I stumble into my apartment after midnight, which probably isn’t the brightest idea in the world. In order to avoid living in an apartment the size of a broom closet, we picked a neighborhood that isn’t the greatest. I carry around a can of mace in my purse, and I pull it out after Chrissy drops me off at the front of my building. Even inside the building, I don’t feel safe.
When I get upstairs without incident, I’m surprised to see that Seth is sitting on the couch, obviously waiting up for me. The second I come through the door, he rises to his feet. “Jess,” he says, “I was worried about you.”
I’m not ready to forgive Seth for the fight we had earlier, and I’m not in the mood to explain myself to him. “You should have called me then.”
I reach into my purse to locate my cell phone. Sure enough, there are three missed calls from Seth. Cleopatra’s was very loud—I guess I missed them. “Sorry,” I mumble.
“I was really worried.” A crease appears between his eyebrows. “I mean, I know we live in this shitty neighborhood, and I know it’s my fault. I actually… I went looking for you…”
“You did?” Some of my anger fades. “I didn’t realize…”
“All I could think about was that if something happened to you…” He shakes his head. “I don’t know if I could go on. My life wouldn’t be worth living without you.”
I swallow. Hard.
He hangs his head. “I’m sorry about the fight we had earlier, Jess. This practice is stressing me so much. It’s turning me into a jerk.”
I don’t disagree.
He takes a deep breath. “I decided tonight. I can’t put us through this any longer… I’m going to look for a job at a law firm. Shut the practice down.”
I stare at him, stunned. “Are you sure?”
“I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life,” he says. He takes a step toward me. “And after shutting down this goddamn practice, the first thing I want to do is marry you. This engagement has gone on long enough—let’s get freaking married already. What do you say to this April?”
My heart is pounding in my chest. “Seth…”
His eyebrows scrunch together. “You still want to marry me, don’t you?”
I close my eyes for a second and remember the way I felt when Nick was sitting across the table from me. God, there was nothing else like it. Nick and I have an intensity that I’ve never felt with anyone else.
But I barely know Nick. I just know that he refused to speak to me when I needed him the most, then ignored me for thirteen years. Oh, and he has a ridiculously beautiful girlfriend that he readily tells people that he doesn’t care about. Plus he owns the most popular nightclub in Manhattan and seems to get whatever he wants at the snap of a finger.
And then there’s his disability. It doesn’t bother me, but I realize it’s another aspect of him that’s new to me. He’s used it as an excuse to keep me at a distance in the past. How close would he even allow me to get?
Seth is a man that I’ve known for thirteen years. I live with him. I share my life with him. I know just about everything about him, including all his strengths and weaknesses. And despite some rough times lately, I love him.
I don’t love Nick Moretti. Not anymore.
“Of course I want to marry you,” I say. “And April sounds perfect.”
Seth’s eyes light up. He grabs me in his arms and kisses me so passionately, I swear it’s just as good as any kiss I ever had with Nick. It’s the longest kiss we’ve shared in months, and my knees are shaking when I pull away.
“So,” he says, as he strokes my hair. “How was it standing outside Cleopatra’s? Or did you eventually get in?”
I grin at him. “Actually, we got right in! Chrissy works for the owner, as it turns out.”
“Wow.” Seth looks impressed—maybe he’ll be nicer to Chrissy from now on. “Who is her boss?”
I hesitate. I’ve never said Nick’s name to Seth during all these years. But I suppose there’s no harm in telling him. “His name is Nick Moretti.”
His eyes grow wide in recognition. “Chrissy works for Nick Moretti? Holy shit, I never knew that.”
I get an uneasy feeling in my stomach. “You know who Nick Moretti is?”
“Yeah, sure.” He shrugs. “I’ve seen his name in the papers a bunch of times. He’s one of those mobster guys. Like John Gotti. Or Al Capone. You know I love stories like that.”
“Nick wouldn’t...” I start to say, then I correct myself, “Chrissy would never work for a mobster.”
He laughs. “Wouldn’t she?”
I open my mouth to defend my friend, but then I shut it. Because the truth is that it all makes a scary sort of sense. I remember the way Nick’s dad was arrested when we were in college because of his “taxes.” All that money they had. The way everyone used to be scared of Nick. Regular guys don’t just own the hottest club in Manhattan.
God, I can’t believe I thought that Nick and I might get back together. Nick clearly isn’t who he used to be. What an idiot I am. At best, I’m sure all he wanted was to hook up with me one last time.
“So did you get to meet the mobster?” Seth asks eagerly.
I hesitate again. “Uh, yes. I did.”
“Cool,” he breathes. “What was he like?”
“Um…” How could I describe Nick to my fiancé? “He’s, you know, very smooth. Good looking.”
He laughs. “I’ll bet.”
I hesitate again. “He sort of… he offered to let me try out to sing at Cleopatra’s.”
“Seriously?” Seth snorts. “You? Singing at Cleopatra’s?” He shakes his head. “Wow, he must have really wanted to get into your pants.”
I know I should probably get offended, but I can’t. The fact is that Seth is absolutely right. Me singing at Cleopatra’s is absolutely ludicrous. Nick only offered because… well, Seth got it right.
“Not that you’re not an amazing singer,” he adds quickly, realizing what he said. “But he doesn’t know that. And you have to admit that the girls who sing at a place like Cleopatra’s are more… well, you know…”
“I know,” I mutter. It’s so obvious that I would be wrong for Cleopatra’s. I can’t believe I was considering it for even a second. For one night, I got sucked into a different world—it was fun, but not where I belong. This is my life.
“Anyway.” Seth pulls me close to him so that I can feel his hot breath. “I’m glad you had fun with Chrissy the Mafioso. And now it’s my turn to have some fun.”
I grin up at my fiancé. “It’s only fair.”
He leans forward and kisses me again, but halfway through, we collapse onto the sofa. Seth starts pulling off my clothing, and I pull off his just as eagerly. I’m so turned on. I want him inside me, pumping against me. I want…
God, why can’t I stop picturing Nick?
I spend the entire morning debating what to do about my lunch with Nick.
Around nine-thirty, I make the mistake of Googling “Nick Moretti.” And from there it’s all downhill.
The first headline that comes up is: “Moretti Denies Allegations of Involvement in Sindona Money Laundering Scheme.” At first, I’m hoping it’s an article about Nick’s brother Tony or even his father. But no—the article specifically mentions Nicolas Moretti.
The second: “Crime Boss Questioned in Disappearance of Luca Falcone.”
The crime boss in question? None other than Nick Moretti.
And that’s the tip of the iceberg.
What. The. Hell?
A freaking crime boss? Nick?
What happened to the kid who was humiliated by his brother’s multiple arrests? Who looked like he was going to break down crying when his dad got taken away? Maybe one or two of the stories are exaggerations, but not all of them. Nick is in deep. I don’t know how it happened or when, but it’s clear his life took a wrong turn somewhere along the way. He started doing all the same things that got his father arrested. All the things he swore he’d never do.
Did he change his mind? Or was he lying when he said he’d never end up like that?
Maybe something changed in him when he got shot. Maybe losing the ability to walk also robbed him of his integrity. Then again, the old Nick always wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. So maybe I never knew that guy either.
I find a website where you can look up public arrest records. I hesitate, wondering if I want to know. Nick might have abandoned me after he got shot, but my memory of him is of essentially a good kid. I don’t know if I want to know if he ever got thrown in the slammer. I don’t want to imagine him behind bars.
In the end, curiosity wins out. I type Nick’s name into the search engine and…
No. He’s never been arrested. Looks like none of the “allegations” ever panned out. Or more likely, he’s got good lawyers.
By half past ten, I start in on the image search. The first image that comes up isn’t a mugshot or anything close. It’s a picture of Nick at what appears to be one of his clubs, talking to some guy I don’t recognize. He’s dressed in a dark suit and looks so incredibly handsome that I find myself gawking at the photo for several minutes. God, he’s sexy. None of the other mob guys look like him.
No matter what he has or hasn’t done, Nick is still really hot.
The second photo is of him with that woman he was with last night. The one who was superhumanly gorgeous—Natalie, Chrissy said her name was. He’s got his arm around her shoulders and she’s leaning against him. Now that I can study her carefully, I can see that I was absolutely right about her beauty. She’s one of the most stunning women I’ve ever seen.
The sort of woman a crime boss would date.
I shiver as I look at another photo of him sitting with Natalie in another clearly expensive suit with her in a low cut dress. He’s handsome as hell, but at the same time, his eyes are so dark and penetrating. Scary. He looks like a guy who could order a hit on somebody without blinking an eye. Isn’t that what they call it in the mafia when you order someone to be killed—a “hit”?
I remember what the girls used to say about him in high school. He’s cold. Dangerous. I was the only person who didn’t think so. But maybe they were the ones who had it right.
I notice that none of the photos show Nick in his wheelchair. He’s almost always behind a table or something else that conceals the chair. I wonder if that’s intentional. It makes sense he wouldn’t advertise his disability if he wants to intimidate people.
One thing that’s also obvious is he and Natalie are very much an item. From the dates on the photos, it looks like they’ve been together for at least five or six months, even though he claimed it wasn’t serious. Another thing he lied about. Maybe they’re engaged. Hell, maybe they’re married—nothing would surprise me at this point.
Well, I wouldn’t blame him for marrying her. She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. If Nick can be with a woman like her, I’m baffled as to why he wants me.
Probably for old time’s sake. The girl who got away—you know.
In any case, I know with a hundred percent certainty this new Nick Moretti is somebody I don’t want to get mixed up with. God, can you imagine me hooking up with a mafia boss? It’s almost as ridiculous as the idea of me being a nightclub singer.
By eleven o’clock, I’ve made up my mind that it would be a mistake to meet Nick for lunch. Since he never gave me his number, I decide to call Chrissy to cancel.
“I’m super busy right now, Jess,” Chrissy tells me in a distracted voice. “Can I call you back after work? Better yet, let’s get drinks.”
“I just need to tell you something real quick,” I say. “I need you to tell Nick that I can’t make it for lunch today. Okay?”
There’s a long pause on the other line. “What are you talking about? You’re meeting him in an hour, aren’t you?”
“Yes, but…” I chew on my lip. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Well, I’m not going to be the one to tell him you’re not showing up.” Chrissy sounds furious. “If you want to stand him up at that restaurant, then that’s your prerogative. But I wouldn’t do that to him.”
I realize I’m talking to a dead phone.
I don’t want to stand Nick up at Blue Moon. At the very least, I get the feeling that people who don’t show up to an appointment with Nick Moretti wind up at the bottom of the East River with cement blocks on their feet. I’ll go to the restaurant and tell him to his face that we can be friends, but that’s it. And that I’m absolutely wrong for Cleopatra’s.
I’m sure it will go fine.
I allow my driver to take me to Blue Moon rather than driving myself, because while there’s a handicapped spot in front of the restaurant, my next stop won’t have one. In general though, I prefer driving myself. A lot of people find the traffic in Manhattan to be stressful, but I like weaving in and out of lanes, avoiding crazy taxi drivers and dumbass pedestrians. It’s almost like a sport and nobody does it better than me. I nearly punch the window when the driver takes 34th street to get across town, even though everyone knows the traffic is out of control at this hour. After he does that, I gotta call the restaurant and ask them to seat Jessie ahead of me and bring her a glass of their best wine.
When we get there (only five minutes late), the driver gets out to grab my wheelchair from the trunk. They always insist on putting my chair in the trunk because it will “mess up the leather” if I store it next to me. It’s not my car, so I don’t argue, but I’m not thrilled about it.
The host is waiting for me when I get into the restaurant. He smiles at me, obviously eager to make me happy. Smart guy. “We seated your lady friend at your usual table and brought her a lovely Cheval Blanc.”
“Was she upset that I’m late?” I ask.
The host shakes his head. “She didn’t seem so.”
Good. So I haven’t already blown it.
My usual table is off to the side of the restaurant, so we’re not right by the entrance but I don’t have to navigate between tables to get all the way to the back. I’m so goddamn nervous, the last thing I need is to crash into somebody’s table right now and knock over all the water glasses. That’s the kind of thing I used to do all the time when I was first injured. I’ve been wheeling long enough now that I’m good at making my way through tight spaces, but the second I see Jessie sitting at that table, sipping on wine, my brain is scrambled.
This time I check the position of my legs before I start wheeling over to her. I’m fine—just need to stay that way. I make it halfway there before she looks up and sees me. I smile bigger than I’d intended. My heart is pounding so hard, I feel dizzy. How does she do this to me?
Jessie gives me a thin smile that makes me worry. Shit, she must be pissed off that I’m late. I can’t blame her. I only just got her to forgive me for all the dumb things I did, and I can’t even show up on time for lunch. I should’ve driven myself.
“I’m really sorry,” I tell her once I’ve pulled up to the table. “My driver took 34th street across town. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with him.”
Jessie is quiet for a second as she takes another sip of wine. Finally, she says, “You… have a driver?”
She acts like I told her I took a private jet to get to the restaurant. Yeah, I hire a company that takes me places when driving myself isn’t convenient. It’s what you gotta do sometimes when you run a multimillion dollar business. “I got a car,” I tell her. “The driver is just for, you know, sometimes.”
Shit. I sound like a fucking moron.
“Oh,” Jessie says. She toys with the menu in front of her. “I see. And does the ‘driver’ do… other jobs for you?”
I frown at her. What the hell is she talking about? Other jobs? What is she implying?
Does she think my driver whacks guys for me??
“He just drives,” I say.
“Oh,” she says again.
I nod down at the menu. “You know what you want?”
Her cheeks color. “The food here is so expensive. There isn’t one thing on the menu that costs less than thirty dollars.”
“So what?” I say. “That’s what good food costs.”
“But…” She chews on her lip. “I can’t order a piece of chicken that costs thirty-four dollars. I mean, it’s chicken.”
“Yeah, that’s why it’s only thirty-four dollars.”
For the first time, I realize that the clothing Jessie is wearing isn’t the kind of pricy stuff that Natalie and my previous girlfriends strutted around in. It looks like stuff you’d get at Walmart. I wonder what Jessie’s financial situation is. I wonder if she needs help. Money troubles—that’s an easy fix for me. I’ll give her whatever she needs. I want to make her happy.
“Anyway,” I say, waving at the menu, “get whatever you want. Don’t even look at the price.”
Jessie is quiet for a second. Before I can think to ask her what’s wrong, she blurts it out. The words that make my stomach sink into my shoes.
“Nick, I’m engaged.”
No. No fucking way. I look down at her left hand—still no ring. Chrissy would never have set that up last night if Jessie had a fiancé. She’s lying. She’s fucking lying to me. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why.
It hurts. I’m not going to say I haven’t got rejected before by a woman I liked, so this is nothing brand new to me. Before my injury, it never happened—never. If I asked a girl out, she said yes, simple as that. It wasn’t something I ever worried about. I lost a lot of that confidence after I ended up in a wheelchair. It wasn’t until my second year at Columbia undergrad when I finally worked up the nerve to ask another girl out.
Her name was Serena and she was in my economic class—a smart, attractive girl headed for business school, just like me. We worked on a project together and I liked her. She was the first girl I’d felt anything for since Jessie, but I was too chickenshit to do much about it. Serena and I got to be friends—good friends—then one night at a Fourth of July party when the fireworks were going off and we’d both had a couple of drinks, I kissed her.
I’d made a move like that many times before and never got shut down. Never. But that night made it clear things had changed. I could see right away how flustered Serena was, even though she was bordering on drunk.
“I’m sorry, Nick,” she mumbled, wiping her lips with the back of her hand. “You’re a really nice guy and all. I just don’t like you that way.”
It was a punch in the gut to confirm that women didn’t see me the way they used to. It took a long time before I had the nerve to ask another girl out.
I don’t get rejected much anymore. The women I meet generally are willing to tolerate the fact that I can’t walk if it means that they get to go out with a rich guy who will get them into any club or restaurant without having to wait in line. Like Natalie. My status gives me my confidence back with the opposite sex.
But Jessie isn’t interested in my money or my connections. So it looks like I don’t have anything to offer her.
“You know,” I say quietly, “you don’t have to insult me by making up a fiancé. If you’re not interested, just fucking say so.”
Jessie’s eyes widen. “Nick…”
“It’s fine,” I say. “Really.”
“But I really am engaged!”
I roll my eyes at her. “So what’s his name?”
“Seth Parsons,” she says. “He’s a lawyer. I… met him in college actually, not that long after you… well, you know. I live with him now. We… we’re probably going to get married in April. Or… I don’t know, maybe June.”
I think she might actually be telling the truth.
I’m going to kill Chrissy.
“What about you?” she prods me. “You were with that girl last night who was… I mean, Christ, Nick, she was gorgeous.”
I shrug. “She’s okay.”
She smiles awkwardly. “How long have you been with her?”
The last thing I want to do is think about Natalie right now. But at least I can save some face here. She doesn’t know that my relationship with Natalie is a lie. And Natalie is a really beautiful girl—that’s why I pay for her to be my arm candy.
“About six months,” I say. “She’s great.” I look Jessie in her blue eyes. “She’s amazing in bed.”
I see Jessie wince. “Oh. Well, that’s… great. So things are kind of serious with her then?”
“I don’t like to get too serious with women,” I say. That’s not a lie—not one of the women I’ve dated has been worth getting serious with. Certainly not Natalie. But if Jessie had told me something different today, I’d have been willing to marry her tomorrow.
“Yeah,” she says. “I figured.”
The waiter comes by to save us from an awkward silence. Jessie looks down at the menu and I know she’s trying to pick the cheapest thing she can find. She finally ends up ordering a salad. I get steak. You don’t go to Blue Moon and order anything besides steak.
“Look,” Jessie says, turning her blue eyes back on me. “I know you said that thing about the singing job at Cleopatra’s but I just wanted you to know that you don’t have to do that for me. I understand what you were trying to do and… well, I’m not completely clueless. I know I’m not right for that job.”
She’s right about one thing—I offered her a job singing at Cleopatra’s because I wanted to impress her and have an excuse to see her again. But now that she’s saying she’s not interested, I realize that I actually want her to sing at Cleopatra’s. I think Jessie has the greatest voice I’ve ever heard, and I want everyone else to be able to hear it too.
I shake my head at her. “No, I want you to audition.”
Her face pales. “Nick, seriously, I’m nothing like any of the girls who sang last night.”
“Exactly,” I say. “You’ll be a breath of fresh air.”
She just shakes her head.
“Listen to me, Jessie,” I say. “You’re really talented. One of the best singers I ever heard. You can’t waste your gift.”
A slow smile spreads across her face. “You honestly believe that?”
“Yeah, of course I do.”
Jessie takes a sip from her wine glass. Her skin is turning pink, and I wonder if it always turns pink like that when she drinks alcohol. There’s so much I don’t know about grown up Jessie. Even though she’s engaged, even though she just shot me down, I still want to get to know more.
“I’ll help you practice if you want,” I tell her. “You can sing ‘I Feel Pretty.’”
Her face turns even pinker. “Oh God, you still remember that?”
“Of course. You were great!”
“I was the blondest Maria ever.”
I grin at her. “Hey, who says Puerto Ricans can’t be blond and blue eyed?”
“I still can’t even believe I got that part,” she says.
Jessie has no clue that I talked to Derek, the casting director, to land her the role of Maria. Or that Alyssa Carlotta gave Derek head thanks to my powers of persuasion. I don’t intend for her ever to know.
She also won’t know that no matter what she sings at that audition, she’s getting a job at Cleopatra’s.
And then after she has the job, I’ll work on getting her.
To be continued....
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