“Watch it, love,” a man said, extending one arm to stop Milla Jackson from riding her bike into oncoming traffic on Whitfield Street.
“Thanks,” Milla said, and flashed him a smile. Taking advantage of the traffic, she leaned over the bracket holding her phone to her bike’s handlebars and thumbed in a quick text.
I’m here & looking forward to meeting you.
Well, almost there. The Crazy Bear, the bar in London’s tony Fitzrovia neighborhood where she’d agreed to meet her blind date, stood across the street, not yet flooded with smart media types looking to unwind after a busy day. Milla shifted her weight and looked forward to relaxing in the outdoor patio. After six glorious weeks of backpacking through Sweden, Norway and Iceland, she was back in heels, working as an assistant at the Darmayne Gallery in Mayfair.
Her phone buzzed as she set off across the street. Milla returned the now-distracted stranger’s favor and tugged on his sleeve to prevent him being flattened by an oncoming cyclist, got a nod of thanks in return, then her phone buzzed.
Okay, then. No Great or See you soon. She pedaled along the pavement until she found a spot to lock up her bike just down from a flashy yellow Lamborghini idling in a no-parking zone. Bike pannier in hand, she used the back of the hand holding her phone to swipe her heavy fringe off her forehead, then snapped pictures of the street, the bar, the car. She never knew which image would spark an entry on her American-girl-in-London travel website and YouTube channel, and the city was showing off in the middle of its glorious, warm, sunny, short summer. To celebrate the weather, she’d worn strappy heels and a floaty vintage halter dress she’d picked up at the boutique where her friend Kaitlin worked part-time, in the hopes that this date would be worth the bike ride from Mayfair. Lately her dates had been missing a certain something she couldn’t quite name.
But there were no snappily dressed men, young or old, sitting alone on the Crazy Bear’s patio. Bewildered, Milla peered up and down the street, then hauled open the heavy door and keyed Where are you into her phone as she walked into the bar.
The interior was striving to be the final word on flamboyant. Red carpet dominated the floors, while red leather covered most of the chairs and booths. What wasn’t red was black, with the exception of the white bar stools lined up in front of bar running the length of the back wall. In the afternoon light the picture she took looked like a bordello caught yawning in the middle of the day.
Milla lifted her hair from her nape and caught the bartender’s eye. “A Manhattan, please,” she said.
Her phone buzzed again. I’m outside.
Maybe he’d meant he was on his way when he said outside the first time. Mildly annoyed, Milla waited while the bartender mixed her drink and set it in front of her. She snapped a quick picture, then mass-blasted it to her social media sites with the caption Like me, a Manhattan(ite) in London.
It was a bit of a stretch. The child of a former marine who’d eventually gone into the security industry, she’d been born in London and raised all over the world before attending Hunter College in New York. When people asked her where she was from, it was easier to claim New York than explain her convoluted history.
“I’m going to take it outside,” she said.
“You have to pay for it first,” he said.
“Ten,” he said.
Ten pounds for a single drink? The night was going to get really expensive if they stayed for a meal, but that was getting ahead of the game. She still hadn’t seen her date yet, and maybe she could talk him into going somewhere less…crimson. Milla fished out her credit card and handed it over, then collected her drink, receipt, phone and wallet, and went back outside.
There were still no men sitting alone in the patio, so she walked to the edge of the canvas railing enclosing the seating area and looked up and down the street. Then she texted, I’m outside. We agreed on Fitzrovia location?
Movement caught her eye. The man who’d been sitting in a convertible yellow Lamborghini the entire time she’d been in the bar boosted himself up in the driver’s seat, spread his arms wide and yelled, “Hello, darling! Shall we go for a ride?”
Heads turned up and down the street, staring first at the man in the car, then at Milla. Her jaw dropped. He’d watched her go in, then watched her come back out again, checking her out both front and back, making sure she was worth parking the car before making himself known to her. “You did not just do that to me,” she muttered. “You did not just do that to me.”
“Actually, he did,” said a woman sitting on the patio.
Milla squared her shoulders and flashed a really big smile. “I really just wanted to get a drink,” she called back, hoisting her ten-quid cocktail to demonstrate.
The crestfallen look on the man’s face was almost worth the price of the drink. Almost. “Oh. I’ll park the car.”
He revved the engine and screeched around the corner in search of parking that would set him back fifteen pounds for half an hour. Milla looked at her watch. She could stay, or, if she pedaled like a madwoman, she could still make it to Spitalfields and the Fire Spell in time for the pub quiz.
No contest. She threw back the Manhattan, slammed the empty glass on a table and bolted for her bike.
“Budge over,” she said.
Kaitlin Connolly, one of her roommates, pushed through the growing crowd at the Fire Spell, their local pub in Spitalfields, and set a round of pints on the table. “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be on a date.”
Milla eased into the repurposed pew against the wall, kicked off her heels under the table and looked around. Mismatched vinyl tablecloths sporting polka dots, birds or red gingham, and small wood carpenter boxes holding ketchup, salt, pepper and malt vinegar. This was much more her style. “It was over before it began,” she said of the date.
“What happened? No, wait until I’m back. It’s my turn to buy the round. Pint of Dark Star?”
“A half, please. I’ll get the next one,” Milla said.
She wasn’t the only usual suspect late for the weekly pub quiz. Kaitlin and Elsa, her roommates in the first-floor flat they rented in renovated house in Spitalfields, in London’s East End, were there and holding chairs. Kaitlin returned with Milla’s half and set it on the table at the same moment bodies slid into the empty seats to either side of her.
“Hi, Charlie,” Kaitlin said. “You’re late. You’re supposed to get him here on time,” she added, wagging an admonishing finger at Billy.
“I did my best,” Billy protested.
“Got caught up at the studio. Sorry, love,” Charlie said, and gave her a quick kiss of greeting.
Kaitlin turned for the bar yet again, and Milla turned to exchange a quick cheek kiss first with Billy, then with Charlie Tanner, the artist who owned their house and lived on the top floor. He wore a loose, round-collared white shirt with the sleeves pushed to his elbows, faded blue jeans and boots as scarred as his hands and arms. The shirt hid the wiry strength of his shoulders and torso, honed by years of hoisting molten glass and turning it into the colorful spiraling shapes he sold to galleries in Asia and America.
“You’re supposed to be careful,” Milla said, ghosting the tip of her finger over a new, angry red burn nestled among the tattoos coiling along his forearms. She’d never really studied them before. One in particular caught her attention, an explosion of color from letters she couldn’t quite make out.
Heat flashed between them, sending an electric charge along Milla’s nerves. Charlie’s gaze lingered on her face, and for a moment they were the only two people at the table. She registered details about him in a way she never had before. His blue eyes were deeply set under a high forehead. His soft blond hair curled damply around his temples and ears from a recent shower. Both his hair and beard were longer than normal, which meant a long stretch of eating and sleeping at his glass studio a few streets away.
His blue eyes flicked down to her fingertips, resting lightly on his forearm. “And you’re supposed to be on a date. What are you doing here?”