1957, Los Angeles, California
Charles Lincoln Neal built a name for himself during his many years of practice, making him one of Los Angeles’ most coveted tailors and designers. Compared to his mere forty years of age, he was more experienced than most of his competition decades his senior. His clientele was small but loyal: ever so eager to expand, but he firmly believed in the principle of quality over quantity. He made it a personal decision to only serve a select few that earned his trust and interest, similar to how his collections available to the public were only ever made in limited numbers. Getting into his inner circle was a task as difficult to accomplish as it was easy to fall from his good graces.
Charles Lincoln Neal was a walking symbol of refined tastes, exclusivity and unique craftsmanship. But right now, he was, above all things, terribly and excruciatingly uninspired.
Sure enough, inspiration was a fickle guest in his mind. Luckily for him, with his strict work ethic and his need for routine, he could tame his creativity in a way that it almost constantly made him ready to work. He walked on the paved road to perfection with steady feet. Not this time. Not in several weeks.
Charles was sitting at his breakfast table in his dining room. He was absentmindedly looking at the silk tapestry, its green hues embracing the morning sun. It was a small voice that woke him up from his momentary slumber.
“Charles, what’s gotten into you?”
The man shook his head, as if someone splashed him with cold water. “What?”
The voice grew less timid and more impatient with each response, or lack thereof. “What’s going on?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve been sitting here in deafening silence, legs frantically bouncing, without uttering a word to me in the past half hour.”
“Breakfast’s for eating” – a short bark.
“Is it?” The woman shot a cursory glance at the plate opposite her. The almost picturesque selection of pastries had been barely touched.
“Certainly not for questioning” – he finally tore his gaze away from the walls, his icy blue eyes meeting her grey ones.
She fell silent for a minute.
“What are we doing here, Charles?”
The clinking of a teaspoon hitting porcelain. A sip of tea. Earl Grey, unsweetened.
“I don’t know, what are you doing here?”
“That’s a great, great question!” Her voice was dripping with anger at this point, unable to hide the frustration and hurt caused by the man in front of her. She rushed up the single stairwell in the hallway connecting the rooms, only to come back a few minutes later. Fully dressed, she was holding a suitcase in her left hand.
“I can’t do this anymore, Charles. I tried. I’m not a mannequin, I’m a woman.”
She waited in the dining room’s doorway for Charles to answer, but he seemed more occupied with the tablecloth and its pattern. Suddenly recognising what was happening, he looked past his companion, deliberately searching for the front door rather than facing her.
“Excellent, Greta, excellent” – he scratched his chin. “I’ll send Buddy over with the remainder of your belongings tomorrow.”
“Prick” – Greta uttered, silent enough that it wasn’t an exclaim, but loud enough for Charles to hear.
The front door closed behind her with a creak, almost mockingly, robbing her of so much as a dramatic departure, her dignity already long gone.
“I think I’ll skip breakfast today” – the man spoke. The thin air was unable to respond.
THE NEXT DAY
“You dismissed her?” She tried to feign shock and annoyance, but the corners of her mouth curling upwards showed otherwise. “Again?”
“Excuse me, she left at her own free will.”
“Precisely, like the six others before her, all of whom you drove away with your ever–so–charming manners!”
“Stephanie – ” There was a slight threat in his tone.
“You can’t trick me, Neal.” She pondered silently for a short while, rocking back and forth on her feet, while Charles sat in the opposite end of the room. The velvet–coated divan was almost teasing its onlookers with its lush purple hue. He preserved all the lavishness and eccentricity for his work as much as he could, but he sure loved his colours, which was clearly reflected in his surroundings.
“It’s different” – he exhaled before she could say anything. She would’ve rightfully scoffed at him for his erratic ways.
“How so?” – her question didn’t come from a place of criticism. If anything, the two small words were filled with concern and empathy.
“I don’t know” – he rubbed his eyes, placing his browline glasses on the small end table beside him. “M’tired.”
“Charles, you sleep like a log every night. I would know.”
“Not like that” – he sighed, continuing after a few beats of silence. His voice suddenly sounded fragile, vapid of the arrogance and nonchalance he showed Greta just the day before. “I feel… depleted.”
“Lincoln” – the tall, thin woman suddenly crouched next to him, delicately placing a palm on one of his knees. “Talk to me.”
Her way of addressing him did its necessary magic, leading to one of Charles’ few vulnerable moments. He usually was a man of select and concise words, but she seemed to navigate the way through his inhibitions with ease.
“I… I can’t work, I can’t concentrate. The pages are blank. My mind is blank. Something is missing. My routine is falling apart, because there’s nothing to lead the routine with. Help me, Stevie.”
“You know I will do everything in my power, but you can only help yourself” – she squeezed his knee. “I will make a dinner reservation, for a start.”
“To have a nice evening, you dummy” – Stevie shot a smile at him, washing over this monochromatic day with a hint of saturation.
“Okay… okay. I won’t say no. But only if it’s the two of us.”
“You sure it isn’t just a funk? You got over plenty of those, and always bounced back with just a little more energy, just a few more sparks than before.”
“I’m pretty sure, yes. Nothing feels right. And it’s not Greta’s fault. Nobody’s fault before her. Only mine” – he weakly smiled.
“Don’t be so hard on yourse–“ The sharp tweet of the doorbell interrupted her comforting words.
A polite, single ring. Stevie was grateful it wasn't one of those impatient vendors, so hungry for attention that they refuse to get their hands off the bell until someone greets them. Having their residence and the salon under the same roof had its disadvantages, and constantly having people around was one of them.
"Whoever it is, Stevie, tell them to leave."
The man at the door heard Charles' faint voice coming from the house sooner than she could answer him, shuffling his feet with unease.
"House of Neal, how can I help you?" She smiled. It was a courtesy, he could tell.
"I... I was sent by Miss Greta to pick up her personal possessions."
Stevie's surprise was genuine. The person before her stood at an almost absurd height, at least absurd to her standards. He was dressed casually in a pair of work jeans, flannel and what appeared to be a leather jacket draped over his shoulder. Perhaps even too casual for her taste. She couldn't help but be humoured by the stranger, however, when she noticed the somewhat stunned look on his face. He must be one of those boys who have only ever seen ladies in skirts, she thought to herself.
"I was told to speak to Mr. Neal" – his pleasant baritone almost echoed in the warm August air.
"I'm afraid Mr. Neal isn't available at the moment" – she declined, well aware that tending to him immediately would only result in one of Charles' usual tantrums.
"It's urgent" – he replied sternly.
"I understand, but–"
"Let him in, Stephanie."
She had no choice but to comply, unable to figure out what was going on in her accomplice's mind. Once in the drawing room, she introduced him with a hint of sarcasm in her unnecessarily solemn statement.
"Charles Lincoln Neal the third, himself."
"What brings you here?" Charles cut to the chase, clearly wanting to get this over with in as little time as possible.
"I was ordered to collect Miss Greta's belongings on her behalf" – he was in obvious discomfort.
"Yes, I do speak English. Please remind her that I promised to get them delivered by a member of my own staff later today."
The man didn't know how to respond – here he was, trying to complete a simple task, finding himself in the middle of what looked like a lover's quarrel. He couldn't care less.
"It's a matter of urgency, I must" – he tried to sound as commanding as he could. He now recognised this as a power play between the two individuals, one which he had no intention be a part of.
“Surely it can wait a little longer” – Charles teased, desperate to end this interaction. He was also determined to ruffle Greta’s feathers a little more, if for nothing else than to show his disapproval about disturbing his quiet Wednesday morning. With a strikingly tall stranger, no less. A stranger, who, with his rough hands and worn attire, looked like a fish out of water amongst the meticulously curated drapes and furniture.
“A few hours, give or take” – a slightly mischievous grin spread across Charles’ face, unable to hide his high over potentially upsetting her. He held her in his arms no more than three days ago. Physically present, but perhaps already having left her in spirit. If he was ever there to begin with.
“Fine. I’ll wait in the truck.”
“Truck? And why don’t you just come back in the afternoon? Don’t you have anything better to do?”
“Believe me, kind sir, I do, but I’d rather not make the three-hour drive more times than it is absolutely necessary” – the unwanted guest sounded more and more annoyed by the minute.
“Doesn’t she live a few blocks away?” He dropped the vitriolic tone, rising to his feet with honest confusion on his face.
“She did, but she travelled back to their parents’ property yesterday for the time being. I’m their caretaker.”
“The caretaker, huh?” Charles knew Greta’s immediate family was financially secure, but he wasn’t aware of the actual extent of their wealth. They very well could’ve lived in a mansion in Santa Barbara, or in a similarly sunny highbrow town. The pang in his chest made him realise he might’ve not known her all that well, despite the year and a half they spent together.
“Yes, and right now I’m trying to take care of business. I have a navy pickup parked almost right in front of your highness’ abode. You can find me there once you have everything prepared.”
With a turn on his heels, he man left the house with much more confidence than he arrived with, the slam of the door of his truck clearly audible from where Charles and Stevie stood in stunned silence.
“Who taught this man his manners? He didn’t even close the front do-“
“That’s a big truck for a big man” – Stevie chuckled, taking a step towards the window.
Charles came back to the room huffing, his sleeves rolled up. “Whatever happens, don’t give him anything to drive back with before three.” The clock had barely struck ten. “I’ll handle the rest.”
“Charles, don’t you think that’s a little excessive?”
“He brought it on himself. Acting like he’s on a mission or something, hmph. A caretaker… Next thing you know, he’s going to fling his »employee of the month« ribbon at me.”
“Hey, slow down there, mister fragile ego” – Stevie tried to calm him, a hint of amusement still lingering in her stomach. “He’s just doing his job.”
“Well, right now his job is to wait. And I’m going to make him earn his money.”
A mere half an hour later, Charles sat down on the queen bed in the guest room. Greta’s room. He’s been through this moment enough times to lack a strong emotional reaction, but he could feel his lungs being filled with an air of melancholy.
He finished packing quite early, putting her remaining notebooks, knick-knacks, toiletries and picture books in a few wooden boxes. Her clothes were already folded away in a couple of beige carriers at the foot of the bed. His housekeeper, Therese made sure no garments were left behind.
It was a guest room. Its occupants have only ever lived there for a fleeting time, like ghosts coming through the walls and sharing their secrets with each other at their arrivals and departures. If Charles had found a cautionary note in one of the drawers for the new tenant to read, he would’ve deemed it rightful. “Run. He isn’t worth it.” There was no note. Not that he knew of.
A few more minutes idly passed by, with Charles looking at the pointed toes of his shoes, eyes devoid of emotions. Reminiscing of times past. He felt nothing.
Save for a little spark of guilt, but not for Greta. Suddenly he remembered the stranger in his pickup truck, angrily waiting for his unplanned stop to end, probably cursing his employers to hell and back. He’s a man’s man, Charles pondered, he’ll get over it. He wasn’t sure if that qualified as an insult or a word of praise at this point: he knew that he seemed strong, commanding, perhaps a little intimidating. His simple attire gave the designer the impression that he aimed for blending in. He probably tried to avoid attention as much as he could, his height, his stature already turning more heads than not wherever he went. And yet, as Charles tried to recall his features and appearance in his mind having met him less than an hour ago, he couldn’t help but notice an aura of grace around him. He was big, but not brutish; he demanded attention, but not by force. He moved in the room carefully, almost apologetically, and even in his stormy exit he manifested composure.
He picked up the boxes and gathered them in his arms, placing them close to the front door. He went back upstairs to put the carrier bags next to them.
“Charles, what are you-“ Stevie poked her strawberry blonde head out from the drawing room, coming up for air, lost in a sea of numbers. She hated doing the books.
“I’m taking care of these.” He was already on the street.
Finding the truck was a bit more difficult than he anticipated, as it was actually parked a few houses farther from his entrance. It was easy enough: the car was akin to a smaller mountain.
He could see from a few steps away that the man was occupied with something. As he came up closer to the vehicle, he could tell he was reading. His engagement was evident by the furrowing of his brows and the indeterminable glint in his eyes. What colour are his eyes? The warmth of the midday sun complimented them well enough.
And just like that, as if he felt the other man’s presence, their gazes met halfway. Like a rainstorm over the open sea. Charles nearly dropped a box filled with trinkets.
He was almost ready to gingerly knock on the glass of the passenger door a moment before, but the caretaker saved him the anxiety. His heart was racing regardless. “You’re early. Came out to taunt me?”
“No, actually… These are for you. I mean, for Greta, I-“ The taller man jumped out of the car, crossed to the other side, and gently took the boxes into his own arms, only to place them on the bed of the truck.
“I’ll get the rest of it. They’re by the front door, it won’t be a minute.”
“I can get them myself. I know where your door is.”
“No, I insist.”
Sensing the slight tinge of guilt in the other man’s words, he let him have it. “If you say so.” By the time the smallest smile spread across his face, ever so slightly reaching his eyes, Charles had already turned around. He noticed the grey strands in his hair, making it look more salt than pepper. The realisation left him puzzled. His expressions painted him youthful even when he seemed upset, and especially when he tried to get a rise out of people. He suddenly realised he was already on his way back: either Neal walked fairly fast, or he got lost in his thoughts for a minute too long.
“I actually wanted to apologise… for my behaviour earlier” – Charles spoke up, a little out of breath.
“It’s alright – I don’t wish to meddle in whatever happened between the two of you.” He was already putting the bags on the bed carefully, making sure they wouldn’t move or flip during the ride.
“Still, I shouldn’t have misdirected whatever feelings I had at you.” That’s a weird way to put it, Charles lamented, already scorning himself for his choice of words.
“We’re only human” – the tall man’s voice was full of unfamiliar tenderness. Unfamiliar to Charles, at least. The tiny specks of dust on his fiery red flannel were almost dancing in the daylight. A few years ago, flannels were in advertisements everywhere, and Charles couldn’t bear the sight of them.
“Well, there you go” – he helped him close the passenger door. To his surprise, Greta’s employee came over to his side once again, and extended his right hand.
“Thank you, Mr. Neal.”
“No problem, mister…”
“McLaughlin. Rhett.” They shook hands, their fingers departing perhaps a beat too short.
“Have a safe drive, Mr. McLaughlin!”
“You bet.” Rhett got into the driver’s seat, buckled his seatbelt, and turned his head to say goodbye once more before he closed the door and tuned the car into gear. Charles was already walking the other way.
He made the ride to Santa Barbara just under two and a half hours.
Charles really did sleep like a log. He dreamt of the colour red that night.