She’s good at sorting out professional messes…
He’s in the middle of a personal trial…
Zip jogged up the stairs of the East 53rd and Lexington station, the Friday Midtown crowd already thickening. Her stiff neck ached, and her back pinched with every step. Tax season had to be the absolute worst, with everyone wanting to claim the best deductions, but failing to keep the best records. She’d been with Slemien & Karter for five years, and they still handed her the box cases—boxes full of receipts, scraps of notebook paper and, the worst, Post-its with an order number and, if she was lucky, a dollar amount.
She seemed to spend the months of February, March, and April explaining to some women that they couldn’t write off their sexy lingerie as a business expense because it made them feel powerful under their business suits, while encouraging other women to record their restaurant receipts for power lunches. The world lived in a sad reality when a woman would rather claim her lacy underthings because they were sexy than keep a receipt for the long business lunch that made her blow her diet.
At the top of the stairs, she dodged out of the way of the people behind her and paused to glance at the gray skies overhead. Snow threatened, but the mild winter temps were still hovering in the upper thirties. She’d traded out her Salvatore Ferragamos for a pair of blue-green Skechers shape-ups. The five-hundred foot walk to Lexington toward Coveted—one of the best bars in Midtown—hardly counted as a workout, but it combined well with the stairs at either end of her subway ride. With the half-mile hike to the subway and the fifteen flights of stairs at her office, she didn’t need a gym.
The walk definitely worked off the calories she planned to indulge in at Friday happy hour with her girls. After shifting her laptop bag from one shoulder to the other, she fixed her backpack strap. The pair of bags were another curse of the season.
Glad she’d skipped her black pencil skirt for the navy A-line with its flare around the knees, she set a brisk pace on the breezy street. The matching navy jacket didn’t do much to keep the cold out, and her nipples puckered against the yellow silk blouse. But she loved New York in February—the snappy cold, the post-holiday hustle, and the reduction of tourists throughout Midtown’s hotspots.
No line waited in front of Coveted, and Johnny held the door open as she descended three steps to the entrance.
“Hey, doll. You’re early.” The doorman doubled as a bouncer when the club was pumping, but so early on a Friday it would only be regulars.
“Hey, Johnny.” Zip kissed his cheek. He closed the door behind her and gave her an arm while she tugged off the Skechers and swapped them out for her Ferragamos. The four-inch heels brought her up to his height. Once she regained her balance, he squeezed her elbow and let her go. “Are we in a Frank mood, tonight?” she asked. The low, easy tones of Sinatra’s I’ve Got the World on a String echoed through the speakers.
“Oh, yeah. Keeps the natives from getting restless.” Johnny winked and held her laptop bag while she stowed the Skechers in her backpack. “Your girls aren’t here yet, but your table is waiting.” Five years of Friday nights had earned her the kind of personal service that made Coveted the most desirable spot for the Martini Sisterhood to convene their weekly ritual.
“Who’s playing downstairs?”
“Lone Star D and Daddy Puff.” Johnny handed her the laptop case. “You want any of that in the coat-room lock-up?”
“Nah. I’m good.” She finger-combed her hair and smoothed her jacket. “I don’t suppose….”
“Tony’s at the bar.” The man’s easy grin said it all, and Zip fought the rush of heat in the blush that swept through her. Tony Giordano, her favorite bartender, gave her wicked thoughts plenty of fantasy material.
“No problem, sweetheart. Have fun tonight.” He returned to his spot by the door and opened it to admit more regulars, a pair of women who breezed through and down the stairs to the dance bar with its DJs, pulsing music, and flashing lights. The Sisterhood preferred the lounge level with its glossy décor, shimmering metal, polished wood, and mirrored panels.
Tony holding court at the bar always rated a plus in her book. The six-foot-plus, dark-haired god put the stallion in Italian. Her heart skipped a beat as she reached the top step and Tony slanted a look in her direction. The corners of his mouth turned upward into a genuine grin. Wide shoulders bulged beneath his white dress shirt. Muscled pectorals no number of buttons could conceal strained the pristine cotton. The bronzed beauty of his face—the razor-hard jaw, dimples in his cheeks, and the coup de grace of his blindingly blue eyes—all combined into one dizzying package of God, I wish I could go there.
“Evening, sweetheart.” Even his Brooklyn accent rolled the words together into a caress that went straight to her pussy and left her wet and weeping.
Tucking her hand more firmly around her bag straps, she mustered a smile of her own. One that hopefully said its-good-to-see-you-and-no-I’m-not-thinking-about-stripping-you-naked. “Hi, Tony.”
She mentally applauded the cool reserve in her tone. He’d arrived at Coveted long after the Sisterhood, but a year of saying hi, chatting with him at the bar when the girls were late, or just staring at him from across the room, made him as much a part of their ritual as their standing date for Friday evening drinks. Hell, even the pumps she wore, with their extra inches of height, were purchased with Tony in mind.
She loved his eyes.
Resisting the urge to smack herself, she mimed a walking motion with her fingers and pointed to her booth. The Sisterhood reserved the corner table every Friday, and only once in five years had she occupied it alone. It happened to have been a stormy night and Tony’s first week on the job.
The delicious Italian had kept her company, checking on her regularly throughout the evening and earning a firm place in her wettest of dreams. But Tony was taken—or at least he had been then. She’d since heard a waitress commenting he was back to being single and had been for a few months. Not that this made him available to Zip. She’d resigned herself to the friend category. Despite his playful interest, he’d never made a move. Still, her nipples peaked at the thought, and a lonely ache squeezed between her legs.
Fresh roses sat in the middle of their favorite booth. She paused, still half-imagining Tony out of his shirt. The white flowers were in full, radiant bloom and smelled delicious. Tiffany, their regular waitress, met her at the table with a glass of white wine. Zip always started with wine if she came in first, saving the martini pitchers for when the girls arrived.
“Happy Anniversary from Tony and the other bartenders.” Tiffany set the glass in front of her and grinned. Hell, it was their anniversary. Five years of Friday night happy hours at the Coveted. Funny that the bartenders would remember the correct date and she hadn’t.
“Thank you!” She twisted to see Tony watching her with a hint of his usual humor dimpling his cheeks. He winked and blew her a kiss before a customer dropping onto a barstool captured his attention. Zip sighed and shoved her bags into the booth her before scooting in.
“Did you want to order the appetizers or wait for the other ladies?” Tiffany had been serving them for about three months, ever since their favorite waiter, Roger, moved on to a new job. The bottle blonde was perky, sweet, and seemed irresistibly young—she reminded Zip of herself as a college freshman—most of the girls had agreed on that, except for Lucy. Lucy swore Zip had never been that upbeat.
“I’ll wait. We’re all due tonight, and I have some work I can do while I wait.” Zip addressed Tiffany warmly, but her attention focused on Tony. He was mixing a drink and chatting with a businessman at the bar. His too-serious expression firmed the line between his brows. Tipping the wine glass up to her lips, she smiled. The wine’s sweetness swirled around her tongue. Tony never forgot her penchant for the sweeter whites and their fruity bouquets.
Tension coiled through her blood while she watched him. Dragging her gaze away proved a challenge, but she fished her iPad out of the laptop case and flipped it open. She could review her latest client’s fiasco of bookkeeping, or she could dive into shimmering Hawaiian landscapes and delicious alpha males claiming their women. She selected the e-book application and sighed.
With a half-look over the top of the iPad, she had no trouble imagining Tony in the role of the man tying his lady to the spanking platform. She caught the quick glance he tossed her way, and her sex clenched. Oh, no trouble at all.
Exhaling a steadying breath, she took another sip of wine and dove into the decadence of reading a little harmless sex.
“Bring on the martinis,” Veronica McNeil demanded after striding across the populated lounge to the table. In ones and twos, the ladies around Zip called out a greeting to the leggy blonde with a Barbie-doll-perfect figure, dressed in a sexy, red business suit. An attorney, Veronica looked like a sex kitten; too many lawyers made the mistake of assuming she actually was one when dealing with her. Her usual, warm sassiness made her seem wound too tight and brittle around the edges. She shoved Kaley over with a nudge of her briefcase and all but collapsed gracelessly onto the edge of their round.
Sitting in the middle, Zip shifted her gaze from Jem and Lucy on her left, to Kaley and Veronica on her right. Veronica ignored all the wine glasses on the table and waved Tiffany over. The waitress had already shifted to bring their order to the table.
“Keep ’em coming.” Veronica shrugged out of her suit jacket, revealing the creamy gold blouse beneath. It went spectacularly with her platinum blonde hair and set off her hazel eyes. “What?”
Zip cocked a brow, but Doctor Lucy took the direct approach and leaned forward, chin propped in her hand. “Spill.”
“Cheating son of a bitch has been fucking his secretary three times a week from two until four. She’s pregnant, he’s freaked, and I dumped him. What’s with the white roses?”
“Tonight’s pick is the Zanzibar cocktail, shaken—not stirred.” Tiffany interrupted any responses with a pitcher of martinis and five full glasses. She traded those out for the nearly empty glasses from earlier.
Trust Tony to mix a sweet martini with a kick. They could all use it that night. Zip pursed her lips. Alcohol would numb, but they didn’t need to get sloppy drunk. “Sampler platters?”
“On it.” Tiffany sailed away, tray high as she weaved through the rapidly filling lounge. The cold chased the regulars into the room where Frank and Dino soothed the week’s stresses.
Kaley wrapped an arm around Veronica and gave the Valkyrie a side squeeze. “We’re sorry, Ronnie.”
“No worries.” Veronica’s too-tense grimace twisted her lips white beneath their pale gloss. “I am so the hell better off without him.”
“His loss.” Lucy retrieved her glass.
“Hope his secretary ties his balls in a knot,” Jem offered by way of a toast.
Zip raised her glass, and Kaley mirrored the action. All five clinked their glasses together and rinsed the bad taste in men down with a whoosh of alcohol. Zip coughed as the alcohol detonated like a cherry bomb of fire in her belly. “Whew, that’s strong.”
“Hell, yeah.” Lucy laughed and pulled out her phone, aimed it right at Veronica and snapped three quick pictures, capturing for posterity the twisted grimace of bitterness and the wince of tartness that wrinkled her face.
“Thanks for that.” Veronica watered down her dry tone with another swallow of the martini.
“Just want a reminder if you start getting nostalgic for the cheating son of a bitch in a few days.” Lucy waved her phone and tapped her glass to Jem’s. What else were friends for, but to remind one of god-awful mistakes made in the past? Veronica may have been the worst when it came to terrible mistakes. She’d already divorced Cheating Bastard Number One a few years before, and she had been on the fast track to wedded hell with Cheating Bastard Number Two.
“Anyway.” Veronica waved a manicured hand. “What’s with the flowers?”
“It’s our anniversary.” Zip relaxed, content. Camaraderie, friendship, bitchiness, and laughter defined their Friday nights. Tony working across the room—his gaze colliding with hers in between mixing drinks—revved her system more than the alcohol. Surrounded by her four besties made the evening perfect. No matter how bad the week, those few hours were worth it. Through thickening waistlines, eating disorders, bad boyfriends, two failed marriages, and Kaley’s miscarriage the year before, they’d held the line against life’s body blows for more than a decade. Their weekly ritual involved drinks, laughter, male-bashing as needed, and the kind of encouragement and support only estrogen could provide.
“Anniversary?” Veronica’s perfectly plucked eyebrows gathered together in a frown. “Who the hell is celebrating an anniversary?” She pointed her way around the table. “Single. Single. Painfully single. Single, and now single.” Zip ignored the biting reminder that she’d been single the longest.
In her defense, she had the worst taste in men, but she indulged Veronica because bitterness stung the open wound of betrayal—which was as much about her pride as her feelings—and if lashing out, even in little ways, helped…. Well, Zip had her big girl thong on; she could handle it.
“We are, blondie.” Jem polished off her first martini and reached for the pitcher, careful not to slosh any of the decadent treat. She offered refills to everyone. “Five years we’ve been gathering at Coveted, and the management noticed.”
“Actually, I think it was Tony. You know, the lick-him-up-one-side-and-down-the-other bartender who keeps staring at Zip like he could eat her up?” Lucy smiled beatifically.
“Why do you think it’s Tony?” Zip sat up a little straighter, covering her discomfort with another drink. The martini joined the wine in a waltz through her senses.
Kaley snorted, and Jem shook her head.
“Hopeless,” Jem muttered. “She’s hopeless.”
“We’re all hopeless. Maybe she should get a job here. Then she’d have to notice the gorgeous guy. You like ’em when you work with them.” Veronica bit off the last word and then sighed. “Sorry, that was bitchy.”
“At least it put some glitter in your bitchiness.” Zip grinned around the sting. But she couldn’t say Veronica had it wrong. Her taste in men always seemed to extend to the ones she worked with, shared a class with, or had been bribed into tutoring. It always seemed to lead to mediocre sex and oxygen-sucking implosions. Fortunately, her last mistake had taken a job elsewhere, leaving the very married senior partner and his two gay associates in her office. All were definitely off limits to her imprudent affections.
True to form, Zip’s friends noticed her distraction, and Kaley stretched an arm around her. Easily the most affectionate of their circle, Kaley gave hugs that were warmer than a mom’s and offered just as much comfort. “I say we toast to friendship, laughter, and the best sisters a woman could have.”
A round of hear-hears followed, and they clinked glasses again. Veronica caught Zip’s gaze and mouthed an apology, and Zip winked. All was forgiven. The laughter began to flow as freely as the alcohol. Tiffany swooped in, delivering platters of steamed veggies, diced cheeses, chicken fingers, and more. She carried away the pitcher, returning with another round.
Jem lifted her glass. “Let’s say farewell to losers with their deflated egos and tiny cocks, and hello to better prospects deserving of women like us.”
That speech received another resounding hear-hear and the ladies clinked glasses for the third time. Zip swallowed down another wave of unhappiness with the toast. The pleasant buzz of friendship and alcohol soothed a lot of hurts.
“You know”—Kaley reached for a fried mozzarella stick and stroked it through the marinara sauce—“since we’re all single, we could sign up for a dating service….”
“Oh, no. No. No. And, no.” Lucy vetoed the idea. “Steve and Jim were both dating services disasters. Never again.”
“We could swing for the other team.” Veronica plucked a fried zucchini from the platter. “I’d definitely go for any of you.”
“Ugh.” Jem shook her head. “Why ruin a great friendship for some tawdry sex? If you just need a good time, I have a sweet little button toy I can give you.”
Bawdy humor rebounded through the group, and Zip chuckled into her glass. It was almost sad that they’d all been on the hunt for Mr. Right since college and barely been able to latch onto Mr. Right Now.
Happy hour stretched into the dinner service, and Frank was crooning to them about pennies from heaven when Jem waved a piece of Manchego from the plundered appetizer platter. “So, guess what bomb they dropped on my desk an hour before the weekend?”
A marketing associate, she thrived in the last-minute world of advertising campaigns and product reinvention. She wouldn’t bring the subject up if she weren’t completely enthused about it.
“Viagra?” Veronica snarked.
Kaley choked on a chuckle, pressing a hand to her lips to contain the martini before she snorted it over everyone. “Lube.”
“Hmm….” Lucy pinched one eye shut, a mellow smile on her lips. “I’m thinking something boring, like cereal.”
Zip hiccupped, crossing her arms as Jem stared at her expectantly. “Erotic Candyland.”
“So close, and yet so far.” Jem mimed a drum roll. “The Magic 8 Ball.”
Another round of silence met her pronouncement, followed by barely suppressed giggles.
“You know,” she continued blithely, ignoring their amused derision. “The shake-it ball that answers all your questions?”
“We know.” Zip leaned her head back against the seat, watching Tony through the half-golden glow of the restaurant’s lighting. They’d dimmed it as evening ticked into night, giving the room a more intimate atmosphere. Tony tilted his head to the side while he listened to another bartender and polished a glass with a white cloth. His fingers moved, sure and easy, and he never lost his rhythm.
“What are you supposed to do with it?” Of the five of them, only Kaley wasn’t tied to her career. She enjoyed a more bohemian, artistic lifestyle. “They sell them in dollar stores now.”
“Reinvent it for the digital age. They want to push the product as an app for smart phones, digital tablets, and as a web browser add-on, kind of like Google’s I’m-feeling-lucky button, only it would work on all the sites you visited and give you feedback.”
Lucy’s mouth pursed into a moue. “Yeah, I’m not seeing that.”
“Me neither.” Jem sighed. “But there it is, and I have to present some concepts first thing Monday morning.”
“Well, happy weekend to you.” Zip felt for her friend. Weekends were supposed to be downtime, not marathon work sessions. But since her own job had begun to spiral rapidly into the twenty-four-seven portion of the year, she could sympathize.
Veronica slapped her hand gently on the table. “All right, what do you need from us?”
“Ideas. Thoughts. Jokes.” Jem made another face. Her cocoa-kissed skin and lightly tilted eyes were a gift from her Asian-African mother, while the too-blue eyes were an electric heritage from her Dutch father. As much as Veronica resembled the perfect Barbie, Jem definitely won the genetic lottery for exotic beauty. Her short black hair was accented in white tips that she occasionally dyed dark blue, purple and, one time, sunny yellow.
“Well, what did we use them for?” Ever practical, Lucy traded off her next round of martinis for a glass of water. Zip would bet money Lucy was on call in a few hours. When she waved Tiffany over to order some espresso, Zip’s hunch was confirmed.
“Does he like me?” Kaley offered. “Does this dress make me look fat?”
“Should I still be a virgin? Will his cock fit?” Veronica snickered, her eyes glittering with an apology, but the attorney was probably their most uptight member and a sloppy drunk. They’d all forgive her the overindulgence tonight, particularly if it kept her pain at bay.
“Will someone ask me to the prom? Should I ask him to the prom?” Lucy traded her glass for the demitasse cup. “Or better, will I meet him at the prom?”
“Zip?” Jem nudged her.
As entertaining as those ideas were, Zip had no fun experience to share. Tracing a pattern in the moisture gathering on the exterior of her glass, she shrugged. “I never had one. I asked for one a couple of Christmases running, but mom always dismissed it as frivolous.”
“Well, so the fuck what?” Jem shook her head. “I swear your mother makes cardboard seem interesting.”
“She’s just practical.” With no signs of a mushy soul or an ounce of whimsy. Zip had lost her father to a drunk driver before she’d turned two. She only knew him from the photos that occupied a prominent place on her mother’s mantel. But, rather than fall apart in grief, Zip’s mother went to work, put herself through school, and raised Zip and her older brother with no family support. Everything in their life served a practical purpose or they didn’t have time for it.
“Pfft.” Lucy’s raspberry sent them off in another round of merriment. “We love your mom, Zip. But I think her last act of whimsy was your name.” If naming her after Moses’ wife, Zipporah, could be called whimsy.
“You could be right.” She grinned and drained the remnants of her drink. The lazy sense of relaxation curling through her dulled the need to defend her mom. The woman turned practical into an art with a capital P and was proud of it. Zip had inherited more than her mom’s auburn hair, brown eyes, and freckles. She’d inherited that need for steady and reliable, even if it lacked spark and sizzle. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could just ask the Magic 8 Ball to solve all our woes?”
“That’s it. You need whimsy.” Veronica stabbed a finger in her direction. “We need a Magic 8 Ball.”
“Fortunately”—Jem scooched sideways, reached under the table to retrieve her bag, and pulled out a black sphere—“I happen to have one.”
She thrust the ball toward Zip. “Indulge your whimsy.”
Zip stared at the Magic 8 Ball and then at Jem.
Oh, hell, why not?