Chapter 1 – You Meet Someone… Something Starts to Happen
They say there are two dimensions to the first impression, and it happens the moment your eyes land on your subject. Then, the only question you should ask yourself is: is this person out to help me or harm me?
When I first met Simon, somehow I knew it would be both. Our lives collided on an ordinary night … but then again, was anything ordinary when it came to Simon Rowe? Could you say that about someone who would change your life forever? I don’t know; it’s hard to tell.
The Little Orange House was the latest trendy bar in the Meatpacking District, a hot spot for the arts and fashion crowd. With an unfinished degree in computer science, I was still trying to figure out where I fit into the fold.
The bar itself was chic, a mix of Spanish and industrial revival. To my left, there was a concrete wall lit up by candles, each in their individual compartments. All the way in the back, past the iron gates, was where I sat alone on a rust-colored leather couch, away from the crowd and the rhythmic music that played on the speakers. Rather, I assumed it was music, because everything sounded like ruckus. I rarely liked to come out to these places; the commotion and the background noise would annoy the average person, but it could be very stressful for someone hard of hearing, like me.
I had been waiting here for an hour, and it was clear that Jason wasn’t coming. But hey, I wanted to make it official. Besides, the martinis weren’t half-bad.
How can I explain my relationship with Jason? I guess you could say it was in eternal purgatory—it fell anywhere between hooking up and something of a real relationship. A girl can get lonely in a big city with no other prospects in sight. You take what you can get. Besides, I didn’t have time for a real relationship.
That’s a lie; time was what I had in spades. I was a broke model, working part-time at an Italian deli on the Upper East Side. Technically, I wasn’t allowed to work anywhere while under contract with the NY Model Agency. They literally had me on standby, waiting for the next job, but I hadn’t heard a peep from my agent in over three weeks, and my debts were on the rise. With what I got from my dad and what Johnny paid me under the table, I managed to survive. Working at the deli wasn’t my dream job, but the owners treated me well, especially the little one they called Nonna. She heckled me every time I got in her line of sight. “Eata, eata … you too skinny. Don’ta worry, you make the model anyway.”
I was damn fond of them, but holy cow, what was with these people and their obsession with food?
I only wished my agent Dania had the same philosophy. The last time we had spoken, she’d said, “Darling, you need to lose three more inches, okay? Around your waist and thighs.” The sound of paper crackling came through the phone—what I assumed was my contract compressing into a nice little ball—and I swallowed. “That’s if you want to work. If you don’t, it’s not going to happen, not here in New York City or anywhere else.”
She was oblivious to the fact that I was two layers deep in my lasagna.
“I’m sorry, Mable, but it’s not working out … I have to let you out of your contract.” She’d sighed. “I wish you luck.”
It was business; if she didn’t make money, then I couldn’t pay my bills, and, unfortunately, I was the product she was selling. We weren’t having any success with each other.
But the worst of it hadn’t come from Dania—it had come from the designers themselves, who had related their concern that I wouldn’t be the best match to represent their label, since I was hard of hearing. It caused me to talk funny.
I asked myself, constantly, why the hell I put myself through this. It was straightforward: the dream was bigger than me. It was like an entity of its own, making me believe that, if I held on a little longer, if I could prove to them that my disability was an asset, I could represent girls who were different. I thought things would happen, just maybe.
So tonight, I had hoped Jason would be able to console me, like I had many times for him. I should have known better. When a guy said, “I’m not looking for a serious relationship,” it most likely translated to, “I have no intentions of having one with you—like, ever.” But my mind was a tricky little gal, the kind to concoct a better truth, one that suited me better. I had failed miserably at conforming him to boyfriend material, but I couldn’t blame the guy. He had laid it out for me, but did I deserve better? Sure, I did. But I had allowed this shit-show to run its course for several months because I believed it was better than being alone. With every passing minute living in this metropolis, my views on dating had reformed into something more cynical. After a while, you realize that everyone around you complains about dating in New York.
As soon as I finished my glass, I ordered another one. I thought, I surely deserve it. I had a plan. Tomorrow I would call my dad and tell him he was right, that this whole modeling thing was a waste of time. In a few weeks, I would return home to Montreal and continue my studies, like we’d agreed. But on the bright side, at least, after a year of putting my body through hell, I had been fortunate not to develop an eating disorder like some of my colleagues.
Within minutes, the waitress brought me an apple martini, and I reached over for my purse beside me. I swept my hand on the soft leather … nothing. A surge of anger came over me.
“My purse was here just a minute ago, and now it’s gone,” I said, looking up at the twenty-something waitress, who looked like she couldn’t be bothered. She repeated something, but I had no clue what Miss Muffet was saying. The music was blaring in the background, drowning the sound of her voice. All I could see was her bright pink lips flapping in the dark, but they were moving way too fast for me to catch anything. It’s a misconception that a deaf or hard-of-hearing person can read lips—that we have developed a sixth sense to compensate for our disability. If that were true—I was still waiting for mine to kick in.
“Can you ask the bartender if anyone found a purple boho bag … with a gold clip?” I was yelling at this point—I couldn’t hear my own voice. She stood there, showing me my bill, and those damn lips still flapped.
“Yes, I would like to pay for my drinks, but someone took my purse …” This is crazy. “I can’t understand—I’m hard of hearing … can you please write it on your phone?” I saw her smartphone peeking from the pocket of her black apron. Talk, talk, talk … Her mouth kept going, and I was getting annoyed with her expressions. I was raised in the hearing world and had never deprived myself of anything any other twenty-one-year-old like me was doing. Never allowed my disability to impede anything.
Good grief, talk about an off night.
“Okay, just give me a second.” Obviously I wasn’t getting anywhere, and instead I focused on finding my bag. It was possible it could have fallen on the ground or gotten kicked under the couch. I got on all fours to look around, and that’s when I stumbled across a pair of navy oxford shoes. I forced my eyes up the length of the muscular legs attached to them. Then a set of hands appeared, guiding me up, and I straightened my body. When I did, my eyes met the most expressive, soft, ultramarine eyes I had ever seen. And I found myself speechless. I would have expected no one to come to my rescue, but there he was, with a laid-back vibe in his style. He’d come with a gorgeous smile and light tousled shoulder-length hair. Without a doubt, I knew I was in for some trouble.
“Are you all right?”
“Someone took my purse,” I replied. I looked past him and realized Miss Muffet had disappeared.
“No worries. I took care of it.” As he spoke, I looked at his face.
“Do you want to talk outside?” I pointed to my ear underneath my hair. He nodded, but I was aware he didn’t grasp my situation. It was pointless to explain, but he would soon find out.
Chapter 2- Meet The Dreamers
The tall stranger directed me through the crowd and toward the opening, leading me onto the sidewalk, the boisterous music now muffled behind the glass door.
“I can’t thank you enough for picking up my tab. For a moment I thought I would have to make a run for it,” I laughed over my shoulder. When I turned, I caught him with a confused expression on his face. I knew that look. He was probably thinking to himself, Why is she talking like that? It was a general question I got asked all the time. No big deal.
“Well, I couldn’t have that on my conscience, but I’m not going to lie—seeing you in handcuffs would have been a real turn-on,” he said, his eyes jovial.
Usually, I would have played along, replied with something witty or sultry, but I had only known this man less than ten minutes.
“Sorry. I was trying to be funny.” He laughed nervously; he thought he might have offended me. But I was a cool girl.
“Somehow I imagined you would be the sort of fella who enjoyed a woman in handcuffs,” I replied.
His expression turned serious. “Nah, restraining a woman is not my thing.” I watched him pull out a cigarette from his pack and offer me one.
“Thanks, but I don’t smoke.” I frowned, feeling a little uneasy. My mother had been a smoker; maybe she still was. Who knew? I hadn’t seen her in sixteen years.
“Sorry, does this bother you?” He didn’t wait for my reply and moved slightly to the right, and the cloud of smoke didn’t reach me.
“I would like to pay you back. Maybe if you give me your number, I could—” I began.
His mouth widened again. “Do I look like I would make a girl pay me back for two martinis? I was happy to help. Look, if I didn’t have this thing to go to tonight, I would have liked to grab a coffee somewhere and get to know you better.”
He was trying to let me down easy. Inside the bar, he’d thought I was attractive enough, but now, listening to me speak, he wasn’t interested anymore. No surprise.
“I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you give me your number; we could meet sometime.” He rolled up his sleeve. Good grief, he had nice arms.
Look away, Mable, look away.
“You want my number?” I looked at him with curiosity.
“Or I could give you mine, if that would make you feel more comfortable.” When he realized my hesitation, he continued. “Look, you seem like someone I’d like to get to know, and if you walk away now, I will never see you again.” He was right. I had decided—I was leaving the city.
I felt the heat radiate from my skin. I liked the attention, but it would only lead me to another disappointment. I was willing to bet he got plenty of attention from girls, so why would he be interested in someone like me? A girl who talked funny? Not that I had any self-esteem issues, but I had learned too many times that guys who were all brawn and good genes had no substance.
Case in point—Jason.
“Maybe dinner? I’m free tomorrow night.” He grinned, picking up on my bewilderment.
“I can’t,” I said, avoiding those longing eyes.
“You can’t, or you won’t?”
Normally I liked to play hard to get, but this time it was not the case. I needed to get home, but somehow I couldn’t make myself go.
“Something tells me I should say no to you.” Our eyes locked.
“Why would you want to say no?” he said with a playful grin.
“I have a boyfriend,” I blurted out. The truth was, I wanted to give him my number, but then I would make the same mistakes, another smile, another gaze, and I would be back in the game with my heart left trampled and exhausted.
But a soft voice somewhere inside told me, this right here is not like that other mess.
Within minutes of meeting this stranger, I felt transfixed by him. He seemed older and more experienced in ways of life that I couldn’t describe. He wasn’t a boy, like Jason; he was a man. Anyhow, what would be the point? I would move away in less than two weeks. Good grief, where had he been a year ago? When I had thought there were no single men left in New York. I’d been in a big funk and just needed some love. Maybe that’s why I’d settled for Jason. If we’d met then, I would have been all in, wearing bells and whistles, even blowing an alpenhorn.
The truth is, I wanted to stop it right in its tracks, whatever this was. I wanted to build a wall right between us, because in the back of my mind I knew—if I should see this man again, I would do something stupid. Who was I kidding? I wanted to do something stupid with him right then, all the way into the next week.
Maybe if he thought I had someone else in my life, he’d give up and walk away.
“The guy who stood you up?” He turned back at the glass door, and then his eyes found mine. He must have been watching me this whole time, consoling my weak heart with martinis, refraining from sending Jason a gazillion texts.
“He’s not your boyfriend.” He had a slight accent. Australian? British? I always got them mixed up.
“Of course he’s my boyfriend!” I nodded for emphasis, trying to hide my smile. I don’t know why my lips curl up when I lie. Which was why I tried not to be deceitful—my stupid facial expression always revealed my secrets. So what, he was right. What I had with Jason was nothing serious, but he didn’t need to know that.
“So tell me about this bonehead of yours,” he said as I shoved my hands into the pockets of my gray linen romper, taking a minute to respond.
“He’s a model.” It came out sounding more important than it was. Jason wasn’t even famous; he had done a couple of spreads for magazines here and there. I quickly forgave myself for being so prudish; it wasn’t like I’d see this guy again, right?
“So is half of New York, love.” He smirked. “Full name?”
“Jason Webb.” I tried to brush the strands of hair away from my face, but gave up fighting the summer breeze.
“Wait, Jason Webb is the guy who stood you up tonight?” He clucked before turning serious.
“You know him?” I saw it in his eyes. Of course; all narcissistic jerks knew each other.
“I didn’t get stood up,” I retorted.
“Maybe you’re right,” he said as if he knew something I didn’t.
He swallowed before speaking. “I don’t want to be the one to break this to you, but he’s moved on to greener pastures.” His eyebrows knit together. My mouth slightly opened, because now this man was annoying me.
“What? It’s not possible, I don’t think we’re talking about the same person.” I laughed, forcing myself to glance around to break his gaze. He made me feel bare, a little uncomfortable under those vibrant eyes. I knew what he was thinking: I was some pathetic blonde who made poor choices in men.
“Jason is from Toronto. He’s been modeling about three years, and he’s roughly six one, brown eyes.”
“All right.” I wrapped my arms around myself.
“He has a little scar on the right hand.” He showed the top of his knuckles.
“Okay, okay, you’ve proven your point.”
“I’ll even give you his shoe size.”
“No, that won’t be necessary.” I gave him a sarcastic smile.
“So how do you know?”
“Oh … that he found greener pastures?” he responded, and I looked at him flatly. He cleared his throat before saying, “I saw him walk out with a saucy brunette.” He squinted his eyes and rubbed the back of his neck. He was afraid of my reaction. Maybe he thought I would break down and cry, but that was the last response Jason deserved.
“Wait, you mean he was here—inside the bar?”
“For a good half hour, aye.”
I had always suspected Jason was brushing me off for someone else. He wasn’t discreet about the way he looked at other women when I was around. Or how, when we arrived at the same event, he would ignore me, hiding the fact we were a couple, to appear to be single. I knew all this, but it still hurt, even though I’d allowed it to happen.
“Oh, I would have loved to catch that …”
“Dipshit.” He finished my sentence. “Trust me, if I had known it was Jason you were waiting for, I would have approached you sooner.” I was taken aback. I imagined that he was the type who wouldn’t have a hard time approaching any girl, so why was he so hesitant with me?
“So, have you been watching me this whole time?”
“No,” he said matter-of-factly, disposing his cigarette in the nearby trash. “Not the whole time. If I had been watching you relentlessly, then you would have had bigger issues than a stolen purse.”
“Wait a minute, did you take it?” I had been so furious with Jason I hadn’t seen who was sitting next to me—maybe it was him.
“Your purse?” He gave a low laugh. “You’re a funny bird.” He studied me for a second. “Sorry, love, I’m not that kind of man. I never take what doesn’t belong to me. But you can be damn sure I’m the type that would kick the arse of whoever stole your purse.”
Well, there I go putting my foot in my mouth.
I wasn’t pro-violence, but it was sure sexy for a man to come to a woman’s defense—even if it was just in words.
“So, why didn’t you come over and talk?” I looked at him with curiosity. “Instead of swooping in at the right time.”
“Yeah … nah … you’re right. I should have.” He smiled and shoved his hands into his front pockets.
“So,” he said after a short moment. “What are we doing? I need to be somewhere in the next twenty minutes, and there’s no way I’m leaving you out here alone.”
I didn’t know what I should do, but I wanted to forget my problems. I loved the city, but it had a way of cracking you open, seducing you with its lights, making you fall in love with its possibilities, before it disillusioned you. This town could exasperate even the most wholehearted dreamer.
Arrivederci … sayonara … so long, New York!
I just had to make sure the door didn’t hit me on the way out. If I stayed any longer, it would. I thought about my purse—no point in making a police report. I figured I’d cancel my credit cards first thing in the morning. All I wanted to do was get back to my cluttered apartment and forget tonight had ever happened.
“What are you doing?” He watched me wave my hand in the air. Down the street, I spotted a yellow car headed in our direction.
“What does it look like? I’m going home.”
“But you need money to pay for that cab.” He pulled out his wallet.
“Thanks, but you helped me enough and I don’t want to trouble you any further.” I turned and caught sight of the cab slowly easing up to the curb. “I’ll … pay him when—ugh, shit!” I put my hands over my eyes.
“What?” he asked.
“My keys … were in the purse, and my roommate is out of town. I won’t be able to get into my apartment until she comes back on Sunday,” I said, looking at him through the cracks of my fingers.
He gently sucked the air between his teeth. “You’ve got your night cut out for you, love. Is there anyone you can call that can help you out?”
“I do, but …”
“Ah, right, your phone was also in there—gotcha.” He handed me his cell. Then he wandered past me and told the cab driver I’d changed my mind.
I didn’t really know anyone in New York. Besides Jason, Gloria was my only hope. I dialed her number, and when she answered I heard the music and laughter in the background.
Gloria was always doing something cool. Her job as a freelance stylist had scored her name on the list of many high-profile parties in New York, and her lavish lifestyle had fueled my dreams even more. But I knew no one got there easy; it took hard work and persistence to achieve your goals. I’ve been wondering if I had given up on mine too soon. When I hung up with Gloria, the stranger wandered back.
“So where can I take you?” he asked as I gave his phone back.
How did my problem become his?
“I’ll crash at my friend’s apartment, but I need to get the keys from her.” At first, I wasn’t sure why I didn’t just say it was my cousin. Maybe I didn’t want him to know I had a hard time making friends in this city.
“Okay, so let’s go.”
“Don’t you have somewhere to be? I don’t want to ruin the rest of your night,” I said.
“You have ruined nothing. If anything, you’ve made it … interesting.” He had a nice smile. The kind that could melt away walls—perhaps even mine.
“It’s all right. I can find my way to the Bryant Hotel. It’s not far.” Geez, I hoped.
He thought about it for a minute. “By chance are you headed to the Nylon magazine party?”
“Yeah, how did you know? It’s a party held for a cocky photographer who won an award or something.”
“Cocky? Really?” He smirked.
“They say he’s the next big thing, like a young version of Mario Testino.” I hitched my thumb at my shoulder, trying to scoop the strap of my purse until I remembered there was nothing there. He was making me nervous, the way he was staring at me.
“Huh, really?” His mouth went up on the sides. What was I missing?
“Well, I don’t know. I never met the guy.” I shrugged.
“Who’s your friend?” He lit another cigarette. I guessed he was in no rush to go anywhere.
“Oh, you wouldn’t know her.” I shake my head.
“Gloria … Gloria Ericson.”
“Huh, you’re right. I don’t.” His expression was flat, but his eyes said something else, which had me confused. “Let me give you a ride. I’m headed that way,” he said.
“No, it’s all right. I will walk.” I said self-consciously, moving away. “Thank you for your help,” I said, over my shoulder.
“Hold on. It’s forty-five minutes … but this way.” He pointed his thumb in the opposite direction.
“Oh.” I was a complete idiot. I wouldn’t know my way around this city even if I’d lived there a lifetime.
“Are you always this stubborn? Now listen, love. I’d be crazy to allow you to wander off somewhere, the back of Bourke with no phone or money.” He motioned with his hand down the street.
“Bourke? Do you mean Brooklyn? Aren’t we in Manhattan?” I was kidding; of course I knew where I was, but he slightly shook his head in disbelief.
“I meant some remote place.”
“Oh, sure.” My voice went up.
“Yeah, I think I would feel better if I personally got you home, safely. Anyhow, let’s face it, you wouldn’t get far in those shoes, legs.” I looked down at my four-inch red patent stilettos. He had a point.
“How do I know I won’t be in more danger going anywhere with you?”
“True, but I’ll get my ass kicked if Gloria finds out I left you alone and stranded.”
“So you do know Gloria?”
“I know everyone,” he winked.
But you don’t know me, I thought.
“I’m not ashamed to say it but Gloria Ericson scares the shit out of me.” He chuckled.
He definitely knew my cousin; she could have that effect on people. You didn’t want to mess with Gloria, and I’d gotten the scars to prove it. When we were kids, I’d once decapitated her Malibu Barbie. Let’s just say I never touched her toys again.
“You’re two for two … All right, I’ll allow you to drive me, but only because your life depends on it.”
“How thoughtful of you.” He brought his hand to his chest and gave me a slight bow. I followed him up the street, and of course his choice of transportation was a two-wheeler.
“I’m Simon, by the way,” he said when we stopped in front of his motorcycle. He held out his hand for me to take.
“Mable,” I replied, shaking his hand.
“Mable.” I liked how he said it, especially with his deep, gruff voice. “I don’t think I’ve met anyone with that name.”
“Well, more of a reason not to forget me after tonight.” I said, laughing. His eyes glanced at me, like a man who looks at a woman with desire.
“Oh, you’re anything but forgettable, love.” He paused. “But I don’t remember Gloria ever mentioning you before.”
“Well, Gloria is a private person.”
“Yeah, don’t I know it.”
Before I could ask any more questions, he handed me the extra helmet—it made me believe there might be a significant other in his life, even though he was alone tonight.
“All right, Mable, have you ever been on a bike?”
I looked down at the black matte motorcycle, which had as much sex appeal as its owner. If I was honest, I wasn’t sure which one made me more nervous. “No, it’s my first time.”
“Ah, a virgin,” he said playfully. I hadn’t been a virgin for the past three years, but somehow he still made me blush.
“Well, I have two rules. One, you have to be in sync with my movements. You lean in when I do.” He smirked, watching me struggle with my helmet, and took matters into his own hands by strapping the helmet down for me. “Two, watch out for the exhaust pipes; they get hot fast, and I wouldn’t want you to burn those beautiful legs of yours.” He winked.
I felt the blood rush from my neck to my face. “Don’t worry. I insured my best feature.” I smirked.
He glanced at me. “Oh, you’ve got a great pair of legs, but they’re not your best feature.”
“They’re not?” My eyebrows gathered together.
“No. Your eyes … and smile.” There he went again—got me blushing like a schoolgirl.
“So, do I look like a bobblehead?” My head was feeling like it was twice its size.
“Well, I don’t know much about that,” he said, strapping on his helmet.
“Come on, say it, you know I’m rocking it.” I gave him my cutest pose while batting my eyelashes.
“Yeah, sure—you’re rocking it.” He let out a short laugh. Only when I took my place behind him did he lean back into me and say, “I’m surprised; I would have never guessed Jason was your type.”
“Oh yeah? And what would be my type?” I said over the loud noise of the revved-up engine.
“Me,” he said, grinning wide and sexy. Maybe he was trying to get me to smile, but sweet Jesus, I was very tempted to take a bite out of that apple. I needed to be on my way before this night got any crazier.
“Are you really with that idiot?” he asked. When I didn’t answer, he continued. “Yeah, I thought so. He doesn’t deserve you—a smart bird like you can do so much better.”
What could I have replied? My mind was in this zone of complete, utter fever. The sweet smell of his cologne rising from his cotton shirt was making my body feel things I hadn’t felt in a long time.
“You could wrap your arms around me. I promise I don’t bite,” he said.
Nope, couldn’t argue with that. One look at his smile, his sultry gaze, and I was back in the game. I willingly pressed my body up against his back, under the bright lights, in this city I had called home for a short time. Then we drove off, disappearing into the darkness— from the view of anyone who might have been watching us.