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Chapter 1: Hungry Like the Cat
It was a mild and sunny December day that struck terror into the heart of young Lila.
She pul ed into the first parking area she saw at the winery, wheels squealing, heart nearly leaping with anxiety out of the car before she had a chance to stand. It was already two thirty in the afternoon, thanks to a wrong turn she’d taken on the long and winding road that led from highway 101 through Southern Sonoma county to Endicott Vineyards.
Surveying the tal , stately cypress trees that lined the path toward the main property, Lila felt a cold kick of panic in her gut. Tonight was her company’s holiday party and she, somehow, found herself in charge of coordinating the event. She’d inherited the task just two weeks ago from another member of AdSale’s Client Relations team. Mariana, trusted with the firm’s toniest events, had been party planning for over a decade. Lila had never done it before. Whether it was a black tie VIP mixer at The Four Seasons or a backyard soiree for 200 of her closest family and friends, Mariana knew how to organize a party. Lila knew how to maintain a database.
Unfortunately, Mariana’s maternity leave, planned for January, had begun in early December. Apparently babies—even those born to famously Type A, triple-check-the-crossed-Ts-and-dotted-Is event planning veterans—operated on their own schedules. Mariana’s firm grip on the event’s reigns had instantly gone slack as she’d turned her ful attention to her healthy but three-week-early baby. “I set it al up,” she’d assured her in the one panicked cal Lila had al owed herself to make. “Don’t worry. I put the wheels in motion. They’re pros at Endicott. They do parties al the time.” Lila had stil wanted to make the drive up last week to check on things, but she’d been guaranteed by the vineyard’s event staff that it wasn’t necessary; everything was going according to plan.
She should have made the trip up anyway.
Propel ed as she was by anxiety along the path, she didn’t notice the soft rush of a gentle breeze gliding through the trees. Nor did she notice the playful y winding trail the ivy made along a low, stone wal . Instead, hand to her stomach, she felt the familiar ache of stress and nerves along with the additional pang of hunger. She hadn’t had time for breakfast, or lunch for that matter, but she couldn’t imagine eating a bite.
Wrapping her camelhair coat around herself more tightly, Lila was aware of the irony. When she’d first moved to Northern California from Massachusetts five years ago she’d scoffed at al of the bundling up at 50 degrees. Now she was one of them, tucking a scarf tightly around her neck to ward off the chil .
Passing through a latticework archway, Lila arrived at the vineyard’s expansive courtyard. Surrounded by cobblestone, a grey marble fountain rose in the center, water burbling down two tiers. No giant, naked cherubs, no lions or scenes from Greek mythology, Lila appreciated its smooth simplicity.
Behind it rose a long, large building in similarly grey stone. Softening the austerity, each window had a box fil ed with ivy and something that bore tiny white flowers—Lila was sure her Gram would know the name of it. The heavy, double wooden doors at its center were framed by large, hanging lanterns.
To the right, Lila recognized what the Endicott website referred to as “The Great Room.” Seating capacity 300, the building had French windows down its length.
Tonight, it would hold 250 of AdSale’s senior executives, board members and representatives from their most valued clients, some of whom would be flying from international locations. High-end touring buses rented, Mariana had persuaded the higher-ups that a 75 minute drive up from San Francisco was worth it to experience Northern California’s wine country. There was a reason it was famous the world over.
Far better than a hotel bal room in the city, it would give guests a taste of laid-back luxury, essential y what AdSales pedaled: The Good Life.
When they’d booked the vineyard back in May, Lila had accompanied Mariana on the site visit. Even the drive out had been stunning. Twenty minutes north of the city highway 101 turned bucolic; cows grazed along rol ing hil s which, that time of year, were stil green. Workaholic Mariana had softened right up in the setting and suggested grabbing lunch twenty minutes further, up over the ridge and down Highway 1 to the coast and smal , picturesque town of Redwood Cove.
It had almost felt as if arriving in a charming and slow-paced Brigadoon. The pounding of surf and caw of sea birds had serenaded them as they’d eaten their salads by the sea. Lila had felt some guilt over not phoning her col ege roommate, Annie, who lived there with her husband and one-year-old daughter. But she and Mariana were busy, the visit had been impromptu and she would cal Annie when she got home.
What she did instead when she got home was book a romantic three day getaway for her and Phil ip. She hadn’t planned to do it. Frankly, she’d shocked herself with her uncharacteristic boldness. It must have been the romance of Redwood Cove holding sway over her usual cautiousness. As she and Mariana had headed out of town and Lila gazed out the window awe-struck at the crashing surf, she’d spotted a ridiculously wel -situated and picturesque B&B. The owners should have dispensed with formalities and cal ed it Ideal Romantic Getaway.
She’d been seeing Phil ip, a director at AdSales, for two years now. He’d been talking about how he needed a break. He didn’t see it happening anytime soon, not during the current campaign push, but maybe during the holidays. So Lila had booked them into the B&B during the downtime between Christmas and New Year’s.
It would be perfect—time for them to get away and relax, just the two of them.
He’d been somewhat noncommittal when she’d excitedly told him about it, but she knew that was just the stress. He never thought he could take time off. That’s why Lila had to make the time for them both. He had a very stressful job, as he was always tel ing her.
Not to mention the cloak-and-daggers they had to engage in to keep their romantic relationship undetected. Interoffice romances were strictly forbidden. That’s why they real y needed this getaway.
Nearing the entrance to the Great Room, a man passed Lila wheeling in what looked to be a wagon pul ed by a plastic donkey.
Distracted, Lila stumbled on the cobblestone and reached out to steady herself on what turned out to be a giant inflatable Saguaro cactus. Face up against the green plastic—which at least cushioned her fal against the side of the building—Lila wondered at it, and at the matching six foot tal cactus on the other side of the entrance.
A strange contrast to the formal French doors and stately European feel of the grounds, Lila figured it must be some sort of vineyard quirk.
The long, well-lit room had eight or so people buzzing about, a veritable hive of activity. Nearest to the doors, a man chipped away at a block of ice. The emerging shape looked nothing like the swan she’d ordered.
“Hi.” Lila tried to adopt a calm, rational, in-charge tone. “I’m Lila, the event coordinator for AdSales. You are?” The man glanced at her with a clear look of annoyance.
“I am working.” He had a distinct French accent.
“Yes, I see that. On the ice sculpture. That I ordered.” She waited hopeful y for him to grow more friendly but instead he turned his back and continued working.
“It’s a swan, right? A swan, lifting its wings as if ready to take flight?” Careful y chosen to symbolize the turn-around their company was about to make. The man gave a deep sigh, set down his chisel, took off his gloves and rested a hand on his hip.
“It is not a swan.” His tone suggested that the idea of a swan was a deep insult.
“You do not want a swan.”
“Actual y, yes,” Lila swal owed nervously. “I do want a swan.” A VP of something or other had stopped by her cubicle last week and told her, rather cryptical y, that there should be something “uplifting” to welcome guests.
“You do not get a swan,” Both hands went up to his hips. “You get a giraffe.”
“It’s…that’s…” Lila gestured at the ice but lacked words to express how not like a swan that was.
“You are lucky I do not make the mistake of crafting what is not there. Girard looks at the block, the solid object. He knows what lies within, waiting to be released.”
Lila looked around for Girard before realizing that Girard was none other than the ice sculptor talking about himself in the third person.
Searching for someone, anyone else, Lila spotted a woman in a cropped jacket and black slacks. She was holding a clipboard and appeared to be giving orders to three twentysomethings in white shirts and black pants. Lila waved at her with the calm of a shipwrecked man on a raft spotting a rescue copter. The woman held up a finger to signal she’d be there in a moment.
Lila tugged at her own jacket, wishing it lay flat and crisp like the woman’s. Ironic how at a size two she felt less comfortable in her clothes than when she’d been a size twelve. She also, somehow, felt less pretty.
Back in the size twelve years, her loyal col ege roommate Annie had sworn she looked like Kate Middleton. The assertion might have held up better had the princess spent a few weeks in a donut shop, favored men’s overal s and had an astigmatism that required a thick eyeglass lens. Comparisons to Princess Kate didn’t work any better now, five years out of col ege, as Lila had having dropped nearly forty pounds and bleached and straightened her hair within an inch of its life. Leaving behind her
“awkward phase” as her Gram put it, she’d had LASIK surgery once she’d learned doctors gave you valium. She’d also splurged on a new wardrobe—big city advertising firm chic—featuring narrow heels, slim-cut skirts and even slimmer-fitting blouses.
Marching over with efficiency, the woman in charge gazed down at her clipboard and said, “How may I help you,” in a flat, clipped monotone.
“Lil ian Clark,” she introduced herself, trying unsuccessful y to make eye contact.
Almost everyone cal ed her Lila and she didn’t mind that, but in times of great need she pulled out the Lilian. “I’m from AdSales,” she continued, “I’m…in charge of things tonight.”
The woman looked up, obviously surprised. “Not Mariana?”
“No, she had her baby so she’s out on maternity leave and, thankful y, everything’s OK, 5 pounds 8 ounces, a baby boy—” Cutting off Lila’s stream of nervous babble before she had a chance to tel her they’d named him Mauricio and decorated the nursery with monkeys, the woman asked,
“So, you’re in charge?”
“Yes.” Lila straightened herself, wishing she felt none of the doubt expressed in Boots’ tone.
“Wel , we have everything al set for tonight.” Looking over at the end of the room where a couple of stairs led to a smal stage and a man was now climbing a ladder, the woman excused herself for a moment.
Waiting, Lila wondered where were the little white lights? In al her Phil ip Declaring His Love Holiday Party daydreams there had always been little white lights, the twinkly kind that formed the ideal backdrop for true romance.
She planned to have her hair up in a sleek chignon. She wasn’t exactly sure what a chignon was, but she knew Phil ip would love it. She’d been practicing pinning her hair back into a twist in hopes it would suffice. Together with her perfect little black dress and—gasp—red stiletto slingbacks she’d bought on impulse yesterday deciding she needed more va-va-voom in her outfit, she knew tonight had to be the night. She’d be standing to the side looking impossibly slim and sophisticated, holding a glass of champagne. Phil ip would be drawn to her like a moth to a flame and she’d turn, casual y, with an “Oh, hel o,” smiling at his wonderment as he realized that this lustrous pearl was none other than the girl he’d been seeing for the past three years without any public recognition whatsoever. Struck, as if by lightening, he would loudly and proudly make the announcement to the firm—consequences be damned, so he was a director and she a lowly client relations associate—he was in love with this gorgeous creature and he wanted the world to know it!
“OK, let’s review the list.” The woman was back. Ticking her way through items on her clipboard, she started reading: “Nacho cheese dipping station, served in sombrero. Piñata. Karaoke machine.”
“It’s…” A mix of true bafflement and horror rendered Lila almost completely dumb. To her right, an eight-foot Mexican flag unfurled with a snap from the top of the rafters. Below it, two more giant, inflatable cacti stood tal and bright green.
Elegant. Tasteful. Refined. Something to wow our top clients and board. These were the expectations for the event. “Nacho cheese dipping station?” she tried, hoping for a laugh from the woman and the reassurance that, al appearance to the contrary, she was quite the practical joker.
“Come with me.” She led Lila around the room, orienting her to the stations in various states of assembly. “It was not easy to find this,” she remarked, pointing to a giant baby-shaped piñata. Swaddled in a diaper, it had a halo over its head.
“Is that the baby Jesus?” Lila asked.
“Yes, the baby Jesus piñata you requested. Had to special order that one.”
“So…the guests take turns whacking the baby Jesus?”
“It’s got al sorts of candy inside,” she reassured Lila.
“Um, wait…” With the distinct impression she’d found her way into the wrong movie, Lila decided the best way out was simply to stop, shake her head, and wil it al not to be so. “This is not right. This is for the AdSales holiday party, right?”
“I have to admit, we were surprised by some of your requests. But Mariana was so specific. And we’ve done so many parties with her before. She’s always on top of things.”
Taking the clipboard offered her, Lila read off the printed list. It included four six-foot inflatable saguaro cacti.
“For example, you only requested beer and margaritas,” She pointed to the bullet-pointed beverage list: al caps CERVESAS! “Yet you do understand we are a winery.”
Looking at it, Lila realized “pregnancy brain” wasn’t just a cute myth. The indefatigable Mariana had clearly taken the list of supplies for her infamous, annual backyard Cinco do Mayo party and sent it to the Endicott Vineyard’s party coordinator.
For AdSales’ VIP holiday party.
“But you knew to have an ice sculpture?” Lila grasped at a straw.
“You cal ed and requested that last week.”
Back at the entrance once again for air, Lila wobbled her way out onto the cobblestone. “You know, maybe we just need to focus on this.” Lila gestured at the uneven stones she’d stumbled upon earlier. Exercising the terribly faulty judgment of one in the throes of panic, Lila ignored the inflatable cacti and arriving mariachi band in favor of the unfixable. “We need to deal with this safety issue.”
“The cobblestone. It’s so dangerous.” Near hyperventilation, Lila swal owed and found her throat strangely constricted or swol en. Maybe she was having an al ergic reaction? They stood together, the elder event planner studying Lila, the younger scrutinizing the courtyard, biting her nails and envisioning al manner of hideous accidents.
Across the way a tal man in a bulky fisherman knit sweater strol ed toward the main building of the estate. Head down, hands in the pockets of his corduroys, he moved slowly, lost in thought. He looked perfectly steady on the stones. Then again, he had on work boots.
A waiter darted up. “Are we going with the 10-foot ovals or the eight-foot?
Because last time—”
“One sec.” The event manager directed traffic, raising her left index finger to ask the staff to wait while raising her right hand to wave over the man in the sweater. Cal ing out “Jake!” she signaled, “Over here.” He looked up, slowly and not particularly thril ed about the interruption. “A question.” Pointing at Lila she then hustled with the waiter back into the room.
As Jake ambled over Lila fought the impatient urge to run toward him. He must be the groundskeeper. He had a kind-of a slow and steady way about him and looked to be about Lila’s age or a bit older, perhaps in his early 30s.
“You have a question?” he asked as he reached her.
“Yes,” she began. “It’s the cobblestone.” He stood with his arms crossed against his chest. “It’s dangerous.” He kept looking at her, but now with a slight tilt to his head.
Suffused with the enormity of the impending calamity, Lila continued in a rush, “In about half an hour we’re going to have 250 people—maybe even more if they didn’t RSVP
and that’s so likely because we sent out invitations with the reply card in the mail but who even reads their mail anymore—”
“I read my mail.”
“OK, but what I’m trying to say is there’s going to be hundreds of people showing up for this party and how are they even going to get inside without breaking their necks?” Though she detested the shril note her voice reached and the inexplicable flail her hand made, anxiety triumphed over embarrassment. “It’s a disaster!” Jake looked from Lila to the courtyard and back again. Not so much alarmed as puzzled with a hint of annoyance.
“Wel ?” Lila nearly shrieked. “What are you going to do about it?” Raking a hand through his dark, unruly hair Jake exhaled, “Do about it?”
“How are you going make sure everyone’s safe? Because, I don’t see safe here.” Lila gestured around her wildly. “I see broken wrists. I see trips to the ER.”
“You want me to do something about the cobblestone?” he asked, seeming to just register her request. “This cobblestone cemented into the ground?”
“Yes, whatever.” Lila dismissed the irrelevant details. “This dangerous, uneven surface.”
“This is a replica of a fountain in Tuscany.” Drawing up to his ful height, Jake made the statement as if it explained everything.
“I don’t care what it’s replicating!” Lila’s panic rose in direct proportion to the degree to which it was ignored. “People wil fal on the way from the parking lot!”
“What, exactly, do you propose we do about it?” “I don’t know! That’s your job!” Her hands flew up once again in exasperation.
“Put some bubble wrap down over it!” Immediately hearing a popping soundtrack accompanying the imaginary scene of chaos, Lila revised, “No, throw a tarp over it! Yes, that’s it! A nice tarp.” She looked out over the courtyard, wondering what exactly a nice tarp would look like. Black? Could they find one with some shimmer?
“You want me to put a tarp down over the cobblestone?” he repeated, incredulous. “Or, I’ve got it!” He snapped his fingers and Lila looked up for a moment in hope. “I could carry the guests. I could be a shuttle. They could hop on my back and I could run them into the bal room.” Lila’s mouth opened in shock at the rudeness.
Then, to her complete disbelief, he turned and simply walked away. Not in a hurry, no angry huff, the same nonchalant pace he’d assumed prior to learning about the crisis. Appal ed, she watched him in stunned silence as he headed down a paved path along the side of the building. It was a flat, safe, handicapped accessible path that she’d somehow missed before, leading directly to an adjacent parking lot.
As a hot flush of embarrassment flooded her cheeks, Endicott’s event coordinator appeared once again at her side. “Now about the margarita maker. It’s in a wagon being pul ed by a plastic donkey.”
Looking inside the French doors, Lila found herself locked in a gaze with a large and unrepentant ice giraffe.
Phil ip was not looking at her. That much was obvious. Lila had been standing in a clean line of his vision chatting—or more listening while her co-worker, Allison, chatted—for at least 20 minutes now. Other than a perfunctory kiss on the cheek and a distracted “Don’t you look nice,” he’d been MIA.
Actual y, it was worse than that she thought with a grimace and took a big sip of champagne. He was total y in action, just not with her. He’d been wrapped up with Axel e, the Parisian director who worked out of the New York office. Effortlessly glamorous Axel e, so tiny she could just about fit in your pocket. There they were, in a smal circle with the board chair, a vice president and a giant man in a tux and cowboy hat. Just now Axel e was leaning into Phil ip with laughter. And there he was, debonair and gorgeous as always, inclining his head toward hers, his hand resting oh-so-casual y on the smal of her back. Her bare back.
Lila took another sip of her champagne and wondered how Axel e pul ed it off—
wearing a red, backless dress to the company party and stil managing to look sophisticated and professional. In her black off-the-rack Ann Taylor dress Lila felt like a 50-something career nanny. The red-dressed stick laughed again, this time leaning back and flipping her long, honey-streaked hair in a cascade. Lila wished she could take hers down from what now felt like a schoolmarm bun, but she’d pretty much shel acked her hair up into a fire hazard.
Looking at her watch, she realized dessert was due to be served in 15 minutes.
Here’s hoping that Endicott crew was great at fixing up microwave brownies. Before the party began, she and the waitstaff had had time to take down the Mexican flag, dismantle the Baby Jesus pinata, deflate the cacti and send home the Mariachi band with a nice tip for their troubles. Nothing could be done, however, about the Mexican flag sheet cakes large enough to serve 100. About 150 less than the number of guests.
“Oh my God! Karaoke!” Allison squealed next to her. “You didn’t tel me we were going to have karaoke!”
“We’re not,” Lila said, turning toward the dance floor. Where the DJ was announcing the next portion of the evening’s entertainment: Karaoke! Pressing her fingers against her forehead, Lila made a direct line toward the DJ. She thought she’d cleared it up: light jazz as guests filtered in, swing standards as people dined at buffet stations and mil ed about, moving into 70s/80s classics to top off the evening with some dancing. No open-mike invitations for drunks bel owing out “Only the Lonely” or, worse, ranting against rumored company lay-offs.
“Excuse me,” She cleared her throat behind the DJ. Garnering no response, she tapped him on the shoulder.
“Oh, ho!” he chortled into his microphone and turned down the music. “We have our first volunteer!” What seemed to be a good half of the party guests turned their heads expectantly in Lila’s direction to watch the DJ ask, “And what’l it be?”
“No!” Her horrified reply reverberated throughout the tent, sending a ripple of laughter through the guests. Backing away, she raised her hands as if to ward him off.
“Stil deciding. I get it.” The DJs voice glided back into the mic, adding, “Here’s a little something to keep you al hot while we’re waiting for her to warm up.” The speakers started pumping out the opening beat to “Disco Inferno.”
“Ohmygod, are you not going now?” A rush of excitement grabbed Lila’s arm.
Two company interns fresh out of col ege pressed in close. “Because we have the perfect song.”
“Seriously. It’s. Going. To. Rock.” The other intern grabbed her other arm.
Lila tried to untangle herself as she asked the DJ, “Hey, why are you doing karaoke?”
“What, babe?” The DJ looked up, giving her a sliver of attention as he readied the karaoke machine.
“No, why?” She tried to sound more authoritative than plaintive. “Why karaoke?
You’re not supposed to.”
“What’s that, babe?” The DJ was now surrounded by the interns who were jumping up and down like 3-year-olds in anticipation of their favorite song.
“The contract! It’s not in the contract to do karaoke!” Lila nearly yel ed, adding with desperation, “I’m the party planner!”
“Good, good,” the DJ slipped his hand around her waist and added, conspiratorial y, “We’re gonna kick this party up a notch. DJ Daddy’s in the house.” Lila’s groaned “oh my God” went unheard as DJ Daddy turned his attention back to the 22-year-old interns.
“I can’t believe you just jumped right in!” Lila’s co-worker, Allison, appeared at her side, eyes wide with surprise. “I never knew you had it in you! Need some help picking a song?”
“OK, so if you real y want to do some vocal stylin’…” Allison nattered on as Lila grabbed a glass of champagne off a passing waiter’s tray, catching the steely eye of a partner as she did. It was one of the top guys in the Chicago office. A pretty conservative guy. He was probably wondering why the hel a couple of 22-year-olds had now taken over the annual corporate gathering’s entertainment singing about how their milkshake brings al the boys to the yard.
Not a good night to be Lila’s nails. Or cuticles. Bit to the quick.
Heading away from the show and searching desperately for Phil ip, Lila scanned the crowd. Maybe he was making his way over to her right now to check in and see how she was doing on the big night.
Or maybe he was in a far corner leaning into that wee slip of a thing in red and murmuring in her ear.
The next passing waiter lost two champagne glasses to Lila, one of which she emptied in about five seconds. Out the window, the vineyard’s expansive grounds beckoned. Would anyone notice if she vaulted over the hedge never to be seen again?
“You are total y not going to believe who’s here!” Allison squealed by her side. “I just did a little recon and had it al confirmed.” Fuzzy, Lila wondered how long Allison had been gone with her ‘recon’ while she’d had another two—or was it three?—glasses of champagne. “Now, you have to promise not to look when I tel you where to look.” After a dramatic pause, Allison stage-whispered, “Jake Endicott!”
“Jake? Endicott?” Lila echoed, not sure why the names rang a dim bel as she scanned the crowd.
“Endicott!” Allison nodded, “As in, Endicott Vineyards! Where we are right now?” Exasperated at Lila’s lack of reaction, she added, “His family owns al this! He’s, like, the hottest bachelor in the entire Bay Area.” Resuming the momentum of her monologue, Allison continued, “I can’t believe he’s here! I mean, I’d hoped but I never real y expected…” Lila scanned the crowd which had al started looking like a smudged pastel painting. “He’s at 3 o’clock behind me,” Allison added. “I mean, no, 9 o’clock.” There, in a cluster with the CFO and two members of AdSales’ board, stood the dark-haired groundskeeper she’d yel ed at earlier about the cobblestones. In place of the Fisherman-knit sweater he now sported a sleek black dinner jacket. He looked right at home in it.
“Lila, you’re starring at him!” Allison hissed, turning around herself. Her eyes widened as she added, “And he’s staring right back at you!”
“That’s Jake Cotton…End?” Lila asked, wondering how the surly groundskeeper had somehow turned into the heir to the vineyard hosting the party. There he was, hob-knobbing with some of the most powerful and important people in her firm. Giving her a decidedly disapproving frown.
“Endicott,” Allison corrected. “How many glasses of champagne have you had, anyway?”
Turning toward a passing waitress, Lila grabbed some more. As she did, she detected a distinct glower in her direction from the Heir Apparent. Turning away, she found herself staring at the lovebirds in yet another ‘I touch your chest, you touch my back, You’re So Hilarious’ laugh. Over in the corner, a smal plastic donkey sat patiently next to his Margarita wagon.
The snap that happened within Lila wasn’t the sort that you could hear. It had the silent sound of a tiny card slipping out of place at the bottom of an elaborately constructed house, nay tower of cards. Or, perhaps, the sound of letting go, hands opening up and off the bar that Lila had been clinging to with such determination.
Over toward the dance floor, the karaoke machine beckoned with a siren’s song.
She looked down at yet another empty champagne glass.
Lila’s bedroom was dark but not dark enough. Light pierced through a crack underneath the shade and Lila wondered what could be done about it. Theoretical y, it was just a few feet away from the bed and easy to reach, but that would require movement which was completely out of the question. She wondered if she could text one of her roommates to come in and pul the shade down for her, but then she’d have to find her phone and press al those buttons. With a groan, she sank deeper into the pil ows and pul ed one more firmly over her eyes.
A few hours later, Lila found herself conscious again and managed to squint at the clock. 1:33. AM or PM? Focusing on a crack in the ceiling of her apartment she hazily remembered that it was the morning after the party. Or the afternoon after the party. She vaguely recal ed being in the backseat of her car as Allison drove them home. And getting sick in the backseat of her car.
Hand to her mouth with another groan, Lila rol ed to her side. Thankful y, the wave of nausea passed and she found herself contemplating the black dress bal ed up on the floor next to the bed. And the red slingbacks next to it—or at least one of them…
Lila’s curiosity gave her the energy to reach down and grab a second bit of red, pul ing it out from under the bed. What was it exactly? It looked like half of a chopstick.
With another groan she lay back, realizing it was the stiletto heel from her second shoe. Oh God, she thought she remembered that now, the heel breaking off, but when, exactly? Hoisting herself into a sitting position, she dangled her legs off the bed and realized that her left ankle was sore. Throbbing, actual y. Left ankle, left shoe—Lila did remember limping around as the evening progressed. She attempted to run a hand through her hair. It got stuck in a mass of sticky stiffness like frozen cotton candy.
Cursing hairspray, stilettos and most of al champagne, she sank back down again onto the bed vowing she would never drink again. Never. Ever. Again.
After the lapse of another couple of hours, Lila final y made it out onto the futon in the main room of the apartment. She used al of her remaining power to pul up a blanket from the floor and wondered where her roommates were. They were pros at this kind of thing, making quick work of the most vile hangover with vitamin water, cigarettes and a shopping expedition.
But it seemed as if Lila was alone with memories from last night relentlessly playing in her head like a bad movie.
There she was, up at the karaoke machine. A star in the making, lurching around and belting out a Pretender’s song: “Gonna make you, make you, make you notice me!” Not so much singing as real y sticking it to the audience. Sort-of an angry yel , real y, as she warned them al , “Gonna use my style!” Hand on her stuck-out hip, she’d FELT that song. She hadn’t even needed the teleprompter. “Gonna use my sas-say!” And there it was—the memory of how she’d broken her heel right off her stiletto.
Her attempt at a super-sexy karate kick had become an enormous twist and crash to the floor, taking an intern down with her. It was the same intern she’d grabbed the mic from earlier, slurring “Lemme show you how it’s done.” Lila pul ed the blanket over her head. But, stil , the memories found her. She and the intern had gone down with the karate kick. Her stiletto heel hadn’t. It had sailed smack into the forehead of the CEO of a hot new Silicon Val ey tech company, leaving a dark, red welt.
Scrunching further down on the couch, Lila wondered again where her roommates were when she needed them? Not that they were ever “there” for each other the way it happened in made-for-TV movies, but they were, at least, a great distraction.
Valeria—whose biggest contribution to the apartment was the careless shrug of her tanned and silky shoulder as she dismissed al cleaning with “I am Venezuelan” (emphasis and a lispy “th” on the third syl able)—and Venice—straight out of LA, or San Bernadino to be exact—loved to engage in competitive party recal .
“I was sooo wasted last night,” one would begin.
“I was total y wasted,” the other would echo, adding “I think I did, like, four tequila shots.”
“I did, like eight.”
“I remember licking salt off some guy’s fingers.”
“I total y licked salt off some girl’s boobs.” And so on. No doubt Lila’s drunken karaoke would sound like innocent preteen play. They’d make it al sound total y normal that she’d not only sung “Hungry Like the Wolf” but acted it out. Lots of pawing at the air, clawing and hissing. Making angry yowls. A bit more like a cat, she realized.
Her phone rang. “Sweetie, is that you?” Lila’s Gram’s voice reached through, sounding crackly and close al at once.
Lila bit back a sob at the homey, welcoming sound. “Hey, Gram,” she managed.
It was Sunday night, time for their weekly cal . Lila could picture her Gram sitting on her overstuffed floral sofa. The saltbox cottage where she’d grown up in Hyannis, MA was tiny and Lila, her mother and her Gram had al had to compete for limited space with a variety of figurines, doilies and a rotating pack of dogs taken in with various war wounds. Depending on the time of day and year, a Red Sox game might be on the radio. As much as she’d fled it al , Lila wished she could transport back for the night to hang out on the couch with Gram, snacking on popcorn and watching an old Errol Flynn swashbuckler.
“How was the big night?” Gram asked.
“Um,” she hesitated. She was almost positive that her Gram had never both verbal y and physical y assaulted people with drunk, angry karaoke. After realizing that Phil ip had left the party without her but very much with Axel e, Lila believed she remembered launching into a screechingly ironic rendition of the Pointer Sisters’ “It’s Raining Men! Hal elujah!” Screaming to your company’s top executives, board members and VIP clients about being absolutely soaking wet with men…she was pretty sure that was a party “don’t.”
“I twisted my ankle?” Lila offered.
“Oh dear! Badly?”
“Can’t real y tel . I haven’t done much walking on it yet.” Lila stretched her leg out and propped her ankle up on a cushion. She real y should be icing it but the freezer was al the way 10 feet over in the kitchen.
“Put some ice on it and prop it up,” Gram instructed. “And wrap an ace bandage around it just in case.”
“Gram, it was so awful!” she found herself admitting, her Gram’s care and concern breaking her down. “Everything went wrong. There was al this Cinco de Mayo stuff like a plastic donkey pul ing a Margarita cart and a Mexican flag cake and the DJ
set up karaoke even though he was just supposed to play music and my hair feels like—” Lila paused to give her shel acked hair a feel. “Like an angry pineapple.”
“Lila,” Gram laughed not unkindly. “What’s this about sinks?”
“Cinco de Mayo.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as al that.”
“I kicked my shoe off into a guy’s forehead.” At this, even Gram had to pause. “Did he need stitches?”
“No.” But they’d closed down the karaoke afterward, sidelining Lila and returning the DJ to light jazz standards.
“Dear, how is it you came to be in charge of this again?”
“Mariana had her baby.”
“Oh! How lovely! Boy or girl? How’s she doing?” Giving Gram the baby facts, Lila mental y added ‘unsympathetic’ to her long list of personal flaws. Last night, especial y while stuffing what seemed to be thousands of tortil a chips into garbage bags as they dismantled the nacho cheese dipping fountain, she’d devoted a good deal of energy to silently cursing the new mother for her failings.
“At any rate,” Gram continued, “I’m sure you looked lovely. The black dress you described sounded so tasteful and elegant.”
Lila gave a decidedly un-tasteful and inelegant snort. “I don’t know what happened, Gram. In the store it was perfect but at the party I looked so…Nanny 911.”
“Someone cal ed 911?”
“No, I mean I felt al buttoned down in some sort of shapeless black sack. There was this French partner there in this tiny little red thing.”
“Wel , we can’t al be French, Lila,” Gram wisely observed. “But we can al wear lovely scarves now that Oprah has shown us how to do it. You know, draped or in that funny square knot I showed you. Or if it’s a shorter one, you can look so jaunty—”
“Yes, Gram,” Lila interrupted and then immediately felt bad about doing so. “I’m sorry,” she continued. “I’m grouchy and whiny. It’s just, I have to go into work tomorrow morning and face everyone and I have this massive pit in my stomach.”
“Best to meet it al head-on,” Gram advised. “Know your worth. And wear a nice scarf.” Lila had to smile. “Thanks, Gram.”
Closing her eyes and listening to the gossip from Gram’s circle of friends—
Dottie’s son just had another baby girl, Fran and Frank were heading off to Florida next week—everything felt OK. After saying their goodbyes, Lila took a deep breath and decided it was time to ral y.
First order of business: drinking some water. Moving slowly, she made her way to the apartment’s tiny, bare kitchen. Checking the freezer, she was shocked and thril ed to find ice in the ice tray. Venice and Valeria typical y used it for sugar free jel o shots.
Standing at the sink, sipping water and looking out onto the dark city street below, Lila decided the party couldn’t have been al that bad. So, she’d had a few drinks and sang a little. Wasn’t that what you were supposed to do at a holiday party? What she needed to do was go pick out a fierce outfit for work the next day and show up looking radiant. She had to be feeling better by then and a little mineral makeup could give her a nice glow. She’d just walk in and get right to work, efficient, lovely and impervious to al criticism. After al , how bad could last night real y have been?
On the counter her iPhone made a little chirp. A new text message. It was from Alison, her friend from work: “OMG U R on youtube!!!”
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This page contains the first chapter of Christmas in Wine Country by Addison Westlake as a sample. This sample has been published with permission from the author and/or publisher of Christmas in Wine Country, whoever originally submitted the book for review.