“Wait, wait, Brody, you forgot your tie!”
Brody rolled his eyes with a weary smile. “Yeah, I’m not wearing a tie.”
Dante’s jaw dropped as he looked down at the Italian silk tie in his hands. “But…this is Chiara you’re going out with. I like her and I don’t want your barbaric ways scaring her off!”
Brody laughed, looking down at his phone to check the time. “Her barbaric ways are what attracted me in the first place, D! Besides, we already agreed to make this as casual as we can. We don’t need any undue attention. Neither of us appreciate it.”
Oliver gasped emphatically, clapping his hands in front of him as he rounded the corner and spotted his friend. Brody threw open his arms with a helpless laugh, Oliver approaching him with his arms outstretched.
“Our little boy’s growing up! Look at you!” He straightened the lapels of Brody’s black overcoat. “Very understated; I like it. Chiara will be impressed.”
Dante tossed the necktie in the air and spun to walk away in a frustrated circle. Oliver frowned at him and shrugged, backing away from his friend.
“So, you excited?”
Brody could not fight the grin tempting his features. “Yeah, especially to see her reaction to what I have planned for tonight. She’s going to be so surprised!”
“Pleasantly so, I hope,” Dante interjected. “This is your first date, after all. Wanna make a good first impression.”
“First trial date,” Oliver corrected with sparkling eyes. “‘Trial’ being the key word there.”
Brody glanced down the hall as Jay swung into the foyer on his crutches. There was not much pain left, but Brody had a feeling that Jay was enjoying milking the sympathy he could get from just about anyone. The Newhall heir raised his eyebrows with a grin.
“Ah, jeans? Are those jeans I’m seeing?” He pointed to Brody’s pants. “Guys, is Brody wearing jeans?”
Brody rolled his eyes as Oliver and Dante made a show of shock. “Yes, and they rub horribly. I cannot believe the quality of this peasant material. Yes, I am wearing jeans, Jay, and it’s kind of nice. You should try it!”
“Mm. Peasant pants, like you said. I’ll bet Chiara will like it, though.” Jay winked. “You are the picture of an ideal Downs date.”
“Trial date,” Oliver coughed. Dante elbowed him. Jay clapped Brody’s shoulder, supporting himself on one crutch.
“You’ll have fun, man. Forget all your responsibilities for a night and treat her like an Up.”
Brody pursed his lips thoughtfully. “I think I’ll avoid that. I’d rather treat her like Chiara.” He winked and opened the door. “She’d probably kick me if I treated her like an Up. I’ll see you all later.”
“Bring us back pictures!”
Brody chuckled at their laughter as he shut the front door behind him, stepping out into the cold. He shivered slightly, closing his fist around his car keys to keep them warm as he jogged down the long driveway to his bright red car. He stared at it for a minute. It certainly was not the most inconspicuous way to pick up Chiara, but it was the only car he brought and the other boys’ vehicles were not much more understated. He shrugged, opening the car door and ducking behind the wheel. Chiara would forgive him.
Navigating the Downs was like entering a war zone where there were no rules. Brody would have thought that people who needed these cars so badly would take better care of them. As it was, they did not seem to care so much, though heads did turn at the shining red car cruising down their torn roads scattered with potholes. Brody smiled and nodded at those who watched enough. The attention in the Ups revolved around selfies with the newest smartphones and autograph books. It was almost refreshing to come to the Downs and have the extent of it be dropped jaws and wide eyes.
There was not much of a parking lot at Chiara’s apartment building, so Brody parked on the curb and hoped it would be safe for the five minutes it would take to go fetch his date. He took the stairs two at a time, smiling a little to himself all the way. He would probably get more exercise if he broke the elevator at his own house. Of course, Oliver would kill him for that. The art connoisseur had long since decided that stairs were the bane of human existence.
In this case, they were the fastest way to Chiara.
He rapped gently on the front door, B5 glinting at him semi-invitingly. He looked down at himself, straightening his jacket for the official countless time. Chiara would not have cared if he had come in jeans and a t-shirt, but she was practically a princess to him. He wanted to look exactly the part of her prince.
Mr. Dalton opened the door. He grinned broadly. Brody smiled back, but he had a feeling that Mr. Dalton was not extraordinarily pleased to see him. At least, not under these circumstances.
“Mr. Hilton,” Mr. Dalton started, thrusting out his hand. “Welcome back.”
Brody shook his hand and Mr. Dalton used it to usher him inside. “Thank you, Mr. Dalton. How are you?”
“Oh, you know, just milling at the old grindstone.” He chuckled uncomfortably, fitfully pounding his knuckles into the palm of his opposite hand. “Like…well, not everybody does, but most…or, a lot of people.”
Brody smiled a little, shoving his hands in his pockets to avoid twiddling his fingers. He had never had to handle the father of the girl he liked.
“Hard work is…an admirable quality.”
Mr. Dalton nodded slowly, looking at the ground. He drew in a slow breath. “You know, Mr. Hilton,”
“Mm. Brody then. Between you and me, Brody, this is the first time I’ve ever done this. You know,” He shrugged a little. “Talked to the young man about to take my daughter on a date.”
Brody chuckled softly, shaking his head. “Mr. Dalton, I’m in exactly the same boat! I’ve never taken a girl out before!”
Mr. Dalton’s eyebrows contracted in shock. “Your first…date? Brody Hilton? I would have thought the girls to be crawling over themselves to get to you!”
The Hilton manager drew in a slow breath, raising his eyebrows with a rueful smile. “I can’t say they aren’t. Maybe that’s the reason this is my first date, though. Chiara was the only one who wasn’t scrambling over the world to get to me or my friends.” He shrugged. “I don’t know why that was so attractive to me.”
Mr. Dalton chuckled deep in his chest, spreading his hands incredulously. “Well, I like that! Not that I would really know, but I assume you don’t hear that from a lot of young guys! And I’m happy to hear it, because Chiara and her mom have been spending pretty much all day on her hair alone.”
“And I’m officially very done!” Chiara exploded, rounding the corner of her room. She spread her arms in display, glaring at Brody. “Tell me I look pretty so my mom will stop changing my outfit!”
Mr. Dalton laughed as Mrs. Dalton emerged from Chiara’s room to watch her spin, watching Brody’s face for a reaction. Brody laughed incredulously, clapping his hands in applause. Chiara was dressed in black leggings and a long-sleeved sunset orange shirt dress that spun around her knees. Gentle makeup enhanced her raw, honest features and her wild tangle of golden curls had been tamed and straightened down to her narrow waist, pinned delicately out of her face with a shocking number of bobby pins. Brody smiled secretly behind a hand. Her beat up black combat boots remained. He imagined the fit her mother threw, knowing that Chiara would not relent that little detail. She turned to look at her mother before turning back to Brody, swinging her hands in a galvanizing gesture.
“Brody, I can see the next outfit line-up in her eyes! Hurry up or we won’t be able to go anywhere ever!”
He stepped closer and hugged Chiara closely. He felt her stiffen a little. Looking at her dad over his shoulder, Brody imagined. Then she returned the embrace, resting her chin lightly on his shoulder. As before, it was perfect. Brody pulled away to grin at Mrs. Dalton, his arm resting over Chiara’s shoulders.
“Mrs. Dalton, she is absolutely beautiful.”
He felt Chiara look up at him, felt her smile. It lit a warm glow in his stomach. He drew in a satisfied breath, daring himself to look down and meet her eyes. They were so beautiful.
“Ready to go?”
She nodded, pulling herself from under his arm and spinning for the door. “Yup, let’s go while we’re on top.”
Brody reached forward to shake Mrs. Dalton’s hand with a grin and turned to Mr. Dalton. The older man grinned, shaking it firmly.
“Now, I’ve always wanted to say this so bear with me.” He rose his index finger with as stern a face as he seemed to be able to manage. “Have her home by nine!”
Brody laughed as Chiara groaned and dragged him towards the door. “I promise, Mr. Dalton, I’ll have her safely home by then! Just pray she doesn’t run me to the ground earlier!”
“Ha ha!” Chiara barked, poking her head back inside the apartment and waving her fingers in a farewell. “Bye, y’all! I’ll see you all -”
“At nine!” Mr. Dalton barked with a laugh. Chiara pointed at him.
“Exactly.” She looked up at Brody and winked. “On the dot.”
He returned the wink. “Not a moment later. Goodbye, everyone!”
“Oh, wait, Cheech, your jacket!”
Chiara caught the men’s trench coat Mr. Dalton tossed her and wrapped it around her shoulders. Brody ushered her down the hall for the stairs.
“You okay with a fancy car this time? I tried to get one of the lower-key ones before I left my place earlier, but it looked like all the staff had taken them out.”
Chiara rolled her eyes, shooting back a smile he had grown to covet. “It’s too funny that that’s the problem you’re having here!” She patted his arm, then snaked hers through his and drew close as the cold breeze of the outdoors blasted their faces. Brody tightened his arm around her. “It’s fine, Brody. Just the fact that you’re thinking about my comfort makes it okay.” She looked up at him again. “Thank you.”
He smiled. “Of course.” He bent to open the car door and swung an inviting arm. “My lady.”
She chuckled with a curtsy and ducked into the car. Brody gently closed the door with a satisfied nod.
The night was going perfectly so far