THE NIGHT IT ALL began to change for me was no different than most. I spent it in the usual fashion, seducing another woman’s husband. The seduction took place at LOOK, an art gallery in
. Close enough to Jersey City, New Jersey to carry some of the same sounds and smells, but a touch less frenetic. The art gallery immediately drew me in with brick walls painted chocolate, gypsum plaster walls painted a light cream, and a hint of cinnamon and vanilla in the air. Muted lighting, low key. I almost didn’t feel the usual pangs of guilt for what I was about to do. New York
I spotted Beverly Marie Kingston’s husband by a painting that took up most of a cream-colored wall. Age forty-five, but he looked a decade younger, the benefits of three days each week at an LA Fitness. He was cloaked in black slacks and an attention-seeking lime green shirt. Expensive leather shoes, Piaget timepiece, a diamond-encrusted platinum bracelet on his right wrist. He sipped at a glass of ginger ale, my favorite soft drink as it turns out, letting his shirt sleeve snake up his arm with each sip so all of the attractive ladies in attendance could catch the gleam of his jewelry and put two and two together: wealthy and content spending that wealth on a variety of gaudy and unnecessary items. What many women foolishly considered a good catch.
I headed his way.
When I eased into his personal space he glanced at me briefly but casually went back to admiring the art. There’d been a slight hitch in the gesture, though, and so I knew he was in play. I lingered there beside him, like too much perfume, before moving on. But even after I’d stepped away I wasn’t completely gone from his imagination. His mind was fixated, I’m certain, on the beautiful stranger in the form-fitting, red dress and three-inch heels. That quickly I’d become the muse in all of his fantasies. That quickly I had his nose wide open. I had experience with his type, so I knew this as fact.
I found my way to an admittedly eye-catching sculpture and stopped there contemplating love at first sight. As I expected, Beverly Marie’s husband sidled up next to me a moment later with his lies carefully thought out. A sip of ginger ale made his sleeve slip back once again.
I ignored him and the platinum bracelet on his wrist.
“Natalia truly outdid herself this time,” he said.
I didn’t respond, but lingered long enough to further infiltrate his thoughts. Then I left him standing there and moved toward another sculpture.
“Excuse me, miss?” he called out for me in a deep baritone. A radio voice.
I kept moving, putting plenty of sway in my hips.
“Miss?” he called again.
I took that perfect moment to go ahead and turn back. Everything I did was calculated.
I eyed him, but still offered no words, just stood there smoking him over. His skin was a shade darker than nut brown. Hair cut close and absent of any visible gray; his face clean-shaven, free of razor bumps. Much taller than what I’d prepared for. About six-two. Wide-shouldered with strong hands that belonged wrapped around a woman’s waist. Beverly Marie’s preferably.
“I didn’t mean to alarm you,” he said.
“You didn’t,” I replied.
“But you walked off.”
The first hint of his arrogance. It was beyond the realm of possibility, in his mind, for any woman to walk away once he’d spoken.
“I don’t know a Natalia,” I explained.
Under different circumstances I wouldn’t have explained myself. I’d have walked away for the second time. But I couldn’t do any of that with Beverly Marie Kingston’s husband. That bothered me, my lack of say in the matter.
“Hovhannisyan,” he said, and, no doubt noticing the furrowing of my brows added, “She was born in
Yerevan, the . Fascinating woman. She has some stories to tell.” He smiled as if he expected me to be impressed by the people he knew and their depth. Republic of Armenia
I said, “And?”
The smile was nudged aside by a frown. “Natalia’s the director of the gallery.”
I simply nodded and resumed my assessment of the sculpture before me.
“Ceramic and bronze,” he said, undeterred by my dismissal. “By exploring figurative and narrative subjects, the sculptor raises questions about the human condition with impacts form rather than confinement to realism. It’s without question a thing of beauty. As lovely as art gets.”
I wanted to concur. His analysis sounded intelligent and at least as well thought out as his lies to come. If I had a stomach for art I would’ve been impressed. Intelligence turned me on.
“A perfect blend of objective reality with mythology and flights of fancy,” he added, to keep the conversation flowing. “Wouldn’t you say?”
I started to say, “Yeah, all of that,” but I heard myself reply, “Comic surrealism at its finest.”
I’d done my homework.
“Yes. Exactly.” He turned to me. Something as pretty as a flower bloomed in his eyes.
I prepared myself to move on once again.
He quickly asked, “You’re here alone?”
I turned back yet again. “Sure am. And that’s just how I prefer it.”
“That’s a troubling worldview from someone so beautiful.”
“Who said that was my entire worldview?”
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“And why should I tell you?”
“I asked nicely.”
“So did Ted Bundy, I’m sure.”
I sighed as a show of exasperation. “I have to know about more than just art,” I told Beverly Marie Kingston’s husband. “The world is full of evil, and I have to be aware of that.”
“I’m not evil,” he said.
“So you say.”
“I’d just like to have a name to attach to your pretty face.” He raised both arms in surrender. Ginger ale splashed his wrist and forearm but he didn’t seem to notice. “Pardon me.”
I had to know the correct steps for this dance. I’d pushed it as far as I could. Time to waltz some more.
“Vicki,” I said. I’d stopped giving out false names because I would oftentimes forget the name I’d originally given. My employer wasn’t too happy with that decision, believing it exposed me to unnecessary danger, but my charms won out. It was too taxing on my brain to remember the details of a fake name. In my line of work awkward recoveries were anathema.
“Vicki,” Beverly Marie’s husband said, tasting it on his tongue. “I like that. Very sexy.”
I smirked. “Come on now. You’re definitely reaching. There’s nothing particularly sexy about my name.”
“Maybe it’s your carriage, then,” he said, smiling, his teeth straight and as near to white as teeth could be.
“Can I tell you something, Vicki?”
I tsked. “I see how this works. You don’t answer questions, you just ask them. Controlling are we?”
“Most women appreciate a man willing to control some things,” he said, smiling with mirth.
Things came out sounding like thangs.
He was getting comfortable with me.
I aided and abetted that comfort, sexy-moaned, “Mmm. I can’t argue with you there.”
That caused him to clear his throat and swallow, hard. I did my best to keep a shadow from crossing my face.
“By the way, Vicki, my name is Benjamin Kingsto—” He actually smirked as he caught himself, and cleared his throat. “Benjamin.”
I frowned in displeasure. “Benjamin. And here I was hoping for something sexy to match your…carriage.”
His laugh was a great boom of a thing that had likely broken more than a few women’s hearts. Now that we were deeply engaged in easy conversation not-sexy-named Benjamin had morphed into a natural born lady-killer. He reached forward and took my willing hand. “I’m certain I could make Benjamin and sexy synonymous in your mind, Vicki. Believe that.”
“That a proposition?” I teased. He still held my hand in a warm grip.
“A solid verbal commitment,” he replied.
“Speaking of commitments…” I eased my hand away, finally, and turned his left hand over. I fingered the knuckle of the naked digit on his matrimonial hand. Thought of my own naked digit and smiled.
“That’s right, baby. I’m single and free to mingle,” he said, biting his lip.
He thought my smile was for him. Good.
I continued examining his finger. No mark whatsoever on it. I’d always held some measure of respect for the men with a pale ring of skin where the wedding band should’ve been, or those that moved to stuff their hand in their pocket when I looked in that vicinity. He was neither. I can’t deny holding that against him.
“Okay,” I said. “That’s good to know. I don’t get involved with married men. That’s a deal breaker right there.” I paused and sexed up my tone. “So tell me about yourself, Benjamin.”
“I’m an architect,” he said. “And you?”
I couldn’t help but laugh and shake my head. Brevity is the soul of wit? “Quick on the draw there, Benjamin. I’m not sure I appreciate that. I need a man with some staying power.”
Everything I said had a hint of sex behind it.
“Trying to move beyond the preliminaries so we can get to the good part,” Beverly Marie’s husband replied. “The good part, you’ll relish that, Vicki. Trust me when I tell you.”
“Trust.” I let the foul word dangle in the air.
“The key to all happiness in a relationship,” he had the nerve to tell me.
It took the strength of the God I no longer prayed to, that and a desire to see this situation through completely, to keep me from slapping not-sexy-named Benjamin’s handsome face.
“Where do you live, Benjamin?”
Pause. “All over. I travel a lot.”
“What address is on your income tax return?” I prodded.
He cleared his throat. “
His lies and the ease at which he told them were more impressive than his knowledge of art.
’s nice?” Chicago
“Beautiful city.” His gaze drifted away from me for the first time.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “So how come you don’t have a better half to share that beautiful city with?”
His eyes were on me again, narrowed, looking out over a smirk. “As I said, Vicki, I travel a great deal. That leaves me little time to establish relationships or work on starting a family. Unfortunately.”
That one word, unfortunately, and the disingenuousness of how Benjamin Kingston used it, would be the top soil over his grave of lies. I took then to ease into the million-dollar question.
“I guess you’ve cleared all of my hurdles, Benjamin. You don’t seem like a psycho.”
“I’m passionate but harmless, Vicki.”
“So what do you want to do tonight?” There it was.
“You mean after we leave here?” he asked without hesitation.
“Yes,” I said, nodding.
I was art on the cream-colored gypsum plaster walls, that’s what not-sexy-named Benjamin’s eyes spoke to me. “You’re an out-of-towner or you live nearby here, Vicki?”
“I live close by,” I admitted.
“I won’t disrespect you by asking you to my hotel room. But maybe we could go to your place and do our thing?”
“You think getting me is that easy?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Quite the opposite. But you do look as if you could use some company. I want to be that company. Hopefully I’ve earned a chance to fill your need.”
“I don’t need anything,” I told him.
He wasn’t the only one capable of a lie.
“Everybody needs something, Vicki. Especially companionship and love. There’s no shame in being lonely from time to time.”
“I’ve had my fill of players.”
“Only game I’m interested in right now is Love Connection.”
“Mmm,” I sexy-moaned. “Chuck Woolery. I always loved him.”
“Let me be your Chuck Woolery,” he begged. So deep were his needs and desires he’d probably lie down and bark at the moon and roll over and fetch a rib eye bone if I asked him to.
“So come again,” I said. “Tell me exactly what it is you want from me?”
“You make it sound so selfish, Vicki. It’s not what I want. What I want to give.”
“Altruistic are we? I’m listening, Robin Hood.”
“I’m being serious, Vicki.”
“You’re not being quite clear enough is what you’re being, Benjamin.”
“I want to undress you, sex you, and lay next to you,” he said.
I smiled. “You are from
. Jesse Jackson wants his Mack returned ASAP.” Chicago
“Not nice, Vicki, I was trying to be romantic.”
“That’s right up there with ‘never trust a big butt and a smile.’”
“You can trust me,” he lied.
I asked, “Natalia from the
have a restroom somewhere in here, Benjamin?” Republic of Armenia
“Turn right by the arrangement of lilies you passed when you first walked in.”
His smile belonged to a man without a mortgage and other equally significant commitments. I noticed the perfect crease of his pants, the high shine of his expensive leather shoes. His smile belonged to a man that didn’t have an attentive wife waiting for him at home.
“Let me go freshen up real quick and we can go to my place,” I said.
Not-sexy-named Benjamin’s eyes brightened and I wondered if he’d ever looked at his wife in that manner, and if he had, why he had stopped. Or did he still carry the pretenses of a truly faithful partner? Did he still kiss Beverly Marie in all of her favorite places? Did he in fact create new favorite places from time to time? Was his wife wondering at that very moment if she were losing her mind? Making things up that didn’t exist? Obsessing? Creating fire where there wasn’t even smoke? I myself wondered how a married architect from
Kenilworth, New Jersey became a single architect from who traveled too much to start a family. Unfortunately. Chicago
“Don’t keep me waiting too long,” Benjamin said, breaking my thoughts.
Harmony bleated a song out of my sexy walk, my movement one of poetry. I’d worked on the walk forever. It had to encourage duplicity. I looked over my shoulder, caught Beverly Marie’s husband watching me. He turned away, not quite bashful, gave the sculpture more study.
I slipped past the arrangement of lilies near the front of the gallery, straight through the lobby, and out into the cooling air of the evening. The heat from earlier in the day would return tomorrow. Augusts’ scorching heat is the only faithful thing in this world of liars and cheaters.
I was at my car, keys in hand, when I felt my shoulder jerk back violently.
“What kind of game are you playing, Vicki?”
Not-sexy-named Benjamin lurked over me. There was fire in his eyes but he didn’t let it completely inform his tone. He still held out the hope that I’d be letting my kitty off the leash. He didn’t want to ruin his chances. I peered over his shoulder, scanned the lot. The backup I’d never needed before was somewhere out there waiting at alert in the shadows. Ready to pounce at a moment’s notice if I didn’t smooth my way out of this royal mess.
“What’s going on here, Vicki?” Benjamin asked.
I realized I hadn’t spoken yet. I gathered my wits.
“I started thinking while I was in the ladies’ room, and even though I’m attracted to you, I can’t go through with this. I was just going to slip out and save myself the embarrassment.”
“Bullshit,” he fumed. “I watched you. You didn’t even go in the restroom.”
Cardinal sin number one: giving more information than needed. I’d messed up.
“This one night stand business isn’t for me, Ben.”
He grabbed my wrist so quickly I couldn’t react. “You enjoy playing with people’s emotions?”
I tried to wrestle my hand free, but his grip shackled my wrist like cuffs. He moved in close and pressed me up against my car. An indication of his eagerness to proceed with the evening as planned poked me in the stomach. I said, “You don’t want it like this, Ben. Please. You don’t want to have to take it. You’re much too handsome and debonair and suave for that.”
“Don’t patronize me, bitch.”
I raised my leg with a plan to whittle away his expectancy with my knee, but not-sexy-named Benjamin grabbed my ankle and lifted it. I was close to toppling backward. I didn’t think my head and the pavement could be friends. My heart hammered in my chest because of that.
“Is everything alright here?”
Not-sexy-named Benjamin wheeled around and faced down the masculine voice. It belonged to a man that looked as though he’d jumped out of a Bronco or Jeep advertisement. He was tall enough to look down at Beverly Marie Kingston’s husband. Benjamin made a quick decision. My foot touched down on ground again. “Everything is copasetic,” he said to my savior. He then turned to me and brushed off my clothes, smirked, and quickly stepped away, disappearing into the night. In another hour he’d be shirtless, lounging on the bed in his boxers while Beverly Marie massaged his tired muscles. She’d rub him with everything she had even though her thoughts would be on the revelations, good or bad, to come tomorrow. Women didn’t go halfhearted, even when our broken hearts would be forgiven for a diminished output.
My employer, James Boston, walked over. His long blond locks were tucked inside a turtleneck. I couldn’t understand how he wasn’t burning up in that thing. He considered our investigations rugged work, though, and thought it essential that he was always dressed in the fitting attire. For him, usually a dark turtleneck, black Calvin Klein jeans, a pair of scuffed boots.
“Are you okay, V?”
Dark aviator shades, another part of the ensemble, hid his ocean-colored eyes. But I could still envision the concern in them.
“I blew that one, “I said. “I didn’t notice him coming behind me. I let my guard down.”
“Yes,” James said. “I need to have a talk with you about the self-defense course I sprung for you to take last summer. I’m not sure I got my value. You were more jujubes than jujitsu.”
I neared tears. My emotions of late had been gumbo. Sad, happy, morose, ecstatic.
James placed a comforting hand on my shoulder, squeezed with just the right amount of pressure. “I’m teasing, V. You did just fine, kiddo. You made Mr. Kingston out for the scumbag he really is. Every fact finding expedition isn’t going to go as smoothly as we would like it.”
“Fact finding expedition?” I said, surprised. “I’m an anthropologist now, James?”
“Certainly, V. Why not? I’ve been thinking long and hard about what you could put on your curriculum vitae instead of ‘sexy decoy’. Fidelity anthropologist. Tell me that doesn’t have a nice ring to it.”
“Curriculum vitae,” I said, whistling and ignoring everything else. “It’s just raining intelligent men tonight.”
“Résumé is much too pedestrian for you, V.”
I gestured with my hand. “I feel the love. Keep it coming.”
“You might become conceited,” James said. “I’d hate to plant that ugly flower in you.”
“Not tonight, boss-o. I’m in too good of a mood. Benjamin Kingston notwithstanding.” I couldn’t contain a smile.
“The sight of my handsome face?” James pondered.
I touched the only finger that mattered on my left hand. At that moment it was naked like Benjamin Kingston’s. But not for too much longer, I believed. “I think tonight’s the night. The anticipation is finally over, James. He asked to meet up at a very chi-chi restaurant after work.”
He was the man I expected a proposal from.
James attempted a smile. There seemed to be a thought on his lips, but it stayed there.
“My audio was clear at least?” I asked, back on track.
James nodded. “Mrs. Kingston will be pleased.”
“You think so?”
“At least now she’ll know the truth, V. That’s what we’re after. The truth. She can have peace of mind now.”
“Peace of mind,” I whispered, touching my wrist. It was already a bit tender.
“You sure you’re alright, V?”
I smiled. “Fine. Thanks for covering my butt. I’m getting out of here now.”
“Hershey’s kisses and an engagement. How wonderful.”
“Hersey, not Hershey,” I corrected. “And stop hating on my man. I don’t ever say anything untoward about the great Chloe Tripp. Doyenne of the South Carolina Tripp girls.”
James whistled. “Doyenne? I do believe I’m suitably aroused.”
“Is that so?” I looked down. “I can’t tell.”
His laughter was chicken noodle soup. “The doyenne has no complaints,” he said.
“Wow!” I exclaimed. “You two are actually making love now? Keeping things close to the vest are we nowadays, James? I had no idea. When did Chloe get over her…inhibitions?”
“See if I’ll ever share my less than finer moments with you again, V.”
“You love me, James.”
“You’re the only one that doubts it,” he said.
“Chloe has a birthday coming up doesn’t she?”
“Next Tuesday,” my savior-boss said. “I have some shopping to do.”
“The drop earrings I suggested with the citrines and diamonds, correct?”
“Saving that recommendation for you, kiddo,” he said. “An engagement gift perhaps?”
“Are you now?”
He nodded. “Congratulations are in order. Hershey’s a lucky man.”
“I’ll give him your regards,” I said, chirping my car locks, and easing inside my vehicle.
I wasn’t in my clean but unadorned car of the moment. My mind skipped ahead. “Just Married” was marked on the rear and side windows with white chalk. Empty coffee cans tied to the bumper danced on the pavement. I hiked up my frilly white dress and took off my shoes and reclined the passenger seat and smiled at my new husband and rested my feet on the dashboard.
“I’ll try my best not to object,” James called out. “Ruin your perfect day.”
I blew my savior-boss a kiss as I turned the key in my ignition.
That time James didn’t just attempt a smile, he managed one.
He was still standing there, smiling, as I pulled out of the lot.
The evening had gone horrendously wrong, but I’d made it through it relatively unscathed. If you’d asked me at that moment I would’ve told you I finally realized all of the potential hazards in my line of work. Not-sexy-named Benjamin had opened my eyes wholly.
Yet it would’ve never crossed my mind that I might fall in love with one of the married men, or, even worse still, that one of them would try to kill me. Neither scenario was plausible to this soon-to-be-engaged Fidelity anthropologist.
I’d find out in due time that my eyes weren’t as open as I believed.
That a little more digging would unearth more than I ever expected.