I’m looking at my reflection in the mirror as I fiddle with my earrings. Originally, I’d put on little pearl studs, but I’ve changed them out for playful periwinkle daisies with yellow centers. They look whimsical, youthful, which I figure will appeal to the man whose printed emails lay on the cluttered dresser in front of me.
“This is beneath you, Lindsay.” My best friend Kimberly’s words still bother me. Two weeks ago, I emailed her on a lull in my workday in the advertising department of Lindel’s Fine Clothiers and told her about my plan. I got one paragraph into her lecture before closing the email. As much as I love Kimberly, I wasn’t ready for her feminist screed about how women should make their own way and support themselves. It’s easy for her to be sanctimonious about independence with rich parents at the ready to bail her out should she hit a rough patch. Not all of us are so lucky. Some of us have to be resourceful.
I step away from the mirror. I look… cute. My blonde hair hangs loosely around my shoulders in a cascade of curls. I’d considered braids but didn’t want to go overboard. My outfit is a modified schoolgirl look. Crisp white blouse, fitted, mid-thigh length periwinkle skirt with a cute flare at the hem, and ankle boots that accentuate my short but shapely legs.
I’m thirty, but could easily pass for twenty-two, so I felt confident when I passed myself off as twenty-five in the ad. I glance down at the stack of printed correspondence, which I’ve spent the afternoon studying like a school assignment. If I’m going to pull this off, I’m going to have to sell myself as the character I created.
If I’m going to pull this off, I’m going to have to keep my lies straight.
I glance at the clock. I have a half hour before I’m picked up and whisked away to a house in the old money mansion district. I pick up the stack of emails. I’ve clipped the initial Craigslist ad to the top, and if there’s any shame, it’s that I let myself get in a financial situation making me this desperate.
Pretty, blonde 25 y.o. starving artist ISO older sugar daddy. I’m not looking for a married man. If you have a wife, you don’t need me. Prefer professional, established gentleman who can treat me like a princess in exchange for companionship and possibly more.
At the bottom of the ad is a photo I’d attached. It doesn’t show my face; it’s cropped to reveal me from the bottom of my chin to the middle of my plaid skirt. I’d angled the phone in a way to casually show off the swell of my breasts above the scooped neckline of my white shirt. It’s the type of selfie that has always made me judge women who posted them as shallow, but that’s who I’m pretending to be—a vain, shallow, silly woman who’s too helpless and clueless to turn the tables on an older man looking to take advantage of a young woman. And I plan to milk that persona for all it’s worth.
It got a lot of response, most of it predictable and discouraging. There were the dick pics sent by younger men ready to ‘treat me right.’ They went straight to the trash. Then the more mature gentlemen started to respond. The first was eager to show he had money, and while the sailboat he posed on was indeed tempting, the man smiling on the bow was nothing short of repulsive. The buttons of his Hawaiian print shirt were strained across his pot belly, and what little hair he had was combed over in a sad strip glued to his scalp by hairspray. Another’s smile left no doubt that he’s a denture wearer. Another looked angry, making me wonder why he would send anyone a picture of himself.
I was nearly ready to concede that this was ridiculous when Stanton emailed me. Polite and sweet, he told me he’d recently been widowed, and asked me not to think badly of him for admitting that he was relieved, for his wife had been a cold, distant woman. He’d married her when they were both young, he said, and their union had been ruled by such strife that he felt for years like it had stolen his youth. He’d thrown himself into work, had made a fortune, and believed ours could be a symbiotic relationship, a quid pro quo, he said.
He did not include a picture, and the email was so much of what I had in mind that I was sure when he sent one, it would be worst of all.
I wrote back, telling him his email had intimidated me. “So many big words,” I’d written, even though I have an English degree. “I picture you to look like maybe a professor?” A smiley face icon followed the joke. I asked if he could send one.
When it came, I got my second shock. He was old, but not repulsive. A slightly younger Ian McKellen. Cultured, clean, and dressed impeccably in a three-piece suit. And in our correspondence, he was so cordial, so nice that I almost felt guilty. Whenever I did, I reminded myself that this grandfatherly gentleman was the very embodiment of entitlement—a rich geezer who, having bought everything else, is looking to buy himself a pretty young thing to play with.
Yesterday, before leaving work, I emailed Kimberly and told her I had snagged one, and when she launched into her predictable tirade, I cut her off. Men have been using women for centuries, I told her. They’ve been using and exploiting us, marrying us then abandoning us as they trade up to younger models. So just what’s wrong with turning the tables? Sexuality is power, and if a smart young woman can dangle it in front of an old man and he’s stupid enough to ply her with cash and cars and clothes, what’s the harm?
“Just be careful,” she’d written back, and I considered that something of a win. Kimberly minored in gender studies and works on a literary journal; if she’d had a solid rebuttal, I’d have heard it.
I glance at the clock. It’s seven p.m. I look out the window of my bedroom and see the nose of a black limousine pull into the parking lot, cruising slowly past the buildings. The driver is searching for 4124C, the corner townhouse I’m scraping by to afford. When he finds it, he pulls into a space beside a barely running Ford Focus I can’t afford to replace.
A limo. I can’t help but smile, and in the car, I pull out my phone to Snapchat Kimberly, but scowl when I can’t get a signal. I flush when I look up to see the driver watching me in the rearview mirror and tuck my phone back in my purse. I’ll wait until I get to Stanton’s big house. I’ll take a selfie in the bathroom and message it to Kimberly, just to get under her skin.
I look up to see the driver’s eyes in the mirror. I noticed him when he got out to open the door. He’s gorgeous. I meet his gaze and smile. He smiles back.
“Working girl?” he asks.
My smile fades. “I’m not a whore if that’s what you mean.”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to offend.” His voice is velvety deep. “It’s just that you’re so young and pretty. Not really the kind of girl I would expect to be attracted to the boss.”
“Your boss has a lot of good qualities,” I say, turning to examine the minibar in the back seat. The selection of expensive liquors is tempting.
“No liquor,” he says, “not unless I see an ID.”
“I’m old enough,” I shoot back.
He’s grinning again. “No.”
I pull out a mini bottle of Grey Goose. “Hey, pal. Your boss sent the car for me. There’s liquor back here. The way I see it, if he didn’t want me to have a drink he wouldn’t have put a bar in the back seat.”
I unscrew the bottle. The eyes in the rearview mirror stay glued to mine as I put it to my lips for a defiant swig.
“Can’t blame you, I guess,” he says. “Young thing like you offering herself to some old guy. I would imagine that vodka will help you relax into your role.”
I frown. He’s irritating me now. He has the knowing look of someone who has me figured out, and I find it ironic that he seems to know more about my intent than the man he’s taking me to meet, the man I’ve been corresponding with. He unnerves me, and I hope he won’t be sticking around after he drops me off.
“If you don’t mind, I don’t feel like talking to you anymore.” I take another swig of the liquor and cross my legs. “So why don’t you just do what you’re paid to do.” I reach for the button on the console beside me and a window slides up between us. The driver mock salutes me just before disappearing behind the tinted glass.
“Jerk,” I say, and consider another bottle from the minibar, but change my mind. As much as I hate to admit it, the driver is right. I need to keep my wits about myself, and as the car moves quietly from the city into the oak-lined streets of the titans of local industry, I go over the persona I’ve created.
I’m not desperate, calculating Lindsay Ann Clement, graphic artist stuck in a job that barely pays her bills. I’m fun-loving, ditzy Lindsay Sue, aspiring sugar baby.
The window between me and the driver moves down. “Pardon me, miss,” he says. “We’re five minutes out now. Is there anything you’d like to know about Mr. Stanton before you meet?”
I resist the urge to roll my eyes. I’m sure this guy is just trying to impress me with his insider knowledge.
“Thanks for the offer, but I’m pretty sure I have an idea of what he’s like without the input of menial help.”
“He’s very old-fashioned,” he says, ignoring my dismissal. “Very. So you’ll want to be respectful.”
“Right,” I say. “Respectful as in I should genuflect when he walks in? Or respectful as in I should ignore his employee’s attempts to gossip about him?”
I look for some sign of annoyance on the face reflected in the mirror, but there’s only amusement in the eyes darting between me and the road.
“Respectful as in don’t underestimate him. Stanton is a good man.”
“A good man who’s old enough to take care of himself, I presume.” I want to roll the divider back up, but the car is slowing as we turn onto a street where the houses are even larger and farther apart.
“Good enough not to refer to anyone as menial, but then again, Stanton isn’t a silly little thing,” he says.
I shouldn’t let him get under my skin, but I’m totally over this driver getting preachy with me.
“Thank you,” I say. “But I’d prefer you just do your job and drive. I’m not stupid. I’m not a little girl, and I’m sure I’m a hell of a lot smarter than someone who drives a car for a living.”
“As you wish, madam. Thank you for reminding me of my station.”
This time, it’s he who raises the barrier, and I’m a bit regretful because the glass slides up just as the house was coming into view through the windshield. Now I’m forced to look at the massive oaks illuminated by recessed ground lights situated every few feet. The drive is longer than most and finally the drive curves and I’m looking up at the biggest house I’ve ever seen.
“Ka-ching,” I say under my breath.
The car stops and I hear Stanton’s officious driver cut the engine. A moment later, the door opens and I step out.
“Just go up the steps and ring the bell.” He nods toward the house. “He’s expecting you.”
“Yeah, thanks.” I shoulder my bag and look up at the driver, but he’s already turned his broad back to me. He climbs back in the car, leaving me standing alone.
So, the driver hates me, but who gives a damn what he thinks? The only man I have to impress is inside the Big House, and I remind myself that the acerbic girl in the car is not who Mr. Stanton thinks he’s meeting. I’m sweet, ditzy Lindsay Sue.
Once I’ve ascended the curved stone steps, I push the button by the huge oak door and wait. A moment later, the door is opened by a middle-aged woman in a classic maid’s uniform.
“Miss Clement?” Her eyes sweep over me as she stands aside. “Welcome. Mr. Stanton has been expecting you.”
“Thank you.” I smile sweetly. “But you can call me Lindsay Sue.”
“Oh, no, miss. In this house, we observe formalities. This way, please.” She turns and begins to walk through the foyer. Her heels click on the marble floor, the sound echoing around us. I look up as I pass under a massive chandelier.
It’s like being in a museum. I long to stop and examine things I’m forced to pass, from illuminated oil paintings to the expensive vases perched on pedestals to the side rooms—one a library full of leather-bound books.
It’s like being on a real life set of Beauty and the Beast, but as the maid stands aside and beckons me into the huge room at the end of the hall, I’m reminded that Mr. Stanton is no beast, just the small, elderly man who rises from his chair as I enter.
He looks exactly like he did in the photo, albeit taller and leaner than I imagined. And he’s surprisingly spry as he walks over and extends both his hands.
“And you must be Lindsay Sue.” I offer him mine, and he embraces them. His skin is soft and parchment paper thin. He smiles broadly, deepening the lines in his face. He’s sweet, but I already know there is no way I’ll be offering him anything beyond a cuddle. But that was never my plan anyway. Time to bring my A Game.
“Hello, Mr. Stanton,” I say and then cast my eyes to the floor momentarily before peeking up at him through my lashes. “Gosh… after talking to you for so long, it’s so cool to finally get to meet you.” I bite my lip and will a flush to come to my cheeks as I peek back up at him. “Would you think it was rude to ask for a hug?”
His eyes twinkle as he smiles and opens his arms, and I smile to myself and let him squeeze me, let him feel the promise of my young, supple body pressed against his thin, dry frame. I don’t break the embrace until he does.
“My, but that was nice,” he says. “Was it nice for you?”
I drop my eyes. To him, I’m just being demure, but in truth, I don’t want to him to see the lie in my eyes.
“Very nice,” I fib, and to strengthen my resolve, I glance around the room at the oak paneling, the expensive Tiffany lamps that flank the leather sofa—all the signs of old money he’ll shower on me if he thinks he’ll get more than a hug.
He gestures toward the sofa. “Sit, Lindsay, sit. Would you like a snack? Tea and scones, perhaps?”
“Fancy,” I say with a girlish giggle as I settle on the sofa, positioning my skirt so it falls above the middle of my shapely thighs. “But I’m not much of a tea drinker and I’ve never had scones. Do you have… cookies?”
“Ah, cookies. Yes. I believe Mrs. Oaks could scrounge some from the pantry. Would you like milk with them?”
When I nod, he beams happily. “Delightful,” he says. “I can tell we’ll get along well. Such a dear you are.” He pushes a button by the side table. “Mrs. Oaks,” he says. “Could you bring milk and cookies to the drawing room for our guest. I’ll have my regular.” A brisk voice responds that she will, and he turns back to me and clasps his hands together and crosses his legs. “Now, dear, tell me what sorts of things you like to do.”
I remember what I told him. If this is to work, we should have common interests. I lean over, revealing a bit of cleavage as I pretend to tie my shoe. When I look up, I see he’s staring. I’m in the driver’s seat now. Time to steer him in the right direction.
My tone is mock-nervous and apologetic as I prattle off things I know old people don’t like. He listens without expression, stopping me only long enough to ask ‘what an anime convention’ is. I demure and tell him it’s a pop culture thing.
The uncomfortable silence I expect occurs.
“I suppose a girl your age would like to shop?”
Bingo, my inner voice whispers.
“Would you like to be spoiled?” He tents his fingers under his chin. “Jewelry, clothing, money? Because I’m thinking you would like that very much.”
I giggle again, twirl a strand of hair around my finger, cross and uncross my legs. “If that’s what you want, Mr. Stanton… I won’t object. I don’t shop much. So many nice things, but very little I can afford.”
“Well, my dear. Something tells me you’ll soon get everything you deserve.”
I startle, because it’s not Mr. Stanton speaking, but someone from behind me. And suddenly a younger man walks over and puts his hand on the older man’s shoulder. I recognize him instantly as the arrogant driver, only he’s changed out of his chauffeur’s uniform and is wearing a bespoke suit.
“That will be all, Givens.”
The old man stands up.
“Thank you, sir.”
I feel frozen to the sofa as my eyes dart back and forth. “What’s going on, Mr. Stanton?” I ask the older man.
“Oh, my dear.” He shakes his head. “I’m afraid I’ve been quite rude. I’m not Mr. Stanton.” He nods his head toward the tall man staring down at me with a stern expression. “He is Mr. Stanton. Mr. Silas Stanton, to be exact. I am his butler.”
“The best in the business,” the younger man says, then lifts a finger as he addresses the other man. “But Givens,” he says. “Did you know there are some people in this world who are so rude, unschooled, and childish that they would refer to someone like you or, say, a driver, as menial help?”
The old man grins. “Shocking, sir. Such a person surely would need a lesson in comportment.” He winks then. “Good evening, young lady.” I watch, frozen in place, as he leaves the room.
I watch him go as shock turns to fury.
“Look,” I say. “I don’t know what the hell is going on, but I don’t appreciate it.”
“I’ll gladly explain,” he says quietly.
“No, thank you.” I stand up. “I don’t appreciate being lied to,” I say, my voice trembling with anger and humiliation. “I’m leaving.”
“No, Lindsay,” he says. “No, you’re not. There’s one liar in this room, and I’m looking at her. You aren’t going anywhere.”