Just before Neal left for the day, June said, "Tell Peter that you won't be available for any evening shenanigans tonight. Your presence is required."
"Required?" said Neal.
June smiled serenely into her coffee cup. "I require an escort, and you are required to be he."
Neal smiled and looked at her sideways and opened his pretty mouth.
"No, Mozzie may not stand in for you. I need someone…decorative." This time when she smiled, she kept her eyes hard.
Neal drew in a breath, paused, then relaxed his posture and said, "Yes, ma'am."
"We're leaving at 6:30, Neal. Be back early enough to shower and change."
He nodded, tipped his hat, and walked out.
At 6:29, June watched Neal glide down the staircase looking perfectly delicious in semi-formal wear.
He checked her out as he came down the stairs. "You look amazing." His eyes flitted back down to her legs, always her best feature. She wondered if he meant what he said. "Where are we going?"
"Urban League dinner, honoring those who give back to the community."
Neal smiled slowly, offered her his arm. "Are you so honored?"
"Not this year." She took his arm. "I've been in mourning this year." She shored up the expression on her face; she has done with all of that, it was why she had invited Neal in and kicked the last of the grandchildren out, why the dress she wore was a vibrant coral and not black. "Let's go."
Having Neal on her arm—young, white, pretty, charming, and completely unknown to everyone worth knowing—was just as much fun as she had thought it would be. The church ladies looked vaguely offended, but Neal danced close attendance on her without seeming too familiar with her body, so they couldn't accuse her of anything. The gossips took one look at her and started making up wild stories. If she were lucky, someone would see fit to call tomorrow and tell her what price they had put on him.
Lucinda, maybe. She was the first of June's friends—actual friends, the ones who kept calling and inviting her out during the worst of her depression, who sat with her and cried with her when she needed that more—to approach, and her opening line was, "Sharing is caring, Junie. Where did you buy him, and are they on sale?"
June hugged her back, dug her arms into the big round pillow of Lucinda's body, breathed in the scent of lavendar that Lulu's been working since 1972. "Sadly for you, I picked him up in a thrift store. He was the only one on the shelf."
She was old enough now to, without drawing comment, leave dinner before the final honorees were announced, old enough to forgo without regret the after dinner dancing at the Freeman mansion. At 10:30, she pulled Neal out to the town car and told Raymond to take her home. "There's a few bottles of nothing at all spectactular between the seats," she told Neal. "Pour me something."
He laughed at her and didn't move. "We're fifteen minutes away from your house. You don't want to wait for something more top shelf?"
She sniffed at him. "Dear boy, when taking liquor for medicinal purposes, the last thing I want to drink is something expensive enough to finance an international advertising campaign." She snapped her fingers. "Rum! And cola, if it's in there."
He gave her the rum and she downed it in one long swallow—it really wasn't worth tasting. Then she sighed and put her head back. "Redebuting in society went better than I thought." She rolled her head enough so she could look at him, could smile where he would see it. "You helped."
He smiled back at her. He'd relaxed, too: undone tie, unbuttoned collar, feet stretched out as far as they would go, which was pretty far in this old behemoth. "You didn't need me. Actually," his grin turned wolfish, "I thought Mrs. Anabelle Washington Baker was on the verge of warding off my evil eye."
"Oh, Anabelle Washington Busybody! She's sure that anyone having a little fun is going straight to hell. That woman." June shook her head, then her shoulders, and let her eyes drift shut.
She woke up in Neal's arms, being carried through the foyer. This did not make her feel like a fairy tale princess, it made her feel like an old fool, so she said, "Put me down." He scored a lot of points with her by setting her down immediately and not saying a word when he had to catch her right away. She took his hand and pulled herself to vertical, then said, "If you'd be kind enough to let me take my shoes off here, I'm sure I can make it to my room without breaking my neck."
"I don't mind carrying you the rest of the way—," he paused when she sniffed at him dismissively, "—but if you put your hands on my shoulders, I can get the shoes off for you." His mouth curled up into something pleased with his own naughtiness. "It is the pleasure of the modern escort to perform the occasional duties of the lady's maid. You wouldn't deny me, would you?"
She blinked at him and said, "Are you really trying to sneak a peak at my ancient gams?"
"Ma'am, I'm trying to cop a feel."
"Oh," she gasped and laughed so hard she fell completely back into his arms. "Well at this rate, you might as well carry me up and…attend me, young man."
He stood up and pulled her close into his chest, then gifted her with his most rakish smile to date. "The pleasure will be mostly mine."