“Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something clever.”
Am I . . . drunk?
Returning my half-drained glass to the table without taking another sip, I removed my attention from the six-foot-four, two-sixty, brown-haired, brown-eyed white man at the bar (conceal carrying beneath his ill-cut black suit) and squinted at the bottle of wine sitting at my one o’clock.
The bottle drifted to the left without actually moving and the room gave a slight spin.
“Ugh.” Dropping my gaze and blinking rapidly, I tried again with the knife and spoon next to my empty dinner plate. They also drifted without moving. I winced. Light chatter and the delicate clinking of utensils connecting with dishes faded as I worked to correct my swimming vision.
No use. I’m drunk.
The bottle of wine was still two-thirds full. A waiter had uncorked it in front of me approximately twenty-five minutes ago while offering assurances that “my date” would be here within a half hour. The mystery man—known to me only as Mr. Black—had apparently called the restaurant and sent the bottle as an apology for his tardiness. I was told he hoped “his date” would consider staying until he arrived.
Just so y’all know, I wasn’t Mr. Black’s date. I was a decoy date, doing a favor for my good friend Ryaine O’Rourke and posing as her body double one last time. I didn’t mind. She’d wasted enough of her life and nursed too many broken hearts thanks to Hollywood stud duds. But given my sudden and surprising state of inebriation at present, completing this evening’s mission seemed doubtful.
I sighed, slurring to no one in particular, “Well, that’s just fine and dandy.” I’d washed and fixed my hair for this, and the dress had been steam pressed for the occasion. What a waste.
Originally, I hadn’t planned on drinking any of the apology wine, but sitting in this here restaurant, in this here booth, on this here numb backside of mine all by myself was just as exciting as a mashed potato sandwich with a saltine salad. Before I’d touched the wine, I’d spent ten minutes staring at the uncorked bottle. And that’s not to mention the hour I’d already waited for Ryaine’s blind date. After all that waiting, I could see no harm in having a glass.
To be clear, her date was not an hour and twenty-five minutes late. He was only twenty-five minutes late. I’d been an hour early. I’m that person who always arrives in advance everywhere and every time and for everything. The more anxious I felt about a situation, the earlier I arrived. I needed to scope out the exits, the layout of the furniture, the flow of foot traffic, proximity to hospitals and fire stations, how close to maximum occupancy the establishment operated, etc.
Consider it an occupational hazard, even though I wasn’t necessarily here tonight in a professional capacity. I no longer worked for Ryaine as of two weeks ago and sh
e wasn’t paying me to do a background check or pull together a dossier on this guy. She’d asked—pleaded, actually—and I’d accepted. I loved and cared about her. Which, ultimately, was how I’d talked myself into drinking the free apology wine.
How was it possible to be more than tipsy but less than drunk on a mere one and a half glasses of wine? Maybe it’s the antihistamines?
Screwing up my face, I plucked my clutch from the booth at my side and dug around for the prescription paperwork provided by the pharmacist this afternoon. I unfolded it, trying to remember if I’d ever had alcohol and taken Benadryl before. Maybe that one time at that barbeque where I’d helped move that beehive? Yep. I’d had two beers, three stings, one oral tablet, and had felt perfectly fine.
Ignoring the man I’d been eavesdropping on sitting at the table to my right and his alarming overuse of the word groovy—chin-length gray hair, salt-and-pepper beard, white skin, five-foot-eight, one hundred fifteen pounds soaking wet, I reckoned—I used every ounce of my brainpower to focus on the printed information sheet.
“Possible serious, fatal interactions: MAO inhibitors . . .” Reading out loud but at a whisper, I went through the full list of interactions—potentially fatal to mildly problematic—squint-blinking at intervals. I ended up reading it six times before I found alcohol buried in there between opioid pain relievers and marijuana. “Well. There you go.”
Swallowing around the odd, heavy feel of my tongue, I took a deep breath, methodically refolded the info sheet, and tucked it back in my purse. Alcohol had been listed under what to avoid, so I didn’t think I needed to go to the hospital. Steadying myself, I reached for my water and drank half the glass. Maybe I could just go home and sleep it off.
“Mademoiselle, would you like the cocktail menu?” The waiter from before had suddenly reappeared and spoke from my left. This was a good thing since I’d need his help moving the table.
I’d had two options upon my arrival: claim the chair facing the booth, which would place my back to the room, or opt for the booth side, which necessitated that the t
ble be pulled out before I could sit and then be pushed back in once I was settled. I’d chosen the booth, obviously. At five-foot-two, I had squeezed myself into and out of many tight spaces. But I wasn’t sitting with my back to a room. Ever.
“No, thank you.” Not trusting myself to roll a turnip let alone move a table covered in plates and glasses and an uncorked bottle of free wine, I gestured to myself and the booth. “Could you help me move the table, please? I’m afraid I must skedaddle—I mean, I must depart.”
“B—but mademoiselle.” The waiter seemed agitated, so I squinted at him. And what do you know, he looked just as agitated as he sounded. “You cannot leave. Your Mr. Black arrived a few minutes ago. He’s just there with Ana Ortega and Tom Low, as you see. But he finds himself entrenched, which I’m sure is understandable given . . .”
Tom Low? Ana Ortega? Those were some serious hard-hitters, the types of high-profile Hollywood A-listers I hoped the studio would assign to me as clients when I reported to my new job tomorrow. I’d already received a packet on my first assignment detailing my cover story, travel expectations, and so forth. But the only identifying details on the client had been the person’s height, weight, and age: six-foot-one, one hundred eighty-five pounds, twenty-nine.
Shifting my squint to the front of the restaurant—a chic yet bottlenecky design that didn’t allow for proper traffic flow and was a blatant fire hazard—I spotted a few bodies making a fuss at the entrance, giving each other air-kisses. Sure enough, Tom Low, Ana Ortega, and a cluster of fancy-looking folks plugged the walkway by the maître d' stand.
One man with his back to me seemed to be at the center of the fawning tsunami. Other than taking note of Tom Low and Ana Ortega, I skipped over the rest without categorizing them by physical attributes, as I always do. My drunken vision wouldn’t allow it and it didn’t matter. I needed to leave.
Plus, really! If this Mr. Black guy Ryaine’s agent set her up with had arrived a few minutes ago, why was he over there giving air-kisses and not over here meeting t
he date he’d left waiting for almost a half hour? And didn’t that just tell me everything I needed to know. Ryaine didn’t need another attention-hungry sycophant for a boyfriend, she’d dated enough of those already.
“Is there a back door?” I asked, trying to gently shift the table forward, not waiting for him to help because chaotic, possibly nonsensical thoughts were now flitting through my head like, What if the studio assigned me to Ana Ortega or Tom Low or one of the other movie stars by the maître d’ stand or in this restaurant? I didn’t want to be seen drunk the night before my first official day at the studio. Nor did I want folks thinking I was Ryaine, she didn’t need any more party-girl press.
“Mademoiselle. Please.” The waiter made a huffing noise and gripped the table. The wine bottle rocked back and forth. He grabbed it at the neck. “Please. Just give Mr. Mal—Mr. Black time. I do not think you will regret it.”
I let my hands drop from the table and gazed up at the waiter. Even through the lens of my intoxication, the man’s anxiety seemed out of place, which made me suspicious.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but why do you care whether I stay or go?” I sat back and crossed my arms. “You have a line of people out the door wanting to eat here.” I’d passed the line on my way in. I’d never heard of this place before, but apparently it was very popular.
The waiter seemed to sigh through gritted teeth. “Listen. I want to meet him, okay?” His faux French accent suddenly dropped, becoming generic American.
“You want to meet my date?”
“Yeah. I have a script I want him to read.” His eyes flickered away and then back to me. He leaned forward. “This could be my big chance. Are you two . . .” The waiter’s gaze searched mine, seemed a little desperate. “He said it was a blind date on the phone when he called about the wine. You’ve never met him before? Do you think you could help me?”
I stared at the not-French waiter, having trouble keeping up with my sluggish thoughts, but maybe I
got the gist of this guy’s intentions? He wanted to give a script to my blind date and couldn’t do that if I up and left, and he wanted me to help him.
I huffed. The audacity.
Speaking and thinking at the same time, I shook my head. “This town is absolutely crazy.”
The waiter flinched, blinking, and straightened away.
“No. Y’all are nuts. Seriously.” I let my elbow hit the table and leaned forward. “I’ve been here for three months and every time I go out with Ryaine, she can’t go anywhere without someone asking her for a favor.”
“Ryaine? Ryaine who? Ryaine O’Rourke?” He seemed to rock back on his heels. “Wait. Are you . . . are you her?”
“I am not her, and I wouldn’t want to be her. Folks she doesn’t even know approach that poor woman on the street asking for things. Like you and Mr. Black. You don’t know him, and look at you”—I gestured to my waiter with a sweep of my hand—“over here plotting to ask the unsuspecting guy a favor on a blind date.” Unthinkingly, I picked up my wineglass again. “Shame on you. Don’t you think he’s a little nervous?”
“Yeah. Nervous. It’s a blind date, isn’t it? Folks get nervous on blind dates where I’m from.”
The waiter squinted at me. “Where’s that? Alabama?”
“Texas. So, what? Y’all don’t get nervous here?” I curled my lip. “Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me if y’all don’t get nervous on blind dates. This place is like Wonderland. Up is down, down is up, and the Walrus and the Carpenter are looking for oysters.”
His mouth opened and closed, but then he turned his attention from me, something or someone at the periphery of my table cast a shadow over my dinner plate and drew his notice.
I went to take a sip of the wine but then remembered myself just as a deep voice coming from the direction of the shadow said, “Ms. White?”
Feeling bleary-eyed and suddenly tired, I glanced up. Forced to do a double take, because I did not
trust my vision, the double take yielded the same result as the first haphazard glance. I sucked in a startled breath. I stared at the man, dumbfounded.
Cyrus Malcom. Well, I’ll be . . .
I hadn’t seen Cyrus since he’d briefly dated my stepsister during their senior year of high school. And now here he was, looking taller and broader and so ridiculously attractive to my bibulous gaze, the man looked fake.
Maybe it’s because I’m drunk? No one looks this good in person.
“Cyrus? What are you doing here?” I croaked, setting my wine down and gaping openly at his sudden presence.
Green eyes the color of emeralds flickered over me, the side of his alluring mouth shaped in his signature curvy smirk, which was framed by dark stubble, the hint of a beard that was too artful and maintained to be a mere five-o’clock shadow.
“Excellent. I see my reputation precedes me,” he drawled, his deep, velvety, haughty voice sending a shiver down my spine.
I blinked at him, my confusion persisting. What was Cyrus doing in Los Ang—He’s a movie star now, dummy.
Ooooooh. That’s right. I’d forgotten.
I wasn’t a big fan of comic book film adaptations, they all seemed the same to me—backstory, training montage, bad guy, someone dies, big fight, another montage, another big fight, an emotional reveal, a super big fight where you wonder briefly if the hero will win, hero wins, a happy ending—and so I generally skipped them. But I was aware that Cyrus Malcom had landed the titular role in one of the biggest comic book franchises a few years ago, jettisoning him from virtual nobody pretty boy to overnight movie star.
But that’s not how I thought of him. I thought of him as the first son to the hoity-toity old money society family in my hometown, ex-boyfriend of my stepsister, and dichotomously both a supercilious snob and a huge flirt.
He wouldn’t know or remember me unless I drew him a chart, I felt certain of that. I’d been twelv
e when he’d dated my eighteen-year-old stepsister, and I think we only met two or three times in that capacity. I’d been too young to be on his radar.
But here he was, standing at the corner of my table, his gem-like eyes glittering from beneath thick, black, perfectly sculpted eyebrows; equally thick dark hair cut short on the sides, much longer on top, and coiffed to perfection; the sharp angles of his square jaw and the little cleft to his chin would’ve given him an air of old Hollywood if not for the stubble adorning both.
“Monsieur Black,” someone said in a French accent, tugging my attention to the left. The waiter was still there, greedy little eyes focused on Cyrus as he gestured to the chair facing me. “Please. Allow me to bring you the menu.”
Dumbly, though not quite as dizzily inebriated or tired as before, I watched Cyrus Malcom claim the seat across from me, his back to the room, his eyes never seeming to leave my face as he nodded politely in the direction of the waiter. “Yes, please. Thank you,” he said smoothly, something about his cadence striking me as elegant.
Unlike me and most folks in our hometown, Cyrus had never possessed a southern accent. He and his brother, Titus, had been sent off to a boarding school in some European country for several years during elementary school. They’d both returned with a blend of intonations that reminded me of tea and crumpets and cashmere sweaters and gold pocket watches on chains and other fancy shit.
“Thank you for staying.” His hand slid down the front of his suit jacket and tie. Making no attempt to hide his inspection of me, the smirky smile loitered around his full lips. “Was the wine to your liking?”
“I—It was good, yes.” I gave my head a little shake. This was so surreal. Cyrus Malcom is Ryaine’s blind date . . .
What a small world.
Thank goodness I’d volunteered to come in her stead. She would’ve been half in love already. Ryaine was infamous in our college friend group for falling hard and fast in love at first sight. Cyrus had been awkward in his early teen years, a late bloomer who’d looked younger than his pe
ers until sixteen or so. He’d returned to town after the summer of his junior year having pole-vaulted over the hump of puberty.
Cyrus had been super handsome at seventeen. But now he’d grown so attractive, the man was borderline addictive to look at. Good thing I didn’t have an addictive personality.
Giving my head another shake, I closed my eyes to block out the radiance of his physical exterior and attempted to find the words I’d planned to say before mixing prescription antihistamines with alcohol.
“I’m, uh, I’m not who you think I am.” Blinking to focus as I opened my eyes, I was careful to keep my attention on the candle flickering in the center of the table.
“I know who you are. You’re Ryaine O’Rourke.”
My eyes cut to his. “John told you who you were meeting?” John was Ryaine’s agent.
Cyrus’s lips curved further, revealing a dimple in his scruff, and I stared at it, startled. A dimple? When had he developed a dimple? Had he surgically added it?
“But I must say”—his forehead furrowed a little, a quizzical look—“you look different in person. And your accent . . . I thought you were raised in Massachusetts?”
The room gave a slight spin and I breathed in and out. “John didn’t tell Ryaine your name.” I needed to go.
“What did he tell you?”
“He told Ryaine you’d be called Mr. Black, but s-said it was a psydo—a pyso—you know.” I closed my eyes and gripped my forehead. I couldn’t think when I was looking at his ridiculously perfect face. Focus.
“Why are you referring to yourself in the third person?” His question sounded hesitantly amused.
I snapped my fingers belatedly. “Whatever it’s called. Move the table. I’m stuck back here.”
Cyrus made no move to help with the table and so I glanced at him again.
Wide eyes stared back at me, rapidly filling with incredulity. "Wait. Are you...are you drunk?"