Love Me Or Leave Me

LoveMeOrLeaveMe

The Twenties roared with hot jazz, free-flowing back-room liquor, and wild sexual abandon, freeing even society girls like Nora Richardson to explore every fantasy, every desire, and every vibrating impulse…

The moment I met Jonathan, a mad, instant lust took hold of me. Outside the speakeasy, in the buggy seat of my father’s car, he ripped the front of my dress, catching the pearls around my neck, snapping the string, sending beads spilling everywhere.

Occasionally I still find one of those pearls in my pocketbook or in the driveway in front of our manor house, and it makes me wilt with the scorching heat of the memory. You see, I loved him that night. I loved all the filthy things he said to me. I loved all the ungentlemanly things he did to me. I loved the way it felt to have him inside me, not even knowing his name. Not knowing that he would be the kind of man to return with flowers and a marriage proposal…

Now, a year later, he’s a scorned husband who wants to punish me. And I realize how very much I want to let him…

Reviews

“…nuanced, complex characters who are both strikingly modern and very much of their time, and the sex and the setting are both deliciously integrated into a larger story. The balance of sin and sweetness is as perfect as a Prohibition cocktail.”

- RTBookReviews, Top Pick!

 

Excerpt

The band is playing “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and tonight, its lyrics about heartbreak cut entirely too close to the bone. As the singer growls through the soulful song, Jonathan’s cool blue eyes pierce through a wreath of smoke to accuse me, and my whole body tightens, overaware of him.

With his lean elegant body and chiseled good looks, he’s the star attraction in any social gathering, but Jonathan stands out especially at this swanky party, a glass of gin dangling so casually from one hand, at odds with the formality of his coat and tails. He wears a white vest, shirt, and tie pulled too tight, but it isn’t the tie that has stiffened Jonathan’s neck.

He wants to leave. The way his eyes keep darting to the exits show me just how much he wants to escape the clink of glasses and the laughter of women who twist long strands of pearls between their breasts to entice him. Something green and ugly writhes in my belly at the thought that he can have his pick of the women who flirt with him; I’ve heard women in the powder room whispering about him. With his dark hair slicked back and the lightest hint of a mustache over his full, brooding lips, he is the most striking man in this or any room.

He is also my husband, or at least he will be, until morning.

He wasn’t born to this life. His father was a man who worked with his hands, and Jonathan still remembers going hungry. Even so, threading his way through the crowd, he shows no interest in the chocolate-covered cherries, caviar, or oysters on the half shell. A girl asks him to dance, but he declines in so genteel a fashion that she purses her red-painted mouth to blow him a kiss.

Jonathan is nothing if not mannerly. Distant, unknowable, but unfailingly polite.

Even now, as furious as he is with me, he gives me a gentlemanly bow of his head. “Are you enjoying the party, Mrs. Richardson?”

I grimace with bitter amusement that this might be the last night we share a name. At home, his bags are packed. By morning he’ll be gone. Unless I do something about it.

Pressing my hands against the wood-paneled wall to steady myself, I lean in, trying to be heard over the tinkling piano. “Jonathan, please let me explain—”

“I’ve got a bit of an edge,” he interrupts, affably saluting me with his glass so that I can see that he’s drained it. “Perhaps we should make the rounds and get going.”

His ability to remain so even-tempered makes me angry, and for a moment I’m inclined to agree that we should leave, even if leaving this party is the last thing we’ll ever do together. But I’ve let myself draw too near to him. I’ve caught a whiff of his scent, something musky and male that combines with the alcohol on his breath to make my knees weak. “I’d like to stay a little longer, if you don’t mind.”

“Whatever you like,” he says, agreeably.

He’s always agreeable. He’s never complained about my overprotective father. Nor the distance that has separated his bed from mine for the past year. Nor the silent breakfasts or awkward good-nights. As far as I know, my mild-mannered husband has never been bothered by anything until this morning, when I confessed my sins.

He listened to everything I had to say, then laid his butter knife carefully at the edge of his breakfast plate and calmly announced his intention to divorce me. Now, I reach for his hand, trying to make him listen. “Jonathan, can’t we talk about this?”

“This doesn’t seem like the time nor the place,” he says with a tight smile, deftly avoiding the closer intimacy of tangled fingers by tucking my arm in the crook of his elbow. The heat of his body through my clothes is electric and forces my eyes closed. I’ve wanted him from the first time I saw him—and I had him. All of him. Not the bottled-up bluenose he’s become. Not the man who transformed himself to fit in with this crowd. Once I had all of him. The wild, savage beast of him.

We met at a party like this one, but he was a crasher then. I was drowning in liquor, too zozzled to dance with the flappers in my set, too drunk to stand up straight. His face was thinner, chin sharply angled, lips curled with the insolent snarl of a workingman, but his eyes were the same. Such intense blue.

I’ve always been a girl too much inside her own head, or so my father tells me, though it’s the way he taught me to be. “Look at a thing from every angle, my little bunny,” he used to say. “Always go with what you know.”

But the moment I met Jonathan, a mad, instant lust took hold of me. I didn’t know anything about him except that I wanted to be underneath his body. He could’ve undressed me in front of all the guests and I wouldn’t have stopped him. To get his attention, I’d tickled him with a feather from my headdress. He let me take a puff off his cigarette. Somehow, we ended up in the buggy seat, my knees over his shoulders, my father’s car bouncing on its wheels as Jonathan fucked me raw.

I remember that he ripped the front of my dress, catching the beads around my neck by accident, snapping the string, and sending them spilling everywhere. I still occasionally find one of those beads in my handbag or in the driveway, and it makes me wilt with the scorching heat of the memory every time. You see, I loved him that night. I loved all the filthy things he said to me. I loved all the ungentlemanly things he did to me. I loved the way it felt to have my dress wadded up around my waist, to feel him inside me, not even knowing his name. Not knowing that he worked for my father or that he would be the kind of man to return with flowers and a marriage proposal when he found out I was knocked up.

I’m jarred from my memories by the voice of Paul Kendrick. “Jonathan, old sport!” The moneyed banker slaps my husband on the back. “Saw your Bentley outside. A gift from the father-in-law? Nice racket if you can get it—” Paul Kendrick suddenly realizes I’m standing there. Quickly clearing his throat, he laughs too loud. “Ah, Mrs. Richardson. Pardon me. I didn’t see you through the haze of smoke.”

I show him a flash of teeth. I hate men like Paul Kendrick, who belittle Jonathan under the guise of friendship. Men who ignore the fact that in the time he’s worked for my father, Jonathan has already earned enough money to buy his own Bentley. “I do fade into the woodwork . . .”

Kendrick snorts at my sarcasm. “You must not be paying your wife the attention she’s due, Jonathan. She seems not to know how attractive she is.”

“Oh, she knows,” Jonathan says, and an awkward silence follows.

“I love Hollywood parties, don’t you?” Kendrick asks, surveying the bottles on the bar behind us, all of them forbidden under Prohibition. But laws like that don’t apply to people with money. People like us. Sometimes I think the temperance movement only concerns itself with the poor. “Not a bad outlay of alcohol tonight.”

Jonathan doesn’t say anything and I don’t, either. Paul Kendrick’s glance darts from me to Jonathan and back again, finally sensing the tension. He makes some excuse to go, hastily retreating across the polished wood floor to join a cadre of men debating the merits of the Scopes Monkey Trial. I have my own beliefs when it comes to that, for I have very good reason to believe that we’re really all just animals inside.

From the nearby sideboard, Jonathan chooses a decanter and fills his glass. “Is he the one?”
The words are spoken so softly, I wonder if I’ve imagined them. I follow his gaze to where Paul Kendrick stands and feel myself flush, but I have no right to be offended. “No. Not him. Of course not.”

Jonathan adds something dark to his drink, then drops two cubes of ice into the mixture. “Who was it then? I deserve to know his name.”

Nothing good can come of this, but I find myself strangely gratified that Jonathan has finally asked. That a hint of agitation has finally touched his expression. “It makes no difference who it was. It was only a kiss. I’ve been trying to tell you, it was a drunken . . .” I struggle for the right word. I cannot call my infidelity a lark, for it was nothing that innocent. “It was a drunken nothing. It meant nothing at all.”

My husband’s tone is light, but his eyes are anything but. “It was just the hooch, then. Is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes. He was tanked.”

“What about you? Were you tanked, too?”

“Yes,” I admit, taking a deep, relieved breath of air. As long as my husband is asking questions, perhaps he can find a way to forgive me. “I had too much. Sometimes I lose track.”

“I see.” Jonathan lets my hand drop. The break in contact between us is like an arctic wind. “Kind of like the night we met. Was that a drunken nothing, too?”

When he lifts his overflowing glass to his lips, I clutch at his arm. “No. Jonathan.” I know that he wants me to tell him that I love him, but I can’t make myself say the words. Not even now. Especially not now, because I’ve never found the courage to say it before. If I let those words fall from my lips now only to watch him walk away, it will kill me. “You’re my husband. What’s between us isn’t nothing.”

“You’re spilling my drink,” he says mildly, as if he can’t hear the desperation in my voice. He sets the glass down, brushing my hands, and the spilled liquid, from his jacket. Then I watch him take another glass and fill that as well, adding a splash of cherry. He hands that one to me. I take it only because I’m desperate for the brush of his fingers over mine, even if they are wet and cold.

“Drink,” he says, eyes pale as ice.

My hand shakes and the cherry in my glass bobs up and down. “Jonathan, I’m sorrier than you know.”

“Are you going to drink?”

I stare at the glass in my hand, the carved crystalline ridges scraping my palm, and regard it as if it held poison. “No. Spirits have done enough damage between us.”

“Then I’m leaving,” he says, emptying his glass. “I’ll send a driver back to fetch you.”

He whirls and I catch him, heedless of the stares we draw. I can’t let him go.

“What?” he snaps, savagely. His first real show of temper.

He stares, waiting for me to speak, watching as I wrestle with my tongue. “What can I do to show you how sorry I am? How can I make it up to you?”

His shoulders actually shake with anger. I worry he will say that nothing I can ever say or do will ever make up for allowing another man to kiss me. Instead, he says, “You can drink.”

It’s too small a request to refuse him, so I lift the cool rim of the glass he’s given me, taking a swallow of something that stings sweet. This seems to satisfy him. He tugs at his tie and no longer seems like himself. No longer mild-mannered, polite, or distant. He stares at me as if he might tilt my head back and pour a drink down my throat. I wish he would. I love the feel of his strong hands tangled in my hair. “Drink it all, Nora.”

I take two more gulps. “You want me to tell you who the man was? Is that what you want?”

He gives a bark of bitter laughter. “What I want is to punish you . . . and I want you to drink.”