Gil’s eyes were warm on me. “It’s cool how you’re so serious about everything. You’re a funny princess.”
“No, no! I’m not,” I answered sincerely.
He laughed. “Especially when you don’t mean to be funny.”
But I’d meant that I wasn’t a princess.
Our burgers arrived, distracting us as we squirted ketchup and loaded the buns with lettuce, onions, and pickles. Led Zeppelin was on the jukebox. “What sort of music do you go for?”
Now Gil leaned in on his elbows. I’d struck a nerve. “Clapton, Tom Waits, Lynyrd Skynyrd. But I dig most any rock-and-roll—me and my pal Kenny took a bus twenty-three hours to see The Who in Fort Worth.”
“I’ve been to Madison Square Garden twice this year. Once for David Bowie and once for Elton John.” This wasn’t true—it was my sister, Daphne, who’d gone. But I’d heard enough about both concerts. In the moment, staring at Gil, I wanted it to be true so badly that the truth itself seemed like a tiny detail.
“Elton John? That guy’s a dud.” Gil began to sing “Bennie and the Jets” through his adenoids.
My cheeks got hot. Daphne never did dud things! Or did she? What would Daphne say in this moment? “Well, I saw Elton’s whole act, and it’s a complete hoot!”
Gil shrugged. “Piano’s good if Waits is playing it. I’m more into guitars myself.” He molded his hand around an invisible neck, and with the other hand, he strummed air. “I used to mess around in a band—we called ourselves The Mindbenders. But that was B.C.—Before Uncle Carp. Now I’m at the law firm day and night. He’s got me in his focus—which I do appreciate,” added Gil quickly. “Hope I wasn’t coming off ungrateful.”
“Have Carpie and your family mended fences?”
Gil paused, as if deciding how to frame this. “Matter of fact, one of the deals of my being here is, I can’t contact my family.”
He smiled, guarded. Sipped his beer and shrugged in answer.
“But that’s family politics for you,” I said. “Anyway. I’m glad you told me. I’m always here to listen if, you know—” I floundered “—you want to tell me more.”
Now Gil eyed me in a way that burned up my cheeks. “I want to know more about you.”
“Oh, okay. Me. Um. Like what?”
“Like . . . what do you love?”
“Love! Oh my gosh! Don’t put me on the spot!” I hid behind my beer mug—only a few sips remained. I wouldn’t order another. Even one drink made me too careless with my words. “I love tennis,” I told him after a pause.
“Where I’m from, that game’s for snobs.”
“I never feel snobby when I play. I feel happy. Unless it’s . . .” against her. “Unless it’s too competitive.”
“Have you got a shelf full of trophies?”
“Aw, you’re stewing about something.” Gil’s voice was gentle. He tipped his head, watching me. “Cat got your tongue? Tell me.”
“No. There’s nothing to tell.”
“Come on. Put it out there.”
Fritz O’Neill. She was something real. She was something to put out there. But I wouldn’t even speak her name out loud. Not tonight.
Fritz O’Neill, who last summer had entered the Junior Cup Tennis competition at the eleventh hour. Then she’d casually annihilated me. My loss had shocked the family. My mother’s and Daphne’s names were both etched into plaques that hung in Haven Casino’s center hall.
But not mine.
“I’m training super hard for a tennis rematch that I lost last summer. I’ve been practicing after school and every weekend.”
“Bet you’ll do fine.”
“There are other good players.”
“I guess I can’t remember her name.”
“Arrright, arrright.” Gil popped his last huge bite of burger in his mouth. He ate too quickly, but his appetite also made him sexy, like a wolf.
When “Young Americans” came on, I clapped for it. “I love this song!”
“I’ll get out there if you want.”
Toward the far end of the room near the jukebox, kids were bouncing and shimmying and trying to look like they weren’t working too hard on their moves.
Gil slapped a ten on the table to pay. “Let’s go.”
When I stood with him, he took my arm and led, turning me in and out easily, and then pulling me close. When he held me to his chest, I felt myself melt against the press of his body. Were Dalton girls watching? Was Jack Hollander? Would people talk about how smooth we looked out here? I felt expansive with all the possibilities
And when the song ended and Gil stared down at me, for once my uptilt felt entirely natural. I’d never felt so radiant as I did in his gaze.
Gil leaned in close to my ear. “Hollander’s. Bowie. You. At least I got one New York night exactly right.”
We danced to a few more songs, then we left the bar, sailing into the warm, almost-summer night. We had enough time to walk uptown and still beat my curfew. Three hours ago, I hadn’t even known he existed, and now here was Gil Burke, blazing bright as a comet through the center of my world. I was giddy with it, almost frantic with wanting to absorb and memorize every detail of each, shared moment.
“Kinda funny, remembering about earlier,” Gil said, as if he’d been listening in on my thoughts. “When Uncle Carp first mentioned his goddaughter?” He took my hand and slid his fingers through mine. “For some reason, I pictured a little girl with braces and a hula hoop.”
I sighed. “Carpie thinks I’m still a child.”
“You’re anything but.” He said it sweetly. Not like a come-on. His fingers were woven strong through mine. Gil had seemed sure right from go that I was special—a fun-loving New York girl with connections to “It” bars. And now a brand-new thought overtook me.
First Gil had rescued me from my fight with Daphne. Then he’d sprung me out of the apartment and whirled me into this perfect evening. What if Gil had come here all the way from Elmore, Alabama, to Sunken Haven for me?
Could it be true? Instead of a summer playing handmaiden to Daphne, was I being delivered something entirely different—a summer in the spotlight? A summer starring Gil Burke and me? The idea, as it steeped, filled me with tense, panicky joy—it sounded too good to be true, like something a West Village psychic would promise for fifty cents.
Summer flings and sexy romances were Daphne’s territory. Not mine. I was the one you didn’t pick.
I swatted off my hope like a bumblebee, knowing it was too late. I’d already been deliriously stung.