Read an Excerpt
THISIS HOW IT starts.
With a joke.
“So, a man walks into a bar,” Jeff began, already chuckling. “He sees another man sitting there, nursing a drink and a glum expression. On the bar in front of him is a bottle of whiskey and a tiny little man, no more than a foot high, playing an equally tiny little piano. ‘What’s going on?’ the first man asks. ‘Have a drink,’ offers the second. The first man grabs the bottle and is about to pour himself a drink when suddenly there is a large puff of smoke and a genie emerges from the bottle. ‘Make a wish,’ the genie instructs him. ‘Anything you desire, you shall have.’ ‘That’s easy,’ the man says. ‘I want ten million bucks.’ The genie nods and disappears in another cloud of smoke. Instantly, the bar is filled with millions and millions of loud, quacking ducks. ‘What the hell is this?’ the man demands angrily. ‘Are you deaf? I said bucks, you idiot. Not ducks.’ He looks imploringly at the man beside him. The man shrugs, nodding sadly toward the tiny piano player on the bar. ‘What? You think I wished for a twelve-inch pianist?’”
A slight pause followed by an explosion of laughter punctuated the joke’s conclusion, the laughter neatly summing up the personalities of the three men relaxing at the crowded bar. Jeff, at thirty-two, the oldest of the three, laughed the loudest. The laugh, like the man himself, was almost too big for the small room, dwarfing the loud rock music emanating from the old-fashioned jukebox near the front door and reverberating across the shiny black marble surface of the long bar, where it threatened to overturn delicate glasses and crack the large, bottle-lined mirror behind it. His friend Tom’s laugh was almost as loud, and although it lacked Jeff’s resonance and easy command, it made up for these shortcomings by lasting longer and containing an assortment of decorative trills. “Good one,” Tom managed to croak out between a succession of dying snorts and chuckles. “That was a good one.”
The third man’s laughter was more restrained, although no less genuine, his admiring smile stretching from the natural, almost girlish, pout of his lips into his large brown eyes. Will had heard the joke before, maybe five years ago, in fact, when he was still a nervous undergraduate at Princeton, but he would never tell that to Jeff. Besides, Jeff had told it better. His brother did most things better than other people, Will was thinking as he signaled Kristin for another round of drinks. Kristin smiled and tossed her long, straight blond hair from one shoulder to the other, the way he’d noted the sun-kissed women of South Beach always seemed to be doing. Will wondered idly if this habit was particular to Miami or endemic to southern climes in general. He didn’t remember the young women of New Jersey tossing their hair with such frequency and authority. But then, maybe he’d just been too busy, or too shy, to notice.
Will watched as Kristin poured Miller draft into three tall glasses and expertly slid them in single file along the bar’s smooth surface, bending forward just enough to let the other men gathered around have a quick peek down her V-neck, leopard-print blouse. They always tipped more when you gave them a flash of flesh, she’d confided the other night, claiming to make as much as three hundred dollars a night in tips. Not bad for a bar as small as the Wild Zone, which comfortably seated only forty people and had room for maybe another thirty at the always busy bar.
YOU HAVE ENTERED THE WILD ZONE, an orange neon sign flashed provocatively above the mirror. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.
The bar’s owner had seen a similar sign along the side of a Florida highway and decided the Wild Zone would be the perfect name for the upscale bar he was planning to open on Ocean Drive. His instincts had proved correct. The Wild Zone had opened its heavy steel doors in October, just in time for Miami’s busy winter season, and it was still going strong eight months later, despite the oppressive heat and the departure of most tourists. Will loved the name, with its accompanying echoes of danger and irresponsibility. It made him feel vaguely reckless just being here. He smiled at his brother, silently thanking him for letting him tag along.
If Jeff saw his brother’s smile, he didn’t acknowledge it. Instead he reached behind him and grabbed his fresh beer. “So what would you clowns wish for if a genie offered to grant you one wish? And it can’t be anything sucky, like world peace or an end to hunger,” he added. “It has to be personal. Selfish.”
“Like wishing for a twelve-inch penis,” Tom said, louder than Will thought necessary. Several of the men standing in their immediate vicinity swiveled in their direction, although they pretended not to be listening.
“Already got one of those,” Jeff said, downing half his beer in one long gulp and smiling at a redhead at the far end of the bar.
“It’s true,” Tom acknowledged with a laugh. “I’ve seen him in the shower.”
“I might ask for a few extra inches for you though,” Jeff said, and Tom laughed again, although not quite so loud. “How about you, little brother? You in need of any magical intervention?”
“I’m doing just fine, thank you.” Despite the frigid air-conditioning, Will was beginning to sweat beneath his blue button-down shirt, and he focused on a large green neon alligator on the far brick wall to keep from blushing.
“Aw, I’m not embarrassing you, am I?” Jeff teased. “Shit, man. The kid’s got a PhD in philosophy from Harvard, and he blushes like a little girl.”
“It’s Princeton,” Will corrected. “And I still haven’t finished my dissertation.” He felt the blush creep from his cheeks toward his forehead and was glad the room was as dimly lit as it was. I should have finished that stupid dissertation by now, he was thinking.
“Knock it off, Jeff,” Kristin advised him from behind the bar. “Don’t pay any attention to him, Will. He’s just being his usual obnoxious self.”
“You trying to tell me that size doesn’t matter?” Jeff asked.
“I’m telling you that penises are way overrated,” Kristin answered.
A nearby woman laughed. “Ain’t that the truth,” she said into her glass.
“Well, you ought to know,” Jeff said to Kristin. “Hey, Will. Did I tell you about the time Kristin and I had a three-way?”
Will looked away, his eyes skirting the dark oak planks of the floor and sweeping across the far wall without focusing, eventually settling on a large color photograph of a lion attacking a gazelle. He’d never been comfortable with the sort of sex-charged banter Jeff and his friends seemed to excel at. He had to try harder to fit in, he decided. He had to relax. Wasn’t that the reason he’d come to South Beach in the first place—to get away from the stress of academic life, to get out in the real world, to reconnect with the older brother he hadn’t seen in years? “Don’t think you ever mentioned it,” he said, forcing a laugh from his throat and wishing he didn’t feel as titillated as he did.
“She was a real looker, wasn’t she, Krissie?” Jeff asked. “What was her name again? Do you remember?”
“I think it was Heather,” Kristin answered easily, hands on the sides of her short, tight black skirt. If she was embarrassed, she gave no sign of it. “You ready for another beer?”
“I’ll take whatever you’re willing to dish out.”
Kristin smiled, a knowing little half grin that played with the corners of her bow-shaped mouth, and tossed her hair from her right shoulder to her left. “Another round of Miller draft coming right up.”
“That’s my girl.” Once again Jeff’s muscular laugh filled the room.
A young woman pushed her way through the men and women standing three-deep at the bar. She was in her late twenties, of average height, a little on the thin side, with shoulder-length dark hair that fell across her face, making it difficult to discern her features. She wore black pants and an expensive-looking white shirt. Will thought it was probably silk. “Can I get a pomegranate martini?”
“Coming right up,” Kristin said.
“Take your time.” The young woman tucked a strand of hair behind her left ear, revealing a delicate pearl earring and a profile that was soft and pleasing. “I’m sitting over there.” She pointed toward an empty table in the corner, underneath a watercolor of a herd of charging elephants.
“What the hell’s a pomegranate martini?” Tom asked.
“Sounds revolting,” Jeff said.
“They’re actually quite good.” Kristin removed Jeff’s empty beer glass and replaced it with a full one.
“That so? Okay, then, let’s give ’em a try.” Jeff made a circle in the air with his fingers, indicating his request included Tom and Will. “Ten bucks each to whoever finishes his pomegranate martini first. No gagging allowed.”
“You’re on,” Tom agreed quickly.
“You’re crazy,” Will said.
In response, Jeff slapped a ten-dollar bill on the bar. It was joined seconds later by a matching one from Tom. Both men turned expectantly toward Will.
“Fine,” he said, reaching into the side pocket of his gray slacks and extricating a couple of fives.
Kristin watched them out of the corner of her eye as she carried the pomegranate martini to the woman sitting at the small table in the far corner. Of the three men, Jeff, dressed from head to toe in his signature black, was easily the best looking, with his finely honed features and wavy blond hair, hair she suspected he secretly highlighted, although she’d never ask. Jeff had a quick temper, and you never knew what was going to set him off. Unlike Tom, she thought, shifting her gaze to the skinny, dark-haired man wearing blue jeans and a checkered shirt who stood to Jeff’s immediate right. Everything set him off. Six feet, two inches of barely contained fury, she thought, wondering how his wife stood it. “It’s Afghanistan,” Lainey had confided just the other week, as Jeff was regaling the bar’s patrons with the story of how Tom, enraged by an umpire’s bad call, had pulled a gun from the waistband of his jeans and put a bullet through his brand-new plasma TV, a TV he couldn’t afford and still hadn’t fully paid for. “Ever since he got back . . .,” she’d whispered under the waves of laughter that accompanied the story, leaving the thought unfinished. It didn’t seem to matter that Tom had been home for the better part of five years.
Jeff and Tom had been best friends since high school, the two men enlisting in the army together, serving several tours of duty in Afghanistan. Jeff had come home a hero; Tom had come back disgraced, having been dishonorably discharged for an unprovoked assault on an innocent civilian. That was all she really knew about their time over there, Kristin realized. Neither Jeff nor Tom would talk about it.
She deposited the rose-pink martini on the round wooden table in front of the dark-haired young woman, casually studying her flawless, if pale, complexion. Was that a bruise on her chin?
The woman handed her a rumpled twenty-dollar bill. “Keep the change,” she said quietly, turning away before Kristin could thank her.
Kristin quickly pocketed the money and returned to the bar, the ankle straps of her high-heeled silver sandals chafing against her bare skin. The men were now placing bets on who could balance a peanut on his nose the longest. Tom should win that one, hands down, she thought. His nose boasted a natural ridge at its tip that the others lacked. Jeff’s nose was narrow and straight, as handsomely chiseled as the rest of him, while Will’s was wider and slightly crooked, which only added to his air of wounded vulnerability. Why so wounded? she wondered, deciding he probably took after his mother.
Jeff, on the other hand, looked exactly like his father. She knew that because she’d stumbled across an old photograph of the two of them when she was cleaning out a bedroom drawer, just after she’d moved in, about a year ago. “Who’s this?” she’d asked, hearing Jeff come up behind her and pointing at the picture of a rugged-looking man with wavy hair and a cocky grin, his large forearm resting heavily on the shoulder of a solemn-faced young boy.
Jeff had snatched it from her hand and returned it to the drawer. “What are you doing?”
“Just trying to make room for some of my things,” she’d said, purposely ignoring the tone in his voice that warned her to back off. “Is that you and your dad?”
“Thought so. You look just like him.”
“That’s what my mother always said.” With that, he’d slammed the drawer closed and left the room.
“Ha, ha—I win!” shouted Tom now, raising his fist in the air in triumph as the peanut Jeff had been balancing on his nose dribbled past his mouth and chin and dropped to the floor.
“Hey, Kristin,” Jeff said, his voice just tight enough to reveal how much he hated losing, even at something as insignificant as this. “What’s happening with those grenade martinis?”
“Pomegranate,” Will corrected, then immediately wished he hadn’t. A bolt of anger, like lightning, flashed through Jeff’s eyes.
“What the hell is a pomegranate anyway?” Tom asked.
“It’s a red fruit, hard shell, tons of seeds, lots of antioxidants,” Kristin answered. “Supposedly very good for you.” She deposited the first of the pale rose-colored martinis on the bar in front of them.
Jeff lifted the glass to his nose and sniffed at it suspiciously.
“What’s an antioxidant?” Tom asked Will.
“Why are you asking him?” Jeff snapped. “He’s a philosopher, not a scientist.”
“Enjoy,” Kristin said, placing the other two martinis on the counter.
Jeff held up his glass, waited for Tom and Will to do the same. “To the winner,” he said. All three men promptly threw back their heads, gulping at the liquid as if gasping for air.
“Done,” Jeff whooped, lowering his glass to the bar in triumph.
“Christ, that’s awful stuff,” said Tom with a grimace half a second later. “How do people drink this shit?”
“What’d you think, little brother?” Jeff asked as Will swallowed the last of his drink.
“Not half-bad,” Will said. He liked it when Jeff referred to him as his little brother, even though, strictly speaking, they were only half brothers. Same father, different mothers.
“Not half-good either,” Jeff was saying now, with a wink at no one in particular.
“She seems to be enjoying it.” Tom nodded toward the brunette in the corner.
“Makes you wonder what else she enjoys,” Jeff said.
Will found himself staring at the woman’s sad eyes. He knew they were sad, even from this distance and in this light, because of the way she was leaning her head against the wall and looking off into space, her gaze aimless and unfocused. He realized that she was prettier than he’d first suspected, albeit in a conventional sort of way. Not strikingly beautiful like Kristin, with her emerald green eyes, a model’s high cheekbones, and voluptuous figure. No, this woman’s looks tilted more toward the ordinary. Pretty, for sure, but lacking sharpness. Her eyes were her only truly distinguishing feature. They were big and dark, probably a deep-water blue. She looks as if she has profound thoughts, Will was thinking as he watched a man approach her, experiencing an unexpected wave of relief when he saw her shake her head and turn him away. “What do you think her story is?” he heard himself ask out loud.
“Maybe she’s the jilted lover of a British prince,” posited Jeff, downing what was left of his beer. “Or maybe she’s a Russian spy.”
Tom laughed. “Or maybe she’s just a bored housewife looking for a little action on the side. Why? You interested?”
Was he? Will wondered. It had been a long time since he’d had any kind of girlfriend. Since Amy, he thought, shuddering at the memory of the way that had turned out. “Just curious,” he heard himself say.
“Hey, Krissie,” Jeff called out, leaning his elbows on the bar and beckoning Kristin toward him. “What can you tell me about the pomegranate lady?” He pointed with his square jaw toward the table in the corner.
“Not much. First time I saw her was a few days ago. She comes in, sits in the corner, orders pomegranate martinis, tips very well.”
“Is she always alone?”
“Never noticed anyone with her. Why?”
Jeff shrugged playfully. “I was thinking maybe the three of us could get better acquainted. What do you say?”
Will found himself holding his breath.
“Sorry,” he heard Kristin answer, and only then was he able to release the tight ball of air trapped in his lungs. “She’s not really my type. But, hey, you go for it.”
Jeff smiled, exposing the two glistening rows of perfect teeth that not even the dust of Afghanistan had been able to dull. “Is it any wonder I love this girl?” he asked his companions, both of whom nodded in wonderment, Tom wishing Lainey could be more like Kristin in that regard—hell, in every regard, if he was being honest—and Will pondering, not for the first time since his arrival ten days earlier, what was really going on in Kristin’s head.
Not to mention his own.
Maybe Kristin was simply wise beyond her years, accepting Jeff for who he was, without trying to change him or pretend things were otherwise. Clearly, they had an arrangement they were comfortable with, even if he wasn’t.
“I have an idea,” Jeff was saying. “Let’s have a bet.”
“On what?” Tom asked.
“On who can be the first to get into Miss Pomegranate’s panties.”
“What?” Tom’s guffaw shook the room.
“What are you talking about?” asked Will impatiently.
“A hundred bucks,” Jeff said, laying two fifties on the countertop.
“What are you talking about?” Will asked again.
“It’s simple. There’s an attractive young woman sitting all by herself in the corner, just waiting for Prince Charming to hit on her.”
“I think that might be a contradiction in terms,” Kristin said.
“Maybe all she wants is to be left alone,” Will offered.
“What woman comes to a place like the Wild Zone by herself hoping to be left alone?”
Will had to admit Jeff’s question made sense.
“So, we go over there, we chat her up, we see which one of us she lets take her home. A hundred bucks says it’s me.”
“You’re on.” Tom fished inside his pocket, eventually coming up with two twenties and a pile of ones. “I’m good for the rest,” he said sheepishly.
“Speaking of home,” Kristin interrupted, looking directly at Tom, “shouldn’t you be heading back there? You don’t want a repeat of last time, do you?”
In truth, Kristin was the one who didn’t want a repeat of last time. Lainey was as formidable a force as her husband when she was angry, and she wasn’t too proud to wake up half the city when it came to ferreting out her errant husband’s whereabouts.
“Lainey’s got nothing to worry about tonight,” Jeff said confidently. “Miss Pomegranate’s not going to be interested in his bony ass.” He turned toward Will. “You in?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Oh, come on. Don’t be a spoilsport. What’s the matter? Afraid you’ll lose?”
Will glanced back at the woman, who was still staring off into space, although he noticed she’d finished her drink. Why hadn’t he just told his brother he was interested? Was he interested? And was Jeff right? Was he afraid of losing? “Do you accept credit cards?”
Jeff laughed and slapped him on the shoulder. “Spoken like a true Rydell. Daddy would be very proud.”
“How are we going to do this exactly?” Tom asked, bristling at all this newfound brotherly camaraderie. During the almost two decades he and Jeff had been friends, Will had been nothing but a thorn in his brother’s side. He wasn’t even a real brother, for shit’s sake, just a half brother who was as unwanted as he was unloved. Jeff had had nothing to do with him, hadn’t spoken to or about him in years. And then, ten days ago, Will showed up on his doorstep out of the blue, and all of a sudden it’s “little brother” this and “little brother” that, and it was enough to make you puke. Tom gave Will his broadest smile, wishing “little brother” would pack his bags and go back to Princeton. “I mean, we don’t want it to look like we’re ambushing her.”
“Who said anything about an ambush? We just go over there, thank her for introducing us to the pleasures of vodka-laced antioxidants, and offer to buy her another.”
“I have a better idea,” offered Kristin. “Why don’t I go over, chat her up for a few minutes, and try to feel her out, see if she’s interested.”
“Find out her name anyway,” Will said, trying to think of a way to extricate himself from the situation without embarrassing himself or alienating his brother.
“How much do you want to bet her name starts with a J?” Tom asked.
“Five dollars says it doesn’t,” Jeff said.
“More names start with J than any other letter.”
“There are still twenty-five more letters in the alphabet,” Will said. “I’m with Jeff on this one.”
“Of course you are,” Tom said curtly.
“Okay, guys, I’m on my way,” Kristin announced, returning to their side of the bar. “Anything you want me to say to the lady on your behalf?”
“Maybe we shouldn’t bother her,” Will said. “She looks like she has a lot on her mind.”
“Tell her I’ll give her something to think about,” Jeff said, giving Kristin’s backside a playful tap to send her on her way. All three men followed her exaggerated wiggle with their eyes as she sashayed between tables toward the far corner of the room.
Will watched Kristin retrieve the empty glass from the woman’s table, the two women falling into conversation as easily and casually as if they were lifelong friends. He watched Miss Pomegranate suddenly swivel in their direction, her head tilting provocatively to one side, a slow smile spreading across her face as Kristin spoke. “You see those three guys at the end of the bar?” he imagined Kristin telling her. “The good-looking one in black, the skinny, angry-looking one beside him, the sensitive-looking one in the blue button-down shirt? Pick one. Any one. He’s yours for the asking.”
“She’s coming back,” Jeff said as, moments later, Kristin left the woman’s side and began her slow walk back to the bar, the three men swaying forward in unison to greet her.
“Her name’s Suzy,” she announced without stopping.
“That’s another five you owe me,” Jeff told Tom.
“That’s it?” Tom asked Kristin. “You were over there all that time, and that’s all you got?”
“She moved here from Fort Myers a couple of months ago.” Kristin returned to her side of the bar. “Oh, yeah. I almost forgot,” she said with a big smile in Will’s direction. “She picked you.”
© 2010 Joy Fielding, Inc.