Austen answered his phone on the first ring.
“What do you need, kiddo?”
Jaya paused, taken aback by the curt greeting. After a moment, she realised that he always answered his calls from her in the same way. “What do you need?” As if she could never just be calling for no reason at all.
“Is that any way to greet your favourite cousin?” she replied, forcing a bright note into her voice. “You’re my favourite, you know.”
“As far as you know, you might have any number of cousins,” Austen said coolly. “How could you possibly claim to know I would be the favourite?”
Because you’re the only one I’ve actually met, she wanted to tell him, although she understood the crude point he was trying to make. By blood, she was no cousin of his.
Jaya wished she owned one of those old-fashioned phones with the long curly cord so she could twine it between her fingers. Instead, she shifted her mobile from one sweaty hand to the other.
She wasn’t about to tell him that she couldn’t bear her own company tonight. She’d left work early, needing to get away from the high-energy actors she was constantly surrounded by, only to find that the so-called peace of her apartment was too oppressively quiet.
“I thought we might grab a drink tonight,” Jaya said, still striving to maintain her cheerful tone. “It’s been a while.”
“Six weeks,” Austen said. “Right on schedule.”
She remembered what he’d said the last time they’d met up. That she only called him when she broke up with someone. That, to her, he was no more than a shoulder attached to a man. A shoulder for her to cry on, presumably, although she never did cry. She merely got drunk.
“Ha ha. Do you want the drink or not?” Jaya demanded.
“I have to get up early tomorrow,” Austen told her, sounding uncharacteristically reluctant.
What is wrong with him? Jaya wondered, pulled out of her own problems for a brief moment. It had to be bad if he was turning down liquor. They both fancied themselves connoisseurs of the hard stuff. Neither of them drank wine or, shudder, beer.
“I’ll get you home early, granddad,” Jaya told him. “So how about it? Nine o’clock at The Cat’s Whiskey?”
“All right, kiddo.”
Shaking her head, Jaya hung up. He didn’t have to sound so bloody glum about the prospect.
* * * *
At nine-fifteen, Jaya was sitting all alone at the bar, nursing her very expensive drink and barely tasting it.
The Cat’s Whiskey was the kind of place she preferred, dimly lit and mellow, not too popular, yet possessing the finest spirits a lover of good liquor could desire. Wealthy retirees blended with depressed-looking young people who had to be rich themselves to afford even the most modest order. The prices were the reason she always came here with Austen or with dates she wanted to impress…or be impressed by.
She liked this bar and she was thoroughly failing to enjoy it.
Another five minutes and she was out of there.
Austen arrived four minutes later.
He stooped to kiss her cheek before settling onto the high bar stool next to hers. “Sorry I’m late, kiddo.”
That was it—a kiss and a casual apology. No explanation, Jaya noticed, though she’d been expecting a rather spectacular one. Austen was a lawyer and he was never late for a meeting.
As always, the bartender was quick to come up to take Austen’s order. Maybe it was his height—Austen was six-three—or his expensive clothes or simply his air of being in charge of the place, no matter where he was.
Must be nice to be him, Jaya often thought. She was five-six, a respectable height for a woman, but not exactly eye-catching. Her clothes were modest. On a theatre manager’s salary, they had to be. The only place she took charge was in the theatre and sometimes not even there.
If she was casting for a play, she would have put herself backstage. It was where she belonged, while Austen belonged not on a stage, but on a big screen where every aspect of his extraordinarily good looks could be properly appreciated.
Tanned, blond and blue-eyed. Yes, it must be very nice to be Austen King. Everything came so damn easily for him, while she had to work extra hard just to be taken seriously. It didn’t help that with rounded cheeks and big brown eyes, she looked younger than her twenty-eight years. Pinning up her long hair helped, but only a little. By mid-morning, her smooth updo was usually as frazzled as she was.
“Feeling sorry for yourself?” Austen asked after he’d put in his order.
For a second, Jaya thought he’d read her mind. Then she remembered his prediction. The next time she would call him, it would be because of yet another breakup.
Damn him for being right all the time. It was the most infuriating of his many annoying traits.
Well, Jaya figured, one of us might as well be happy.
“George and I broke up.”
Austen swirled the glass the bartender had delivered to him, admiring the colour for a moment. “George? The politician?”
“Right.” He paused before he took a small sip of the whisky, held it in his mouth, and then swallowed, grimacing slightly. “Wasn’t he married?”
“Still is,” Jaya confirmed, “but only unhappily.”
“Right,” he said again.
He was holding out on her. Where was the sympathy, the worn adages about picking herself up and dusting her vagina off? She deserved better, there were plenty more dicks in the city, and so on.
“Actually, he was legally separated from his wife,” Jaya volunteered. “And before you jump to conclusions, no, it wasn’t because of me.”
“Good,” Austen said. “Two separations to your credit are plenty, especially if you won’t even stick with the poor bastards afterwards.”
Jaya scowled down into her empty glass, bringing the waiter over with the bottle. “But who’s keeping count, right?”
“Right,” he said once more.
“That’s it.” She thumped the top of the bar with her hand. “What exactly is eating you, coz?”
Austen didn’t scowl. His facial expressions were far more subtle. Yet she recognised his anger the moment she saw the tightness of his lips and jaw.
“Don’t call me ‘coz’.”
“Okay, Mr. Austen Allan King, Esquire”—she enunciated every syllable with cutting precision—“what the fuck is your problem today?”
He turned to face her, his eyes throwing out blue flames. “Have you considered that it’s not what’s eating me but what’s not eating me that’s the problem?”
Heat poured into Jaya’s cheeks. She’d half-expected some lame answer about a client or a court case or a judge, not this blatant admission of sexual frustration.
Talking about relationships was one thing—although Austen rarely discussed his, he was usually content to listen to her go on about hers—but sex was something different.
They were cousins, for decency’s sake!
Okay, cousins by adoption, but they had grown up together. They were friends, allies, confidantes. She wasn’t ready to hear about his sexual problems.
Why would Austen be having sexual problems in the first place? The man had movie star looks and he worked out daily. The worst part about him was that he was a successful lawyer.
There were probably thousands of women in the city who would be more than ready to devour…whatever part of his gorgeous bod he wanted eaten.
“You should get out more,” she told him. “There must be a few gals around who would be willing to overlook your many shortcomings and show you a good time.”
She would have to be close to falling down drunk to ever admit Austen was magnificent to look at…and not too bad to listen to, either. His deep voice was like black velvet, smooth enough to lull a jury to sleep—or, more helpfully, to an acquittal. He didn’t waste his talents on ‘real’ criminals, either. Over the last few years he’d come to specialise in big corporate crime cases, defending only those thieves who stole millions, using computers and highly paid accountants instead of masks and guns.
Austen took a too big swig from his glass. “Those women cost too much.”
Jaya gaped at him. Surely, he didn’t mean…?
Fortunately, he went on talking as if she hadn’t just mentally accused him of violating Section 213 of the Criminal Code.
“Dinner, flowers and tickets to shows…time I don’t have.”
Oh, thank God. He wasn’t a john, only cynical.
She hadn’t realised before that it might matter so much to her.
“The first few dates are the best part,” she said. “That’s the ‘getting to know you’ phase. The happy, hopeful phase.”
“Right before the ‘he leaves his wife for you’ phase,” Austen added.
She put down her glass too forcefully, making the bartender look up in instinctive concern.
“I told you,” she snapped, “George was already separated. They all were.”
“Or you made them,” said Austen, seemingly unperturbed by both her actions and her words. “During that happy, hopeful stage. With your promises of more to come. But there never is more with you, is there, kiddo? Your job should give them the necessary clues. It’s all set dressing. After the scripted number of acts are done, so are you. And so are they. Then cue the courtesy cousin for his role. What would you say that role is, exactly?”
The barrage of soft whisky-scented words left her head whirling. Where is all of this coming from?
“Which one of those questions do you want me to address first?” Jaya asked, putting on her best theatre-inspired impression of a haughty judge. She certainly wasn’t about to play the role of witness on the stand.
Austen was staring straight ahead, his hands cupped around his glass.
“The last one,” he said. “The one about me.”
That figured. The man wasn’t known for being self-effacing.
Jaya sat and thought about it for a minute.
Her eventual reply came out sounding like another question, as if she were unsure of the correct response.
Austen laughed, the sound short and sharp. “How many other male friends do you have? Are they anything like me?”
She clamped her lips down on the first thought that came to her head. No one is quite like him.
From the moment she’d met him, she’d adored Austen. They’d been adopted at the same time by two sisters and their respective husbands, Jaya arriving from India as an infant while Austen’s had been a local adoption. At five, he’d already been a veteran of several foster homes. His adoptive parents, Jaya’s aunt and uncle, admitted that he had been a handful in the beginning but claimed it was a newfound sense of protectiveness and responsibility for Jaya—who had toddled around in his wake wherever he went—that had eventually tamed him.
Those childhood stories always made Jaya feel proud of her much younger self. It also made her feel oddly possessive over Austen, as if having brought him into the family fold had given her additional rights over him. Rights she would never dream of exercising.
“I don’t have other male friends,” Jaya admitted. “Co-workers and acquaintances, that’s about it.”
“Plus a trailer-load of exes.”
On the verge of telling him that her ex-boyfriends were none of his business, she realised how ludicrous that would have sounded. She poured out the details of her relationships to Austen every six weeks. Her exes were so much his business, she wouldn’t have been surprised to learn he kept their names all logged in a file somewhere in his office.
Maybe one day he would present her with a neatly docketed bill for services rendered over the years. Let’s see, ten years since she’d turned eighteen, with an average of eight boyfriends a year…
Wow, it was going to be a hefty bill.
“I don’t keep in touch with my ex-boyfriends,” Jaya informed him stiffly.
He quirked his lips into a thin smile. “I forgot you don’t practice catch-and-release but club-and-devour.”
Lord, he seems to have devouring on his brain!
He turned his head towards her. “Speaking of devouring…”
Oh no, here it came. He was going to proposition her.
Her heart was pounding so hard she could feel the beat in her fingertips. Her hands were sweating again.
This was Austen. Her first babyish crush. She did not want to see his cock. She certainly refused to devour it.
What would it look like anyway, that Austen cock? He was a big man. Tall, broad-shouldered and lean-hipped. Would his penis be long the way he was tall? It was most likely proportional to the rest of him…
What was she thinking? She had to stop picturing his dick. The Austen cock was completely hypothetical. Officially, she would deny he even possessed one.
“…how about some dinner?”
His question was as bland as possible.
She’d…well, she’d invented the rest of the sexual insinuations herself. This was Austen. Her cousin. No matter how frustrated he got with her, he would always be that.
Austen’s raised eyebrow told her it was taking too long for her to reply.
“If you tell me you’ve already eaten, I’ll know you’re lying,” he added. “You can never eat on the day of a breakup.”
“What do you intend to do then?” Jaya asked. “Force-feed me?”
Was it her imagination or did his eyes drop to her lips for a split second?
“Don’t give me any ideas, kiddo.”