I’m not sure why, but tonight feels different from all the other nights.
As I sit at my usual table, nursing my beer, I feel a sense of anticipation in the pit of my stomach more intense than anything I’ve felt in a long time. I loosen my tie and undo the top button on my shirt in an effort to relax. Jessie’s gonna come onstage any minute. I want to enjoy it.
When she finally comes out, she’s wearing that dress I bought her—the one she didn’t want to buy because it was too expensive. I’m glad she caved—it looks so goddamn sexy, I want to rush the stage, which I obviously wouldn’t do even if it were physically possible. She looks that good though. Her golden hair is glowing in the light of the stage.
She takes the microphone in her hand and comes to the edge of the stage. I look up at her, my heart beating fast in my chest. It always feels like she’s singing directly to me. She must be really talented to make guys feel like that. I mean, the girl makes Lionel Richie sound sexy.
Is it me you’re looking for?
I stare up at Jessie—at the girl I’ve loved since I was fourteen years old—and I know that this can’t go on any longer. It can’t. I have to tell her how much I love her. I have to make the move I’ve been too scared to make since she rejected me that night in the dressing room. It’s time. If I don’t do it now, she’ll be married and it’ll be too late.
Let me start by saying I love you…
As soon as she comes to my table to join me, I’m going to do it. I don’t know what I’m going to say. Maybe I’ll just try kissing her again. Hopefully, when she sits down, it’ll come to me. But I just know that it’s gotta be tonight. Tonight or never.
I barely take a breath through the entire performance. All I can think about is how much I want her. I have to tell her. Maybe I’m seeing something that isn’t there, but I have to believe she feels it too.
Jessie is still wearing that dress when she comes out from backstage to join me at my table. I smile when I see her because just laying my eyes on her makes me happy. She smiles back and slides into the seat next to mine.
“How did I do?” she asks me.
“Incredible,” I tell her. “Like always.”
She laughs. “Always?”
I nod, not in any mood to tease her. “Always.”
I think she catches the vibe, because she wipes the smile off her face. She stares at me, her blue eyes wide. “I’m glad you liked it,” she says in a low voice.
There’s electricity between us. I can feel it—she’s gotta feel it too. This is it. I need to do something right now or it’ll be too late. I’ve got to make my move.
“Jessie.” I reach over and put my hand on hers. Like it always does when our skin makes contact, my heart quickens at the feel of her. My palms have gotten so rough and callused from my years of wheeling—I hope it doesn’t feel too uncomfortable for her. “Look, I gotta tell you something…”
This is a moment where she could quickly shoot me down before I get started. She must have an idea what I’m gonna say to her. But instead, she says, “Yes?”
I love you, Jessie.
I have never loved anyone but you.
I will never love anyone else the way I love you. Never.
The words don’t get a chance to leave my mouth though. Before I can say anything, we hear a male voice ring out from above the DJ’s music:
“Jess? Is that you?”
Shit. Who the hell is that?
“Jess!” The voice is more insistent this time. “Jess! I can’t believe it’s you!”
Jessie lifts her eyes and her pink face quickly drains of color. I yank my hand away from hers, cursing the fact that we now seem to have company. I turn my head and see a balding middle-aged guy with a pot belly and an amused expression on his face.
“Hi, Sidney,” she manages.
“I was at a table all the way in the back with my girlfriend,” the guy goes on. “And this girl comes onstage, and I say to Dara, ‘I think that’s a woman I work with!’ But I couldn’t tell for sure from all the way back there.” He beams at her. “But it’s really you!”
Jessie bites the tip of her thumb. “Yep, it’s me.”
“Wow.” The guy shakes his head. “I had no idea that quiet little Jessica was a night club singer! Just goes to show that you never know about people.”
She shakes her head miserably. “Yep. You never know.”
The guy seems to notice me for the first time and the amusement on his face multiplies. “And who’s this young man? This isn’t Seth, is it?”
He knows damn well I’m not her fiancé. I lock eyes with him and stick out my hand. “Nick Moretti,” I say, making sure to squeeze his hand firmly enough that I can see him wince. “I’m Jessica’s boss. Buying her a drink to congratulate her on a great set.”
I’m hoping the guy Googles my name. Maybe if he reads a few of those articles about me, he might think twice about getting Jessie in trouble at work. Maybe not though.
“Well, I’ll let you enjoy the rest of your evening,” the guy says. “Great show you put on there, Jess.”
It’s clear the moment to confess my feelings to Jessie has been ruined. She waits for the asshole to get back to his table before she lets her face drop into her hands. I’m shocked this is the first time she’s been spotted here, considering the crowds we get. But she hasn’t even worked here a year so it’s possible.
“That was bad,” she mutters. “That guy Sidney has the biggest mouth ever.”
“So what?” I shrug. “You’re not doing anything wrong here. You’re a classy act.”
“You don’t get it.” She shakes her head. “By the time Sidney is done with the story, I’ll have been singing nude. In a cage.”
Great. Now I’m picturing Jessie singing nude in a cage.
“Look,” I say, “if your work gives you any trouble, you let me know. I’ll fix it for you.”
Her eyes widen. “By doing what exactly?”
I shrug. “I’m sure I could fix it.”
And I am. Let’s just say that I’m sure the staff at Jessie’s company are a lot less scary than John Lombardi. Getting people to do what you want is easy if you ask them the right way.
I watch her, waiting to see if she’ll relax and enjoy herself after that guy leaves. But it’s clear the night is ruined. Ten minutes after her coworker is gone, she tells me she wants to get the hell out of here. I’m feeling shitty now too, so I’m only too happy to oblige.
I always drive her home because she still lives in the ghetto and I know she’ll take the subway if I don’t drive her. Taking the subway at this hour is just asking for it.
My BMW is parked in the reserved spot right in front of the club, where it’s unlikely to get broken into. Jessie gets into the passenger’s seat, while I make my transfer to the driver’s seat. I still cringe when I remember how my father used to have to lift me into the car when I went to my Dr. Duncan appointments—these days, I can transfer myself and I can do it fast.
Jessie’s seen me transfer into the car over a hundred times now. She’s seen the way I lift my butt into the seat and pull my legs inside before I break the chair down to put it in the back seat. If there were ever a chance that she might think the wheelchair was something I didn’t necessarily need all the time, I’m sure watching me handle my legs has cured that delusion. She can see I can’t move them on my own. She knows my legs don’t work good enough to operate the gas pedals and that’s why I use hand controls. We don’t talk about it ever, but she’s no dummy.
Today when I pull my legs into the car, my right leg gets a little twisted and goes into spasm. My ankle jumps up and down until I hold it in place to get it to stop. Hopefully, this is one of the spasms that will calm down right away and not bug me through the whole drive. I hate my goddamn spasms. They always come at the wrong times.
“Does it hurt?” Jessie asks me. “I mean, when your leg…?”
I look at her in surprise. She doesn’t usually ask me questions like that, but the whole night is off tonight. I feel any residual self-confidence draining out of me. “Not usually. It’s just annoying.”
The spasm subsides enough that I feel comfortable starting the car up. It’s a twenty-minute drive to her apartment building at this hour. Her neighborhood is empty except for some kids at the end of her block that look like they could start some trouble. I wish I could walk her up to her actual door, but that would be a bad idea for a lot of reasons.
She shouldn’t be living here. That idiot she’s engaged to ought to have her living someplace safer. I did some research into the guy, and he seems like an okay guy but also a loser. He graduated at the bottom of his class from law school, and then tried to start up his own practice. But his record with cases is shitty, so he’s not doing well. He’s been shopping around for jobs at some firms lately, but it’s not a great time for lawyers finding work. I could help him, but I don’t. I figured she wouldn’t be with him much longer anyway, but now I’m beginning to wonder.
“Thanks for the ride,” Jessie says.
“My pleasure,” I say.
She looks so sexy in the shadows of the car. Maybe the moment isn’t completely ruined. I want to tell her not to get out. Stay with me. Dump that loser fiancé.
But she’s too upset over that idiot who saw her singing. If I said it now, she’d just make excuses.
Soon. It’s gotta be soon, or else it’ll be too late. Soon, but not tonight.
I watch her make it to the entrance of the building before I drive off.
That big mouth Sidney Lovitz gets to work at nine o’clock in the morning. By eleven o’clock, my boss Rob Donahue comes by my cubicle and leans over the wall in that way that always makes me scared he’s going to knock the whole thing over. I wouldn’t even mind because I find this stupid cube so claustrophobic that some days I want to tear the sides down myself.
Rob has been my boss for about five years, but I wouldn’t say we’re friends. I’d say we’re friendly. He’s about fifteen or twenty years older than I am, and it’s safe to say we have nothing in common aside from both being involved in data analysis for a pharmaceutical company. I can’t say we’ve had one non-work-related conversation in all the time I’ve been here. I think Rob has kids. Two, maybe? A wife, I suppose? Pets? The truth is, I don’t really care.
But I suspect today we’re going to have quite an interesting conversation.
“Jessica,” he says in an odd tone of voice I’ve never heard before. It’s stern but there’s a little bit of a laugh behind it. Like he’s a parent forced to yell at his kid for pulling down their grumpy neighbor’s pants. “Would you come to my office for a chat?”
There isn’t too much mystery behind this one. As I do the walk of shame to my boss’s office, I can hear everyone whispering and staring. I hate stupid Sidney Lovitz. I hope he loses those last few strands of hair that he’s still clinging to.
When I get inside Rob’s office, he shuts the door behind him, and gestures at the seat in front of his desk. Once I’m seated, Rob looks me over carefully. Today, I’m the opposite of that sexy girl I was trying to be last night. My blond hair is pulled back in a tight bun, I’m wearing my best pair of mom pants from Sears, and I’ve got on a beige sweater that my mother gave me that I think my grandmother had once owned. The knitting on it is “exquisite.”
Rob squints at me and I can tell he’s trying to see it. Trying to figure out how a woman who comes to work in mom pants and a grandma sweater could be a nightclub singer.
“So it’s come to my attention,” Rob says, “that you’ve taken on a second job…”
He raises his eyebrows at me for confirmation. I could deny it, but the truth is easy enough to confirm. I may as well face the music.
“A singing job, yes,” I admit.
“At a nightclub?” Rob still seems baffled. I’d laugh if I wasn’t so terrified I’m about to get fired.
“Cleopatra’s Lounge,” I say. “It’s a very popular and well-respected establishment.” I stick up my chin. “The New York Times said so.”
Rob leans back in his chair and folds his arms across his chest. “Listen, Jess. I’m going to be straight with you. We can’t have one of our employees dancing at a sleazy nightclub.”
“I’m singing,” I say weakly. “And it’s not sleazy. At all.”
“Isn’t Cleopatra one of those clubs run by the mob?”
Nick will deny it any time I ask him about connections to the mob, but it’s always all over the papers. Hell, it’s in Wikipedia. I don’t push him, but there’s obviously something going on there. And there’s no point in denying it to my boss.
“So I’m fired?” I’m starting to sweat. I don’t make a lot of money, but my income is badly needed right now. Seth hasn’t had much luck finding a job and his practice is still just limping along.
“Not yet,” Rob says. “But you need to stop singing at that club. Immediately.”
Stop singing at Cleopatra’s. Why doesn’t he just ask me to cut off my right arm? It’s the one thing I love doing more than anything.
But really, what choice do I have? I can’t lose this job.
My next performance at Cleopatra’s will be my last.
I’m at Tootsie’s tonight, which is another one of our successful clubs. It’s not as successful at Cleopatra’s, but it does well. Cleopatra’s is a little more classy, while Tootsie’s is a little more sexy. If you saw the string bikinis the waitresses wear, you’d know what I mean.
I didn’t want to come here. I’ve been up since five in the morning and I’m wiped. But we’re meeting up with John Lombardi in two days, and I need to talk to Tony about the meeting. Tony doesn’t want to come to my office or something mundane like that—he wants our meeting to involve alcohol and half-naked girls. Sometimes you just gotta work around Tony.
“I don’t know what you’re so excited about, Nico,” Tony whines over the music blasting from the DJ station. He’s only willing to talk between acts—it’s like dealing with a goddamn child sometimes. “He just wants to meet us. What’s the big deal?”
“I want us to be on the same page,” I say. “Whatever he offers, we say yes to nothing, you got me? Nothing.”
Tony frowns. “Whatever he offers? But what if—”
“Listen,” I say. “Lombardi isn’t trying to help us. Lombardi is trying to help Lombardi. Anything he offers us, I show it to my lawyers before we show even a flicker of interest.”
“Your lawyer?” He’s pouting now. It pisses him off sometimes that I’m the one in charge even though he’s older. Most of the time, he realizes the wisdom in Pop’s decision. But sometimes his ego gets in the way. “What about Jack?”
“Jack is Pop’s lawyer,” I say. “Lombardi didn’t ask to talk to Pop. He wants to talk to us.”
I trust Jack—I really do. I’d trust him with my life. But I don’t trust him not to tell Pop everything I do. He’s got more loyalty to my father than he does to me, and I don’t like that. Especially now that Pop is semi-retired for the sake of his heart, and I’m making most of the decisions.
“You got any idea what he wants?” Tony asks me.
I shake my head. “No clue.”
It bothers me. I pushed back the meeting as long as I could because I wanted to figure out what he was going to say before I got there. I had the guy tailed and gathered as much info as I could. I still don’t know what he wants though. We’re going in blind.
The waitress who’s been hovering over us all night materializes in front of me as a comedian takes the stage. She smiles in my direction. “Can I get you another drink, Mr. Moretti?”
“No, thanks,” I say.
She raises her eyebrows at me and juts out a creamy thigh. “Can I get you anything else?”
Tony nudges me. He’s been trying to get me to go home with one of the waitresses tonight, which I wouldn’t entirely object to. Actually, it would be good. It’s been a while for me. I may love Jessie, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have needs.
I look over this girl. She can’t be more than in her early twenties. Skinny with nice tits that look real. Lots of blond hair that falls around her shoulders. She looks like she’d be fun to spend a night with. Just a release—nothing more.
“What’s your name?” I ask her.
She blushes, which makes me like her better. “Lori.”
“You can call me Nick, Lori,” I tell her.
She nods shyly.
“And when does your shift end, Lori?”
Only an hour. I could wait an hour here.
I meet her eyes and she blushes more. “Let me know when you’re done,” I say.
She nods. It’s something to look forward to.