chapter one Four years later
My heart’s beating a little too fast and my eyes keep darting toward the door. He’ll walk through there any moment now. There are only a handful of barflies to distract me, and the kinds of drinks they order don’t take a lot of thought to make. This is not a Mojito Sparkler type of crowd.
Most of the people who come to drink at Ivan’s are men. They come to lose themselves in alcohol and sports. The few women who show up are looking for a special kind of trouble. This isn’t the place you come to in hopes of picking up a nice guy.
I know these women. Maybe not personally, but essentially I know who they are and what they’re about: disheartened or damaged, looking for men who can inflict enough pain to help them forget the pain that’s
coming from within. Screwing assholes, making themselves vulnerable to emotional predators—it’s just another form of cutting, really. Every time they smile at a Hells Angels type I can see the unspoken words hovering over their heads.
Here’s the knife. Hurt me so I don’t have to hurt myself. Take away the responsibility and just give me the pain.
I get it, I really do. But it’s not my game, not anymore.
So I just pour the beer, keep the whiskey flowing, keep my smile evasive, cold enough to scare away the more aggressive ones, warm enough to coax the tips out of the passive . . . and keep my eyes on the door.
And then it happens. At exactly seven fifteen, he shows up.
I feel an acute pang in my chest, right where my heart is.
Lander Gable. How many times have I seen this man walk into this bar while I was sitting across the street in a cab or rental car? But now, today, I’m in the bar, and he’s walking toward me, not away. I’ve never been so close to him before. I can almost touch him!
And soon I will.
The ringing of the phone momentarily distracts me.
I pick up and ask, “Ivan’s, can I help you?” The person on the other end mumbles an embarrassed apology for calling the wrong number and hangs up, but I keep
the phone pressed to my ear long after hearing the click, pretending to listen while I study the perfect specimen in front of me: a clean-shaven face, bronze skin, a watch that’s worth more than everything I own . . . Only he’s replaced the suit he wore to the office today with a pair of Diesel jeans and a sweater. Less conspicuous, but still a little too clean for this place. His physique hints at time spent at a gym, not a dockyard.
You’d think some of the other guys would kick his ass just for entering their bar.
And yet absolutely no one gets in his way.
It’s not until he’s almost at the bar stool that we make eye contact. He doesn’t smile, but there’s something there—curiosity maybe, perhaps surprise at finding a woman bartending, definitely appraisal.
I’ve gotta give myself a major pat on the back for that one. I must have spent two hours putting myself together today for him. He’s why I’m wearing my wild black hair down, letting it cover my bare shoulders. He’s why I matched the loose, low-slung jeans with a fitted tank that subtly reveals the benefits of my new push-up bra. He’s why I’m wearing thick mascara and sheer lip gloss. I know this guy’s tastes.
He takes his seat, pulls out a ten, and gestures to the bottle of whiskey still in my hand from the last drink I poured. “On the rocks, please.”
“You sure?” I ask even as I fill a glass with ice. “I could make a whiskey sour if you like. Maybe throw in a cherry?”
He raises his eyebrow slightly. “Mocking a patron when you’re new to the job? Risky, isn’t it?”
“How do you know I just started?”
“I’m here a lot.”
“A few times a week.” He reaches for his drink, brings it to his lips. Over the glass he offers a bemused smile. “I like your prices.”
“Really?” I ask. “Drinks more expensive where you’re from?”
“You make it sound like I’m visiting from some far-off land.”
His light-brown hair looks darker in this room, his eyes brighter. “Upper East Side,” he says.
“Ahhh.” I take a step back and cross my arms over my chest. “That’s about a million dollars from here.”
He winces. “Not necessarily.” On the other side of the bar a few men burst into cheers as a UFC fighter’s arm is broken on live TV.
“You living at the 92nd Street Y, then?” I quip.
“No,” he answers, his smile returning. “I’ve managed to avoid that fate.” He studies me for a moment, trying
to gauge what he’s dealing with. “How ’bout you? You live here in Harlem?”
“Occasionally. I’m a bit of a drifter.” I fiddle with a glass, playing at cleaning it. “So why do you really come here . . . I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”
He gives me a quizzical look. “Considering how coy you’re being about what part of town you live in, I feel like maybe I shouldn’t volunteer my name just yet. That way we both have an air of mystery.”
“Oh, I’m only coy about inconsequential things.” I lean forward, put my elbows on the bar, and cradle my chin in my hands. Ever so slightly I arch my back. “I’m very straightforward about the things I want.”
“Really?” He takes another sip. “And what exactly is it that you want?”
“Tonight?” I pause for a moment, pretending to think. “Tonight I want . . . your name.”
His smile spreads to a grin. “You think you can coax it out of me?”
“Maybe.” Out of the corner of my eye I spot one of the regulars on the other side of the bar waving his empty glass in the air. “When I have the time.”
And I walk away to pour the next drink.
The foreman needing the refill is too drunk to notice that I’m trembling while taking his money.
God, is this working? Am I being too forward? Too much
of a tease? My mother would have chewed me out for behaving like this.
But when I look back, Lander’s still smiling. I exhale in relief. I have to have confidence. I’ve studied this man; some would even call it stalking, although I’m not sure I see the distinction. But the point is, I know what kind of man Lander is. He’s different. Edgy in that upscale kind of way, and he’s rebellious enough to drink in this dive when he could easily afford to knock back cocktails at The Carlyle.
When I return to him I refill his drink without his having to ask. “So I was thinking about this, and before I resort to coaxing I think I’d like to take a stab at guessing.”
“I don’t have the kind of name that’s easy to guess,” he says.
“So it’s not Rumpelstiltskin?”
He laughs and shakes his head. His laugh is deeper than I anticipated, appealingly unrestrained. “I’ll give you a hint,” he finally says. “It’s English and it means ‘lion.’?”
“Close. It also means ‘landowner.’?”
Another well-weathered drinker several feet off has started muttering to himself, adding an odd soundtrack to the scene. He’s minutes away from falling off his stool.
“Landlord,” I say. “Wait, is that a name? How about Leolord, or Lionlord, or maybe Landlion.”
“My name is Lander,” he supplies.
“Lander, the landowning lion.”
He nods in confirmation. “And what’s your name?”
“You were named for your beauty.”
I shake my head, a little harder than necessary. “It’s a nickname. B. E. L. L. No ‘e’ at the end. Like Taco Bell.”
“Like Taco Bell?” he repeats. “Did you just say that?”
“What should I have said? A church bell?”
“No.” He takes his drink and downs more than half of it in a gulp. “But maybe like an alarm bell.”
I giggle at that and shake my head in protest, though I’m secretly flattered.
“Care to tell me your real name?” he asks.
“Guess,” I call over my shoulder as I leave to serve another customer.
I can feel him watching me and I work to make sure my movements are graceful, too graceful for this place. That’s what he should think. I want him to be curious about me.
I need him to want me.
“Keep ’em on their toes,” my mother used to say. “If they don’t know what’s coming next, they’ll keep coming back in hopes of figuring it out.”
I remember that conversation so well, although at the time I pretended not to listen. I had found it distasteful to be advised on men and dating through bulletproof glass.
Looking back on it, I really hope she knew I was listening.
More customers come in: a chick dressed like a prostitute clinging to a guy dressed like a deadbeat, then a dark-skinned man with a scar, and, a few minutes later, a light-skinned guy with a grizzled beard and a bald head. They all glance in Lander’s direction but none of them bother him. It’s like he’s mingling when he shows up here. He doesn’t belong. He’s no better than those tourists on the double-decker buses, gaping at the sights of the city without ever understanding the first thing about the lives of the people who live in it. Does he know that?
The unspoken question helps me. It sharpens my focus and fortifies me for the next step. When I go back I look him in the eye and silently invite him to restart the conversation.
“Bella,” he says, his eyes moving from my hair, to my eyes, to the antique garnet ring I wear on my right hand.
“That would be too easy,” I say.
“Now you’re just pulling names out of your ass.”
He almost spits out his drink as he holds back an ill-timed laugh. When he composes himself, he opens his mouth again to continue but I gently press my finger against his lips. The move is startlingly intimate and he immediately falls silent.
“That’s three strikes,” I say as I pull my hand back. “Looks like you’re not getting to first base tonight.”
He cocks his head. “There’s always tomorrow.”
“That depends on how you perform next time you’re up to bat.”
And again I walk away. I serve the other drinkers, and occasionally I throw him a smile or two, but I don’t go back to talk. Not yet. I have to tease this out.
It’s only when he prepares to leave that I grab his hand. “Do come back another time,” I say, my eyes locked on his. Then, slowly, I remove my hand and bite my lower lip teasingly before adding, “For our prices.”
He answers me with a smile, puts down a ridiculously large tip, and leaves.
He’s back the very next night.
He arrives earlier this time, takes the same seat, and
waits for me to approach. I hold up the whiskey and raise my eyebrows questioningly, waiting for his nod before pouring him a glass.
He throws out a pile of names: Beliva, Bellanca, Benita. The names are foreign to me, unfamiliar, irritating. But I keep my tone teasing and light as I reject them one by one.
The traffic in the bar is also light tonight, but a few distractions manage to pop up. The drunk from the night before is here, the one who almost fell off his stool. This time he’s sitting at a table, with a troubled expression that indicates he’s watching “his” bartender flirt with “the stranger.”
It takes effort, but he manages to get out of his chair and make his way back to the bar. When he puts his empty glass in front of me, he hits the wood of the bar a little too hard so that the placement reads more like a demand than a casual movement. “Empty,” he says, staring at the bottom. On the screen behind me “The Most Interesting Man in the World” opens a Dos Equis as this man before me fishes out six crumpled dollar bills and puts them next to the glass.
I shake my head. “I can’t serve you; you’ve had too much.”
The man shakes his head in return. “I had too much twenty years ago, but the Lord keeps piling shit on.”
“I meant I can’t give you more to drink,” I clarify. “Go home.”
The drunk’s head snaps up at the word home, as if I’ve spoken of some kind of coveted prize, as if I’ve spoken the real name of God. In that moment I know his whole story; the perfunctory telling of it is almost unnecessary. Newly evicted, no family, nothing. The man has no center. I shake my head, whisper useless words of comfort. I recognize his pain, I’ve lived with it before, but I can’t help. I can’t give him a home, or a family. I can’t even give him the final drink that might make him forget.
“You have to go,” I say as gently as I can. “There’s a shelter a few miles from here. Perhaps they can—”
But before I can finish my sentence, Lander slams his hand on the bar, and when he lifts it there’s two hundred dollars there. “For a Best Western,” he says, his voice cool and steady, as if he’s ordering a drink, not a bed. “Find one with a free breakfast.”
The man gapes at the bills before snatching them up and weaving his way out of the bar.
I stare at Lander, who is now occupying himself with his phone. “He won’t get a hotel room,” I finally say.
“He might,” Lander counters. “Not a Best Western, not a hotel that will buy him a moment of human dignity. But he might find a bed, a room, someplace where he can drink the liquor he’s about to buy in private.”
I shake my head, still not getting it.
“I feel sorry for him,” Lander clarifies.
“Because he doesn’t have a family?”
“Because he’s chosen despair over anger,” he says distractedly as he checks his emails. “It’s a bad choice. Despair will kill you. Anger’s more useful.”
I drop my gaze, toy with my garnet ring. Lander’s singing my song . . . my anthem. Again I feel my pulse quicken, just like it did right before our meeting, before I began my game.
I lean into the counter, my hands spread out to either side as if I’m balancing myself. “Are you angry, Lander?”
He looks up from his phone, his expression almost seductive, almost menacing. “Not as angry as you, Bell.”
Immediately I step back. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m—”
“I can hear anger scraping at the underside of every cheery word that comes out of your mouth,” he interrupts. “You’re absolutely draped in anger. And you know what?” He puts a few bills down, more than enough to cover the drink he consumed. “You wear it well.”
My heart pounds in my ears as once again he leaves.
What if he knows?
Dear God, what if he knows I want to destroy him?