THE GIN LOVERS #4: VICE OR VIRTUE (Chapter One)
Charlotte froze, fear spreading across her face.
Her instinct was to grab for Jake's hand, but she stood perfectly still and stared at William with all the control she could muster. "Get the hell out of my house," he said to Jake.
"Well, seeing as I'm Charlotte's guest and not yours, I'm not going anywhere until she asks me."
"It's okay--just go," she said quickly. Jake turned to her before leaving the room. She met his gaze for a second, and that was all it took to know that he would be back for her. When the door closed behind him, she missed him already.
William stepped closer.
"What did you do to your hair?" he said, his voice barely more than a whisper.
"What?" She instinctively touched her head. The haircut--she'd forgotten about it.
And then she felt his hand heavy across her cheek, a shocking blow that sent her straight to the floor.
"It's bad enough I have a sister who shames the family. I won't stand for it from my wife!"
Charlotte looked up at him, willing herself to get up off of the carpet, but still too shaken to move.
"You have no right to raise a hand to me," she said, fighting back her tears. She refused to cry in front of him.
"I'm instructing the staff you are to have no visitors unless I approve them ahead of time. And please remember, Charlotte, before you have any more ideas about your hair, or your clothes, or your social life: I sent Mae away, and I won't hesitate to do the same with you," he spat.
"You think this is any way to have a marriage!?" she yelled, her voice suddenly just as loud as his.
"Is that what you call this?" he said icily. "Let me put it this way: Do you, or do you not, want me to write that check every month?"
They locked eyes. Charlotte looked away first. "I thought so," William said. "I'll see you at the dinner table. And please wear a hat so I can at least try to forget that my wife now looks like a schoolboy."
Jake ignored the few people hanging out on the first floor of the apartment, and rushed up the stairs to his telephone. He dialed the phone number off of a slip of paper he kept under his mattress. He never bothered to memorize it because it changed every month.
"O'Brian," the voice said at the other end.
"This is Larkinowski," Jake said, using his alias.
"What's with the phone calls lately? You miss hearing my voice? Maybe you need an old lady."
"I wouldn't have to call you if you'd set the meeting. Is your boss in or is he out? I need to get this thing moving."
"What's your hurry?"
"Either we do the deal, or someone else will," Jake said, although he had no reason to think Boom Boom was negotiating with other people on the side.
"The meeting is set: Friday night at seven. There's a restaurant few block from the Bowery: Cavanaugh's. My boss will be in the last booth on the right."
Jake found a stray pencil under his bed and scribbled the information on the back of a week-old newspaper.
"Does your boss have a name?" he said.
"To you, he's just 'Boss.' If he likes you and it's a go, then you'll hear from me and we'll set up the deal. Oh, and by the way, you better prepare Boom Boom to pay more than she's used to. Payola is going up, and so are prices for the customers."
Jake replaced the phone receiver. He tried not to be too concerned about whether or not "the Boss" would like him. He knew "like" meant "trust," and from one hustler to another, Jake would win him over. There was no reason why he'd be seen as a liability: He'd been running a tight ship for two years, he was handling the Boom Boom job discreetly. There was no reason not to get this deal in place.
And then he would bail Charlotte out of that marriage.
From her bedroom window, Mae watched the afternoon fade into evening--the end of another twelve-hour stint in the prison of the Astor mansion. Soon it would be dark, and she would go back to sleep--her only escape.
She was starting to wonder if her inheritance was worth it.
Could being poor be any worse than being a prisoner of her brother--or, more accurately now--of his lapdog, Amelia Astor?
What if she got a job like Fiona: working at a club, making tips, and scrapping it out? Now she wished she'd gone to college like some of her friends--or even like Charlotte. But how could she have known her mother would die, and then pull such a crazy stunt with her will?
Her biggest fear, as much as she hated to admit it, was that Fiona wouldn't want to be with her anymore if she weren't rich. But then, Fiona had already walked away from her. Mae was confident she could get her back if she was free and flush with cash. But how could she love Fiona knowing the truth about her bottom line?
But she did love her. It was the horrible, torturous truth of her existence. Something about that girl possessed her--and had since the first night they met.
It had been a week after her high school graduation. She and a few friends from the Spence School--Abigail Cornwall, Kiki Von Loring, and Sarah Strout--were having dinner in midtown when a group of fellas at the next table starting chatting them up. This almost always happened when Mae went out with The Group, as they liked to call themselves. They were an attractive bunch, all tall and lean, glossy-haired, and well dressed. They were the type of girls who didn't need to seek out male attention, and therefore they never failed to get it.
Mae, of course, had never been interested in that kind of attention--not that she would admit this to her friends. That she was a girl who liked girls had always been her little secret. The only one who had ever known was Paloma Dominion, her mother's housemaid's daughter.
Somehow, Mae--at just fourteen years old--had sensed that there was something different about Paloma. She only saw her one week out of the year, during her visit to the house at Christmas time. The way Paloma looked at her, shyly but directly out from under her thick dark lashes, signaled to Mae that it was okay to think the things she thought about the girl. And she did think about--not only during the weeklong visit, but all throughout her entire freshman year of high school. Every night before she fell asleep, Mae would lie in her big canopied bed, and touch herself while thinking about Paloma. She imagined what it would be like to have Paloma next to her, to be able to wind her hands through the thick plaits of dark hair, and then slowly move her hands lower to touch the breasts that were considerably bigger than her own. She wondered if Paloma ever thought about her; she wondered if the girl ever touched herself between her legs in a way that made her entire body vibrate.
She got her answer the following year when, during her mother's onerously large Christmas party, she and Paloma ended up naked together in the pantry. Mae finally knew exactly what it was like to hold those breasts, and she also realized Paloma had most certainly been touching herself--because she knew exactly how to make Mae's body spasm with pleasure. For the rest of the week, Mae and Paloma met up every night--a pre-bedtime ritual that was no longer just the stuff of fantasies.
But then it was over; by the following Christmas, Paloma's mother had retired from the Delacorte staff. And Mae never saw Paloma again.
Mae did not have those same feelings again for anyone until she met Fiona.
The night at the diner, the group of men invited Mae and her friends to follow them to a nightclub. And that was where she first saw her....
"Mae, are you in there?" Amelia rapped loudly on the door.
Oh, for god's sake. Did it never end?
"Pretend I'm not," she shouted from her bed.
"There's no time for these games. I insist you open this door."
Mae rolled out of bed and trudged slowly to the door. She opened it no more than two inches.
"What is it now?" Mae said.
"You're going out tonight, so hurry up and get dressed. Like a lady; not in some crazy getup."
"Where do you think I'm going?"
"My cousin, Jonathan Astor, is taking you to dinner. I'm sure it will be someplace elegant." And then, as if noticing the look of absolute mutiny on Mae's face, Amelia added, "Maybe he'll ask you where you want to go. Regardless, you need to get out of that robe. You can't spend the rest of your life in this room."
Mae slammed the door.
"I'll see you downstairs in one hour," Amelia yelled from the hallway. "Don't make me call your brother."
Mae, heart pounding, swung open her closet. Fine--she would go out. She'd get some fresh air, buy some more cigarettes, and vent her frustration on this puppet doing Amelia's bidding.
And in the morning, she would move out.
THE GIN LOVERS #4: VICE OR VIRTUE. Copyright © 2012 by Jamie Brenner