Seventeen years ago …
“Are you sure you want to do that, Luke?”
He nodded firmly. “I want to play baseball, Mama. In Germany, people only use a baseball bat when they want to frighten off burglars.”
“Okay.” His mother smiled and ran her hand through the dark curls on her son’s head, so they didn’t fall into his eyes anymore. Some day too soon, he would cut his hair short and start breaking girls’ hearts. Right now however, his heart was hooked on a ball and bat.
“You really don’t need to worry.” He pulled her hand away from his hair and shouldered his backpack. “Daddy’s going to take care of me. It will be fine.”
He gave her a wide grin. “I’ll send you my first autographed photo.”
Emma glared at her older sister, adjusting the fit of the newspaper veil on her head. “You’re the priest, Milla. All you have to do is ask, ‘Do you take Max to be your lawfully wedded husband?’ That is all.”
The Max in question was snuffling and starting to sweat. “We don’t have to get married, we could also just …”
“No.” Emma grabbed his hand possessively and pulled him closer to her side. “We’re getting married now! I planned everything out in detail. Nobody’s going to spoil that for me.” Her face was beet red, which made her hair look an even lighter blond.
“I think you don’t want to marry Max at all. You only want to have cake,” the priest said cattily.
“There’s cake?” Max was completely with her again, and his eyes brightened. “Okay. Let’s get married, Emma, shall we?”
Emma’s mouth opened, and her glassy eyes told him that she was thinking. Finally she heaved a sigh and shook her head. “We need to start over again. This is not how I planned it.”
“Jesus.” Milla rolled her eyes. “Everything always has to go the way you planned it. That’s so annoying, Emma!”
“You’re annoying.” She dragged Max with her as she went back down the hallway, turning around and striking a pose, before she intoned the wedding march once again in a loud and bossy voice.
“You’ll never get married, Emma!” Milla screamed at her.
“If my priest is as stupid as you are, then I won’t!” Emma yelled back angrily, before turning to her husband-to-be. “And please don’t breathe so loudly this time, okay? The back rows can’t hear what I’m saying if you pant like that.”
A little more than a year ago …
“Of course I’d like to see you again. I just didn’t call because … I lost your number.” How did women still actually believe that line? It had to be as old as the oldest profession.
Well, he wouldn’t complain. Luke couldn’t call back each woman he went out with. What did these girls think? That he had a lot of spare time next to his job?
He should have hired an assistant after all. She could have handed out flyers that explained what a one night stand meant.
But after he’d slept with the last assistant, his manager no longer liked the idea of hiring another one.
Luke looked out the window and caught a final glance of the Philadelphia skyline, before the taxi turned on to the Interstate 95, and the driver stepped on the gas. Well, the American version of stepping on the gas, of course. Dear God, he was looking forward to the Autobahn.
The woman on the other end kept talking without pausing to catch her breath, so Luke placed the phone on his knee for a moment, while checking whether he’d really put his passport in his inner coat pocket. When his knee stopped vibrating with the sound of the woman’s voice, he picked the phone back up and held it against his ear.
What was her name again? Beverly? Brittany? Some stripper name. “Listen, honey,” he said instead, “I promise you that we’ll go out again … when?” He ran an irritated hand through his short-cropped hair. Why did women always want to control everything? That was so incredibly annoying.
“No, today is impossible … I’m on my way to the airport. I’m sorry. I’ll be out of the country for the next few weeks, visiting my mother and some friends.” He congratulated himself for his timing. There was a beeping in his ear. “Sorry, honey, but there’s another call coming in. I’ll call you once I’m back from Germany, okay?” He didn’t wait for her answer, but pressed the button to end the call. He didn’t want her to further get on his nerves.
“Luke Carter,” he said to the next caller, while the taxi was leaving the Interstate, following the signs for the airport.
“Read any papers today?”
“Good evening to you, too, Wes.”
“Well did you?”
“No, I did not. Anything interesting?”
“Oh, very interesting indeed. As a friend, I could say, way to go, dude. But as your agent: Stop fucking around. And I mean that quite literally. The world is not your private fun fair! You’re the idol of thousands of kids, and therefore also their role model. You need to start behaving like one, Luke!”
“Wesley.” Luke sighed deeply and rubbed his face with the palm of his hand. Today was a crap day. He was hung over, ready to step on a plane and sit tight for eleven hours straight, and his patience was virtually nonexistent. “Kindly tell me what this is about, before you start giving me a hard time, okay? Maybe then I’ll have an answer for you.”
There was a brief silence on the other end.
“Do you recall what you were doing between one and four a.m. last night? It’s no biggie if you can’t, for all of America can now remind you what it was.”
Luke frowned a little. Last night …
“What time did you say?”
“Wait, I’ll read it to you. You’re going to love the headline: Can Luke Carter still be saved from himself? Last night, after the 5:2 victory against the Boston Red Sox, the Delphies star pitcher could once again be seen bar hopping and partying all over town – listen up, this is my favorite part now – After he handed a can of beer to a minor in the street outside The Haunted, he was welcomed into the club, where he partied until four in the morning, when the bouncers persuaded him it was time to hit the road. It seems that he wasn’t quite ready to call it a night though, since he took home two scantily-clad women. We were unable to ascertain whether he was paying for their services. There’s even a nice little photo to go with that. Of course the tow ladies aren’t wearing any underwear.”
“I was not paying for anything,” Luke flared as he stared up at the sky, which was crisscrossed by several vapor trails from planes. “I never had to pay any of them.” Why would the press spread such crap anyway?
“That is your reaction to the article?” Wesley did not sound amused at all. “Luke! This is the third time this month that we’re greeted with shit like that. Your management is putting pressure on me.”
Luke sank deeper into the seat and groaned. “Wes, you know the tabloids, they’re always blowing things out of proportion. The article is a total exaggeration. They would write the same crap if I behaved like a saint.”
“A minor, Luke. Beer in the street for a minor!”
“He looked older.”
“He was nineteen.”
“I never agreed with the law that you have to be twenty-one before you can drink alcohol. It’s bullshit. Take it as a statement to that effect: America isn’t as free as many people claim it is.”
“This isn’t Germany, Luke.”
“It isn’t? Thanks for the reality check, Wes.”
“Just watch your step for a while, okay? Think before you do stuff. You’ll be under the radar in Germany, so you can have a good time over there, but try to act like a decent human being once you’re back. Happy Holidays, man. I’ll buy you a drink when you get back.”
And with that, he hung up. As an agent, he could be a pain in the butt, but as a friend, he was the best Luke could have wished for.
The taxi stopped before the entrance to the first class gates. “Sir, we’re here.”
“Thank you. How much is it?”
The driver tapped the taxi meter and smiled in the rearview mirror. “And would you mind giving me an autograph for my son, Mr. Carter? He’s a huge fan.”
Luke nodded tiredly, closed his eyes for a few seconds, and then looked up again. “Sure. What’s your son’s name?”
“It’s a boy!”
“Uh …” Emma held the phone against the other ear and turned up the collar of her warm winter coat. Maybe that wasn’t the reaction her sister had hoped for, but honestly – a boy? A boy would grow up to be a man, and she felt that her nephew simply didn’t deserve that kind of nature’s punishment.
“I mean, yeah, that’s great!” she said, despite her misgivings. “We simply need more strong women in the world, that’s all.”
“If you want more strong women, I suspect you’ll have to start producing babies yourself,” Milla laughed. “I’m done for a while. But I can tell you I’ve never seen a more handsome baby in my life!”
Emma refrained from pointing out that all mothers would say that. Of course in her sister’s case it had to be true. “He has first-class genes after all.”
“That’s true. Though Steve says he takes only after me.”
“All the better.”
“Hey, my husband is totally hot!”
Emma considered the allegation for a moment.
“Not as hot as you are, but I guess you could call him lukewarm.”
“You’re impossible!” Milla’s chuckle morphed into a sigh. “I really miss you.”
“I know.” The snow started to fall, and Emma turned right at the corner. “I hate the fact that I cannot simply drop by and admire your son. Send me as many photos as you can, okay? I want to be able to picture him in 3D.”
“I will. But he looks incredible in 2D as well.”
“Maybe, but we live in the twenty-first century, where we want to have everything in 3D,” Emma argued with a laugh, but she couldn’t help that the thought of Milla’s life compared to her own stung. Her sister was a mere two years older, and yet she already had an amazing, lukewarm husband, and an incredibly handsome son. Emma wanted the same – and there had been a time when she’d believed she could have all of it, too.
“I’m so proud of you, Milla,” she whispered, hoping the tears wouldn’t freeze on her cheeks. “You’re going to be such a great mom! Call me as soon as my nephew asks what his aunt is doing, okay? I don’t care how much it costs to call from the States. We have Skype and WhatsApp, and smoke signals …”
Milla chuckled. “Though I’m already convinced that my son will be an intelligent wunderkind, I’m afraid it might take a while before he can speak.”
Right. He was a boy. Emma sighed. Poor kid.
“Alright, then call me once you guys have agreed on a name. I heard Emmo is really a hip name these days …”
Milla snorted. “I’m sure high school would be a real blast with a name like that!”
“Hey, at least it’s better than calling your child after a fruit! I’m telling you, Americans are crazy – your husband is one of the few exceptions, of course. All those poor Apple-Melons running around!”
“We’ll come up with a perfectly normal name,” Milla assured her cheerfully. “The birth certificate issue is putting some pressure on us … why does a child need a name right away? I’m sure it takes a few years before you can tell whether you’re raising a Kevin.”
Emma guffawed and flexed her cold hand.
“As my professor used to say, Kevin is not a name, Kevin is a diagnosis! But Milla, I have to go now. Work is calling.”
“Are you still working a thousand jobs, despite your shiny degree?”
“I’m still waiting for the right company.”
“You keep waiting, while I’ll raise a child.”
“You’re mean! But I still love you, and I’m going to hang up now.” Emma peeked into the window of the fancy Italian restaurant, where she worked part-time as a waitress.
Enrico, the maître d’, waved at her through the window. “I think my boss is waving at me … or maybe he’s only trying to shoo away a fly. Anyway, give my nephew a kiss and say hi to your lukewarm husband.”
“Steve isn’t …”
“Yeah, I know, he’s super hot and super sexy, and I’m dying with envy. Talk to you soon, Milla.”
“Yes, I’ll call you,” her sister said goodbye and hung up.
Emma stared wistfully at her phone for a few seconds; then she sighed heavily and climbed the steps that led up to Giovanni’s.
The warmth that enveloped her was so welcome that she almost moaned loudly, in an X-rated fashion.
“Ciao, bella, are you doing alright?”
“Now I am,” she sighed and took off her coat, trying to hang it on one of the pegs. “And stop calling me ‘bella’ – you say that to all of the girls, which is why it only makes me feel cheap.”
“But you are the only one where I mean it,” Enrico professed, while he took the coat from her hands and hung it on the coat rack, which was positioned too high on the wall for Emma to reach. Yes, she was short – but she still thought the coat rack was an instance of discrimination.
She looked around the dim room and registered that there weren’t a lot of guests yet. That didn’t surprise her however, for the rush would only start in about an hour.
She smoothed the black blouse with her hands, and adjusted the red blazer she was wearing on top of it. That was her work uniform. When she was satisfied, she noticed that Enrico was still staring at her.
“What’s wrong?” she demanded. “Is there a giant ‘L’ on my forehead?”
“What? No, I just thought that I might have something for you …”
“No more matchmaking attempts, Enrico!” she cut him short with her hand raised to stop him. “While your relatives are really nice, even Italian men are still men.”
Enrico grinned. “You haven’t gone out in two years, bella. That can’t be healthy. It engenders stress. And all because of a little breakup, come on …”
“My fiancé canceled our wedding. ‘Little’ isn’t the correct word for that.”
“I still think you should risk your heart again … but that was not what I was talking about this time. No, I heard of a job opening in an event management agency – that is what you majored in, isn’t it?”
If that finally was a good position, Emma might even be inclined to forget that he’d just reminded her of her former fiancé. And that he was a man as well. She ought to feel pity for him anyway, for he had to live with that handicap every day of his life!
“How lovely that it only took you four years to find out what I majored in! So what kind of job are you talking about? What agency?”
He shrugged his shoulders, while Emma went around the small desk, which would be her realm tonight. “I don’t recall. Something with ‘event’ … Events & More, or maybe Make More Events, or something like that?”
She stopped in her tracks and gave the maître d’ a wide-eyed look. “There’s an opening at More & More Events?”
“Yes, that’s it. That was the name of the company. So you know them?”
Did she know them? They were the rock stars in the event agency world! If they were a cell phone, they’d be the iPhone. They were the pineapple of fruits, the lawnmower of nail cutters!
“More & More Events has a job opening?” she repeated. She hated herself for it, but her voice was a high-pitched squeal. She couldn’t help it. While her structured thinking and organizational skills were amazing, her way of dealing with new information was more like that of a kid in a ball pit.
If she could score a job with More & More Events, she could easily start her own agency in about two years. Their reputation was so stellar that it would rub off on her almost automatically.
She rushed into Enrico’s arms and hugged him tightly.
“That’s incredible, Enrico! I’m too excited to even ask you how the hell you’ve heard about it in the first place!”
Enrico patted her back awkwardly. “You really have a talent for getting very excited, bella.”
“How else could I be working here?”
It was fascinating, Luke thought. He got on a plane in one world, and stepped out in a completely different one.
At Cologne Airport, nobody asked for his autograph. Nobody knew his name, nobody had read the stupid article, and nobody went on his nerves. It was a holiday from his life.
His mother had barely changed. A few more lines in her face, but she still cosseted him like she’d done when he was thirteen. He’d had to practically tear his suitcase from her hand, to prove that he could carry it on his own.
After he’d gotten some sleep, and tried to ignore the jetlag as much as that was possible, his mother had cooked him the best lunch Germany had to offer: roast, dumplings, red cabbage, and the typical dark rye bread to go with that.
Now he was standing in the cold with his friends, debating where to go. They were four guys, two of them married – the poor sods, not even thirty and already married – which narrowed their search for a fitting place.
For reasons unclear to him, they did not want to go to a strip club.
It was weird. He hadn’t seen his buddies in over a year, but they treated him as if they saw him every day, as if he was still one of the gang. After sixteen years. In Philadelphia he had no friends he knew from high school. When he became a pro baseball player, people had split into enviers and those who wanted to bask in his glory. Or maybe Luke had simply turned into an asshole. He wasn’t exactly sure yet.
“How about Club Casanova?” Daniel – married – suggested.
“Are you insane? At eight in the evening, the place is empty. And we’re too old for it anyway.” Meik looked at his friend as if he’d inhaled his daughter’s diapers for too long. “What do you want to do, Luke? You’re the guest of honor today, sort of. That means it’s your choice.”
“I’m hungry. How about some Italian food? I don’t want to talk about the stuff they call pizza in America.” The crust of the gluten-free pizza consisted of ground meat. That was plain wrong.
They all nodded, and Finn, the fourth in the gang, who was already blessed with three children – how suicidal did anyone have to be for that – clapped his cold hands.
“Italian sounds good to me. Giovanni’s?”
“I’m sure it will be packed,” Daniel said. “But we can try.”
“Is it far from here?” Luke wasn’t in the mood for a long march through the biting cold.
“Just around the corner,” Meik reassured him.
The group started walking, and stood before the restaurant a few minutes later. The place had a wide glass front, through which you could see the elegant, and fully occupied dining tables, and the rather tweedy-looking bar.
“That doesn’t look promising at all.” Meik craned his neck, and Luke had to agree. It looked as if there were already twenty people too much sitting around the tables.
“We’ll check anyway,” Finn decided.
The cold air pushed the men into the foyer, where dozens of coats were defying gravity on the coat rack. Several couples and a small family were standing in the waiting area before them, slowly inching forward into the restaurant proper. There was a dark wooden desk, where apparently the tables were assigned. Luke couldn’t see who was behind the lectern-like desk, because there was always someone in his line of vision. Plus the person behind the desk couldn’t be very tall.
“Oh, it’s a woman. We’re in luck.” Finn laughed and gave Luke an encouraging look.
“We’re in luck?” he repeated his friend’s words. “Why are we in luck?”
In the meantime the crowd had thinned, and Luke was finally able to catch a glance at their hostess. A blonde woman in her mid-twenties, clad in a red blazer that reminded Luke of the elevator ladies in some of the better American hotels, who pushed the buttons for the guests. She was looking at a list and checking off names. Her hair kept falling into her face, and she tucked it back behind her ears approximately every other second.
She was really short. Her head would most likely not even reach his chin, and her fist looked as if Luke would be able to wrap his hand around it easily.
“She’s rather cute, Luke.” Meik punched him in the arm. “Don’t you think?”
Cute was probably the right word to describe her. She was no stunning beauty, not like the women he’d been photographed with the other night, but her face could be described as pretty. As for her body … well, you couldn’t expect everyone to spend their life at the gym and be a size four, or even six.
“Puppies are cute, too. But you haven’t pointed out any of those so far. So why …?” Luke narrowed his eyes at his three grinning buddies. “Oh no!”
“Come on. All you need to do is flirt a little. We’ll be seated in no time,” Daniel pointed out.
Luke raised his eyebrows. “Then why don’t you do it?”
“I’m married,” he said defensively. “It wouldn’t be proper for a married man to flirt with another woman, would it?”
Finn patted Luke’s shoulder. “You’re the best-looking one of us, plus you’re an athlete, so you’re always in peak form. I think that settles it.”
Luke groaned loudly. “Is that your usual shtick? Sweet-talking people until they give in?”
“It’s the German way, dude.”
“I grew up here, Finn. I’m sure it’s absolutely not the German way. Much more of an American thing.”
“But you want to eat dinner here, don’t you?” Meik asked slowly, his grin widening.
Yes, these guys really treated him as if they went out together every day.
Right, so why not? It wasn’t as if Luke had a problem with flirting. He didn’t need to go to bed with the little wallflower afterwards.
“Okay, I’ll do it. For the gang. And drinks are on you later.”
What the devil was with those guys loitering in the foyer? They reminded her of a bunch of oversized puppies, waiting to be adopted. And now they were patting each other’s shoulders and chuckling. Emma corrected herself: They looked like Neanderthals, waiting to be adopted.
One of the cavemen approached her. He seemed to be in his late twenties, and his sheer size should have intimidated her. But when she saw the smarmy smile on his face, she was certain she could take him on if necessary.
His brown hair was cropped short, and the chiseled face might have been attractive, if it wasn’t for the telling smile, which branded him as far too self-confident. Judging from his physique, he was also one of the guys who spent their spare time in a stuffy gym, just to be able to show off their muscles at the beach.
Not her type at all.
And she was lying only a tiny little bit.
“Hello, pretty woman.” The man leaned on the desk, and Emma forced herself to smile at him.
“Hello, stranger. Can I help you?”
“Yes, you can.” He fixed his gaze on Emma, and she had to admit that at least his blue eyes were rather likeable. Maybe he was a nice enough man. By no means did she want to pass a hasty judgment on this vainglorious egomaniac. Nope.
“My friends and I would like a table for four.” He nodded in the direction of the other Neanderthals, who seemed to think this was extremely funny.
Maybe they had seen the smarminess of his smile, too?
“Did you make a reservation?”
“I’m afraid we did not.”
Emma raised her eyebrows and pressed her lips together briefly. He expected to get a table for four right now, during rush hour?
That seemed a tad too optimistic.
“Okay.” She leafed through her list, concluding as expected that the restaurant was fully booked. She tapped her pen against the sheet of paper and shook her head. “I’m sorry, but we don’t have a table for you.” She shrugged her shoulders in apology. “We’re fully booked for the rest of the evening.”
“Fully booked?” The man was still smiling as if that would change anything about the available seats.
“Fully. To capacity.”
The tall man slowly shook his head and nestled at the collar of his white shirt. “Well,” he leaned forward as his fingertips brushed her arm, “we could move closer together. Squeeze in, you know …”
Her arm was instantly covered in telltale goose bumps. Alright, so maybe he was her type, at least a little bit. Was it her fault that she was attracted to muscles and a handsome face?
Fortunately he was still sporting that fake, incredibly sleazy smile – it prevented her from losing her head.
“Well, if you and your friends are not prepared to sit stockpiled on top of each other, we still don’t have a seat for you.”
The man sighed heavily. “This place is huge; I’m sure your pretty head will be able to figure something out.”
Emma was getting impatient, and gritted her teeth accordingly. “My pretty head tells me that tomorrow will be Christmas Eve, and at the same time it wonders how your smarmy head could expect us to have a table for you in the first place, on the busiest day of the month and without a reservation.”
“Mhm. That’s very interesting, but … Has anyone ever told you that you have a beautiful mouth?”
Perplexed, she blinked at him. “Uh, what?”
“Yes. Very pretty – but it would be even prettier if your lips would form the words, ‘we’ll have a table ready for you in a minute’ now.”
Incredulous as his nerve, her jaw dropped. “What do you call this weird thing you’re doing? Flirting?”
He grinned. “Yes. Nice of you to notice.”
She shook her head and looked up at him. Once again, here was proof: The better-looking a guy was, the dumber. “You call it flirting, I call it embarrassing. My goodness, don’t you have a shred of self-respect? For the last time: We don’t have a table for four! Simply try to be less spontaneous next time.”
The smile vanished from the man’s face, and he narrowed his eyes at her. “Listen.”
He leaned against the desk. “It’s not my fault that you’re on your period right now, so would you just–”
“Oh my God!” She almost burst out laughing. “Why are you still standing here? We’re fully booked – and if I were on my period, my fist would already have punched you in the face. So you’re lucky you were wrong about that.”
The man didn’t budge. What did it take to get rid of him? Did she have to throw a shoe at him?
He leaned forward again, and his coat rustled, as if there was money hidden in the pocket.
“So you still don’t have a table for us?”
Annoyed, Emma wanted to open her mouth again, when he pulled something from his coat pocket and placed it on the desk in front of her.
Emma looked at the wooden top, eyebrows raised. So he actually had hidden money there. “What’s that?”
“A fifty-Euro note.”
“I can see that, but why is it on my desk?”
“I thought that maybe with this banknote in front of you, you might see another angle of the reservation situation.”
Emma crossed her arms. If flirting wouldn’t get him anywhere, he tried bribery? She’d like to have a word with the pastor who held his conscience.
“Do I look corrupt?” she demanded slowly.
“No, of course not. You look adorable – and yet I imagine you’d like to buy a new pair of shoes maybe …”
Emma considered that. It had been a long time since she last went shoe shopping. She reached out and took the money, put it in her pocket. “Thank you very much. I’ve never gotten such a generous tip from a man who didn’t even get a seat in our restaurant.”
The dark-haired man gave her a disbelieving look. “You’re still not giving us a seat?”
She sighed. “Oh, I’m sorry, are you Angela Merkel?”
“Maybe Barack Obama then? Or Madonna? Oh, I know: you’re a boss of the local mafia! No? Not even a Teletubbie?” She shrugged her shoulders in theatrical exaggeration. “Then I’m sorry to tell you one final time: There will be no seat available in this establishment for the next three hours.”
The man’s expression changed. He frowned at her. The frown suited him, she thought. More honest.
“Fine,” he growled, “then please give me my money back.”
Emma gave him a look that professed confusion. “Your money? What money?”
“The money I slipped you a minute ago, lady,” he replied, no longer pretending to be charming.
“Slipped me?” Emma put a hand on her chest. “But you didn’t slip me any money. Because that would be attempted bribery, and thus a penal offense. Nope, I don’t know anything about that.”
The man straightened with a jerk. “Fine. Keep it. Take it to a decent hairdresser, or buy a friendlier disposition with it.”
Emma nodded in mock seriousness. “Thank you, I’ll take that advice to heart. And you should buy yourself a telephone, so you can make a reservation next time!”
Either he didn’t hear her last comment, or he simply didn’t want to react.
He was probably just embarrassed, because he didn’t know how to buy a phone. Poor caveman.