In the haven of her unlit room, Callie lay drowsing in her underwear on top of the bed covers. It was early Friday evening, and the fan wasn't doing much to rid the air of the thick humidity that stuck to her. Ineffective as the fan was, she reached her hands out as if to gather whatever coolness it blew her way.
The night before, Callie had committed to going to a party with her friend Kirsten, and, sweltering as it was, she had come to regret her promise. Kirsten lured her into going with the promise of booze, men, a dance floor. But the heat left Callie feeling paralyzed. She couldn't imagine anyone going out in this misery and couldn't remember the last time she'd been able to relax. Just the thought of getting ready was agonizing.
Callie knew few details about the party, though she had heard it was technically a late-night poolside barbeque that was being thrown at a luxurious mansion up in the hills, but no one she spoke to seemed to know who lived there or who was throwing the party. Kirsten said that she'd heard it once belonged to an old Hollywood starlet and had been left abandoned for years, until just last month, some singer who'd just signed a million-dollar record deal bought the place. Callie had told Kirsten that she was unimpressed, but the truth was that her interest was piqued. She reasoned that a night outside might be cooler than a one spent suffocating in her bedroom.
The old clock on her nightstand read 8:30. If she didn't start getting ready now, she knew that she'd never leave. Callie mustered all her strength to climb out of bed, fix her makeup, and get dressed. She breathed deeply at the threshold of her apartment and looked longingly at what she'd be leaving behind as she slowly closed the door behind her.
Kirsten led Callie through a wrought-iron gate, then down a cobblestone path illuminated by torches and into an enormous backyard. The girls stopped to take it all in: there was a swimming pool and a hot tub, and the outdoor grill was so massive that it was more of an outdoor kitchen. A fireplace attached to the grill was, unsurprisingly, not in use. The party was more than well attended, as the crowd nearly filled the generous space.
"I can't believe how many people are here!" Callie exclaimed. Had they been any closer to the throng of people, she would have had to scream to be heard. They were already close enough to feel the beat of the music in their ribcages. Kirsten surveyed the party with wide eyes and toyed with her long, dark blonde hair.
"I thought it'd be big, but yeah, this is insane. What's our first move?"
"Our choices are probably drinking, swimming, or dancing. Unless we want to sidle up next to the barbecue."
"Already ate, and I didn't bring a bathing suit."
"So what?" Callie shrugged and Kirsten laughed. "Do we see anyone we know?"
"How could we?"
"Good point." Callie fussed with her dress and bit her lip thoughtfully. "Well, I say we dance."
The partygoers seemed to have chosen a spot on the opposite side of the pool as their dance floor. They gathered in close, seeming to move as a single entity to the music. Callie and Kirsten pushed their way into the center of the jumble and instantly joined in.
The moment that Tyler first saw her, he held his breath. She was dancing in the middle of the crowd, but it was hard not to see her first among those who'd gathered around her. How dull they were in comparison, he thought, lit up as she was by her intensity and prettiness, as though a spotlight were on her and her alone.
She looked wanton, her skin iced with shimmery makeup, her eyes dark with too much eye shadow, lips bright with gloss, expression aloof. Though her dress left her relatively covered up, it was skintight, with an inviting zipper in the back that ran its entire length. On any other girl, the look might have been cheap, but her face was so angelic that she looked almost pure.
Any girl dancing like that would need a drink sooner or later, he thought. So he took his place by the poolside bar, ordered an Irish coffee, and waited.
As he'd predicted, it wasn't long before she emerged from the swarm of dancers and, after a quick glance around, headed his way. Sweat on her brow had dampened her bangs and the hair around her temples. It made him think of the way she might look after he took her to bed. Despite looking a little out of sorts, she smelled sweet, like tropical fruit.
"Want something to drink?" He took a lazy sip of his Irish coffee and shot her a sideways glance.
"I've got it." She didn't give him a second look. Or a first look, for that matter. It was the attitude of a woman accustomed to male attention. The bartender approached, and Tyler noticed that he seemed to be sizing her up, too. She ordered an Old Fashioned. Tyler was impressed. Then she turned to him and cocked her head. "A tie at a barbecue?"
"I always wear a tie." He tried to look as blasé as possible, but he was miffed by her comment. He'd even loosened the tie, and the first few buttons of his collar were undone.
"Always?" Her lip curled. "Even to bed?" This girl was going to be a handful, he mused. He liked her already.
"Don't wear much to bed," he smirked. She tried to look bored but just the hint of a smile gave her away.
The stranger was handsome, she'd give him that. His eyes were a rich brown, his hair a sandy copper, his skin touched with the gold glimmer of a healthy tan. His lips were full under an aquiline nose. If he hadn't been dressed so seriously, she would have pegged him for a beach dweller. Little lines ran along the corners of his eyes, which made him look pleasant but also betrayed his age. She guessed he was in his early to mid-thirties.
The bartender handed her the drink. She turned to the man and asked, "What's your name?"
"Callie. You enjoying the party?"
"I am now. You seemed to be having a pretty good time."
"I was having a great time. I'm worn out but looking forward to this drink."
"What do you do, Callie?"
"Ah..." There was a flicker of embarrassment. "I'm a blogger."
"Oh?" Tyler looked amused. "What do you blog about?"
"Fashion, celebrity gossip. Pretty much whatever you'd expect. My boss pays me to party and then write about the party." She took a sip from her drink and studied the partygoers around them. "It's not what I want to do forever. It's just the best I can do for now."
"What do you want to do forever?"
"Write for a fashion magazine. Eventually I want to be a fashion magazine editor. It's a pipe dream, I guess, but it's what I've always wanted to do and what I went to school for." Tyler felt a kick of lust in his gut at the lurid, almost neon smudge of red lip-gloss that Callie's mouth had left on the rim of her glass. "What do you do?"
"I work for a record company. Very boring stuff."
"Is it what you wanted to do? Or what you thought you'd be doing?"
"You could say it was a little bit of a surprise. Not something I ever expected to be doing. But I'm happy enough. I'm comfortable." Tyler shifted in his seat and looked at Callie intently. "What do you think you'll say about this party?"
"Tonight I'm off the clock. This party is purely for pleasure. Though I guess if something interesting happens, my boss won't be happy if I don't document it."
"Doesn't seem like there's much to write about here tonight. I haven't even seen anyone famous. How'd you hear about it?"
"My friend Kirsten called me up. Seemed to be a word-of-mouth thing -- she heard about it from a friend who'd heard about it from another friend."
Tyler leaned back and seemed to study her. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but he stood and reached out a hand, stopping her short.
"I'd like to show you something." She gave him a quizzical look. "Inside the house."
"How do you know what's in there? Can we go inside?" Callie glanced at the house, which looked dark and foreboding. It didn't look as though anyone was inside, not even its mystery residents.
"Sure. I saw a few people inside. That's the way I came in." She acquiesced, letting Tyler lead her toward the house with her hand still in his.
"What do you know about the singer who lives here?"
"Not a whole lot, if I'm being honest." He opened the sliding glass door for her and, moving past him, she felt his eyes on her as she walked in.
The house really was a mansion, had all the qualities she associated with one. It was airy, with large open archways that allowed a glimpse into adjoining rooms, marble floors, even an intricate chandelier suspended from a high ceiling. Tyler led her into one of these rooms, which looked like a study. Its colors were richer and darker in comparison to the other rooms she'd seen. The hardwood floor matched the furniture, and a beautiful and expensive-looking decorative rug ran across the length of the room. The chairs were unreal, looking like something out of Versailles, all dark brown wood with gold accents and sapphire-blue brocaded cushions. Along the wall behind the desk was a huge old painting of a dark-haired young woman. Tyler and Callie stood side-by-side in front of the desk facing it.
"What do you think of her?" Tyler asked. Callie wrinkled her nose.
"The women in these old paintings always look so prim to me."
"You wouldn't party with her?" He asked in feigned surprise, casting her a sideways glance. Callie laughed at this, a quick, startled laugh that she covered with her hand. He relished a moment of secret pleasure at having made her laugh, then continued. "I don't see it that way. Just because she doesn't wear lace the way a woman might today doesn't make her uptight or sexless. There's a look in the eye, and the way she holds herself. You can tell she's still very much a woman. It just takes a little more imagination, maybe. And I like that."
Callie considered this and felt that his logic was compelling. It surprised her that a man would think this way, but she liked it. "She is beautiful," she conceded.
"You reminded me of her, actually." Callie knit her brows and studied the painting. "It's why I wanted to show it to you."
"I guess I do see the resemblance." The woman in the painting had the same coloring as Callie, the soft dark hair and olive skin. Certain facial features were mirrored in the portrait, too: the big, near-black eyes and angled cheekbones.
"Not that you have the same sense of style. I have to admit I like your dress a little bit better." Tyler turned to face Callie then, taking her hand in his and bringing it to his lips to kiss her fingers lightly. The sudden touch was unexpected, and she tried to disguise her surprise.
"Isn't this usually a kind of introductory thing?"
"I forgot to do it earlier." His warm breath skimmed her skin and gave her a chill. An image of him taking her on the desk briefly flickered in her mind. It would be impossible to say no, she realized.
Tyler let her hand drop and rounded the desk to sit in the chair behind it, made himself at home. He turned to face the bookcases there and brushed the taut leather of their embossed spines. "You much of a reader?" he inquired.
"I used to be. Don't have that much time for it any more, though."
"I love it. I think it's important to read, to get close to another person's imagination. And to read beyond the fluff nowadays, that's especially important. Don't mean to get didactic, though." He turned to look her way. "Do you have a boyfriend?"
"No." Callie frowned despite herself.
"Wish you did?"
"Actually, no. I don't date. At least, not seriously."
"You don't date?" Tyler mulled this over, looking grave. "Why not?"
"The short answer is that it distracts from my career. All my focus is on that right now."
"Go on a date with me. I'll try not to be too distracting. You can give me the long answer then."
"But I just told you..." Her expression was equal parts confusion and irritation, but Tyler opted to keep pushing.
"What's the harm? Just a date. You aren't celibate, are you? Or are you not into men?"
"Well, neither." She blushed under his bold gaze. Callie knew well enough that he was challenging her, but she couldn't back down. "Fine." Her phone vibrated, and she pulled it out of her pocket, reading the message she had received. "It's my friend Kirsten," she explained. "I'm her ride, and she wants to get going."
"I'll walk you out." He rose from his chair and walked toward her with such poise and masculine grace that it took her a few moments to realize that it was her cue to get up, too. He wrapped an arm around hers as she rose.
"I didn't peg you for a gentleman." As he guided her out of the study, she shot the painting behind her one last appraising look.
"Oh, I'm not. But any excuse to get close to you will do." Once they were back out on the patio, they saw that the party had dwindled a bit and quieted down. "I'm going to need your phone number," he declared, turning to her. "And I'm going to call you right now to make sure I get it." Callie laughed. He was determined, and who was she to deny a handsome man? For the first time in recent memory, she gave a stranger her actual phone number.
"Oh, here's my friend now..." Callie trailed off, realizing that Tyler had disappeared. She felt almost disappointed that she wouldn't be able to introduce him to Kirsten, who zigzagged toward her.
"Who was that babe?"
"His name is Tyler, and I just gave him my phone number." Kirsten grabbed Callie's wrist and laughed drunkenly, giddily.
"Nice work," she remarked and fell into Callie, who steadied her and led her to the car, preoccupied with thoughts of a man she didn't even know.
Tyler examined the unassuming brick apartment building. So this was where Callie lived, he thought. He decided it didn't suit her. He'd imagined something a little more lavish and a little less dreary.
As resistant as Callie had been at first, she'd made this part of the process easy, letting him choose the time and the place for their date and texting him her address. He followed a passing tenant into the building, ignored the elevator, and winged up the staircase to her apartment. He rang her doorbell and waited breathlessly.
Callie peered out behind a crack in the door. "Tyler!" She hurried to undo the chain. "You're here early." She swung the door open to reveal a stunning red wrap dress with a plunging V-neckline and fluttering sleeves. It was daringly short and fit her so snugly that Tyler had to fight against the impulse to grab her right there.
"I usually am," he gulped and remembered the tiny bouquet of bluebells he gripped in his hand. He offered them up to her, but she eyed them suspiciously.
"We have flowers just like that growing around the side of the building."
"I saw them outside." He gave her a sheepish grin. "A little last minute gift." She smiled despite herself and accepted them.
"Give me a sec to drop these in some water and get my bag." Tyler watched the upside-down heart of her ass swing as she moved away from him, balancing herself gracefully on dainty gold heels. He rested himself against the doorway as he began to scrutinize his surroundings. Her apartment was dim and cozy. The décor was predominantly Moroccan: a vast array of textures and patterns, all in warm, earthy colors like burnt orange and gold and deep brown. The interior was ample evidence of her sensuality, and Tyler felt his pulse quicken as Callie emerged from the kitchen and snatched up her purse from the couch. He guided her out, placing his hand possessively at the small of her back.
In the elevator, she filled his senses once again with her tropical scent. The fragrance was something like coconut and Tahitian vanilla and musk. He noticed then that long, gold earrings grazed her shoulders. He reached out to toy with one of them and smiled wolfishly as she turned to look at him. For a brief moment, Callie felt cornered, but the feeling was pleasant. She let him play with the earring, the side of his finger briefly brushing one sensitive ear lobe. The moment of tension ended as the elevator doors slid open to reveal the first floor.
"So where are we having dinner?" she asked.
"One of my favorites, a little Italian place downtown. I think you'll like it."
As they stepped out onto the sidewalk, Callie gasped. A chauffeur waited for them and had opened the door of a sleek black car as soon as he spotted Tyler. After a moment, she recovered and quipped with mock-disappointment, "No limo?" Tyler gave her a curious look, saw her little smile, and laughed.
"Not tonight, I'm sorry to say. Maybe next time." Before Callie could argue, he gestured for her to get in the car. She sniffed and complied as he guided her in, then fell in beside her.
The dark leather of the seats was so soft that it felt like suede against Callie's legs. Tyler's proximity was exciting, his solid build so close to hers; he smelled like vanilla and cloves. He laid one hand casually on her bare knee, and this simple touch made her start. She smiled at him uneasily and settled back into her seat. They spent most of the ride in silence as she watched the neon lights of the storefronts they passed cast strange shapes on the car's interior.
"My parents used to own a little tailoring shop in that outdoor mall," Tyler said, interrupting the silence and indicating what was now a frozen yogurt place. His hand still rested comfortably on her knee.
"You grew up here?"
"I did. Are you a native?"
"No. I've lived here about seven years now. Came here for college. I'm from Illinois originally."
"Do you miss it?"
"The place? No. My family and friends? Yes. But this is where I need to be to do what I want to do." Tyler nodded.
"Do you find it lonely here?"
"Yes." She lowered her head and turned to the window.
"It's amazing that anyone can feel so alone in a city so huge. Even I feel it sometimes, though most of the people I know live here. It gets into your bones like winter cold." His reassurances were cut short as the car came to a slow stop. In an instant, the driver was opening Tyler's door. After Tyler emerged, he reached out to help her slide out and up onto the sidewalk. She smoothed her dress and glanced around. When she turned back to Tyler, he was softly smiling at her. Her pulse sped, and she was grateful when he wrapped his arm around hers, unknowingly steadying her.
For a Saturday night, the restaurant wasn't very crowded. The interior was a little higher-end than she'd predicted, with silky white tablecloths in lieu of the checkered standard and delicate white lights scattered across the ceiling like stars. A portly young waiter led them to a booth in a dim corner.
"This one is the prettiest yet," the waiter commented, studying Callie carefully. She smiled but, even in the low light, she could see that Tyler was blushing. The waiter grinned and left them to their menus.
"You a bit of a ladies' man?" Callie questioned, trying to keep her tone playful.
"I'm no tramp but, I mean, I do date."
"Have you ever been married?"
"Almost," he sighed.
"Oh?" Callie looked up from her menu, and her sudden interest was not lost on Tyler.
"Well, I was in a serious relationship for about seven years." He took a long, nervous drink of his ice water, then set it back down with a grimace. "We got engaged toward the end of those seven years, but our hearts weren't in it. It's been over about a year now."
"And you've been bringing girls here ever since. Is it a different girl every time?" She tried not to sound accusatory. She wasn't sure she pulled it off.
"I'm not sure that the girl who doesn't date seriously should be asking that particular question," he narrowed his eyes, studying her, briefly hoping she would reconsider her inquiry. The expression on her face told him that she wouldn't budge. "But I'll answer anyway. I'm not sure that I've ever brought a girl here a second time. But I haven't met anyone who's really impressed me enough. Haven't been in anything serious since the seven-year relationship."