He breathes heavily, his muscles constricting underneath my weight. Something deep pulses in me, something bad. His hands stay on the small of my back, on the dip above my ass. And as he licks his lips, watching me peruse his body with eager, wanting eyes, I tap into the sensible part of my brain. I mutter, “Your dad is going to be at the luncheon.”
His face blanches, and he lifts me up onto my feet like I weigh nothing. “We need to go,” he says, leaving the last few buttons undone. He eyes the clock. “Now.” His worry clears most of his hangover, and I hope that it will be gone by the time we reach Villanova.
We’re ten minutes late, but we’re not the only ones.
My father missed his flight from New York back to Philly because his personal pilot had the flu. He had to arrange a new one to fly his private jet. The whole ordeal shouldn’t take long, but my father requires a background check on all his drivers. The new pilot will probably have to prove his competence with at least an hour of test flights. My mother always meets him when he lands, so she’s also MIA from this supposedly important luncheon.
But I’m not complaining. The extra time will help Lo become a bit more responsive. We sit on the patio with a view of a large infinity pool and yellow rose bushes. The mid-morning sun glints against champagne glasses, filled with mimosas. Berries, cheeses, crackers and petite sandwiches systematically line a white-linen tablecloth. Everything stays in its proper place, on tiered platters or doilies.
My stomach gurgles, and thankfully no one waits for our parents to chow down. Jonathan Hale hasn’t arrived either, and he claims he’s caught in traffic, but I have a suspicion he’s waiting in his car, not wanting to be at the luncheon without my father present.
Lo keeps his arm on the back of my chair, settling into the charade. His closeness makes my body tense, and I end up sitting on the edge of my seat, as far away from that hand as I can be. Hopefully my distance is not too obvious. I ache to be touched more sinfully, but I know I shouldn’t at this inappropriate time. And realize I should be near my supposed boyfriend. It’s all so complicated.
“Pass the book over here,” Poppy says, holding out her hand. Like the rest of the Calloway girls, my eldest sister stands out among crowds. A small mole on her upper lip screams Marilyn Monroe sexiness, and her skin looks far more tanned than the rest of ours, like a sun-kissed brunette. When I meet Poppy at malls or outlet stores, she turns heads. Sometimes I do too, but I think it has more to do with my chicken legs—so skinny they could crack like a wishbone. Not attractive, I know, my mother usually reminds me.
Daisy slides her modeling book to Sam, who passes it to his wife. Poppy grins as she flips the pages. “These are gorgeous, Dais.”
The compliment doesn’t faze my youngest sister. She’s too busy munching on tiny sandwiches like she hasn’t eaten in the past month.
“How was fashion week? Meet any cute boys?” I bat my lashes, trying to be funny but probably looking goofy and awkward.
Daisy snorts. “I think Mom ruined any kind of game I could have.” She ties her brown hair into a pony, making her unblemished skin and narrow face look all the more striking.
“Wait? Mom went with you?” I shouldn’t be too surprised. Our mother tagged along to every single ballet rehearsal Rose had, even skipping family meals to watch her practice. She could have easily joined the cast of Dance Moms.
“Uh, yeah,” Daisy says. “I’m fifteen, remember? Hell would freeze over before she let me do fashion week by myself. How did you not know that?”
“I’m kind of out of the loop.”
“That is the understatement of the century,” Rose says.
Poppy smiles. “Don’t be mean, Rose. You’re going to scare Lily off for another two months.” We all know who the nice sister is. Still, I can’t help but love Rose more. Maybe because we’re the closest in age or because she actively tries to be a part of my life. I see her more than I do anyone else.
Rose sips her mimosa with tight lips.
Daisy points an accusing finger at me. “You haven’t been to Sunday luncheon for two months?” She scrutinizes me, as if searching for any visible wounds. “How are you not dead?”
“I ask the same question all the time,” Rose cuts in, “seeing as how I get crucified if I miss one.”
“The perks of dating a Hale,” Poppy says, this time sounding bitter too.
Lo’s fingers tighten on the notch of my chair at the sound of his name.
My throat tightens. Poppy spent years convincing our parents to accept her boyfriend and welcome him into the Calloway brood. Since Sam had barely six figures to his name, my parents feared he wanted Poppy for her inheritance. So my father hired him at Fizzle even though Sam only had a high school diploma and a resume with Dairy Queen as his sole employment. Eventually, my father learned Sam’s benevolent intentions and approved of their marriage. And subsequently my mother did too.
Now a small munchkin with Sam’s dark hair and bright blue eyes runs somewhere around here. Poppy smiles often and has more maternal affection than our own mother, but she won’t ever forget the judgment they cast on Sam or all the hassle, even if their intent was pure.
Her resent ricochets back to me since they swiftly embraced my relationship with Lo.
“If I could change my name I would,” Lo says, the room blanketing with even more uncomfortable tension.
Poppy says, “Which one?” And the mood begins to lighten. The girls laugh at Lo’s expense, but laughter is better than taught muscles and furtive glances. Lo has never been too keen on his full name. One reason why Rose always calls him Loren.
“When did you get so funny, Poppy?” Lo asks, tossing a grape in her lap. I’m surprised he chooses not to banter back with a flower insult, considering my mother named all four of us after a plant. It’s only embarrassing when we’re all together in public, so I can deal.
“Resorting to food fights already, Loren?” Rose interjects. “The luncheon hasn’t even officially begun.”
“Now you know why they don’t care if we bail for months,” he tells her. “Mystery solved.”
“Can I see Daisy’s book?” I ask Poppy.
She hands it to me across the table and it knocks into the stem of my champagne glass. I curse under my breath and jump up before the orange juice stains my dress.
Lo quickly grabs a napkin, standing with me. He rests a hand on my arm and dabs the spill around my chest, thinking nothing of it. I guess no one else would either because we’re together (not really), and my mind has begun a serious free-fall. A server enters with more towels, and I am burning too much to actually move.
“I’m sorry.” Who am I apologizing to? Myself for being clumsy?
“Ohh, Lily is turning into a rose,” Poppy teases.
Rose shoots her a glare at mentioning her name within a slight insult, and I only redden further.
Lo sets the napkin on the table, and whispers in my ear, “Be cool, love. It’s just a little spill.” He smiles in amusement and his breath tickles my skin. I practically ooze into his arms. He kisses me on the lips, so light, that after his mouth has separated from mine, all I can think about are them returning.
The staff zips in and out of the patio, cleaning the mess around us like worker bees.
When everyone settles and I reattach my head to my body, I stiffly sit back down, and flip open Daisy’s book. Lo leans into me to peek at the pictures, his thigh meshing against mine. The photos. Yes. I blink, focusing. In most of them, Daisy stands against a white backdrop without any makeup. Beauty shots, I suppose. I turn another page and my mouth falls.
She’s nak*d! Or nearly nak*d. She stands with five-inch heels and wears a men’s suit jacket. Nothing else. The shot focuses on her long bare legs and the sides of her br**sts. She has slicked-back hair into a tight ponytail, and her makeup makes her look twenty-seven, not fifteen. Daisy’s h*ps bend awkwardly in the pose, the only indication that it’s high fashion and not Penthouse.
Lo whistles a long note, sounding as shocked as I feel.
“What’s wrong?” Daisy asks, careening her head to try and see the photo.
“You’re not wearing anything.” I hold up the book so she can see which photo we’re discussing. She stays perfectly calm, not even embarrassed. “I have underwear on. It’s nude though.”
“Did Mom see this?”
“Yeah, she suggested I try to book mature photo shoots. It’ll increase my value.”
Her value. As though she’s a pig up for auction. “Do you like modeling?”
“It’s fine. I’m good at it.” Okaaay. That is not the answer I wanted to hear, but I’m not her mother. I skip these weekly events for a reason, and attaching myself to situations won’t help me ease out of the Calloway household unseen.
Lo rubs his mouth, finding the right words. “You’re fifteen, Daisy. You shouldn’t be taking off your clothes for cameras.” His fingers brush against my shoulder, and he whispers in my ear, “You didn’t even do that.”
As if I’ve set the sexual standard. I gape and pinch his thigh. He cups my hand, intertwining my fingers in his, and even if I should pull away, I don’t want to.
Rose cuts in, “Don’t big brother her when you can’t even remember her birthday, Loren.”
Lo’s jaw locks, his cheekbones sharpening. He reaches for his mimosa and then grabs my purse, searching the handbag for his thin flask.
My mind goes suddenly blank as the staff starts shuffling inside. I tap Lo on the arm, and he follows my gaze, stiffening to stone.
Our parents have arrived.
* * *
For the past twenty minutes, Lo and I have avoided our parents’ focused attention. My mother fixates on Poppy’s toddler who busted her front tooth last Wednesday on the sidewalk. If I have to hear the words plastic surgeon one more time, I may need four mimosas and an attractive male server.
Jonathan Hale and my father whisper at the head of the table, enjoying their own private conversation. If their isolation bothers my mother, she doesn’t let on. She fingers a string of pearls on her bony collar and listens intently to Poppy.
“How is Penn?”
I jolt at the question, immediately reanimating from my stupor. Since Rose attends Princeton, it’s safe to say my father is speaking to Lo and me.
“Hard, lots of studying,” Lo says briefly. His arm curls around my waist. I’m too nervous to be lusting after him.
“Same,” I murmur. In my family, I’m “the quiet one” so it’s easy to get away with monosyllabic answers.
My mother perks at the start of a new conversation. “Lily, my little pansy, how have you been?”
I grimace, glad she didn’t actually name me Pansy. I can’t believe that was even an option. “Fine.”
“Are you two taking any classes together this semester?” She fingers her champagne glass, red lipstick staining the rim.
“Just one. Managerial Economics and Game Theory.” As Business Majors, Lo and I are bound to share some classes, but we try to sparse those as much as possible. There is such a thing as too much Loren Hale.