16 years ago
School is out but, like every day, I'm standing in the yard, kicking up dirt with my scuffed shoes, waiting for Emily. She always takes ages. I don't know what she does after the bell rings but she's never out on time. Me, I get out of there as soon as I can, especially on a Friday. It's like she actually enjoys being at school.
"Ah, look, Jake's waiting for his girlfriend again."
That's Tommy "no-good-for-nothing" Arnold. The biggest jackass in school. He was a nobody before the growth spurt last year that made him three inches taller than everyone else. He was already ten inches wider. Fat ass!
"Fuck off, Tommy," I say, letting him hear the boredom in my voice. It's the same-old-same-old every night, except Wednesdays, when Emily has gymnastics class and her mom picks her up.
Tommy has his group of followers around him. Some of them are decent guys. I play football with most of them. Tommy's too out of shape to play so he pretends he's too cool for it. He's not.
"Yeah, what you gonna do, Jake, cry about it with your girlfriend?"
I take a deep breath through my nose and shake my head. He's not worth it. Bored of not getting a rise out of me, he heads off in the direction of home, punching one of the guys in the arm and no doubt trying to get a reaction out of him. It's like Mom says, one of these days Tommy will be fat, bald and stupid, so the joke's on him.
"Finally!" I call when I see Emily making her way out of the school doors with two friends. They all have blond hair and the same two pigtails braided down either shoulder. They all have on similar pink dresses and those bright princess backpacks they wear.
She beams when she sees me, like she always does, as if she isn't expecting me to be waiting for her. In return, I give her a smile that lifts only one side of my mouth. I learned it from my brother, Drew. He's almost ten years older than me and he's pretty cool, not that I tell him as much. Apparently, it's a hit with the ladies, his lazy smile. I'm not sure why I do it around Emily, I guess I'm practicing on her for when I meet real chicks.
"Bye, girls!" Emily calls, waving off her friends while running to me. "Hey, Jakey."
I want to be mad at her for being late, again, but I can't. She's just a kid. She's two years younger than me, only eight. And she's short, you know. I'm a protector of sorts. That's what Mom says, anyway. That's why I have to walk her home every day. That, and the fact we live on the same street, so it makes sense.
We walk back along the sidewalk, which is speckled with sand from the gusts we've had on the island the last few days, blowing the sand up from South Shore Beach. It's one of the things I love about Staten Island, always being close to the beach.
"What did you do at school today?" I ask her.
"Mmm ..." She looks to the sky as she thinks.
"Emily, your lace is untied."
She shrugs and keeps walking. I come to a halt on the sidewalk. "Stop and tie your lace or you'll hurt yourself."
She breathes out huffily but bends to fasten her lace. "You're so bossy," she grunts at me.
"Yeah, well, you'd be calling me worse names if I let you fall and break your arm."
"That wouldn't happen. You have to fall off a cliff or something to break your arm."
"Oh, really? How would you know?"
She shrugs again but stares at her toes when she stands. I hate when she does this. It makes me feel like a douche. "Look, how about I race you home?"
Although she doesn't lift her head, I can see from the way the sides of her face lift that she's smiling. I know any second now she'll turn and run. And she does.
"You cheat every time!" I shout. I catch up to her, but not before she runs smack into Tommy Arnold as he deliberately steps in her way.
It happens in a heartbeat. She looks up. Tommy pushes her back and she stumbles to the ground. As she does, his eyes are on me. Tommy doesn't care about Emily. He wants to pick a fight with me because I'm the popular kid in school and I'm the only person Tommy needs to take out to be king of the jungle.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" I snap at him as I help Emily to her feet.
"I'm okay," she sniffs.
I lift her chin and see her tears. I don't know why but they throw me into some kind of rage. I can't see straight, or think straight. I can only imagine putting my fist in Tommy Arnold's face.
When I turn to him, he's already taking a swing at me. But he's slow and clumsy. I block his arm and put all my strength into my fist as I drive a punch into his nose. He rocks back but doesn't fall. The rest of his group backs away, clearly wanting to see how this pans out before picking a side.
"Go home," I tell Emily. I can see our street from here. She'll be fine.
"No. I won't leave you, Jakey."
Tommy laughs, hard and nasty. "Jakey. Jakey. Should we pick flowers together, Jakey?"
"Go, Emily. I've told you."
She starts to move but Tommy blocks her with his forearm in her neck. Now, he's really overstepped.
I drive my whole body into him, taking us both to the ground. "Go, Emily!" I shout one last time.
As I watch her leave, Tommy gets an elbow into my nose. I shake my head, shaking off the blow. Then I find some superhuman strength and hold his neck, pinning him down, as I smash my fist into his cheek. "Don't fucking call me Jakey. And don't dare touch her again. You got that?"
His head lolls to the side and blood starts to come out of his nose but he nods.
I get off him because I've made my point. I hate him. I hate that he dared to go near Emily and that I let him, when I'm supposed to look after her. But I know he won't be bothering either of us again.
As I walk away, some of the other kids call to me. "That was awesome, Jake!"
"We knew you'd smash him, Jake."
I hear a few bad names lobbed at Tommy and don't give a shit. He deserves it. Maybe next year, he won't start off being a jackass.
When I get home, Mom is in the front yard with my brother and his best buddy, Brooks. Emily is clinging to Mom's legs.
"See, he's just fine. You run along home now, Emily."
Emily leaves my mom's side and rushes toward me on the driveway. "Your nose is bleeding." She reaches up to touch my face but I clock the looks my brother and Brooks are wearing and pull back from her. "Go home, Em."
"I'm sorry, Jake. This is my fault." She starts to sob.
I look from my mom, to Drew, then to Brooks. "It's not your fault, Em. Tommy wanted to pick a fight with me. Go home."
"No. I can't leave when —"
"Go home!" I shout. She cries harder but heads down the street toward her house.
I close my eyes, bracing myself for my mom's tongue lashing. When I open them, she is standing right in front of me. "Look at this," she says, raising her hand to my cheek and rubbing her thumb under my nose. "Are you going to tell me what happened?"
I pull her hand away from my face, conscious my brother is watching us. "Yeah, Tommy Arnold got what was coming to him. Can I go inside?"
Surprisingly, she takes a step back. I raise my chin to Drew and Brooks as I pass by. "Proud of you, man," Drew says, making my stride falter.
Brooks's hand comes down on my shoulder. "Getting in a fight over a chick is like a rite of passage, man. Don't feel bad."
My mom walks beside me, insisting I come inside to get cleaned up. I follow her into the house.
"Hey, Jake!" Brooks calls before I close the door. I turn to face him. "You should come to the gym with us sometime. We can teach you a few extra moves."
I try to stay cool but I know I end up grinning. "Yeah, maybe."
I'm standing in a bar in Covent Garden, drinking a pint of English ale. A new ale to me. Apparently, it was brewed in Cornwall, which I'm told is on the south coast somewhere. It's smooth. Creamy. Maybe a new favorite. The Brits love their ale, I should tell you that. I've been living in London for two years now, since I took a job at a hedge fund over here, right out of college at NYU. Why am I here in London? That's a long story and one I don't feel like telling right now because it's Saturday night and I'm enjoying beers with the guys. Well, guys, girls who keep coming over to talk to us, same difference.
"That one there is absolutely gagging for it." The source of those words, leaning into my ear, is one of my roommates, Alex. He's a pompous twat, as the Brits say. Speaks like the royals but give him one beer and he has none of their grace. His full name is Alexander Frederick Embersome-Evrington the Third. But, God love him, he's a giant goofball too. If he likes you, truly likes you, he'll move heaven and earth for you. Or pay someone to do just that.
Now, he's pointing to a leggy blonde. No meat on her bones. Not much shorter than me at six two. She's sporting a face full of makeup and a sequin dress as short as something Taylor Swift would wear. It's out of place in the old English pub but I'm guessing she's headed from here to a club in Soho.
"I'm bagging this one," Alex tells me, totally self-assured, and probably right to be.
"Go get your Saturday night," I tell him. Leaning back against the bar, I watch him make a move to work his magic.
My buddy, Sean, turns from the bar and hands me another beer, double parking me. I drain my first as I accept the second.
"How does he do it?" Sean asks, as the blonde giggles and falls happily under Alex's arm.
Tim, a guy I work with, extricates himself from blondie's friends and joins our conversation. "Alex is fucking obnoxious, yet he pulls the hottest women every time. Maybe I'll start acting like a knobhead twenty-four-seven."
I laugh because it's both true and well-meant. "It's that baby-blond, preppy-boy look," I tell them.
"If I ever have a son, I'm sending him to boarding school to give him a start in life. The ladies love it."
We all banter with each other a lot. It doesn't mean shit. We all have each other's backs; Alex, Tim, Sean and me. We make up four of our usual Saturday night six-some. Tim and Sean were the first guys I met when I moved across the pond. Tim sits in the office next to mine. He's shit hot when it comes to investing in securities and showed me the ropes when I started at the fund.
Sean is a snooker player. A pro snooker player. He and Alex are childhood buddies and tried to hustle me one night. We still laugh about that.
I mentioned our six-some. The other two are Jess and Abby. I live with Jess. She's fucking awesome. I mean, certifiably nuts, but such a laugh. Abby is Sean's much finer other half. She's hot as hell and always looks stunning, even if you catch her on an errands day. I guess she feels like she has to make an effort all the time since she's had years of being pictured in magazines with Sean. Generally, though, they do all right in bars as a couple. By that, I mean they don't usually get recognized unless some guy knows his snooker well.
The girls will be here shortly. Jess is taking part in a fashion show tonight and Abby is modeling. Jess designs clothes and accessories, which she sells in boutiques around the city. Her brand name is slowly getting out there, helped by her regular fashion column in a free magazine they give out on the city's underground system. Tonight, it's only her accessories being used by other clothes designers but it's still great publicity.
"Hey Jake, did you go check out some bikes today?" Sean asks.
I swallow the ale in my mouth. "Yeah, man. I saw a fucking sweet Harley. I'm torn between that and the Yamaha I saw last week."
"I'll never understand motorbikes," Tim says. "It's suicide. Especially in the city. In any case, you can't really get your speed up. Where's the fun?"
"It beats the traffic. Plus, I can take her out on a weekend and tear up some dirt," I tell him.
"You're fucking crazy, you know that?"
I chuckle. "Yeah, you tell me every fucking day, man."
"You should think about it, Timmy," Sean says. "Might help you and that ginger mullet pick up a woman."
"Mate, you don't know what you're talking about. Ginger is in," Tim counters.
"He's right, Sean. Ed Sheeran and Prince Harry have made red cool."
Sean looks from me to Tim, seeming to contemplate the not-at-all-serious discussion seriously. Then he says, "Nah, I don't buy it. You'll always be a ginger loser to me, Tim."
We're all laughing when a slender hip accidentally on purpose bumps into me as its owner flutters her eyelids, moving away from the bar with a glass of rosé wine in her hand. "I'm sorry about that," she says.
I subtly give her a once-over. Her tight white jeans, her black fitted vest that fastens by one button at her navel, and under which she's sporting nothing but a push-up bra. Too obvious. But she did make the effort so I'll kill ten minutes on her.
"You always this clumsy?" I ask, twisting to face her.
She giggles like an airhead — high-pitched and way overzealously. "Not always. Only when I'm in a fluster. Hey, is that an American accent?"
After giving up on trying to hear her name above the music in the bar and spending ten minutes listening to her tell me how much she'd love to visit Manhattan one day, I'm checking my watch. Sean and Tim have found a group of guys we know and have no intention of rescuing me. Alex seems to have disappeared with the blonde. Most likely to her place or the bathrooms — he's a swift mover. Come on, Jess.
As if in answer to my call for help, I see Jess make her way up the stairs and into the bar with Abby.
I motion to the bartender and when I have his attention, I order a glass of pinot noir for Jess and a sem-sauv for Abby.
"Sorry, babe, it's been good talking to you but I've got to go. Make sure you see Manhattan one day," I tell the irritating girl by my side as I move away from the bar.
Sean gets to Abby and Jess at the same time I do. After I give the girls their drinks, Sean steals Abby away.
When I'm left with Jess, I look her up and down, not subtly at all. She's wearing skinny jeans with turn-ups. She has on bright red heels — killer heels that make her already fine legs more than three inches longer — they have a small red and white check bow on the side, secured with a black button. I recognize the design as one of hers. I trail my eyes up those fine legs to her blouse. In true Jess style, it's quirky, maybe even a little outrageous but not as much as some of her stuff. This is a chiffon blouse, layers of red, black and white fabric. For all the layers, the cut of the top brings it in at the waist and it sits neatly over her perfectly formed tits, dipping just enough to give a teasing glimpse of her cleavage.
Her long brown hair has been pinned loosely and a few rogue strands hang down. I consider her face. She pouts for me, displaying her bright red lipstick. Her eyes are natural-looking but darkened with liner. Her cheeks have been bronzed but not overly so. In one ear, she has a gold stud. In the other, one dangling leaf.
"So?" she asks, sipping her pinot.
I rock my head from side to side, as if deliberating. "Show me your bag." She holds up a black clutch — I know the style because she's told me before. The top of the purse is folded like an envelope, the triangle red, with a button to match her shoes. "I'd say you're like a seven."
"Seven? I'll take it!"
I try not to let my smile show. My night just improved ten-fold. Jess is my favorite person in England. My reason for being here these days, I guess you could say.
"How was the show?"
"Not bad. I think I have an order from one of the designers."
"That's awesome." I hold up my ale. "To you."
"Cheers." I love how she says that. It's so British. So Jess. "Are you going to give me the lowdown? I saw the woman with the big boobs you were talking to when I arrived."
I shake my head as I take a drink. Then I say, "Airhead."
"That's never stopped you."
"You think very little of me."
"Babe, don't be offended. That's just because I know you."
Laughing, I tuck her under my arm and we make our way over to Sean, Abby and Tim.
"We've already lost Alex to a too-skinny blonde with legs the length of Niagara," I tell her.
"The length of Viagra?"
I look down to her, even in her heels, and roll my eyes. "You can do better than that."
"That's fair. I'll try harder." Harder. Ha.
"Is there another bad joke coming?" I ask.
She smirks and I know she's focused on the word coming. I know because I am too. Viagra. Harder. Coming. I almost groan.
An hour later, we find Alex on the dancefloor in a Soho club. He's holding on to the blonde's hips as she grinds her ass into his crotch.
Jess clinks her gin and tonic against mine. It's that time of night; we've switched from wine to clear spirits. "All right, Jakey, let's play."
Excerpted from "Hedging His Bets"
Copyright © 2018 Laura Carter.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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