Saturday, February 11, 2017

8. Ghosts and Propositions

Lilah laughed up into Tony’s face, her eyes brimming with pure delight.  “Is that a good ‘holy shit’ or a bad ‘holy shit’?”

I guess I said that out loud.

“Jesus Christ, I don’t know what to say,” he deferred, glancing across the way to the woman that he could now see was not Lilah.  With a shake of his head, he hooked his fingers through hers and guided them to a more open space.  “Lemme look.”

Tony started at the bottom, where he immediately recognized her rhinestone-heeled boots as the ones he bought her in Lisbon.  Jeans that hugged her smoothed curves without being too tight were next, topped by a black blouse dusted with more rhinestones.   It had flowy sleeves and crisscrossed in front, subtly highlighting her cleavage while accentuating her shape in all the right ways.  Resting just above that cleavage was the “to the moon and back” necklace he’d gotten her that first Christmas.

The look was good and he liked it, but her new outfit barely warranted a first glance, much less a second, compared to the other things he saw.

The grin she wore completely lit up her face, which he assumed had undergone a makeover.  Tony didn’t know anything about makeup, but her eyes were dark around the edges in such a way that it made the bluish-green irises sparkle.  Her skin glowed, her cheeks were rosy and her face looked thinner.  Was that possible, or had she gotten something more drastic than makeup?  Dot would know instantly, but it was beyond him.

Her hair was the second most drastic change he noticed.  Long, shaggy locks that had hung to her waist were now a good eighteen inches shorter.  The remaining cascade hit just above her shoulder blades, and had been designed to perfectly frame her face – and veil her scars – with a fall of beautiful chocolate waves that were completely devoid of gray.

Any one of those things would’ve had him dropping his jaw, but the whole package put together wasn’t what struck him the hardest.  No, what had figuratively knocked him on his ass wasn’t any of the physical changes, it was just…  Lilah. 

The cold and unhappy woman she’d been for so, so, so long was simply gone.  Vanished.  Nowhere in sight.  This wasn't the drained, exhausted, discontent mother of two toddlers. This wasn't the same apathetic, yet resentful woman he'd been sharing a bed with for the last one thousand fucking days.  

No, this woman looked nothing like a fraught and frumpy mother, but a whole hell of a lot like a ghost from his past.  The ghost of a long-lost loved one he hadn't truly realized was gone until this very moment.  The woman who had been miraculously resurrected from the dead to stand before him and radiate pure self-confident joy was...

“Bluegrass.”  If it was possible her grin got wider.  “You look… amazing.”

Rosy cheeks grew rosier and she pulled the corner of her lip in to nibble at it.  “Yeah?  It’s okay?  Because it wasn’t cheap.”

“Doesn’t matter.  It was worth every penny.”

He’d pay it every day to spend his time with this woman.  Jesus, when had she last looked at him with such delight?  Part of him thought never, though logic told him that wasn’t likely.

“I didn’t bother with new earrings since my hair covers my ears now,” she explained with a shrug before placing her hand, which he could now see was freshly manicured with white tips, in the center of his chest.  “You look pretty nice yourself.” 

Why was it a natural reflex to look down at yourself when someone complimented your appearance?  When he did, he saw black leather shoes, jeans and a black button-down shirt, untucked with the cuffs rolled back.  Nothing fancy, nor drastically different from his every day look. 

Not like Lilah. 

“So this is what you did all day,” he remarked, holding her hand up for inspection.  The white tips were actually underscored by a line of silver glitter, which suited the Queen of the Shiny Shit perfectly.  “Get your toenails done too?”

Her head bobbed up and down.  “Yep.  Cherry red.”

“Nice.”  He didn’t want to mess up her makeup, but he couldn’t keep himself from taking a taste of her lips.  “It’s good you did this for yourself.”

“Thanks for makin’ me realize it was time.”  She twined their fingers together once again and offered him a shamelessly flirtatious wink.  “So where ya takin’ me?”

Tony's grin was so wide, it pulled uncomfortably at his cheeks.

He knew this girl.  He knew her smile.  He damn well knew her badass Bluegrass swagger.  This was the Lilah he fell head over ass in love with, and Tony couldn’t find words to adequately express how happy he was to see her.   There were moments where he’d questioned whether this woman had ever existed anyplace but his mind, and he was elated to find that she hadn’t been a wishful hallucination.

“How many drinks have you had?” he asked, optimistically wondering if more alcohol would act as it had in the past and intensify the swagger she wore - had always worn - so well.

She chuckled softly and peered at him from the corner of her eye.  “None.”

His eyebrows shot up in astonishment.  She was like this with no booze?  Did that mean he had a chance at permanently keeping Bluegrass without destroying Lilah's liver?  “That’s surprising.”

“Mm.  You never told me where we’re goin’.”

“Eventually, there.”  He nodded toward the restaurant where he'd made the reservation.  “But they won't seat us for a while, so I thought we’d get drink at one of the bars.”

“Well, you know, technically….”  She stopped, using her grip on his wrist to spin him toward her to gently admonish, “Drinkin’ doesn’t start until dinner.”

He hitched one eyebrow up and looked down his nose at her.  So maybe there was a little Lilah still lurking around the edges of Bluegrass.  That was okay.  He could deal with that.

“You’re gonna bust my balls over half an hour when I refused free cocktails all day at the craps table?”

“You did?”

“I did.”

“Thank you.”  The sacrifice didn’t seem like that big of a deal when she bounced up on her toes to kiss the corner of his mouth and say, “That makes me very happy.  Now let’s go find somethin’ with a paper umbrella in it.”

“Pass on the umbrella,” Tony declined, though with a smile.  “But we’ll find you a couple.  Come on.”

As is often the case in casinos, the nearest bar was only a few feet away, and good fortune found them arriving at the same time as two end stools were being vacated.  Swooping in to claim them, he placed orders for Jack on the rocks and a Bahama Mama, but Lilah quietly contradicted him. 

“Make mine Malibu and Diet Coke, please.  With an umbrella.”

The bartender nodded and Tony turned to his wife.  “Since when?”

“Since I found out what size jeans I’m wearin’ nowadays,” was the amused reply.  “Leggin’s are far more forgivin’, even if they are ugly.”

That explained that.  He’d suspected as much, but didn’t want her self-criticism to cast a shadow on the evening. “Size doesn’t matter when jeans cover your ass that perfectly.”

“Better than seein’ my ass naked, I reckon.”  She held up both hands when his face pulled into a scowl.  “Forget I said anything.  I’m still tryin’ to make my peace with it.  Sorry.  Movin’ on…”

Her self-confident swagger was starting to slip, making Tony grateful when their drinks arrived.  He tossed a twenty to the bartender and thanked him. 

“So,” he changed the subject after a healthy swallow of whiskey.  “If you aren’t three umbrellas to the wind already, what had you so happy when I ran into you?”

She smiled smugly down at her drink, poking at the ice with a straw.  “Does it matter?”

“Kinda.  It’s been a long time since you’ve been happy around me, and I’d like to know what finally did the trick.”

Her smile turned toward him and widened so that he could see teeth.  “I have a surprise for you.”

“Yeah?”  This reemergence of Bluegrass wasn’t his surprise? 

“Mhm.”  She sipped her drink through the straw and poked at the ice again.  “But I can’t tell you yet.  It’s not ready.”

So she bought him something while she was out shopping.  Something that required engraving, maybe? 

“Okay.  When will I find out?”

“Mm.”  Lilah moved her straw in a clockwise rotation.  “Hopefully tomorrow, but maybe not ‘til Friday.”

He was intrigued, but had no problem letting her have her little secret.  Anything that had the light back in her eyes was cool with him.

“Did you talk to M.J. & Lucas today?”

She nodded.  “They’re doin’ fine.  Somehow they found out there’s an M&M store like the one in New York.  Lucas wants red, blue and silver ones, like ‘Uncle Jon’s Patriots’ and Micah Jane wants hers to look like ‘Frozen’.  I guess that means light blue and white.”

“As far as bribery goes, M&Ms are cheaper than a pony.”

“I reckon.”  She stared unseeingly at the bottles lined up behind the bar for a moment, then swung her stool around to face him.  “Listen, I know we have kids and I love them, but – just for tonight – can we not talk about our life back home?  Can we just be a man and a woman enjoyin’ one another’s company?”

The ice clinked against his now empty glass when he set it back on the bar.  There would come a point this week that they had to talk about their life – or lives – back home.  It was unavoidable, and the real reason they were here.

But nobody said it had to be tonight.  She was right.  They deserved a little break from reality. 

“I think that sounds like a really good idea,” Tony agreed and was rewarded with one of those gut punching smiles that was comparable to the sun parting the clouds on an utterly dreary day.

“Thank you.  Since you’re bein’ so agreeable, maybe you’d be interested in another suggestion?”

A flip of his wrist allowed him to see they only had about five minutes until their reservation time.  Sliding off the barstool, he offered a helping hand so she could do the same.  “We’ll talk about it over dinner.” 

Tony settled a possessive palm into the small of her back as they strolled toward the restaurant.  “I don’t think I know if you’ve ever been to Vegas before?  Have you?”

“Nuh-uh.  First time,” Lilah acknowledged, walking close enough that her thigh brushed against his with every step.

“What do you think so far?”

“I haven’t seen anythin’ outside the hotel, but the spa’s nice.  And I liked the lights on the Strip when we got here last night.”

“Yeah, well.” They’d arrived at the restaurant and Tony escorted her through the doorway.  “Let’s leave last night out of tonight, too, if you don’t mind.”

There was a host at the podium just inside the door, waiting to greet them.  “Good evening.  Welcome to Craftsteak.  Do you have reservations, or may I put your name on our waiting list?”

“Reservations for Michael.  Anthony Michael.”

He’d often been thankful for the ambiguity of his first and middle names, since it enabled him to use them when making reservations.  Number one, Bongiovi was a pain in the ass because he had to spell it for people who had never heard it before.  Number two, it invited a million questions for those who had heard it before.

“Of course, Mr. Michael.”  The host came around immediately around the podium and ushered them to a booth in the back of the restaurant, along the wall.  Menus were placed as he and Lilah chose their respective sides and slid into the seats.  “Enjoy your meal.”

Drinks – expensive bourbon for him and something berry-or-other for her – and dinner were both ordered before they got back to their previous topic.

“Okay,” Tony said after the waiter had left to request their steaks, curling both hands around the short, heavy-bottomed highball glass.  “You were saying about a suggestion?”

Much like the Bluegrass he’d first known, her neck went mottled red with what he presumed were nerves.  But now, like then, but she pushed through her discomfort to inhale deeply and blurt out, “I have a proposition for you, actually.”

He laughed outright.  Speaking of the Bluegrass he’d first known…

“That sounds a little familiar, don’t ya think?” he drawled, referring to the way she’d stalked him over half of Europe before finally getting up the nerve to speak to him.  Once she had, it had been to offer him “oral sexual favors” in exchange for getting a look at the video director’s desk on the current Bon Jovi tour.  When he refused her, she’d taken a back door in by clumsily gaining Jon’s permission through a fan club question and answer session.

The rest, as they say, is history.

She tilted her head with a little smirk.  “I guess it does.”

“Lemme ask ya… If you had it to do over again, would you still proposition me?” he asked, his sudden curiosity trumping the current one.  “Knowing what you know now?”

“I…”  The beautiful smile faltered for the first time.  “Ask me again at the end of the week.”

Way to ruin the evening, dumbass.

Today's change in Lilah was so drastic – and appreciated – that he’d been very conscious about his words up until now, fearing that the slightest wrong move would have her fading away again.  Obviously a good assumption because, after that stupidly impulsive question, he now sensed he was on the verge of losing her. 

“Nah, it’s not that important.”  He offered a smile, hoping to coax hers into returning.  “Let’s get back to this proposition of yours.”

She hesitated uncertainly and wondered if it was because of his awkward faux pas or the pending proposition? 

Do something!

 A quick signal had the waiter at tableside.  “My wife would like another drink, please.  What was it called, Lilah?” 

“Tony,” she protested with an embarrassed laugh, pointing to the glass in front of her.  “It’s a Berry 2.0, but this one is still half full.”

No way in hell was he going to confess that it was an act of desperation to resuscitate her swagger.  It was much smarter just to wolfishly counter, “Then empty it.  I need you drunk so I can have my wicked way with you.”

One corner of her mouth kicked up bemusedly as the waiter went to fetch the requested refill.  “Funny you should say that.”

“Are we back to the proposition?”

“Yeah.”  She did drain her first drink now.  “So…  There’s nothing wrong with our sex life, when we actually have sex.  We both enjoy it and I’m sure you know that, if you asked nicely, I’d go the room with you right now.”

“And suck my dick.”

“Tony!”  Lilah’s eyes darted around to see if any of the other diners could have possibly heard him. 

“It’s okay,” he assured her lightly, not bothering to look for himself.  “I’m sure the guy at the next table wants his dick sucked, too.  We all do.”

“Jesus,” she breathed with what sounded a little like disgust.  “It is beyond me how I can find your damn crudeness a turn-on.”

“Want me to say it again?” he offered helpfully.  In typical man fashion, he was all about repeating anything a woman referred to as a turn-on.  “Because I will.  As loud as you want.”

“No!  God, no!”  It was quite possible that she was about to crawl under the table, and that confirmed the wisdom in ordering her next drink so quickly.  As entertaining as he found her embarrassment, she needed to shake loose the inhibitions that were uncouthly trying interrupt their date.  “Do you want to hear the proposition or not?”

Oh, hell yes.  If the introduction included sex, he couldn’t wait to hear the end.  “Damn right I do.”

“Then hush.” 

“Yes, dear.”

She fixed him with a glare, but, when he was nothing more than amused by it, she decided to return back to the topic at hand.   

Lilah scooted to the edge of her seat and propped her forearms on the table's edge, levering forward to quietly say, “Sex is sex.  It’s not going to be bad, but it might be nice to strive for somethin’ more than mediocre this week.  You know… turn up the heat a little.”


“Well…”  Lilah resumed perfect posture, glancing briefly down at her drink before squaring her shoulders and meeting his eyes head-on.   “It’s really just a simple change of mindset.  Maybe act like it’s not a guaranteed commodity, and accept that you have to work a little for it.  We could be flirtatious through the course of the evenin’ so that, when we finally do get to bed, it’s a little more… explosive.”

It didn't matter how many times a man had sex with the same woman, words like "explosive" would still make his dick stir.  Tony was living proof.

“I’ve actually had this fantasy for a while,” she continued with a slightly defensive tilt of her chin.  “I’m sittin’ at a slot machine and you’re scooted close enough that I can smell the alcohol on your breath.  I watch the reels, but can’t really pay attention because you’re distractin’ me – fillin’ innocent touches with dirty promises.” 

Tony was the one who now leaned as far as the table would allow, because he was extremely interested in where this might be going and didn’t want to miss a word.  Unless he missed his guess, she was about to offer him… something in exchange for this public preamble. 

“Go on.”

“Well, that brings us to the proposition part.” She angled forward once again, Caribbean eyes churning with what he thought was seduction. “You indulge my evenin’ of foreplay and I will reciprocate by havin’ whatever kinda sex you want.  If there’s some filthy, dirty fantasy you thought I’d never agree to, consider it yours.  I’ll be and do anything that gets your engine runnin’, no holds barred.  In fact, I think there’s a big ole sex store a few blocks off the Strip.  If accessories are helpful, you – or we – can even do a l'il shoppin’.”

Jesus friggin’ Christ.

Whatever he’d been expecting her to say…  Well, that wasn’t it. 

“Is this a joke?”

A single manicured nail lightly scratched its way down the back of his hand, and then made lazy circles there.  “Do you see me laughin’?”

No, he did not.  In fact, all he did see were the “filthy, dirty” promises alight in her eyes. 

She’s motherfucking serious.

The realization threw him for a loop.

Lilah had never hinted at an interest in anything other than the basics in bed.  Then again, maybe that was because he never pushed her outside of her box?   She had always been reluctant to take what she wanted unless he goaded her into it.

But, Jesus.  He’d told her last night that he was willing to work on their marriage.  She didn’t have to make radical sexual promises to guarantee his cooperation. 

Unless she really wanted to.

“You do know,” Tony laid it out for her.  “In the interest of improving our relationship, I could be convinced to do the foreplay thing without the other?”

She shrugged noncommittally and turned his hand over so that her thumb could slide across the palm in a massaging motion.  Considering the topic at hand, her simple action felt a whole lot more erotic than it looked, and she might as well have been massaging his dick.  The effect was about the same. 

“You want filthy, dirty as much as you want foreplay,” he declared in flash of insight, his eyes refusing to release hers without a response.  She was dressing this up as a favor to him, because she needed him to take the upper hand.   

Again the shrug, this time accompanied by a spark of heat.  “I know I want the foreplay, and I can’t think of anything you might wanna do that isn’t okay.  You take it from there.”

His heart raced with an excitement that he'd previously experienced only when riding a motorcycle way too fast. 

“Lilah Jane,” he warned softly.  “Are you very, very sure about this?”

Her eyes dilated so completely that her pupil obliterated all color from them, but she didn’t look away.  Her gaze stayed locked into his, and she saw whatever it was she saw when she tried to look into his soul.

“Yes, Anthony.  I am.”

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