At Your Most Beautiful will be out on 6 April 2021.
Here’s a preview. Enjoy!
At Your Most Beautiful
© Harper Bliss
A drop of sweat slid down Maya’s neck. Then another. She pushed a strand of hair away from her face and expelled a deep sigh, but there was no one around to hear it. She could sigh as deeply and dramatically as she wanted, without Tommy responding with an exaggerated eye roll.
All was quiet in the garden. The surface of the pool was as unwrinkled as an untouched bed sheet. Only last weekend, Tommy and two of his friends had been splashing about loudly as eighteen-year-old boys do—bold and brash as though there’s no other way to be at that age.
Two days ago, Maya had driven her son to LaGuardia Airport, where he’d boarded a plane for Paris. He would spend two weeks in Provence with his father and Heidi, followed by five weeks of backpacking through Europe. Seven long weeks without seeing her son. And that was only the beginning of her time without him—her time of no longer being a full-time mother.
Maya had spent plenty of weekends on her own since the divorce, but time alone when Tommy was due to return three days later was very different from time alone when he had just embarked on a seven-week trip, before leaving home for good.
Was this what the infamous empty nest felt like? Had she gone from one cliché—divorcée—to another—empty nester—as seamlessly as the decades had passed by and left her alone in this too-big suburban house at the age of forty-five?
She could only reply with another deep sigh. Maybe it was time to add another cliché to all the others she seemed to have become without noticing. Maybe it was time to open that bottle of pinot gris. She squinted at the sun. It was still pretty high in the sky. Wine o’clock would have to wait until the sun had dipped a fraction lower. Maya had some standards left.
A rustle drew her attention back to the garden. She wasn’t expecting any company, so it probably came from next door. Maya’s neighbor, Brooke, would probably be up for sharing a glass of pinot later, when the time was more appropriate. The rustle sounded closer. Maya sat up and wiped the sweat from her brow.
“I hope you’re wearing sunscreen,” a female voice that was not Brooke Hathaway’s came from the garden next door.
Only then Maya remembered that the Hathaways had gone to their cabin in the Catskills for the weekend. She sat up straighter in order to see over the hedge that separated her property from the Hathaways’.
“Quinn?” Maya asked. Who else could it be but the Hathaways’ daughter?
“The one and only.” Quinn stepped into view. “Hi, Mrs. Mercer. Didn’t you get the memo? Sunbathing is so last century, it’s not even funny.”
The girl next door was still as forward as ever, then. “I truly appreciate your concern for my skin, but I don’t leave the house without a full coat of SPF 50.”
Quinn shot her a bright smile. As far as Maya could see, she wasn’t wearing much more than a pair of flip-flops and an oversized tank top.
“I haven’t seen you in such a long time.” Maya walked over to the hedge. “How have you been?”
“I’m in-between apartments, so I’m staying here for a few weeks while I get my bearings.” She pulled her top away from her skin. “The city’s too hot right now, anyway.” Had she just cast a longing gaze at Maya’s pool? “I hear Little Tommy has flown the nest.”
Tommy used to hate it when Quinn called him ‘Little’. Maya nodded. “He’s in Europe. Starting Stanford in the fall.”
“No surprise there. I always knew Tommy would go to one of the big schools.”
There are good schools on this coast as well, Maya thought. “What are you up to now?” Maya wanted to deflect the attention away from Tommy. He’d only been gone a few days. His bedroom looked as though he was still in high school and he’d be coming back any day. Although it had been a long time coming and Maya had had ample time to prepare emotionally for her son’s departure, it all felt surprisingly raw and unnatural.
“This and that,” Quinn said, just as her mother did whenever Maya inquired after Quinn’s job. “Mainly photography these days, but, um, yeah…” She ran a hand through her curly hair. “The temperature might be more bearable here than in the city, but it’s still damn hot.”
Maya was getting the message loud and clear. Years ago, when Quinn still lived at home, and another brutal summer day had descended on Milbury, she would stand exactly where she was standing now, and cast longing gazes at the pool. Usually, Tommy was quick to invite her over for a swim, but Tommy wasn’t here any longer.
“Come on.” Maya nodded in the direction of the pool. “I can’t bear to see you sweat like that any longer.”
“Thank you so much, Mrs. Mercer.”
“I think you’re a little too old to still be calling me that. It’s Maya.”
Quinn deftly wriggled her body through the bushes, which were much denser now than when Quinn had last made her way through.
“You have my infinite gratitude, Maya.” Quinn was already stripping off her tank top. Underneath, she wore the skimpiest bikini Maya had ever laid eyes on. “Seeing as my main career of late has been tending bar, I can make you a mean cocktail later to thank you.” Quinn tossed her tank top to the side of the pool and shook off her flip-flops. Before diving in, she looked back and treated Maya to a glittering, sun-drenched smile.
Maya went back to her chair and watched Quinn swim a few slow laps. The mere fact of having someone to share her pool with, even if it was only for a short time, offered a potent distraction from her loneliness. The promise of that ‘mean cocktail’ was helping as well.
Maya tried to remember the latest news Brooke had given her about Quinn. No Ivy League for the neighbors’ daughter, she knew that much. She’d also known Quinn was gay as she’d always been out. How old was Quinn now? Truth be told, Maya hadn’t given Quinn Hathaway much thought at all. The girl barely came home. Brooke complained about it often enough, while Bill said she was just finding her way because she was still so young and what were we like at that age?
Now Quinn was swimming in her pool. If Maya partly closed her eyes and squinted, she could pretend it was her son enjoying himself in the cool water.
“Aren’t you hot?” Quinn had swum to the side of the pool closest to Maya, and rested her elbows on the ledge. Drops of water pearled on the skin of her arms.
“I’m fine. I’ll go for a dip later.”
“How are you holding up now that Tommy’s gone?”
“Fine.” It was nice of her to ask.
“It must be hard, though.” Quinn tilted her head. “Tommy’s always been such a mommy’s boy.” She grinned broadly.
“I don’t think that’s correct.” If anything, Tommy was able to appreciate qualities in his father that Maya had never known the man possessed.
“That’s because you can’t see it. Because you’re his mom.” Still grinning, Quinn winked at Maya before her head disappeared under the water again.
Maya followed her with her gaze. She came up for air at the other side of the pool, where she leaned her head back and smoothed the water out of her hair with her hands. If Tommy was a mommy’s boy, Quinn Hathaway was definitely a daddy’s girl.
“Do you still have your dance school?” Quinn pushed herself out of the water effortlessly and sat on the edge, looking at Maya.
“I do.” Thank goodness for that, Maya thought.
“Pity you didn’t have it when I was younger. I regret not being able to dance properly.” Did she just give Maya a once-over with that piercing blue gaze of hers?
“It’s never too late to learn. I teach a seniors class, ages sixty-five and up.”
“It must work wonders for your figure. You look amazing for a woman your a—” Quinn paused, and briefly drew her lips into a half-smile. “You really look amazing, Mrs.—um, Maya.”
Heat rose to Maya’s cheeks, and she was pretty sure it wasn’t caused by the sun. “Thank you,” she mumbled. When was Quinn going to mix her that ‘mean cocktail’?
Quinn stood and walked to the sitting area, leaving a trail of water behind her.
“Here. Use this.” Maya tossed her the towel that was hanging off the chair next to her.
Quinn toweled off her hair, then wrapped the towel around her waist. For some reason, it drew Maya’s gaze to her chest—maybe by way of her naked belly. As soon as she realized what she was staring at, Maya averted her gaze.
“Are you sure I’m not interrupting anything?” Quinn sat next to Maya. “With Mom and Dad gone, I was getting bored at the house. It’s so quiet here. It’s uncanny.”
Maya didn’t think it was quiet at all. There were birds. There was the dog from two houses down that yapped at the smallest noise. There was the hum of cars in the distance. But she guessed that compared to New York City, Milbury was very quiet. “Truth be told, I’m happy with some company.”
Quinn nodded as though she fully understood what Maya was going through. She folded her hands behind her neck and let her head fall back, her chest jutting out so the sight of it captured Maya’s attention again. If Maya didn’t know any better, she’d think Quinn was doing it on purpose. On second thought, what did she know about Quinn? Not nearly enough to know if she was toying with her.
“When are you going back to the city?” Maya was suddenly very keen to know all about Quinn’s life.
“End of the month.” Quinn played with her wet hair. “I’m moving in with a friend.” She shook her head. “Rent in NYC is murder.”
“Where did you live before?”
Quinn expelled a deep breath of air. A shadow crossed her face. “With my girlfriend. Ex-girlfriend now. She kicked me out.” She paused to paint on a wry smile. “Thank goodness for hotel Hathaway in good old Milbury.”
“Sorry about that.”
“Well, it was her place, so…” She ruffled her hair and a few drops of water fell onto her shoulders.
“Were you and…” For the life of her, Maya couldn’t remember Brooke mentioning Quinn’s girlfriend’s name—or that they had recently split up. “Were you together a long time?”
“Coming up to a year.”
Quinn had been with her girlfriend for almost a year and Brooke had never even brought it up in conversation with Maya, even though they had shared plenty of bottles of wine in that time.
“Did you ever bring her home?”
With her bottom lip jutted out, Quinn shook her head slowly. “Mom, um, didn’t really approve of the relationship. Rach was older than me. She was my photography teacher. Too many red flags for Brooke to deal with.” She shrugged. “Anyway, it’s over now, so Mom doesn’t have to worry about inviting her over for Thanksgiving.”
“How much older?” It made sense now that Brooke hadn’t mentioned Quinn’s girlfriend.
“Rach is in her fifties. Big deal.” Quinn pulled her feet up onto the chair. “She’s also the fucking hottest woman I’ve ever met.”
Maya bit her tongue to avoid telling Quinn off for swearing, and frantically tried to remember how old Quinn was. When had she graduated high school? She couldn’t pinpoint the year, but surely Quinn was no older than twenty-five. Maya fully sympathized with Brooke on this, although this was not the time to let that be known.
“Did she break your heart?”
Quinn gave a one-shouldered shrug. “I don’t know. We spent the last two months in this draining cycle of endless fighting and make up sex. I’m honestly glad it’s over so I can focus my energy on something else.”
Maya didn’t know what to say to that. She was curious about this Rach, though. She was probably around the same age as Brooke, hence her disapproval of the relationship.
“It wasn’t the age difference that caused the break-up?” Maya was probably pushing it, but she was curious.
“When the woman you love is thirty years older than you, it’s going to have some consequences, I guess.”
Maya tried to imagine Tommy bringing home a woman thirty years older than him—a woman older than Maya. Purely on instinct, the thought was almost unbearable. She didn’t just understand Brooke’s reluctance to acknowledge Quinn’s former relationship; she fully agreed with it.
“Hey, it will only hurt for a while.” Above all else, Maya was a mother herself and soothing words came naturally to her. “It may not feel like that right now, but it’s reality.” Young people hardly ever took older and wiser people’s word for it. It was impossible. Some experiences had to be lived through before they could be accepted, let alone believed. “You’re still so young. How old are you now?”
“Twenty-four,” Quinn said. She dropped her legs, squared her shoulders, and took a deep breath. “My problem is that I just really, really, really like older women.” She looked straight into Maya’s eyes.
Again, Maya was at a loss for words. Not only because there simply was no quick response to this particular utterance from Quinn, but even more so because of the look Quinn was giving her.
Quinn chuckled. Maya wondered why she didn’t find her more obnoxious, but she didn’t. Even though Quinn made her feel a little uncomfortable, she didn’t mind. At least she was feeling something other than the self-pity she’d been about to drown in before Quinn had caught her attention.
“How about that cocktail I promised you?” Quinn jumped out of her chair. “May I invite you to the Hathaway house?” She pointed to the bush she’d earlier made her way through. “Unless you want it pool-side. Then I’ll just get the ingredients and I’ll be right back.”
“That would be nice.” Something held Maya back from following Quinn to her house. “I shall wait here with growing anticipation.”
Quinn carefully placed the cocktail in front of Maya. Even though the glass was filled to the brim she managed not to spill a drop. It surprised her because Mrs. Mercer—Maya—was a real fox. How had she never noticed this before? It was also fairly easy to make her blush, although this drink would also help with that.
“Enjoy your paloma, milady,” Quinn said. “It was all the rage at my previous place of employ.”
“Looks delicious.” Maya leaned forward to take a sip from the glass on the table and, while doing so, exposed a touch more of her cleavage. Quinn had to stop herself from ogling. She didn’t want to embarrass Maya too much. Quinn would be out of here soon enough, but her parents would still be Maya’s neighbors. She would still come back here every few weeks, or months, probably depending on who she ended up with next and whether her mother approved or not. “Hm. Yum.” The guttural sound Maya produced pleased Quinn.
She sat and sipped from her own cocktail. It was damn good. And maybe it would help simmer down the restlessness in her blood. But this time of year, mid-July, when the days were hot and the nights hardly cooler, had always made Quinn frisky. Everyone, foxy neighbors included, dressed in barely-there clothes and showed off so much silky-smooth skin. The sun was everywhere and Quinn could still smell it on her skin when she lay in bed at night, too warm to sleep. And she no longer had Rachel to take care of things for her. She had herself, though. She knew what she would be getting up to after she had finished this cocktail. But not before she’d teased Maya a bit more.
Maya had flinched when Quinn had revealed Rachel’s age. A lot of people had the same reaction—even some of the women Quinn hit on. But not the one who had just booted her out of her apartment.
“Glad you like it,” Quinn said. “Because I sure would like another dip in your pool.” When she put her mind to it, Quinn could make everything sound at least a little dirty.
“Any time.” Maya looked relaxed as she leaned back against her chair.
“You might regret saying that.”
“It’s just me here. I told you, I’m glad of the company.”
“When did you and Mr. Mercer get divorced?” Her mom must have told her, but Quinn had long forgotten. All she knew was that when she had left home for a failed stint in college six years ago, Drew Mercer still lived next door.
“About five years ago.” Quinn couldn’t detect any bitterness in Maya’s tone.
“Was it a mutual decision?”
“Sure.” Maya’s voice was flat as could be.
Quinn chuckled in response. “Okay. You don’t want to talk about it. That’s fine.”
“What are we doing talking about our exes on such a lovely summer day, anyway?” Maya took another sip. “Over such a delicious cocktail.”
“You’re right.” Quinn relaxed in her seat. “To hell with them.” She couldn’t help but wonder what Rachel was up to now. Before she had started rustling around in the bushes, hustling for a swim, she’d been scrolling through Rachel’s Facebook profile, an unfulfilling habit she’d developed since arriving home. Unperturbed by her age, Rachel would be out clubbing tonight. It was a given. Quinn made a mental note to avoid Rachel’s social media tomorrow—as if she’d even remember when the time came.
“What’s it like living in the city?” Maya asked.
“Expensive,” Quinn said, because, apart from Rachel, money had been preoccupying her the most.
“But fun. I love the energy. The possibility. As if anything can happen with every corner you turn.”
“You’re not too bored spending time in good old Milbury?” Maya grabbed her cocktail and held it just above her chest. A drop of condensation fell onto the swell of her breast. This time, Quinn couldn’t look away.
“It’s good to take a breather once in a while.” Quinn took another sip to lubricate the dryness in her throat more than anything.
“Gosh, to be twenty-four again,” Maya mused, apparently impervious to Quinn’s locked gaze on her chest.
“Weren’t you a hot-shot dancer in your twenties?”
“Oh, yes. And I loved every second of it.” Maya’s voice grew more powerful, as though the memory stirred something in her. “Despite all the hours of training, all the sacrifice… to go out on the dance floor was always just pure ecstasy.”
“Do you still dance?” Because that had also been the thing about Rachel, and the thought of her out in the clubs tonight, being watched by a myriad of other women stirred jealousy within Quinn. Rachel always had the smoothest moves, the coolest sway to her hips. She might be the oldest, but that never stopped her from being the hippest person in any joint she entered—baby dyke parties included. Quinn had loved to watch Rachel dance.
“Of course. I will only stop when I lose the use of my legs.”
“Did you teach Tommy how to dance?” Quinn’s gaze had traveled back up to Maya’s face. The late afternoon light caught in her eyes, making them glitter.
“Of course. He might end up an accountant like his father, but at least he’ll be an accountant who knows how to waltz.”
“I’d love to see you dance,” Quinn blurted out. It was true. Even when she simply reached for her cocktail, there was such elegance to the stretch of Maya’s arm. But it might not be the best thing to say to her neighbor with whom she was having a chill and lovely time.
“Come to the studio some time. I’ll teach you some moves.”
Quinn hadn’t expected that. “All right. I’ll be there.”
Over the rim of her glass, Maya eyed her. “What did you put in this, anyway?”
“Grapefruit juice, soda water, and some syrup. And a healthy dose of tequila, of course.”
“It tastes deceptively light, but I can definitely feel it after only a few sips.” Maya put her cocktail down, as though to make a statement.
“It’s how we make them in New York City.” Quinn couldn’t stop a grin from spreading on her lips.
“So… why do you prefer being with older women? What’s wrong with girls your age? I know it’s none of my business, but blame this.” She pointed at the contents of her glass.
Quinn chuckled. “I don’t know. Maybe I have mommy issues, but I don’t have the money to pay for therapy to find out.”
Maya’s eyes widened a fraction. “Before Rach, did you also date older women?”
“Before Rach, I didn’t really have a clue about anything. I dated but… I don’t know. It was different. It all seems so meaningless now.”
“Are you okay, Quinn?” The sudden worry in Maya’s tone made Quinn feel even hotter. “Did she hurt you really badly?” Maya canted her body toward her.
Quinn huffed out some air. “The situation wasn’t ideal, but neither was breaking up. I guess these things always hurt. Although, according to Mom, it’s all for the best and, in the long run, I’ll be all the happier for it.”
“And according to yourself?”
“I’ll be fine. I just need some time.” Quinn had always much preferred some light flirting to baring her soul.
“What is it that you’d like to do with your life? What’s your passion?”
“Photography,” Quinn said on a sigh. “In between bartending at night and waitressing during the day, I took a photography course. Guess who my teacher was?”
Maya shot her a warm smile. “Does their name start with an R?”
Quinn nodded. “As a result, when I’m lining up a shot, I still hear Rachel’s voice in my head. I’m waiting for the day when I no longer associate taking pictures with being with her. That’s what makes it so damn annoying. It’s like the two are inextricably linked or something.”
“Look at it this way, though. It’s good that you have a passion. So many people never find the one thing they can’t live without. Like I will never be without dance. I hope you will never be without a camera.” Maya reached for her cocktail and took a sip. “In a few months, you’ll be back at it, and you won’t give Rachel a second thought.” She narrowed her eyes. “Do you know how many dance partners I’ve had in my life?”
Quinn shook her head.
“Neither do I, that’s how many. I’ve lost count. Save a few, people will come and go in your life. But what’s in here.” She put a hand on her stomach. “The thing you love, that will stay with you forever and guide you through the ups and downs of your life.”
“Wow. I wasn’t expecting a swim and life lessons today.” Quinn’s gaze was drawn to where Maya’s hand rested on her stomach. She wore a see-through cotton dress over her swimsuit and seeing her hand pressed against her belly did something funny to Quinn’s own stomach.
“Well, there you go. Sometimes life hands you something utterly unexpected. All you have to do is enjoy it.”
“I will.” Quinn figured that Maya most likely had no idea what life was offering her right now. “I am enjoying it.” Quinn watched how Maya moved her hand from her belly to her hair, which she brushed away from her face with such gracefulness, it made Quinn a little more audacious. “I do have a more specific answer to your earlier question.”
Maya responded with a slight lift of her eyebrows.
“Women in their forties and fifties, to me, are at their most beautiful.” She tried to lock her gaze on Maya’s. It was only hard for a fraction of a second. She needed eye contact for what she was going to say next. “Like you are, tonight.”
The slightest puff of air emanated from Maya’s lips, as though she was a touch perplexed but didn’t want to show it. “I was going to ask you whether Rach had seduced you, but I think I know the answer to that question already.”
“She was my teacher. Making the first move wasn’t really an option for her, although she had little trouble with the second move.” Quinn knew she sounded a touch conceited, but it was all part of the game. And wasn’t that what this had turned into now? A flirting game with her neighbor? Quinn didn’t have anything to lose. Maya hadn’t chased her from her garden just yet.
Maya chuckled. “How did you go about it?” She reached for her cocktail again. Before knocking back the last of it, she peered deep into Quinn’s eyes.
“Lingering after class. Asking some photography questions, followed by some non-photography questions. Inviting her for a drink with the group, then without the group. Things like that.”
Maya nodded slowly, but didn’t say anything. With a soft thud, she deposited her empty glass on the table.
“Can I fix you another?” Quinn asked.
“I think I’ve had enough.” Maya looked as though she was thinking very deeply about what to say next. “But thank you.”
“My absolute pleasure.”
Maya blinked slowly, then gave the slightest shake of the head. “I’m going to get started on dinner. Feel free to have another swim before you go.”
Before you go? Ouch. But what had Quinn expected? A dinner invitation? “Thank you for having me over, Maya. It was really lovely to get to know you all over again.”
“It’s been enlightening to say the least.” Maya pushed her chair back. “See you around.”
“I sure hope so.”
Maya collected the glasses from the table and, without looking back, headed inside the house.
Quinn stared at the open door. There was always tomorrow. It was only Friday. Her parents wouldn’t be back until late on Sunday. Quinn had all weekend for another dip in Maya’s pool.
<<End of preview>>
At Your Most Beautiful will be available on Tuesday 6 April 2021 from all retailers.