She started to move to the door, but his long arms were there to meet her waist and pull her back down on his lap. They both went tumbling back, with his head cracking against the wall. She laughed, but there was just quiet afterwards. “Jesus Christ, are you trying to kill me?” he asked, rubbing the back of his skull.
The way he seemed to be pitying himself reminded her of the first time they’d met, and she couldn’t help but crack up. “I wouldn’t feel any guilt about sleeping with him if you were dead. I’d need the comfort. He’d be providing a service.”
“A service all right. A funeral service.” There was enough humor in his voice that she could tell he wasn’t upset, so she stayed on his lap and let her fingers comb through his thick curls.
“Do you want me to go get you something for your head? As an apology?”
“When you could go creep off into that fucker’s room? Not on your life.” He let his chin rest against her for a moment in silence, then kissed the spot where her collarbone looped back to meet her shoulder. “I do owe you a lot though, you know.”
“Shut up. You do not.”
“No, I do. You kind of knocked some sense into me a few months ago. All that shit about my pride and not taking a helping hand when people are offering it, that sort of thing, it really stung. I mean, if I’d heard it from a friend or someone in my family, I probably would have gotten really pissed off. But you were beautiful, and I wanted to be with you, and to think that I wasn’t good enough and that I was entirely capable of changing just scared the bejesus out of me.”
She wanted to see him then, to study his gaze and to see if she could spot the sincerity in his expression, so she did her best to shift around in his lap. His sleepy eyes watched her patiently, and when she’d perched herself, those strong palms were there on her hips to hold her in place. “I thought you were terrified that I was so young. I just wanted to get the last word in somehow, to show you that I was a lot smarter than you thought. I was preachy.”
“Well, sometimes I need someone to tell me that I’m wrong. The thing about being a frontman is that you have a bit of a control complex. Hell, we don’t even get ten people to come and pay to see us live, and I still have that going on in my idiot head.”
“You will though. And soon. Then the opinions of uppity girls really won’t make a difference.”
“Maybe they will. Maybe I’ll find myself fond of uppity girls.”
She shoved on his shoulder, but he was so much larger than her that he didn’t even budge. “You don’t have to lead us on, you know. I know how this is. We just have a bit of fun when we see each other. We still don’t really know each other.”
“You came an awfully long way for a boy you didn’t know.”
“Well, he was a man, and I was tired of boys,” she told him with a shrug.
He wrinkled up his nose in distaste at her logic, but she knew she couldn’t really iron out the semantics with him. No matter how they evaluated what they were and where they were going, it was still down to the physical. With a bit of banter, of course. “Well, if you’re going to be hungover and I have to be awake at this god awful hour of the day, we could at least do a bit of getting to know one another, girl to man or whatever. You did travel all the way to the city that never sleeps, so you should be a bit of it. If you’re hungry, we’ll go have a bit of the local fare and see how you do with handling a Noo Yawk accent.”
What he described sounded suspiciously like a date, but when the entirety of their romance would play out over a weekend, it seemed too good to be true. She shut her eyes and scolded herself to enjoy it. If she could be special to someone for just forty-eight hours, then it would be worth the hours she’d put in at the bar, enduring the leers and the occasional cheeky pinch. “I hope to demonstrate to you that I am more than capable of understanding accents. You’ll see. And you’re buying, if you can afford it.”
They didn’t have much money between them, but they found a way to make it work. Walking around was always free, and shop windows provided a glimpse at local fare without the price tag. Her high heels, which had seemed so brilliant at the time, meant that her steps were far slower and shorter than his. He didn’t seem to notice, enthusiastically telling her about his favorite haunts. There was a sandwich shop that he swore had the greatest mustard in the world, a music store that had the best vinyl at the worst possible prices, a butcher’s place where the employees looked like they might take a cleaver to anyone who wandered by. It wasn’t the traditional look at the city, the landmarks forever in the distance, and she definitely wouldn’t have many stories that she thought would entertain her friends or family. To her, it was the best way to experience the city.
The pastries settled in the front window of a bakery caught her eye, reminding her that they still hadn’t had the breakfast that he’d promised. Stopping for a quick bite would give her feet time to recover, and maybe she could talk him into visiting a shoe store. Her musing only captured her for a minute, but once she turned back to the street, she didn’t see Gordon.
She took a deep breath and reminded herself to remain calm. He was a tall enough guy that he was easily spotted, but it wasn’t as though they had spent much time together. She just might not be able to pick the back of his head out of a sea of people, particularly with the way he’d been slouching in order to be more accessible to her. He’d surely remember the way he came and double back around for her.
She looked every stranger in the eye, frantic, searching, hoping, but she didn’t receive a hint of recognition in return. Standing still made her feel anxious. With her eyes trained on the stores, she hadn’t thought to memorize their way from the apartment She had trusted him implicitly and had known that she would return home with him. And she still hadn’t managed to get a phone number off him.
Then a palm slid against hers, and she flinched away instinctively. But there he was, giving her that puzzlingly disarming smile of his. “Well, I didn’t realize that I was that awful to claim in public.”
Relief flooded through her system, but she automatically slapped a palm against his chest for teasing her. “You left me behind!” she cried, though she was at least aware enough to keep her voice down enough so as to not embarrass him.
“I took a turn and thought you were right behind me. I was babbling on about the time I fell out of a tree in Central Park and nearly broke my arm, and when I looked back, I was just getting a really strange look from a Labrador retriever. I didn’t know if you’d walked on or not, but no harm, no foul.” He gave a shrug and just pulled on her hand again to guide her down the street where he’d been leading her.
She felt silly then to have worried about being left behind. Of course he wouldn’t do that to her, but at the same time, he didn’t really owe her anything. Taking her by the hand was really above and beyond what was required of him, unless of course he wanted to. Or he could just not want me to wander off again. Stop overthinking!
“Everything all right up there?” he asked, tapping on her forehead lightly. “You had a weird look on your face. Not an entirely pleasant one.”
“I was just…thinking,” she said, hating the way it sounded when she said it out loud. She wasn’t supposed to be evaluating everything, just having fun. Mulling over his words, she looked for any way to divert the attention away from herself. “Why did you climb a tree in Central Park? Are you even allowed?”
“Well, I was kind of drunk, and a tree was there. When do you get to climb trees in New York? I ended up grabbing a dead branch and fell, but I was afraid that I’d get arrested for something if I called an ambulance. I did snap my nose, but not much that can be done for that. I looked crazy, getting on the train when covered in blood.”
The story was something so vulnerable, so personal that she had to stop and look at him. Was there a slight crookedness to his nose that she hadn’t noticed before? Maybe there really was weariness behind those eyes, a sort of exhaustion she hadn’t experienced in her own life yet. “Well, I guess I can’t worry about you since it was in the past and your arms seem to be functioning fine, so I’ll just say that I hope you beat some sense into that skull of yours.”
“I don’t know. It’s pretty thick.” He glanced between her and the road ahead, then shook his head as though to chase away a thought. “My stomach’s going to eat itself alive if I don’t get something to eat soon, and I’m pretty sure I’m five cups of coffee behind schedule. Do you want to endure a crowded, loud, greasy but cheap breakfast?”
“I think so. Though if you actually splurged to feed me, that would mean that you wouldn’t have the cash to get me drunk later. So we could enjoy one another’s company before I decide to take a nap in your lap.”
“I’m going to need you to sign some sort of contract to that effect, just in case. Burn me once and all that jazz, you know?”
“If you don’t trust me, I’m sure Damon might. He doesn’t know all the sordid history you and I have. Well, maybe just the first part. The impressive part. Does he know?” Suddenly she was curious what he’d told other people, if she was considered a girl he’d been fond of or just an opportunity on what had otherwise been a fucking awful night.
“Well, it’s been hectic getting him into the band and all, but we’ve gotten a lot closer. I knew he was talented, but I didn’t know him really well as a person, you know what I mean? So now he’s a really good friend. And yeah, we share stories. Believe it or not, it’s not every day that I fuck a teenager under her father’s roof. That was memorable, to say the least.”
She didn’t know if she should consider herself proud to have been more than just a notch in the bedpost or mortified about the circumstances. She decided instead to just be thankful to be remembered, to be part of his past and particularly part of his present. “Let it not be said I don’t know how to make an entrance.”
“Considering how wasted you were last night? My dear, if I had a drink in my hand right now, I would use it to toast you.”
She paused long enough to grab either side of her top and extend it while she bent into a curtsy. He applauded her form and even went so far as to stick two fingers between his lips, making his wolf whistle unnecessarily loud. Together they seemed to need to command that extra bit of attention, but at the same time, they only cared about one another’s reaction. She learned not to let her cheeks flush, not when she could extend the dare a bit further with some flourished bows.
It was while she was taking another elaborate dip in front of a brick wall that an elderly woman approached Gordon. Though her hair was dyed an unnatural, Vivienne Westwood shade of orange, her features belied the decades that she owned. Her accent was thick, her voice stammered, and she whispered something into Gordon’s ear as a veined hand scraped and squeezed his arm. He seemed to blush a little, then retreated to Lizzie.
“Have you got a camera on you?”
Of course, since it had been her first trip to New York, she had packed one just in case things didn’t work out the way she’d planned. No use in wasting the weekend. “Yes. Why?”
“Just give it here. I’ll explain to you in a minute.”
She was beginning to learn just how much he embraced an act first, think later mentality, and so she didn’t even bother to heave a sigh when he took the gadget from her and then handed it to the old woman. Her first thought was that it was ridiculous of him to give her things away like that, to some stranger who might drop it or, worse yet, steal it. He didn’t seem worried in the least though. On the contrary, he sprinted back over to her and put his arm around her shoulders, drawing her to his chest.
“What in the hell are you doing?” she asked in a stage whisper so only he could hear.
“What does it look like? We are posing for a picture.”
Before she could protest, she could see the woman trying to focus the camera on them and knew that it wasn’t the time to assert herself. Instead she looked into the lens and gave her best smile, letting herself really feel it. She was happy, wasn’t she? She was somewhere new, feeling something exciting and different with a man who found her fascinating. In a few days, this could all be in her past. She intended to have fun with it and knew then, holding onto him and capturing someone else’s attention, that this was their time.
After the woman took a couple of shots, she handed the camera back to Gordon and whispered something in his ear before she headed off. The entire exchange had been a mystery to Lizzie, but she at least had the sense to wait for the woman to get a couple of blocks away before she asked, “What was that about?”
“Oh, that,” he said, shrugging as though she was asking about something that had happened years in the past rather than right in front of them. “When you were bowing, she thought that I was taking your picture. She asked if I wanted to get in the shot with you. I guess I could have just fessed up to the fact that I didn’t have a camera, but it seemed like a rather good idea.”
Her eyes searched his face quickly. If he was leading her on, there wasn’t any sort of tick or smirk that would indicate as much. It made her exhale a breath she didn’t remember holding. “Why, because it means we’ll have to talk again so you can get the pictures from me?”
“Something like that,” he agreed. He held out the camera so she could slip it back in her handbag, and when she got herself situated again, he linked his elbow to hers so he could lead them. “Now, I think we were talking about going somewhere for nourishment, so we should do that before I blow away.”
“Wait,” she said, but they were already moving. As his feet led, she knew she would inevitably follow, but there were so many questions on her mind that she knew would never really be solved unless he decided to show her his cards.
“I’m waiting in a mental sense. The stomach waits for no one. What’s up?” he asked as his eyes scanned over the front doors of stores, cafes, bodegas. Finally he spotted what seemed to be a modest restaurant and trotted up so he could hold the door open for her.
“When she left, she said something else to you. You had a funny look on your face about it. What was it?”
“Nothing but a bit of truth. She told me that I needed to mind that I treated you properly.”