Color Me Pretty by B. Celeste

 

Prologue

A plumeof cigarette smoke was the only indication that I wasn’t alone in the brisk night, shadowed by the few lights in the alleyway. I wasn’t walking away from the thrumming music because of the overwhelming scene inside the normally barren warehouse, I was doing it for the man I’d seen sneak out the emergency exit. He looked more uncomfortable than I did, suffocating in dark dress clothes and putting on a good face to appease the people for the sake of his best friend.

Pushing myself off the brick wall that vibrated my chest with every pump of the slow bass, I found myself drawn to the smell of tobacco, my nude heels clicking over the cracked pavement until my eyes were welcomed by expensive polished Tom Ford dress shoes and pressed dress slacks, perfectly tailored to the tall six-five figure encompassed by them, until my gaze drifted over the tight white silk pulled over taut muscles and olive skin with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, showcasing bulging veins in his forearms, despite it being forty degrees tonight.

I knew the brand of the shoes he wore because I’d once used them to stand on during a dance very similar to the one we walked out on only moments ago. My feet were too tiny to keep up with the slow melody that he set for us at the time. Stand on my feet, little Della. I knew they must have been expensive because the blonde woman who’d been wrapped around his arm that night had all but gasped at me using them as a platform. I didn’t like her because she smelled too much like alcohol and something strong and floral that made my eyes itch. More than that, my dislike stemmed from her taking up all his time and attention if I wasn’t plastered on his feet.

But Theodore West and I danced like that, my tiny feet on his large shoes as he took lead, for as long as I wanted, which was much longer than a man like Theo would typically grant anybody. Even the blonde. Perhaps the kindness he offered me then was why I followed him into the dark, letting the secondhand smoke absorb into my lungs with every inhale I forced myself to take.

I hated smoking, and always wanted to scold him for doing it when he knew my grandfather had died of lung cancer. I may not have known my grandparents, but that didn’t make the outcome of their demise any less important when the man I grew up adoring sucked in nicotine like it was his favorite flavor.

“You shouldn’t be out here.” His gruff voice penetrated the silence, making my leather covered arms pebble with goosebumps.

Tightening my jacket over the skin exposed from the deep V of my black cocktail dress, I hugged myself for warmth. “You shouldn’t be either, especially without a jacket on. It’s cold.”

“I’m fine.” He took another drag of his cigarette, still not looking at me. His focus was on the empty road, dimly lit by broken streetlights. My father had loved this section of the city despite it being worn down and half abandoned. He hated me coming here alone, forbidding it on more than one occasion, no matter his soft spot for the warehouse that he met my mother in when they were younger.

“You left,” I noted idiotically, shifting on my feet. They ached from the four-inch platform heels I subjected them too, but they made my legs look good, longer, which my five-two height needed to pull off the longer dress. It was my mother’s favorite item of clothing and seemed fitting for tonight’s “celebration” of my father’s life.

He finally turned his head, his dark blue eyes piercing mine until I shrunk back. “What are you doing out here, Adele?”

Adele. Not Della. He called me that when he was upset. Not always at me, just life. It made sense considering we were saying goodbye to a man we both mutually cared about. Swallowing past the lump in my throat, I swiped a palm down the side of my thigh. “Checking on you. You were quiet all night and looked like you wanted to murder everybody who came up to you.”

“I’m not a fan of the socialites who decided to come,” he remarked coolly. “Your father kept them in his good graces out of civility, but even he thought they were pompous assholes. We both know who his true friends were when shit hit the fan. Where were they then? Don’t get me started on their comments on the reception like it should have been held at the fucking Ritz or some shit.”

I used to hate it when he swore. His brow would twitch, and his fists would clench if he got really angry, and I always itched to comfort him, to make him feel better. But Theo was not the kind of man you controlled, least of all when he was worked up. He was the man you let control you, and you did it with a smile. It was understandable that he was agitated tonight. He was right about the people in attendance—they sucked up to my father because of the power he held as the governor of New York but talked behind his back the second he turned away. I was surprised that so many people showed up since the scandal broke leading to the Saint James family downfall.

He dropped the half-smoked cigarette onto the ground, damp from the earlier rain showers, and extinguished with the tip of his shoe. “Go back inside, Della.”

The nickname I preferred to be called eased the tightness that had formed in my chest since the night began. There was only so much smiling and thanking people I could do while listening to their empty condolences as if they cared my father was dead. They didn’t care when he was arrested. Why start now that he was buried next to my mother six feet under? “What about you?”

He looked me over, his eyes roaming over my covered form, the familiar black leather jacket cradling my body for warmth, before letting his eyes drift back up to mine. The slight shadow lining his square jaw was unlike him. He preferred to be clean-shaven, business called for as much. “Presentation is everything, Adele,” his ex-wife Mariska would always remind me whenever I told him I liked the stubble. It made him look as tough as his personality. No nonsense. Free. I used to think he shaved for her, but even after their divorce over four years ago, he kept up with the façade. Until now, I supposed.

“I’m going home. I did my part.” His pause, heavy sigh, and shifted weight made me wonder if he was reconsidering. He’d stayed almost all day to help set up since the people Aunt Sophie hired had bailed, something she’d been rambling on about when she called freaking out that she’d have to reschedule. I didn’t blame him for wanting to go, I just wished he didn’t. I wanted him to stay. For me. He asked, “Are you going to be okay? You got a ride back to your place?”

I nodded slowly, moving my wavy platinum blonde tresses out of my face. I’d dyed my normally light brown hair two months ago and was met by mixed reactions. But Theo told me he liked it, told me to ignore the “other assholes” who thought otherwise because their opinion didn’t matter. He of all people knew their opinions mattered to me too much. They always had growing up. I’d just wanted to pretend to be somebody else for a while—somebody blonde who had fun with little care. Maybe a piece of me even thought the hair color would appeal to Theo more than my natural did. Turned out, hair dye didn’t have magical powers.

“Aunt Lydia said she’d give me a ride back after cleanup. Are you…Will you be okay?” I knew how much he cared about my father. They were friends for a long time, most of their lives, having shared the most important milestones together every step of the way. When news broke that Anthony Saint James had been involved in a money laundering scandal that took funds from the state and people close to him who had invested in his endeavors, things had gotten bad. Theo was questioned because my father had once been a partner in his growing business, and he hadn’t been hit by the economic fraud my father was committing unlike others close in his circle. The investigators were sure they’d find him as guilty as my father, but there was never any evidence indicating as much. And Theo…he never left my side through it all. Not once during the trials or media blasts did he consider for a second abandoning me to the vultures that New York City, and my father, had fed me to.

His eyes closed momentarily. “I’m supposed to ask you that considering whose funeral we’re at.”

I let my shoulders lift, giving him the best smile I could under the circumstances. “We all lost somebody.”

“He was your father.”

Taking a daring step closer, I inhaled the strong cologne and tobacco mixture wafting from him. He was all man, all the time, in the way he smelled, acted, and carried himself. His blue eyes could see through me, and his smile, on the rare occurrence he gave one, melted the skin right off me.

“He was your friend,” I added softly.

The way he watched me, looked down at me with such intensity, had me shivering. “Are you cold?”

Slowly, I shook my head. Rising on my toes, I brushed my lips on the underside of his jaw, causing him to lock up. It was only a tiny caress, but his reaction made it seem like more. It always did when we got close. And we did. Often.

“Della.”

“Don’t worry.” I stepped away before he could say anything more or move from me first. That kind of rejection on a night like this was one I wouldn’t be able to walk away from without another piece of my heart shattering. “It was a goodnight kiss. Nothing more.”

His voice was rough, cracked. “It can’t be anything more, not even now. Never again. Do you understand?”

I blinked, noting the faint mark of pink lipstick on his skin where my lips rested for a microscopic moment. “I told you I understood when you left my apartment that morning.”

Theo knew which morning I meant. It still hurt to think about even all this time later. To think he believed I would pounce on another opportunity to be in bed with him just because my father was gone made my stomach ache. I might not have been on the best terms with my father after what he’d done, but that didn’t mean I was going to use his death as an excuse.

I didn’t want Theo’s pity.

I wanted his love.

“His death changes nothing,” Theo added.

His death changes everything. Just not what he was insinuating. Deep down, I knew he was trying to get a reaction out of me. Maybe even hurt me in order to distance us. He’d done that plenty since the morning he left my apartment in a hurry like I’d threatened him. As if waking up beside me in our state of undress was that unappealing to him when he was the one who showed up and initiated our actions that night to begin with. Hurt laced into my being, squeezing my heart to the point of physical pain, but I held my head up high and pretended it didn’t bother me, no matter how much I clung to the possibilities that involved the man in front of me.

He was good at hurting people. That man was skilled at putting others in their place when it benefited him, but never me. Never his little Della. It made me wonder who he’d become now that his oldest friend was truly gone. Not just off to prison, to Rikers Island, but gone.

Who will you become now? I wanted so badly to ask him.

Theodore Bennett West. My father’s best friend. The man I’ve loved ever since I knew what love was, even when I shouldn’t have.

During a very drunken binge when his guard was down, he made it feel like maybe those feelings were reciprocated. Except he woke up in a tangle of my cheap clearance sheets, half naked, with a mask of regret and disgust on his face when he saw me in nothing more than a matching pink panty set beside him after he’d stripped me of my normal pajamas. He’d barged his way in smelling like his liquor cabinet, touched me in ways I’d never been touched by him before, and made me feel…whole.

I could still taste the whiskey on his breath, the tobacco on his tongue, and the desperation in his words as he told me he needed one night. Just one.

“Just one night, Della. That’s all I need to…”

I didn’t know what he needed the one night for, but it was clear something had happened. It didn’t take my body long to cooperate as he pinned me against the wall with his hips, pressing his hard erection against me to show me what exactly he needed. The way he ground into my softest spot and touched me in my most sensitive area with those rough fingers made the spark I’d suspected we’d had since I was old enough to know what that felt like, come to life. There was a fire in us that night as he kept me against that wall and made me come using just his hand while his mouth had devoured mine like he needed more.

Though we hadn’t gone as far as I would have liked before he passed out from who knew how much alcohol he’d consumed, the moments we shared were permanently tattooed on my flawed skin for the world to see. I didn’t hide it.

“As I said,” I replied instead, voice skillfully calm, “I understand just fine, Theo. Please drive safe.”

He stared at me for a moment too long before swiping his large palm through his longer-than-normal tussled brown hair and turned on his heels. No jacket, and not another word.

And I watched him walk away.

Again.