Luke gets a car to take us to the art gallery. I figure it’ll be some kind of sedan, so I’m shocked when an amazing black stretch limousine pulls up in Luke’s driveway. “Whoa,” I say.
“Sorry,” he says. “You kind of have to make a big appearance.”
I slide into the leather seats. I can’t believe I’m wearing a five-thousand-dollar dress and sitting in a limo. This feels like some kind of bizarre Twilight Zone episode where I switched lives with some rich woman. Any minute now, a talking doll is going to pop out and kill me.
“I never been in a limo before,” I say.
“Really?” Luke’s shocked. “What about prom night?”
“Prom night?” I snort. “I never went to a prom in my life.”
“Never had a date.”
“You?” Luke raises his eyebrows. “Twelve fingers? Rosanna Banana? I don’t believe it.”
“Shut up.” I stick my tongue out at him and he laughs. And for a moment, I just feel really happy to be here with him. And even though he’s my boss, I wish he would lean forward and kiss me.
No, I don’t really think that. I have to stop thinking of him that way.
I never believed Boston to be any kind of Mecca of the arts, so I use that as an excuse to be apathetic. I visited the Fine Arts Museum only once rather reluctantly when some friends dragged me there. I’m not all that into art, to be honest. I don’t get art. I don’t mind looking at paintings, but I don’t get how people spend hours, years, or even lifetimes analyzing a piece of art. I mean, who gives a shit if Mona Lisa is smiling or not? It’s just a picture.
“You go to art galleries much?” Luke asks me, watching me from his seat within the limo. I’m belted into one side of the car and he’s on the other side. We’re about as far from one another as we can get while still being in the same vehicle.
“What do you think?”
“You don’t seem like much of a lover of the arts,” he says.
He nods. “I bet when someone tells you they majored in art history, the first thing you think is: ‘What a waste.’” He pauses. “You’re the analytical type. Am I right?”
I snort. “How do you do that?”
“Always know exactly what I’m thinking?”
Luke winks at me. “Didn’t you know? You’re an open book, Ellie.”
At that moment, the car idles in front of the gallery. Much like the boutique, it reeks of wealth. My stomach does flip-flops and I tell myself that my expensive dress will make me fit in. I start to unbuckle my seatbelt, but Luke shakes his head at me. “No. We’re going to the back entrance.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Oh,” I say. I hardly noticed there were about a dozen steps to the front entrance. When he’s sitting next to me in this limousine, he looks so much like the old Luke, I just forgot.
They’re expecting Luke, and someone is waiting for him to open the handicapped entrance in the back. It’s raining now and I get slightly wet as I race from the limo to the entrance. There’s a small carpet at the entrance and Luke lingers on it, going forward by a foot, then going backward by a foot.
“What are you doing?” I ask him.
He gives me a crooked smile. “Don’t mind me. Just trying to clean my wheels a bit. It’s bad manners to leave a trail.”
We take the elevator up to the main level. I glance at Luke, who’s slumped in his wheelchair, looking miserable. “You okay?” I ask him.
“Oh, sure,” he says. “I just hate this shit. Mingling. Ugh.”
“Really?” I’m amused by his reaction. “I thought you loved it.”
He loosens his tie a bit. “I used to.” He doesn’t expand on that sentiment.
As if on cue, the door to the elevator opens at that moment and a middle-aged woman in a ridiculously puffy shiny royal-blue frock rushes over to greet us. She looks so ostentatious with that dress and matching blue make-up and hair bands, for a moment I wonder if she’s part of the art exhibit herself. “Luke!” she cries. “I’m so pleased you could make it, darling!”
She envelopes Luke in a hug, which he accepts with enthusiasm that I can barely tell is faked. “Hello, Patricia.”
Patricia pulls away and crinkles her brow. “How’s your father, Luke?”
“He’s enjoying his retirement,” Luke replies.
“Well, he must be,” Patricia says. “You’ve been a wizard with the company. He must be proud.”
“Yes.” Luke’s voice is tight. “Patricia, this is Eleanor.”
Patricia looks at me in surprise, as if noticing me for the first time. She spends a second looking me up and down before her face lights up. “Eleanor!” she cries with as much enthusiasm as she had for Luke. “Oh my God, darling, I am just so happy to meet you.”
“Uh, thanks,” I stammer, nowhere near as eloquent as Luke.
“She’s lovely,” Patricia says to Luke and I can’t help but feel flattered. I know she thinks Luke and I must be a couple and that’s why she’s so pleased with me. And somehow I’m not bothered by this at all.
Luke makes small talk with Patricia while I stand there looking pretty (sort of). When she finally wanders away, Luke says to me, “I’ve known her my whole life. She’s been in love with my father for like thirty years. I think they might have slept together.”
I stare at him. “How do you know that?”
“Are you kidding?” He grins. “I know everything about everyone. I’m sort of like God.”
“Modest too,” I add. “So do you know everything about me then?”
“Everything,” he replies. And you know what? I’m beginning to believe it.
This entire room reeks of Boston’s old wealth. I’m probably the only person in the room with less than a million dollars to my name. Everyone here is related to an Adams or a Quincy or a Quincy Adams. I feel very low class because none of my great-great-great-grandfathers signed the Declaration of Independence.
Luke makes me feel more comfortable though when he whispers tidbits to me about everyone we meet. I didn’t know the wealthy community had so much gossip. On Luke’s part, he knows how to schmooze. I guess he’s had a whole lifetime of learning how to do it. I mostly stand there awkwardly while he makes small talk, flirts with the old ladies, and says all the right things.
I’m impressed with how much he seems to know about art too. Or at least, he’s good at faking it. Whenever anyone asks me about a painting, I go entirely blank, but Luke spouts off for a minute or two about “the interplay of green and purple” or some bullshit like that. “This is why you take art history in college,” he says to me later, “instead of just twenty computer science classes.” Hmph, I took math too.
The good news is that everyone seems thrilled to meet me, especially the older rich folks. I’ve never seen so many people call me “lovely” in one night. One of them even tells Luke congratulations.
“They think we’re a couple,” Luke says apologetically when we get a moment alone.
“Yeah, I figured that,” I say.
He raises his eyebrows. “Does it bother you?”
“Does it bother you?” I retort.
“Absolutely not,” he replies. “This is the first time I haven’t been slipped the phone numbers of twenty single granddaughters. Everyone in this room has known me since I’m a kid and wants me to settle down. You saved me a lot of trouble. So… I appreciate you going along with the ruse.”
He shifts in his wheelchair as he says this. I wonder if Luke is interested in settling down himself. In college, I pegged him as the kind of guy who had no intention of even considering marriage until at least age forty. Maybe that’s changed, though. He doesn’t seem to be having fun in the dating world. In any case, I understand now why he wanted me to come—I’m his beard.
“You had enough yet?” he asks me.
“I could go a little longer,” I say.
A guy is approaching us who’s about our age, flanked by a stunning woman. The guy’s sculpted good looks remind me of my first impression of Luke when I met him all those years ago. I glance at Luke, and I can tell from his eyes that he doesn’t like this guy much. I wait for him to lean in and tell me some gossip, but he keeps quiet for a change.
“Lucas, m’boy!” The guy flashes a wide but incredibly phony smile. “This is Arielle.”
Arielle is really beautiful to the point where it’s hard not to stare at her. Damn, maybe that Ethel woman was right, maybe I really am a lesbian.
“Hello, Gray.” Luke offers an equally genuine smile. “It’s nice to meet you, Arielle. This is Ellie.”
“Ellie Jensen,” Gray says before I can even extend my hand.
And holy crap, I remember this guy. After all, it’s sort of hard to forget a guy named after a color. He was in a basic computer science class that I was a teaching assistant for. As an upperclassman, I was able to give up scrubbing toilets and instead teach for my scholarship money. This class probably should have been called “Computer Science for People Who Don’t Give A Shit.” Harvard required everyone to take a very small amount of basic science, just so people like Gray could come out well rounded, and presumably also to torture the teaching assistants.
This class was easy to the point of being ridiculous. The first assignment was to write a short program in C that printed out “Hello world!” It was like half a page and that was the entire assignment for the week. Gray handed in a quarter of a page of code with a stain that smelled like vodka and he misspelled the word “world.” The second assignment was to make your own webpage. Gray’s page was a single sentence that said, “This is a webpage,” and then had a pornographic photo below it.
Each week, he handed in nonfunctional code. The hard copy he gave me was always stained with food, alcohol, and once with something I strongly suspected was jizz (especially since he snickered as he handed it to me). He also bombed both the midterm and the final. I gave him a D, which I swear to God was a gift because he rightfully deserved to fail. But when I went to double-check the grades, his D had magically turned into a B. I confronted the professor about it, who mumbled something about “extra credit.”
So no, Gray was not my favorite person in the world.
“Hello, Gray,” I say, somehow summoning up the will to smile pleasantly at him.
“You straightened your hair,” he observes. “Good idea. I’d never seen so much hair before. It was like the crazy wicked witch look. We all used to laugh about it.”
They all used to laugh at my hair? Who’s “they all”? Was everyone in my class just making fun of my hair? I look over at Luke, who has conveniently chosen this moment to get all quiet.
“How have you been, Gray?” I ask politely.
“Oh, fine,” he says. “Arielle and I just got back from two weeks in Paris. There’s so much to do there, it’s a bit exhausting. You know how it is.” He gives me a pointed look. “Well, maybe not you, but Luke knows.”
I wish I could shoot back that I’ve been to Paris, but I haven’t. But at least I’ve been to Europe. I participated in an international math program in Hungary during my junior year of college.
“What did you think of Paris, Arielle?” Luke asks politely.
Arielle just smiles vacantly. For all I know, she may be mute. I’d guess Gray wouldn’t care either way.
Gray shakes his head. “God, Ellie, do you remember what a bitch you were when you were teaching that class?”
I glance at Luke, who seems shocked. My cheeks are burning, but I reply coolly, “I don’t think I was.”
Gray laughs. “Well, everyone else in the class would have disagreed. You thought you were, like, the god of the computers. It was pathetic.”
I don’t even know how to respond to that. I stare at him, wishing I could disappear. How can people like Gray exist—people who can say whatever the hell they want?
“We all used to make fun of you,” Gray says. “Talk about what a bitch you were. I thought for sure you knew.”
“All right,” Luke says. His voice is very firm. “Enough, Gray.”
“What in hell are you doing here with her, Luke?” Gray goes on. His voice is slightly slurred. He’s drunk, although it’s not like that’s an excuse. “How the hell did you even find her after all these years? You hated her as much as I did. You called her a low-class bitch.”
“I never…” Luke is shaking his head.
“Seriously, Luke,” Gray says. “I can’t believe you brought the girl who used to clean your toilets to this party. It’s embarrassing. I mean, I know you’re a cripple, but you’ve got money—you can do a hell of a lot better than her.”
Luke’s face is calm but his eyes are furious. “Maybe if you had paid more attention in Ellie’s class,” he says, “you would have been smart enough not to lose two million dollars of your father’s company’s money.”
If it were appropriate, I would have given Luke a high-five.
Gray looks outraged. Outraged and drunk is not a great combination, especially in a burly guy like Gray. He gets this threatening look in his eyes and he takes a step toward Luke. For a second, I’m sure Gray’s going to hit him, but Luke doesn’t even flinch. If Gray hit Luke, I don’t know what he would do. It’s not like he could hit back.
“I can’t believe you just said that to me, you asshole,” Gray growls in a low voice.
“Oh, please,” Luke snorts. “What are you going to do—punch me? I know everything about you, even the stuff you’d rather I didn’t know. So calm the fuck down and tell Ellie you’re sorry.”
I don’t know what Luke knows about Gray. I can’t even begin to imagine. But it’s got to be pretty damn good, better even than losing two million dollars, because a few seconds later, Gray is stammering out a heartfelt apology and telling me what a great teacher I was.
We make an early exit after that. Luke calls for the limo and we head out. Inside the car, he slumps in his seat and loosens his tie with his thumb. “I’m sorry,” he finally says. “Gray is an idiot. I hate him.”
“I should be thanking you for standing up for me,” I say. It’s true. I don’t know if anyone has ever stood up for me like that before. I was touched. But I have to ask: “Did you really call me a low-class bitch?”
Luke flashes me a guilty look and I know Gray’s accusation was true. “Ellie,” he says, “you realize I was completely heartbroken after you rejected me that night in college. I was so into you—I felt ripped apart when you didn’t want me. I was really angry at you and I might have said a few things I didn’t mean.”
“You were heartbroken?” How is that possible? Luke might have wanted to hook up with me that night, but that’s all it was. “You were dating another girl like a week later. Some sorority girl who looked nothing like me and was…” Gorgeous. She was gorgeous and not just because Luke thought so. She was objectively gorgeous.
“I dated who was expected of me.” Luke shrugged. “I would have pursued you more, but my roommates and guys like Gray convinced me it would be inappropriate. So I tried to get over it and dated a girl I knew wouldn’t say no.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. How could Luke, back when he was perfect and able-bodied, have been heartsick over someone like me? I look at him now, staring down at his hands. He doesn’t think so, but somehow he’s more attractive now than he was back then. He’s become a deeper person. He knows what it’s like not to get everything you want in life.
I glance at the dark glass dividing us from the driver. “Can he see us?”
Luke shakes his head. “No, he can’t. Why?”
I can smell Luke’s expensive aftershave hanging between us. His light hair, which is usually perfect, is slightly mussed from the evening, and it only adds to his sexiness. For a moment, I feel tempted to unbuckle my seatbelt and kiss him. The thought pops into my head randomly and I’m shocked by it. Luke Thayer is wrong for me. And he’s my boss. Maybe it’s all the champagne, I don’t know. I really just want him to kiss me.
But it’s just a passing thought. Luke and I wouldn’t work together—it’s stupid to even contemplate such a thing.
“No reason,” I mumble.
He’s staring at me, his face slightly flushed, an odd look in his eyes. He’s looking at me like he wants me. He made no secret of that fact years earlier, but I’ve never seen him look at me with quite this much desire. I don’t know if anyone has ever looked at me this way.
Kiss me, Luke. Just kiss me dammit!
“I guess we’ll take you home, huh?” he says.
I nod, hardly able to breathe. What in the name of God is wrong with me?
“Thank you,” Luke says, “for a wonderful evening.”
I missed my chance sixteen years ago.
It happened on the last night of final exams.
Finals were rough, especially because I wanted to ace them. I barely slept for almost a week, surviving on catnaps and coffee. On the night of my last exam, all I wanted to do was crash in bed, but Delia wouldn’t hear of it. She pointed out that I hadn’t gotten drunk once all semester and I deserved to unwind.
“We’re only eighteen,” I pointed out. “We’re too young to drink.”
Delia groaned. “I’m going to smack you, Ellie. Seriously.”
Delia had leads on a few parties, but the first one we tried wouldn’t let us in because we were freshmen. That is, we were freshmen and we weren’t hot enough. We tried a second party and nobody was guarding the door, so we walked right in.
Despite how cold it was outside, the party felt like a sauna. It was so hot that steam immediately filled my glasses and I had to take them off to clean them. I could feel my hair frizzing up to twice its original size. The room was dimly lit and there was loud music thrumming in the background. I took off my coat and tossed it onto a sticky pile on the floor.
“Hey! Twelve Fingers!” I nearly groaned when I heard the voice coming from behind me. I didn’t want to turn around, but Delia had mysteriously disappeared and we were packed into the room like sardines. I took a deep breath and came face to face with Luke Thayer. Of all the parties on campus, what were the chances?
“Thayer House.” I forced a smile. “How are you?”
“Fan-fucking-tastic,” Luke said, with a grin to show that he wasn’t on his first drink of the evening. I wondered how many he’d had. He thrust a tiny paper cup into my hand, like the kind you put ketchup in.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Jello shot,” Luke said. He had one in his other hand, and he popped the contents into his mouth, then tossed the cup onto a nearby table. “Go ahead.”
“I don’t drink,” I mumbled.
“Of course you do,” Luke said. “This is college.”
I looked at the green jello. It appeared innocent enough. Anyway, how much alcohol could it possibly have? I took a deep breath and popped it in my mouth, nearly choking on the taste of rum. It was an understatement to call me a lightweight. The only other time I ever had something to drink was at my older sister’s wedding. And that was just a few sips of champagne.
“They’re strong, huh?” Luke said.
I nodded, still coughing. Luke was standing very close to me. He sort of had to be because the room was so packed, but he was even closer than he had to be. His shoulder was touching mine.
“You were a worthy adversary this semester, Twelve Fingers,” Luke said. “I’ll miss having you in class.”
I laughed. “You’ll miss me? Really?”
“Of course.” His golden hair was damp from the heat and looked darker than it usually did. “Won’t you miss me?”
“Um.” I wasn’t sure how to answer that question. “I sort of thought you… hated me?”
“Hated you?” Luke gave me a confused look. “I don’t hate you, Ellie. In fact…” He slid a bit closer. “I really like you.”
This was the first time a boy had ever told me that he liked me, and I couldn’t believe it was Luke Thayer. How was that possible? I considered pinching myself, convinced this had to be another of my crazy dreams. Or maybe he was messing with me again—yes, that had to be it. “You do?”
Luke didn’t answer my question, but instead took this opportunity to press his lips against mine. After a split second, his tongue slipped in between my lips, and my mouth tingled as it massaged my own. His breath tasted like rum and cigarettes, which to this day is a combination that never fails to turn me on.
It was my first kiss and it was incredible. It was even more amazing than I imagined when I saw Luke kissing Maddie that day. I melted against him, wanting the kiss to last forever. But knowing in my heart the only reason it was happening was because he was drunk.
I allowed Luke to kiss me for thirty seconds too long before I pushed him away. He grinned at me. “Was that your first kiss?”
“What?” I cried. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No,” he said. “It was great. You just… I got that feeling.”
I wasn’t about to admit he was right. “Look, Luke, I can’t do this.”
His face fell. “Why not?”
“Because you’re drunk.”
He frowned. “No, I’m not.”
“You obviously are.”
“Just a little.” He holds his thumb and his forefinger a centimeter apart. “Just the right amount.”
“Also.” I squeezed my hands together. “I’m not your type.”
“My type?” Luke shook his head. “What’s my type?”
“You know…” Maddie was his type. Or any of the other identical vacant-eyed Barbie dolls I’d seen him with around campus. I was about as far from that as you could get and still be of the same species. If anything happened with me, he’d regret it in the morning, when he was sober.
“No, I don’t know.”
I sighed. “Also, we have nothing in common.”
“So…” I was at a loss. All I knew was being with Luke would compromise everything I believed in. I hated him. Well, I didn’t hate him. But I hated everything about him. He was the absolute worst kind of person. I had already given him my first kiss—I couldn’t give him my first anything else. It would be like compromising my soul. “I just can’t, Luke.”
He looked like he was going to argue with me more, as per usual, but then his shoulders sagged and he seemed resigned to the fact that this wasn’t going to happen.
“It’s too bad,” he said. “We would have made a great team. Twelve Fingers and Thayer House.”
As Luke walked away, I felt a moment of regret. Luke was sexy as all hell and the rum was starting to hit me. But I refused to let myself feel anything for Luke Thayer. It would be a mistake.
But looking back, I wish I had made that mistake.
The new book version of Like a Boss will be available 8/10/20 on Amazon! Get it now!