The twinkling party lights woven into the hedges and trees brightened the amber glow of the Chardonnay that was no longer in Jennifer Lamont’s glass. Droplets of wine shimmered in an arc away from her, and in each Jennifer fancied she could see snapshots from the A-list soiree that surrounded her.
In the nearest drop was the face of her ex, cuddling with the new love. The next reflected the art piece up for auction. The ribbon of shimmering wine just leaving the fluted mouth of her glass gleamed with a hundred eyes that had turned from their vivacious conversations toward her crescendoing cry of alarm.
There were at least seventy Beautiful People gathered in the expansive cliffside backyard of some Southern California Internet tycoon, and all of them were eager to talk about women in politics while they showed their support for breast cancer screening and research. All of them were now witnessing La Lamont falling off her five-inch Jimmy Choo heels.
A producer had bought the coveted, high-priced tickets for the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the wealthiest and most famous women in the country. Jennifer had agreed to be arm candy because of the auction of the new Leah Beck painting. Even though it was mid-week and she had a five a.m. makeup call in Los Angeles, she’d passed up sleep and gotten herself A-list dressed in a Michael Kors off-the-shoulder cocktail sheath. When her date—name to be forever cursed—had canceled at the last minute, Jennifer had demanded the address and made the drive to La Jolla on her own.
In the small pool of wine left in her glass, Jennifer thought she saw the white flare of at least one cell phone flash. Then the glass followed the wine arc across the terra cotta patio and she had one final split-second choice: fall hard, fast, and then roll her face away from most of the probable witnesses and cameras, or windmill, flail, and try to stay upright. Which one would make the worst picture on SLY or Buzztastic? Which one would she prefer to explain on talk shows? Which one would look more like she had caught her heel between the flagstones—the truth—and less like she was drunk—the likely headline?
All the while the clay tiles rushed toward her nose and an increasingly urgent part of her brain screamed, “Protect your face!”
She twisted to take the impact on her side, threw her arms around her head.
Later, pictures confirmed that the back of her skull was a scant inch above the tiles. Not that most people looked at that part of the tableau. Instead, all eyes were on the wardrobe malfunction of the year—of two years, more accurately.
To her credit, her rescuer glanced only briefly at Laverne and Shirley in all their glory, then met Jennifer’s panicked gaze. With one eyebrow arched she asked, “You get regularly scheduled mammograms, right?”
Jennifer scarcely heard the laughter from the partygoers near enough to have heard the question. White flashes from cameras didn’t blot out the face of the woman who had caught her.
She knew the sardonic edge, the light blue eyes. She knew the strong arms lifting her. Not again, she thought helplessly. Not again.
Chapter Two: Twenty Years Earlier
Eighteen, nineteen, twenty.
The elevator’s faint ping coincided with the doors easing open to reveal concrete floors, exposed steel beams and tall, broad windows lightly frosted with snow. A red carpet runner led across the foyer to ceiling-high wooden double doors that stood open. Two of the other women in the lift let out a unison “ooh” at the sight of Central Park, and, across the treetops, the roof line of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But nobody moved until Jennifer stepped forward. A show runway or an entrance into a high end society party—Jennifer Lamont walked and people watched her. Picking up the rhythm of a jazzed up “Holly Jolly Christmas” that poured through the doors, she strode along the red runner in a cloud of Shalimar. Her agent said she wasn’t old enough to carry off the cologne, but tonight’s designer hadn’t specified scent or footwear, so she had chosen what she wanted.
Her client’s Stormy Nights line of nightclub dresses and lingerie had led to the indigo hair color that had teens in New York draining salons dry of similar shades. She was pleased that her stunning lion’s mane hairstyle had led to a new nickname. She’d already been Baby Jennifer, Sweetheart Jen, Luscious Lamont. Now she was Hurricane Jennifer and she liked it. She liked it a lot.
Beyond the open doors she could see the chilly glass and steel of a lavish Upper East Side corner loft. Her gait deliberately long, she strode through the open doors, not deviating from her runway strut for another six strides. She paused, quarter-turned, treated the nearest server bearing a tray of champagne flutes to a long look and was pleased when he scurried over to offer one. Flashes popped.
Ninety percent of her job was done.
Her client, whose designs didn’t live up to his ego, was the next to scurry in her direction. She dropped about half of her runway bearing, returned the air-cheek kisses and shifted to become his literal arm candy.
“You look divine!”
“How could I look anything else in your gorgeous clothes, Lucius?” The shadow they cast together in the long, last light of the setting December sun only magnified her height advantage, turning her additional eight inches into several feet.
They sipped champagne and began a circuit of the party. In spite of the bright holiday dresses and scattering of Santa hats on the guests, the room was sterile and cold compared to the old, tiny East Village apartment she lived in. This loft, mostly concrete and steel with an open-plan brushed stainless steel kitchen in the middle, lacked for personality until she saw that an enormous mural replica of Starry Night was painted on the ceiling. The real Van Gogh was one of her favorite paintings to visit at MOMA. The view across Central Park was indeed stunning and Jennifer would have liked to have lingered and picked out more landmarks, but she was being paid to be part of the scenery.
Halfway around the loft, after dozens of air kisses, her repetition of how wonderful it was to be wearing Lucius’s divinely retro princess-cut cocktail dress with lavish rhinestone trim, along with darling lace ankle boots she “just grabbed out of the closet,” was sounding only slightly tired to her own ears.
She was diverted from a tedious Lucius monologue by a server hovering in her line of sight, offering canapés and cheese. He was cute enough—a twenty-something scrubby-shaved New York aspiring actor currently playing the role of waiter. She met his eager gaze, lifted an eyebrow at his outstretched tray and then deliberately looked down at the sewn-to-fit gown that molded her 38-24-32 silhouette.
He gulped and hurried away.
“Well done. Not a clue why he thought you ever ate anything,” someone with a husky voice said in her ear.
“Oh, I eat.” She didn’t bother to turn around. “Every third Tuesday.”
“Aren’t you a little young for the champagne?”
That made her turn.
At five-seven, she was not used to having to look up at other women, especially when she was wearing four-inch heels. But the woman who had spoken to her was still an inch or two taller and a quick glance confirmed she was wearing flat-heeled, square-toed Steve Madden boots below a plain black custom-tailored men’s suit and James-Bond-meets-Devo narrow tie. Light blue eyes stood out against a smooth tan that was the product of time in sunlight, not a salon booth. Sun was also responsible for the slight bleaching at the very tips of the short cropped hair.
She wasn’t going to admit she didn’t like champagne. “A mentor told me that three months in Manhattan equaled a year in the University of Life. I came here a year ago when I was nineteen.”
The light blue eyes lit up. “Oh, a math word problem. You’re flirting with me, aren’t you?”
The smug smile brought out a stiff one of her own as Jennifer answered with, “Do you want me to be?”
The smile deepened. “Anyone with a heartbeat wants you to be.”