The waiter returns with a basket of “premium” bread. Those were his words when he talked about the loaf, and he looked all snotty about it too. Maybe he expected our eyes to widen in realization that we were at an expensive restaurant—with premium bread and pricy ravioli, a place not built for young adults with ones or twos beginning their age.
“Are you ready to order?” he asks with sucked in cheeks, reminding me a little too much of my mother.
I bounce between Capellini alla Checca and Filletto di Branzino. Pasta or sea bass? Lo notices my indecision and says, “Give us a few more minutes.”
The waiter shifts his weight. Uh-oh. I know that look. He’s about to get mean. “This isn’t a Mexican restaurant where you can eat free chips and then leave. The bread costs money.” Oh, the premium bread costs money! Who would have thought? “You have to order eventually.”
Lo snaps his menu closed and he spreads his hands out on the table, gripping the sides. He looks about ready to flip the damn thing over. His father would, I realize. The thought steals my breath. I don’t want to compare them. Ever. “I said ‘give us a few more minutes.’ Did I ever insinuate that I wouldn’t pay?”
“Lo,” I warn, his knuckles whitening. Please don’t flip the table.
The waiter glances at Lo’s hands and then the manager finds his way to our table. Eyes from other linen-lined booths and candle-set tables have drifted over to us, staring at the spectacle.
“Is there a problem?” the manager asks, slightly older than the waiter, both dressed in uniform blacks.
“No,” Lo answers first, peeling his fingers off the table. He takes out his wallet. “We’d like a bottle of your most expensive champagne to go. We’ll be leaving after that.” He hands the manager his black American Express card.
The slack-jawed waiter straightens up. “That’s the Pernod-Ricard Perrier Jouet. It’s over four thousand dollars.”
“That’s it?” Lo says with the tilt of his head, feigning shock.
The manager places a tight hand on the waiter’s shoulder. “I’ll get that right out for you, Mr. Hale.” Ooh, he even used his name from the credit card. Bonus points for him. He ushers the waiter out of our sight, and Lo looks about ready to break the neck of a chicken—or the man who just shuffled away with his tail between his legs.
“So we’re not eating here,” I say, adding up what just happened.
“Would you like to eat here?” he almost shouts, unbuttoning the top of his black-collared shirt.
“Not really.” My cheeks blossom with an ugly red tint the longer people stare.
He rolls up his sleeves. “I had no idea that respect needed to be earned in a f**king restaurant.”
“Can you stop messing with your shirt?”
“Why?” he asks, calming down. He scrutinizes my body language. “Is it turning you on?”
I glare. “No. It looks like you’re about ready to run into the kitchen and beat the crap out of our waiter.” Which is comical. Lo avoids most fights and would be more apt to scream in your face, verbally attacking, than throw a punch.
He rolls his eyes but stops messing with his sleeves per my request.
Only a minute passes before the manager returns with a gold bottle and the American Express card. Lo stands, gestures for me to rise, and he grabs both and shoots everyone a scalding look on his way out, even the manager who did nothing more than apologize and offer a grateful thanks.
I slip my hands into my long woolen coat. “Nola isn’t supposed to be here for another hour,” I tell him.
“We’ll walk for a while. The taco stand is ten blocks away. Think you can make it?”
I nod. My short heels already stick in divots along the cracked sidewalk, but I try not to fuss about it. “Are you okay?” I ask him. The bottle swings in his hand, but he reaches down for mine with the other, holding tightly and warming my chilly palm.
“I just hate that,” he says, wiping his sweaty brow. “I hate that we’re still treated like children even though we’re in our twenties. I hate that I had to pull out my wallet and buy respect.” We stop at a cross-walk, a big red hand flashing at us, telling us to stay put. “I feel like my father.”
His admittance takes me aback. And his cheekbones sharpen, making my stomach summersault. He looks far more like Jonathan Hale than I will ever confess.
“You’re not him,” I whisper. “He would have flipped that table over and then left the staff to clean his mess.”
Lo actually laughs at the image. “Would he?” The sign changes to walk, and we cross the halted traffic, cars lined on the street with bright headlights shining forward and backwards. Just like that, the mention of his father drops in the air, lost behind us.
I spot the taco stand in the distance, lit up with a string of multi-colored lights. A small park resides across the busy street, and a few college-aged kids surround a surging fountain, chowing down on burritos. I suppose we fit in with this demographic, but wherever Lo and I go, I always feel like an outcast. Some things never change past high school.
“Are you cold?” Lo asks.
“Huh? No, I’m fine. My coat is fur-lined.”
“I like it.”
I try to hide the smile. “Check the tag.”
He swiftly falls back with furrowed brows and takes a peek. “Calloway Couture?” He joins my side again. “Rose designed it,” he concludes. “I take it back. It’s ugly.”
I laugh. “I can get her to design you a sweater vest.”
“Stop,” he says with a cringe.
“Or a monogramed shirt. She’ll put your name right over the heart, L-O-R-E-N—”
He pinches my hips, and I shriek and laugh at the same time. He guides me to the taco stand, his lips by my ear the whole time, whispering some R-rated things that he would like to do to me for being so bad.
“Can we skip the tacos?” I ask, suddenly hot.
His grin lights up his face. He turns to the vendor, not feeding into my desires. Yet. “I’ll have three chicken tacos. She’ll take beef with extra lettuce.” He knows my order by heart, not surprising since we eat here regularly, but now that we’re together, it seems sexier.
“You want hot sauce on those chicken, right?”
“No, not today.”
I frown. “You always get hot sauce.”
“And you hate spicy food.”
WhaaatOhhhh. It clicks. He plans to kiss me sometime soon. That, I like. We pick up our orders, pay and settle down across the street on the fountain ledge.
He gently rocks the champagne cork from the bottle and it sighs once released. He pours each of us enough to fill our two flimsy Styrofoam cups.
Around the same time, I take a big bite into my taco, and sauce dribbles from the end and down my chin. Hurriedly, I find a few of the napkins that haven’t blown away, but I fear Lo has already witnessed my embarrassment.
He tries hard not to smile. “I do remember you being in cotillion. Or was that a dream?”
I snort, not helping my case. “Hardly. I had to dance with Jeremy Adams all night and he was a whole head shorter than me. Since someone chose to go to the ball with Juliana Bancroft.”
He takes a large bite of his chicken taco to suppress laugher.
“I still don’t understand why you did that to me. She was horrible.” I take a big gulp of champagne, the bubbles tickling my nose. I already feel more relaxed. Liquid courage, something Lo knows a little about, but I predict that he’d be just as brazen without the added consumption.
“She wasn’t that bad,” he says, scooping fallen chicken from the tray back into the tortilla.
“She filled my locker with condoms.”
“You don’t know that was her.”
“I slept with her boyfriend. If I had known she was dating some guy from a public school twenty miles out, I would have never touched him.”
I avoided sleeping with guys from Dalton Academy. I hardly wanted a slutty reputation, so I chose my conquests very, very carefully. But obviously not too wisely or else I would have noticed his lie when he claimed his single status. Lady Luck had been somewhat on my side, though. Juliana never told anyone what happened because she didn’t want people to know she was dating “lower” in the first place. A small plus to the horrible ordeal.
“It could have been any other girl,” Lo still refutes. I think partly to rile me. He picks up his champagne cup.
I gape. “The condoms had glittery stickers all over them. Who else in high school had a Lisa Frank fetish? She even carried around a binder with a rainbow unicorn and she was in ninth grade. So not only was she cruel, but she was vain enough to practically sign her name across the crime.” I pause. “You know the sad part of that story. I actually used those condoms.”
He snorts on his champagne, choking on the alcohol.
I pat his back. “Take it easy there. Maybe you should switch to something you can handle. I’m an alcohol aficionado. You should listen to me.” I flash a smile.
“Is that so?” he says, his face red from hacking up a lung. He takes another sip to clear his throat.
“So why did you take Juliana?” I wonder. “You never answered.”
He shrugs. “I don’t remember.”
“And I don’t believe you, Loren Hale.”
“Use my full name, Lily Calloway, its authority is lost on me.” He flashes an equally smug smile.
“You escorted me to plenty of balls before that one,” I remind him. “So what changed?” I shouldn’t nag, but my curiosity prevails over my sensibility.
He sets his empty tray aside and holds the champagne bottle between his legs. I wait while he thinks about the right words, on how to frame his answer. He picks at the flowery gold paint. “The night before Juliana asked me, I came home trashed. I paid off some guy to buy me a bottle of Jim Beam. I spent that afternoon drinking in the back of our old elementary school.” He rolls his eyes. “I probably looked like a f**king delinquent. I was bored. And I guess that’s not even a good excuse anymore. My father saw me stumbling in, and he went off on some tangent about being unappreciative.” His eyes narrow at the brick walk. “To this day, I remember what he said. ‘You can’t even fathom how much I’ve f**king given you, Loren. And this is how you repay me?’”
I’m afraid to touch Lo. He’s in some kind of trance, and if I put my arm around him, he may jerk out from it, sullen and unhappy. He may be both regardless.
He continues with a heavy frown, “I listened to him rant for an hour. Then he started talking about you.”
“Me?” I touch my chest, not believing I could enter this kind of conversation.
He nods. “Yeah, he said you were too good for me, that I would never be able to grow up and be with a girl like you. I was young, rebellious, and when he said ‘go,’ I yelled ‘stop.’ When he said ‘Lily,’ I shouted ‘Juliana.’”
“Oh,” I mumble, not realizing how deep-seated the truth really is.