boy hair. “Everyone should be so lucky in their lack of work.”
“Luck was a big part of it. Would you like to meet some people?” Long fingers lightly touched her free elbow.
Just like that, Jennifer found herself extricated from Lucius’s grasp and blithely introduced to several pop singers, two Broadway rising stars and a cluster of aides to the mayor.
“Stop talking politics,” Suzanne warned them, while Jennifer made a point of telling one of the Broadway divas how much she’d enjoyed her small but notable part in the revival of Chicago.
Just as she was about to ask if the starlet had a theatrical agent, Suzanne gestured at the prominent Christmas tree. “Who wants prezzies?”
In the resulting clamor Jennifer looked around her. There was nobody much over thirty, unusual for parties like this where she’d worn clothes for Lucius and other designers all the holiday season. Usually everyone was half dead and super serious, utterly focused on drinking the right thing from the right glass. At the last Lucius party there had been loud words over where the best seats at a play were to be had, and a whispered sharing of which of three kinds of saffron could be found at some Midtown grocer, if you knew to ask for it. She had found it wise to listen and otherwise be a moving statue. Sometimes people even assumed she didn’t understand English and she let them think it rather than argue about whether it was a better view from Fifth Avenue facing west or Central Park West facing east—once you got above 74th Street and the fifteenth floor, of course.
She unwrapped the little package Suzanne pressed into her hands to find a cheap kazoo, and laughed outright as others joined in with a swing cover of “Jingle Bell Rock” playing on the stereo.
Suzanne stopped tooting her kazoo long enough to ask, “Afraid you’ll mess up your lipstick?”
“I am working.”
“Working?” Suzanne’s gaze flicked to Lucius and back. The music segued to “Deck the Halls” and Lucius was joining in.
“You didn’t think this was a date, did you? It’s purely business.” Suzanne blinked just enough times for Jennifer to hastily add, “I wear his clothes to parties, he pays me, and that’s it.”
“Oh, I get it. And you can’t be untidy?”
“I can hardly ruin my look over a kazoo.”
“You’re right. A kazoo is a poor excuse.”
Jennifer found herself being kissed soundly on the lips and released again before she could even react. Her Smouldering Rose Lancôme lip rouge now highlighted Suzanne’s smile. Realizing that she was staring she hastily said, “It’s not your color.”
With a comfortable gesture at her suit and tie, Suzanne quipped, “You think?”
Behind her the kazoo band sang out, “Don we now our gay apparel!” and Lucius warbled, “Who’s Don and how do I meet him?” With her employer distracted by the revelry, Jennifer let herself be drawn by Suzanne to the picture windows. The few patches of snow visible through the trees in the park were taking on a moonlit glow. Lights were popping out everywhere, including masses of green and red for the holidays—she couldn’t hold back a pleased murmur.
Suzanne was sighing. “It’s magical. I’ll be sorry to leave it.”
“You’re selling?” Jennifer was disconcerted after a glance showed that Suzanne was looking at her, not the view. She was used to flirtation but not with a woman. The kiss had been surprising and nice and she couldn’t think of a reason not to do it again. Except…she hadn’t kissed a woman before. It hadn’t occurred to her that she might enjoy it.
“I’m renting for now, and I don’t think I have the right stuff to be a New Yorker.” Suzanne crossed her eyes, earning a giggle from Jennifer. “I’m planning to get back to Silicon Valley by spring. That’s where the next big thing will be and I will be there.”
“New York has a lot to offer. The art. Theater. Food.” She cleared her throat. “Fashion.”
“Those would be your people?”
“Well, I’m trying.”
“Succeeding, looks like.”
“It’s hard to tell if it’ll last.” She had studied the rise and fall of other models just this season alone. One had publicly voiced fervent disapproval of gay men, forgetting who she worked for and who dressed and photographed her, not to mention it was the Gay 90s. The more spectacular implosion had been the girl who apparently couldn’t say no to alcohol and cocaine. Jennifer had taken note of how quickly both girls, once swimming in fawning followers and fashion reporter attention, had been wiped from everyone’s collective shoe in a matter of weeks. “I’m going to make a confession—I have no idea what Connecks does. Or did.”
“Neither does AOL, but they outbid Time-Warner.”
Suzanne’s cheerful wink combined with a cheeky smile left Jennifer with a disconcerting tingle south of her stomach. “How exactly does that all work?”
“I had an idea about how to more quickly and securely store a lot of data. I got some capital, built up a server farm run by my software and waited for a buyer.”
“Like flipping a house.”
Suzanne laughed. “I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right. Except that I created the real estate, built the house, and then flipped it for a big profit. The employees didn’t do too badly either.”
The woman oozed confidence, and who could blame her, Jennifer thought. She was maybe twenty-six or twenty-seven, worth millions and had the brains to do it all again. “And to think all I’ve done is hit the gym, get dressed and walk up and down a runway.”
Suzanne put the view to her back, hands comfortably tucked in her pant-front pockets. “I’m thinking that’s not as easy as it sounds.”
“If it were, anyone would do it.” She shifted her shoulders, the right slightly higher than the left, and shook back her hair. She might not like champagne or know what half the little tasty things were that kept going by them on trays, but she had mad skills of her own.
She was satisfied by the heated look on Suzanne’s face, and realized at the same time she’d never been given that look by a woman before, at least that she’d noticed. Hadn’t wanted to see it before either. The kiss had been for fun, and they’d abruptly tumbled right past flirting. There was no air.
After glancing over the party, Suzanne said, “No, not everyone can do that.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Jennifer lied.
Twilight had finally eased into night and they were now reflected in the window. She’d grown up in a noisy house with one full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door. Gazing at the picture the two of them made was part vanity, but it was also a now habitual check that the built-in breast shields and neckline were still where they were supposed to be, and that the static cling so common in dry falling temperatures wasn’t ruining the line of the dress around her calves.
As her gaze ran up the long crease in the front of Suzanne’s trousers, she knew it was more than aesthetic appreciation. Yes, she liked the way Armani looked on Suzanne and she flashed on an image of the jacket and tie draped over the end of her bed. Flustered, she asked, “Do you dress that way to make a point?”
The frown she got in answer made her regret even more the abrupt question. She’d clearly given offense.
“Maybe. If the point is that women can be exactly what they want to be. Would you have asked a man that question?”
“Sure.” Realizing that Suzanne was on the verge of walking away, she brushed an imaginary hair off the nearest sleeve of her jacket. “You have to admit, it’s not the norm.”
“It is for me.”
And when you’ve made millions before your thirtieth birthday, what’s normal for you is exactly what you get to be, Jennifer thought. “Good for you. I have no idea what I’d wear, left to my own devices.” She glanced down. “I’d wear these boots every day of the week, I guess.”
“They’re very fetching.” Suzanne’s body had relaxed again.
A chorus of “Santa Baby” rose from the kazoos, now clustered around the bar. Suzanne abruptly frowned at the sight of more arrivals.
“I apologize. It’s someone I’d especially hoped would show.” She met Jennifer’s gaze and visibly swallowed. “Please don’t leave without saying goodbye.”
“I won’t.” The promise slipped out before she could think of anything coy.
She watched Suzanne greet a turtleneck-wearing man she knew she should have recognized. Some tech mogul, probably, and at least a decade older than anyone else at the party.
Lucius returned to her side and maneuvered them in that direction. “Jennifer, dear girl, if either of us married that guy we’d be set for life.”
Her gaze flicked to Suzanne. “Lucius, dear boy, he’s not my type.”
Diana N. –
As with all of Karin Kallmaker’s books I loved this one. She has always had a style that attracts me. I’m so happy to be retired (early) now and have been catching up on all her books I’ve missed over the years. Another one with strong characters and sexy attractions. She definitely still has “it”, in fact, it seems to have gotten better with time.