Olivia knew what was coming, but she wasn’t worried. She sat at the kitchen table with her feet flat on the floor, her arms steady and rested, and her eyes looking straight forward. She was not restless or agitated; she was calm, waiting for those words that were sure to fall out of her mother’s mouth at any second. She was prepared, and within the minute, there they were.
“What on Earth happened to your face!?”
Olivia looked up with confidence. “So stupid, really. I was helping Penny move her new dresser up the stairs to her new apartment and I lost my grip, and the thing popped me right between the eyes. Hurt like hell.”
Margaret grabbed Olivia by the chin. “A dresser did that to you?”
“It happens,” said Dan, taking a bite of his eggs. “You gotta be more careful, sweetheart. That’s going to take a while to clear up.”
Margaret sighed. “How are we going to cover that? Dissolved aspirin may reduce the swelling, but I don’t think there’s any concealer on the market that can cover that bruising.”
Dan sipped his coffee. “Just let it run its course.”
Margaret didn’t look at him, she just lowered her hand and let her eyes stay glued to her daughter. “She’s not going to meet a nice guy with her face looking like she was just in a cage match.”
Dan gulped down a mouthful of food. “Sweetheart, do you mind picking up my dry cleaning on the way to the studio on Monday? I have to be at the site really early.”
“Dan, you know I have to go to my yoga class, otherwise I can’t get centered.”
“I just don’t see why you can’t do your yoga at home.”
“Why do you always say it like that?”
“What? I just said yoga.”
“No, you didn’t say yoga, you said yoga, and I don’t like doing my yoga at home, and besides the gym is right next to the pharmacy where I always get my prescriptions filled, I can do it on the same trip.” She took a sip of her coffee. “Oh, um, hmm.”
Dan looked at her. “What?”
“Oh, it’s nothing.”
He lowered his coffee mug. “What is it?”
“It’s just, the coffee,” said Margaret. “There are grounds in it.”
“Oh, sorry about that,” said Dan. “Hold on, I’ll make another pot.”
“No, it’s fine,” said Margaret, making a face. “Just next time don’t grind it as long.”
“Okay.” Dan took another sip.
Margaret fidgeted. “I mean, it’s not that I don’t appreciate you making coffee, I do, and if you like it this way, that’s fine. Just Olivia and I don’t like it with grounds in it.”
Olivia’s body tightened.
“Sweetheart,” said Dan to Margaret, “If you want me to make another pot, it’s fine—”
“No, you always grind the coffee this much, so if you like it this way, I mean, how about this. Next time we’ll make one pot your way and then Olivia and I can make another pot our way.”
“It’s not that I like it this way, Margaret, I just don’t—”
“I’m only trying to offer a compromise, Dan, why are you being so argumentative?”
Olivia tried to intervene. “Um, Mom—”
“I’m not being argumentative,” said Dan. “I offered to make the coffee your way, it’ll take a couple minutes.”
“And I appreciate that, but I was trying to make a compromise so that we could both have our coffee the way we want it.” She lowered her voice. “Why are you making me feel so awful for trying to make you happy?”
Dan slammed the coffee mug down. “Make your own fucking coffee.” And he stood up, and left the room. Within the minute he was in his office, the door slammed shut.
“Jesus,” said Margaret, her eyes affixed to the table. “Your father is impossible to live with.”
Olivia, despite her better judgment, rode into Sequoia Grove after work. Her dress may not have been appropriate for Club Lanka, but she wasn’t going there to impress anyone so her blouse and slacks were going to have to do. There was no quest for sin this time around, no scheming, no plotting, and she had no more appetite for wrongdoing – she went for one reason and one reason only. To apologize. At least that’s what she was telling herself.
When she got to the front of club, she was astounded by the sheer enormity of the crowd waiting for entry. It was a sea of Ed Hardy hats, hair gel, Affliction T-shirts, four-inch heels, and undeserved feelings of self-importance. Olivia cringed as she took her place at the end, right next to her good friend Cheeks.
“Meth?” said Cheeks to her pregnant companion. “Eww, God, no, I would never touch meth. I’m not that stupid.” She paused. “Do you know if shrooms are vegan? I mean, like, they come from cow poop, right?”
Once Olivia’s idiot tolerance had been exceeded, she went straight for the bouncer.
“I’m sorry, um, I’m not here to… Can I go in to talk to Hero?”
“Do you have an appointment?”
Her brown twitched. “No.”
The bouncer was taking some sort of orders through his ear piece. “Alright, you can go in.”
She absorbed some dirty looks as made her way inside, taking a few eye-daggers to the back as pushed through to the hallway and up the dark stairs. She knocked on his door.
She opened the door, and there he was.
To call Hero handsome would be inaccurate. It wasn’t that Hero was unhandsome, but more that the word fell short in describing his peculiarities. Hero was very pretty, but the word ‘pretty’ was too benign, too feminine to describe the intimidating quality of his form, and the oddness of it made ‘gorgeous’ seen inappropriate as well. His face, which sat directly above a perfectly assembled, hard, masculine frame, was a compilation of faultlessly molded pieces: a strong, rounded nose, boldly dark, tilted eyes, and pink, pillow-like lips. All of these individually beautiful pieces formed a breathtaking work of art that was wondrously strange, but strange nonetheless.
He wasn’t wearing a shirt under his jacket, not at all, and she felt a little dirty imagining how that chest would feel against hers. Upon the realization that it may have been his intention to inspire such fantasy, she looked away from him. He wasn’t looking at her either; his eyes were fixed to the monitors.
He pressed an intercom button on his desk and said something that wasn’t in English before he finally looked at her. “Close the door behind you, please,” he said.
“I thought I told you never to come back.”
“Well, I guess my will to come back was stronger than your will to keep me out.”
That statement won her eye contact. “What do you want?”
“Can I sit down?”
His deep focus on her relaxed a little bit. “No. You have one minute to say whatever you want to say and then you’re leaving, and this time you’ll stay gone—my will is gonna be stronger. So please, I just told my boys not to disturb me for any reason for sixty seconds, so now that you have my time, don’t waste it.”
She was very conscious of her hands, so clasped them together and rested them in front of her. “Okay.” She looked at the floor, assembled the scattered phrases in her mind into some semblance of order, and spoke. “I just wanted to apologize to you for my behavior. I’m sorry. The way I acted last night was inexcusable. I didn’t have enough respect for your club. Or, fuck, for myself, and um, you were right to jump my shit for it like you did. So, I’m sorry.
“It’s just, I can’t handle the idea that you have this image in your head that I’m this fucked up party girl, because I’m not. I’m a ballet dancer. I was valedictorian. I got a scholarship to the Monarch Hills Conservatory, I—well, I guess that doesn’t really mean anything to you, but I’m just saying I’m not some random flake, I was acting like that because, fuck, how do I explain this.
“Okay, I have this memory from when I was, like, sixteen, and I’m in the kitchen and I’m looking outside on this big bright sunny day, and all I want to do is go outside. But the thing is I never did anything outside, we didn’t have a dog I could walk, we didn’t have a pool, I never rode a bike or anything like that. But I just thought, wow, it’s a really nice day. I considered taking a walk, or just walking out there and standing there, you know? Just to enjoy the sun. But I didn’t, and the reason I still think about it is because I still have no idea why. I don’t know, I guess it’s like after years and years of ballet practice and country club functions and study groups and church events, I’m incapable of doing anything that isn’t on the schedule my parents wrote out for me.
“And now I’m looking at my mother and she’s the only example I’ve got for what happens if I don’t go outside, you know? Like if I stick to the schedule, and she’s the most miserable person I know. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that if I don’t go outside, if I don’t step outside of my comfort zone, I know I’m setting myself up for a shitty life, but if I do go, like I said, it’s out of my comfort zone, and I don’t know what I’m doing. So I’m bound to fuck up. So, I’m sorry.” She looked to his eyes for a response.
He had looked her carefully in the face the entire time she spoke. Once she got to the end of her story, he nodded, respectfully acknowledging her words. He was silent for a moment, but with a calm tone, he broke that silence.
“You were gonna fuck Wildcard in this room.”
“Was going to. But I didn’t.”
He stood up. “But you would have. Where?”
“Where was Wildcard gonna put it on you?”
She recoiled a little, wishing she had more time to figure out his intentions before responding. “Um, right there, on the desk. Facing the monitors.”
Hero stepped to the side of his desk, gently resting his fingers on the edge. “On my desk? Right here?”
Hero turned around and opened the door of the cabinet at the bottom of the book shelf. From within, he pulled out a rag and a spray bottle, and proceeded to spray the rag. He then took that rag, placed it on the edge of the desk, the very place where Olivia had sat the night before, and wiped. He wiped the desk. Righting himself with a small smile of accomplishment, he put his cleaning supplies away.
“Thank you. That will be all.”
All of the oxygen was sucked out of every corner of her lungs.
The look he gave her wasn’t inviting. “You’ve already exhausted your minute, chag’ya.”
“I came here to apologize to you, aren’t you going to accept my apology!?”
“No, you were not apologizing. That was not an apology. That was the biggest heap of self-serving bullshit I have ever heard in my life. You don’t give a shit about me or my club, all you care about is what people think of you. What do you want, you want me to feel sorry for you? Poor valedictorian ballerina, life must be so hard at your Westcliff churches and country clubs. You want to know what I was doing at sixteen while you were knee deep in angst over whether or not to enjoy your bright sunny day?
“Let’s see, I was still living at 8th Block, so who knows, maybe I was still getting my ass beat daily for being one of the only Asians in a black housing project. Or maybe I just sent Mixer to take a piss down the staircase to keep the hookers from hanging out there —or maybe I was slinging crack in Second Circle, arguing with a fucking pimp because he won’t pay with anything but pussy—that was trafficked in from my country. I’m sorry chag’ya, but I can’t shed a single damn tear for your suburban white girl problems. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a night club to operate.”
Biting back a foolish retort, she let herself shake in silent frustration. She turned away, reached out for the knob, and began to turn it.
“Fine, just sit in your tower and play jaded super-villain, you’ll see how far it gets you in life,” she said. “You know, while you’re at it? You should get a cat to put on your desk, so you can pet it and say ‘excellent’ all hissy and mysterious-like.”
“I will. And I’ll name it after you. Soulless Aristocratic Harpy has a nice ring to it.”
“Oh, ha ha.” She pulled the door open. “Well, I hope the cat sees what’s going downstairs better than you do.”
She looked back at him. “What?”
“What the fuck did you just say? Nobody sees what’s going on downstairs better than I do. I have eyes and ears everywhere down there.”
She closed the door and nodded toward the monitors. “Not the girl’s bathroom.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Do I look like a pervert to you?”
“No. You look like a douche bag.” She looked back at the monitors. “I would guess if I know you aren’t watching the ladies room, others do too. Crash, particularly. He’s got a partner, a girl with pink hair, and she’s dealing his drugs in there. He gives her the baggy through a kiss so you don’t see the transfer.”
“No way. I can count Crash’s brain cells on one hand, there’s no way he’s doing deals under my nose.”
“Fine, then I’m wrong. But I’d watch him and that girl a little bit more carefully if I were you.”
Leaving that last thought dancing around in his brain, she left the room with an intense desire to punch someone. Preferably him.
When she got downstairs, she left through the patio exit just in time to see Seneka dancing on a table under the starlight. She was wearing a cute little school girl costume, her hair tied up and sparkling with glittery gel under an Ed Hardy cap. She was smiling proudly as the boys around her dropped bills into her tip jar, shaking her perfect little rump to the addictive beats.
A good-looking black guy in a fitted stylish shirt and high-fashion jeans jumped up on the table next to her, his friends cheering him on as he grinded on Seneka playfully. He wasn’t crossing any lines, he was just having a good time and she was too, and his crew paid her handsomely for it. As Olivia continued her quest for the exit, she shifted uncomfortably when she thought about how she and Seneka could never become friends.
“Fuck you, bitch!”
A heavy-set black woman in a dress too tiny for her thick body shoved at Seneka’s legs, forcing her off the table and throwing her knees and palms first into the floor. As the crowd dispersed and reshaped, Seneka’s nearly bare ass ended up skidding against the concrete patio. Her arms went up as a swarm of bodies buzzed around her, offering arms to help her up while others just looked around questioningly.
Olivia dove in to pull the woman away. “Hey, come on, that girl’s got a couple brothers that are pretty powerful, so just cool it—” The woman just shoved at her hard, ripping her arms out of Olivia’s grasp.
“She was dancin’ all up on my man, bitch! Mind your own damn business!”
“Whatever.” Olivia moved around the woman and reached out for Seneka. “Hey, you okay?”
“I’m fine.” Seneka smiled unsteadily before Olivia helped her back onto her feet.
But the woman, who clearly wasn’t done yet, pushed Olivia aside and spit in Seneka’s face. “Get a real job, you fuckin’ ho!”
Olivia’s anger spun her body right around. “Whoa, hold it right there, little miss setting-the-world-on-fire. What do you do for a living? Do you do reconstructive facial surgery for car crash victims or something? What?”
“I got a job, bitch. I got a good job. I sit at a desk and everything.”
“A desk where?”
She crossed her arms, tufting her allegorical feathers. “Monarch Hills Credit Recovery.”
“Ooh,” said Olivia, her voice rippling with a chuckle. “A collection agency! Well aren’t I impressed, after all you are such an asset to the community. Shaking down debtors all day long with harassing phone calls, telling them all sorts of corporate-sponsored lies to get them to pay up debts – after your company tacks hundreds of bogus dollars onto them. The world just couldn’t turn without you, could it!?”
“Hey, fuck you! At least I don’t have to press my ass in dude’s faces to put bread on the table.”
“Stop right there. For one, no dude would pay to have that shapeless lard loaf in their face, not even if the cure for cancer was tucked in your sweaty flesh flaps, alright? Secondly, Seneka is making a metric fuckton more money than you doing something that she enjoys. Okay? Everyone else here is paying to have a fun place to dance, and she is getting paid for it – not to mention that men are throwing money at her and your income relies on chasing people down at the barrel of a gun.”
“Oh, you little fuckin’ bitch,” said the woman, taking a step closer. “I’m gonna kick your skinny—”
Olivia gently placed her palm on the woman’s chest, just above her sagging bust. “No, you’re not. Come on, let’s just call it a night so we can return to our shitty jobs intact. Sound good?”
A couple burly men in STAFF T-shirts rushed into the scene. One of them, in a big, stern voice, demanded that both girls exit the premises.
“No worries, sir,” said Olivia. “I was just leaving.”
The only thing Olivia bothered to do before exiting through the patio gate was look back at Seneka to make sure she was okay. She was brushing some dust off her bare thighs, and the boys around were there to care for her. Satisfied, Olivia headed for the sidewalk.
When Olivia turned back to the club, Hero was a foot outside the door, breathless with his chest heaving as he took the final step of his sprint, and his airtight focus on her was only contested by his face’s display of deep confusion. As she looked at him, his body expanding and contracting under the weight of his breaths, she immediately and involuntarily pictured him naked on top of her, but pushed the image out of her mind as quickly as she could as soon as she felt her face go pink.
“I’m leaving, sorry I made a scene,” Olivia muttered, humorless as she turned back toward the street.
“Hold up,” Hero said, stepped closer to her. “Where are you going?”
“You told me to leave.”
She may have been looking away from him, but his eyes wouldn’t leave her. He studied her image with a newfound respect, like she had been deemed a worthy subject. He calmed down. “You do drugs?”
She scowled. “What? No.”
“Not at all?”
“Not at all.”
“Who else you been fucking?”
“Who else you been fucking?” he repeated. “You’re spreading your shit around all my boys, I want to know where that pussy has been.”
“Fuck you,” Olivia spat, gulping and fluttering her eyelashes. “That is absolutely none of your business. Why the fuck do you care anyway? You’re never going to see me again.”
“I’ll be seeing you again if Ace’s dick falls off, you better believe that.”
“You won—you got rid of me. Why are you pushing this?”
“Just answer the damn question.”
“For your most undeserving information, your highness,” Olivia hissed, “I’ve only had sex with one other guy besides Ace. He was my boyfriend in college.”
Hero’s eyebrows hit the moon. “For real?”
He managed a tiny laugh, and his smile cracked the intimidating mystery of his face. She was already addicted to it. “Damn girl, you hit the ground running, didn’ t you?” He paused. “Why did you stand up for my sister like that? What, you think she can’t handle herself?”
“No. That woman bothering her was an idiot and I wanted to tell her off.”
“Well, aren’t we the avenger.”
“Don’t be condescending.” She found herself unable to ignore the speed of her breath. She could feel the warm rush of every beat of her heart.
He looked at her mouth and smirked. “Do I make you nervous?”
“No,” she said, wondering why she wasn’t walking away yet.
“Your pupils are dilated.”
“No they aren’t.”
He laughed. “How would you know?”
“I don’t know.”
He took a step closer until he was so close, she could have sworn she felt the heat of his groin on hers. It took her a second to realize it was her own heat she was feeling.
“You’re blinking a lot,” he said in a near whisper. “Do you realize that?”
“Are you hitting on me?”
“I think you’re hitting on me. Whether you realize it or not.”
She grumbled from the pit of her throat. “Cut the bullshit. You’re not as sexy and mysterious as you think you are. You’ve read too many books about how girls wet their bloomers over patriarchal asshats, it’s not going to work on me.”
“Woman, if I wanted to fuck you, I would have had it by now.”
“If you didn’t want to fuck me, you wouldn’t have left your little control center, but unfortunately for you I’m a little less than impressed with micro-dicked weenies who get their jollies from ‘addling in the brains of men with craft.’”
Hero frowned. “Is that Machiavelli? You read Machiavelli?”
“Yeah. Not shocked that you have as well. Now if you’ll excuse me, your majesty.”
She turned away, but he took her around her midsection and turned her right back.
“I’m not trying to ‘addle in your brain,’ girl,” he said, his palm gently pressed against the curve of her waist. “I was only asking you those questions because I wanted to let you know we’re having another get-together at the house. Now if you can pack in that shitty attitude of yours, you’re welcome to make an appearance.”
The pressure of his hand on her side was scattering her. “No thank you. I’ve learned my lesson.”
“Fine.” He removed his hand and stepped back.
She laughed deeply, masking her impassioned discomfort. “I’ll tell you what, prince. If you admit to me that you want me to come, I’ll come.”
“I don’t give a shit if you come, it’s up to you.”
“Then you won’t see me.”
His gaze drifted from her eyes to her lips, and then back to her eyes. As soon as their gazes met once again, a lightning bolt shot to her pelvis and her knees went weak. His lips parted and his breath stayed steady and slow as he examined her entire body, every sweep of his eyes painting tingles across her flesh. She tried to grab control of the speed of her breaths to make herself less obvious, but with every bit of energy she burned on the task, the more obvious she became. Once she started to feel her nipples harden against her bra, she started getting angry with him for it.
“Fine,” he said, and he moved in close to her until his bare chest was an inch from hers. He lowered his lips to her ear, letting is soft, warm breath tickle her earlobe. She was rendered as still as a statue as he whispered to her. “Come for me, chag’ya.” He then looked into her eyes, stepped back, turned around, and walked away.
Desperate to steal the last word, she called after him. “I’m not coming!”
He looked back with a devilish grin. “We’ll see.”
She clenched her fists and her toes grabbed at the inside of her shoes. Whatever battle they were just fighting, she lost, but now, it was on.