Even though Nick promised me an audition at Cleopatra’s lounge, I’m still shocked when I get the phone call from a smooth-talking guy named Alex Mitchell, who says he’s the manager of the club. I’m in the middle of a dinner with Seth, and I nearly drop my phone into the plate of spaghetti in front of me.
“Nick Moretti says I need to get you in here, ASAP,” Alex Mitchell tells me. “He says you’re great. And that guy’s got good taste. After all, he hired me.”
Mitchell laughs at his own joke.
“What do I need to bring for the audition?” I ask.
“We’re casual over here,” he tells me. “If you can bring a tape with the background music on it, that should be all we need. Our pianist won’t be around.”
“Right,” I say. It’s been so long since I’ve been to any kind of audition, I’ve completely forgotten what to do.
We make plans to meet at the club in a few days. Seth has stopped eating his own dinner and is staring at me, his brow furrowed. “What was that about?” he asks.
“Uh…” It almost sounds too ridiculous to say aloud. “I told you that guy from Cleopatra’s said he’d get me an audition, so… that was them calling about it.”
I watch Seth’s eyes widen. “You mean Nick Moretti actually got you an audition at Cleopatra’s?”
I shrug, trying to play it off like this isn’t one of the most exciting things that has ever happened to me.
“Jesus.” Seth runs a hand through his thinning hair. “I can’t believe that. I mean, no offense, but… obviously, the guy must have an ulterior motive.”
I hate it when people say “no offense” right before saying something incredibly offensive. “Gee, thanks.”
“Don’t take it like that, Jess.” He rolls his eyes. “I mean, all I’m saying is he’s never even heard you sing.”
Except Nick has heard me sing. Many, many times. He was sitting in the audience during every single performance of West Side Story. But I can’t very well say that to Seth after pretending like I didn’t know who Nick was. That’s just going to make him suspicious.
“I don’t know,” is all I end up saying.
“So…” Seth narrows his eyes at me. “Have you spoken to this Moretti guy since that night?” I hesitate a second too long and he pounces all over me. “You’ve spoken to him? When?”
“I had lunch with him today,” I admit.
“Does he know you’re engaged?”
“Yes, he knows.”
He snorts. “And I’m sure he doesn’t care. That probably makes you even more appealing to him.”
“God, Seth, will you quit it?” I spin my fork around in the spaghetti. “He’s probably just trying to impress Chrissy.”
“Was Chrissy at lunch today?”
I hesitate too long and eventually admit, “No. She wasn’t.”
Seth pushes away the half-eaten plate of spaghetti in front of him. “I don’t think you should go on this audition.”
“Are you kidding me?” I nearly yell at him. “Having a singing gig is my dream. How could you ask me not to go to this audition?”
“You know,” he says, “you’re not going to get the job unless you fuck Nick Moretti.”
I stare at Seth, too incensed to speak. I want to pick up my fork and hurl it at his stupid head. How could he say something like that? Doesn’t he believe in me at all?
Okay fine, I never had a successful audition when I was in my twenties, and now I’m older than most girls trying out for similar roles. And even at my best, I was nowhere near as beautiful as any of the women singing at Cleopatra’s last night. And yes, I’m very, very out of practice.
Seth sighs, dropping his head down. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Gee, you think?”
“I just…” He sighs again. “I got jealous. Okay?”
I don’t say anything.
“I’m really sorry, Jessie,” he says quietly. “You’re a really talented singer and you should be singing publicly. You deserve this gig.”
He’s looking at me with his light brown eyes and my anger fades. I guess I can understand why he got jealous. I suppose I can forgive him. After all, he’s going to have to listen to me singing a lot in the next few days, so I should probably cut him some slack.
It’s past ten when I get home from work. The first thing I do when I wheel in the door is yank off my tie, which I loosened around my neck around seven o’clock. Even if I don’t have any meetings that day, I always wear a nice shirt and tie to the office. The same way Pop always did.
I rub my mid-back, wincing at the deep ache that always sits there at the end of the day. Hell, I’m in pain by mid-afternoon. Right now, the only thing that will help is getting out of this chair. Well, that and the small bottle of Vicodin I’ve got in my medicine cabinet, but I’m not going to take it tonight. It took me years to be willing to fill that prescription, but there are days when I couldn’t function without it. I never take it more than once a week though, usually more like once a month—I save it for times when the pain is so bad, it brings tears to my eyes. I’ve seen enough drug addicts to know I don’t want to become one.
After I pull off my shoes, I wheel myself over to the small bar I got set up in the corner of the room and pour myself a shot of bourbon. I take a few gulps, already feeling some of the tension and ache subsiding. I’ll be okay. But maybe I need to stop pushing myself so goddamn hard—the business won’t fall apart if I don’t put in fifteen hour days every day.
My cell phone rings and I see my parents’ line on the screen. I missed Sunday dinner with them last week, and I know Ma was real disappointed. I just got busy and couldn’t make it. Ever since, I’ve been avoiding this phone call. But I can’t avoid my mother forever.
“Nico!” Her voice sounds her usual combination of worried and angry. “I called you on your house line ten minutes ago and you did not pick up! Are you still at work?”
“I just got home.” I undo the top button on my shirt, then one more. “Sorry—it’s been a busy day.”
“Why you always gotta work so hard?” Ma complains. “Your father never worked so hard.”
Yeah, he did. Pop was always working.
“There’s a lot of work to do,” I explain.
“Are you eating enough?”
“Tell me what you ate for dinner!”
“You kidding me?”
“Is that so hard? Tell your poor mother what you ate for dinner. Make me happy.”
I think back to what I had for dinner, and the truth is, I’m having trouble remembering.
Shit. Did I eat dinner?
“You skipped dinner!” Ma says triumphantly. “I knew it. Tomorrow, I’m coming to your apartment and bringing you some food.”
“You don’t have to do that,” I mumble. “There’s plenty of take out around here.”
“You never eat! Every time I see you, you look so skinny.”
My phone beeps to indicate someone else is trying to call me. I pull the phone away from my ear and see Jessie’s name on the screen. We exchanged numbers during our lunch together, and now I’m glad we did. She’s calling me. Why would she be calling me?
Hey, Nick, I decided to dump that loser I’m engaged to and go out with you instead.
Nah. Not too likely.
“Ma,” I say, “I gotta go. I’m getting another call.”
“Is it work?” she asks. “Or is it a girl? I’ll only hang up if it’s a girl.”
For Christ’s sake… “I gotta go, Ma.”
She reluctantly lets me hang up the phone, only after extracting a quick promise I won’t miss dinner this Sunday. I’ll stuff myself with her food till I feel like I’m going to throw up, then she’ll be satisfied.
“Hey, Jessie,” I say into the phone.
There’s a silence on the other line, like she hadn’t expected me to answer. “Hey,” she says softly.
Hearing Jessie’s voice in the privacy of my apartment is more of a turn-on than I would’ve thought. In high school, we almost never talked on the phone because we were too scared of Jessie’s dad. But there’s nothing like that stopping us now.
Well, aside from Jessie’s fiancé.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
She clears her throat nervously. “That guy Alex Mitchell actually called to offer me an audition for Cleopatra’s.”
“Of course he did.”
“Yeah, but…” I hear her suck in a breath. “I’m rusty. Really rusty. I have no idea what song to do at an audition. What does he like?”
What does Alex like? Skinny girls with huge fake tits. Jessie’s not gonna be able to give him that, and thank God. “I’m sure anything you do will be good.”
Should I tell her that she’s getting the job no matter what? I have a feeling she won’t like that.
“It’s just…” She sighs. “It’s been so long…”
I shift in my chair, wincing at a sharp jab in my back. I need to get out of this chair three hours ago. “If you want, I could listen to you do a few numbers. Tell you which one you should use.”
“Really? You’d do that?”
I don’t know why the hell she sounds so shocked. Doesn’t she realize I’d do anything for her? Now that Jessie’s back in my system, I’m realizing there’s nothing she’d ask me to do that I’d say no to. Nothing. Listening to her sing is easy.
“Come over to my office after work tomorrow,” I say. “Does six-thirty work for you?”
“Of course!” she gushes. “That would be… great, Nick. Thanks. Thanks so much.”
I give her the address and she thanks me one more time before we hang up. It makes me feel like a slimeball, because I’m not inviting her over to be a nice guy. I’m inviting her over because I want her, and the more time I spend with her, the more chance there is of getting her back.
And that, more than anything else, is what I want right now.
The tall marble building where Nick works is quiet when I get there at six-twenty. Most employees are probably gone for the day, but Nick works long hours, according to Chrissy. I walk through the revolving doors at the front and the guard waves me through after I tell him my business here. Apparently, Nick left word to let me up.
The twenty-third floor, where Nick’s office is located, is even more desolate than the lobby. I can hear my heels clicking against the tiles on the floor with each step. I walk in the direction of Nick’s office, but as I approach the room, I see a man emerge from inside.
This man is the last man I want to run into in a deserted place. He’s not tall, but he’s big and burly with a double chin and a scalp that shines in the overhead lights. He sees me a second after I see him, and a slow smile spreads across his lips as he looks me over.
“Hey, honey,” he leers at me. “Whatcha doin’ here so late?”
I instinctively wrap my arms around my chest, even though I’m not wearing anything revealing. Just a black and white blouse with the pencil skirt that I’d worn to work that day. I thought about dressing as I would for the audition, but quickly nixed that idea—now I’m glad I did.
“I’m here to see Nick Moretti,” I manage.
“Yeah?” He grins. “What’s a nice girl like you getting messed up with Moretti for?”
I don’t know how to respond to that, but right now, this thug is blocking the entrance to Nick’s office. “Excuse me, please.”
“What’s your hurry?” the guy says. He takes a step toward me. “Stay with me. Talk a little.”
My heart is thudding in my chest. I glance around me, noting that the hallways are still completely empty aside from the two of us. I wonder how soundproof the walls are. In a nice building like this, I bet you can’t hear much inside the offices.
Maybe I should make a run for the stairs.
Before I can weigh my options, the door to Nick’s office cracks open. I feel a flood of relief when I see him push the door the rest of the way open and wheel partially into the hallway.
“Hey, Cardoza!” Nick snaps at the guy. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
The guy lifts his eyes from me and grins sheepishly at Nick. “Nothing. Just saying hi to this nice lady here.”
Nick raises his eyebrows at the guy. There’s nothing friendly or joking in his expression. “Leave her alone and get the fuck out of here.”
Cardoza takes one look at Nick’s dark eyes and swallows hard. It doesn’t matter that Nick is in a wheelchair while Cardoza is roughly the size of a bull—it’s clear that the guy is scared of Nick. “Yeah, sure. Sorry about that. See ya later, Moretti.”
Nick nods his head in the direction of his office and I scurry inside, but I don’t breathe easier until he shuts the door behind us. Just like the rest of the floor, it’s completely empty in here. But like always, I feel a hundred percent safe when I’m with Nick.
“Who was that guy?” I ask him.
“A business partner,” he says vaguely. He tugs on his tie to adjust it.
“What kind of business partner?”
Nick squints at me. “What do you mean?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. I don’t get guys who look like that in my office building.”
He laughs. “Don’t you do data analysis for a pharmaceutical company?”
“So… it’s different.” He shrugs one shoulder and then pushes past me to go past the reception area. I guess this conversation is over. He’s apparently not going to tell me why he’s doing business with that frightening-looking man. Or why that frightening-looking man is frightened of him.
Nick’s office is gigantic, and everything inside it looks achingly expensive, from the mahogany desk to the leather sofa. But to be fair, everything looks big and expensive when you work in a cubicle with the only furniture being a crappy wooden desk and rolling chair that hurts my back. I can’t even bear to look at the view out his gigantic window.
Nick grabs his wheels to stop himself when he gets close to his desk. I notice the way that his legs bounce when he comes to a quick halt. It makes me wonder if he’s able to walk at all, even a little bit—I’m guessing not. I’ve noticed him quickly adjusting his legs using his arms, so I don’t think he’s able to move them at all. He probably can’t even stand up. The only way I’ll be able to look him straight in the eyes is if I’m sitting too.
He folds his arms across his chest. “So let’s hear what you got.”
I stand awkwardly in the middle of the room. Nick is watching me intently with his dark eyes, and it makes my knees feel rubbery. I’m not used to seeing him dressed in a suit and he looks so handsome that I can’t think straight. It was bad enough when we were kids and he was in a T-shirt and jeans.
“C’mon, Jessie,” he says. “Time is money. I’m waiting.”
I squeeze my hands into fists. “You’re making me nervous.”
He grins at me. “I am?”
“Yeah,” I admit. “You’re all… you know, serious. And you’re wearing that suit and tie. You look too important.”
He laughs. “Okay, fair enough.”
Nick pulls off his dark gray jacket and lays it down on his leather sofa. He undoes the top button of his shirt and loosens his tie, although he doesn’t take it off. Then he undoes the buttons on his sleeves and rolls them up so that I can see the dark hair on the back of his muscular forearms.
God, he’s still really hot. This isn’t better. It might be worse, but it’s definitely not better.
“Let’s go, lady!” Nick snaps his fingers at me. “I got another meeting in fifteen minutes.”
He grins. “No, not really.”
His joke lightens things up a little, and I take a deep breath, preparing myself to sing. I’m so rusty. I don’t want him to be hearing me for the first time in so many years when I’m out of practice. Why didn’t I ask Chrissy to help me rehearse? She would have been a much more logical choice.
Oh well. Too late now.
I start with the Eva Cassidy song, “Fever.” It’s a sexy number, although I feel ridiculous prancing around in Nick’s office in my clothes from work, so I mostly just stand still in the center of the room. He doesn’t react when I finish, so I launch right into Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” These are both songs I used to sing frequently during karaoke, so I’m very familiar with them, but like I said, it’s been a while.
When I finish the second song, I look at Nick, who is still staring at me, his face impassive.
“Well?” I say.
“Oh.” He scratches at his head. “That’s all?”
My heart sinks. “You didn’t like them?”
“No, they were good.” He shrugs. “I’m just thinking that this is an audition, so you want to do your best song. Like I said, those were good, but...”
Great. I’m never going to get this stupid gig. I don’t know why I bothered to get my hopes up.
Nick’s eyes light up. “You know what song you should sing? That one about the asteroid.”
What is he talking about? “Asteroid?”
“Yeah. You know… the asteroid that hits the heart?”
I stare at him, completely baffled. Then it hits me. “You mean ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’?”
“Yeah!” He nods vigorously. “That’s the one. I knew it was some sort of, you know, astrological event involving the heart.”
I shake my head. I haven’t practiced that song, but then again, it used to be my absolute favorite. I sang it constantly when I was a kid and I did it many times during karaoke. I know the lyrics like the back of my hand.
So I sing it. It’s the first time I’ve sung this song in three years, but the words flow out of my mouth like I never stopped. It’s like riding a bike.
And I need you now tonight
And I need you more than ever…
I feel myself choking on the words, and my voice goes sharp, but Nick doesn’t seem to mind. He’s watching me, his eyes glassy. For some reason, I think of the first time he kissed me. We’d been discussing this very song just a few moments earlier—he’d been teasing me about how much I liked it—and then his lips were on mine. It was my first kiss. Nick gave me my first kiss, and I’d always fantasied that he’d be the one to give me my last.
But now here he is, this big important businessman who probably has a bunch of mob connections and is dating a supermodel. And I’m an engaged dorky data analyst who is trying to land a singing job that I’m much too old for. There’s zero chance that the two of us could end up together. Zero chance.
I can’t stop wanting him.
I want to kiss Jessie.
I want it more than I ever wanted anything in my life. That song—that goddamn song. It’s making me think of the first time I ever saw her in homeroom, back when we were kids. How I loved her instantly. I couldn’t explain it—I just did. I’d never been scared around girls before, but I was scared around her. It took me a year to work up the nerve to finally kiss her.
Then I lost her.
As Jessie sings the final chords of the song, I have to compose myself. It’s hard because hearing her sing that song again has made me lose my breath.
“Good,” I manage. “That one’s good. You should sing that one.”
“Yeah,” she says breathlessly.
Is she feeling it too? What I’m feeling? Christ, I can’t tell.
I want to cross the room and try to kiss her, but that wouldn’t be easy. She’s taller than I am by a good eight inches now, so it will be awkward. The fact that I’m sitting—that I’m always fucking sitting—makes a sudden kiss difficult. Unless she sits down herself or gets on my lap (unlikely), I can’t make a move right now.
“Anyway.” She brushes imaginary dust off her hands on her beige skirt. “Thank you for your help. I should probably… get going.”
I look at the window and see the sun has started to set. “Do you live far from here?”
She tells me her address and I feel sick. “That’s where you live?” I say. “In that piece-of-shit neighborhood?”
She frowns at me. Maybe I was harsh. But no—she lives in the fucking ghetto. The thought of her taking that subway to that place sends a chill down my spine.
“I’m driving you home,” I say.
“No. I’m driving you home.”
She doesn’t protest again.
We travel down together to the basement, where I’ve got my car parked. There’s a valet, but even though my car switches out of hand control mode, it’s complicated enough that I’d rather park myself. The handicapped spots are right by the entrance anyway.
When we get to my BMW, I gotta be the opposite of a gentleman and tell Jessie she has to wait till I’m in the car to get inside herself. The passenger seat has to move forward so I can stick my wheelchair in the back, so she has to wait. Not my first choice, but it is what it is. She’s watching me so I try to make the transfer as quick as I can—I don’t like her seeing the way I gotta grab my legs and pull them into the car. Obviously, she already knows I can’t walk, but now she must know the extent of my situation. I don’t like to advertise it, but there’s no choice.
I drive downtown, through increasingly seedy-looking streets while Jessie sits silently next to me into the car. I got music on, but I’m not listening to it. All I’m doing is thinking about Jessie. We’re both sitting now—I’ve gotta kiss her before she gets out. If I do it too soon, that will be it—I’ll have blown it again. I gotta be patient. Wait for the right moment.
Traffic is a mess. On any other day, I’d be leaning on my horn, shouting curses out the window at cab drivers cutting me off and bikers who don’t think that traffic lights apply to them. But I’m grateful for the traffic today. It gives me extra time to figure things out.
I pull up to the curb in front of Jessie’s building. What a mess. The awning is torn to shreds and the bricks of the building are caked in grime. There’s a guy standing outside smoking a joint—at least, I hope it’s a joint. I want to walk her to the door—I want to accompany her up to her apartment door and make sure she gets there safely like I used to when we were kids, but that’s not a possibility for many reasons.
“It’s safe,” Jessie says because it’s obvious what I’m thinking.
“Whatever you say,” I mutter. I’m not gonna argue with her on this. It’s like someone telling me the sky is green. I know what I see with my own eyes.
She looks up at me with her big, blue eyes. “Thanks for your help tonight, Nick.”
We’re looking at each other now. My eyes are locked with hers—I don’t think either of us can look away. If there were a time tonight to kiss her, it’s now. My heart is slamming in my chest and I can almost taste her lips on mine. It makes me think of that first time I kissed her, back when we were still kids. I remember how bad and how long I wanted it and how scared I was. And how great it felt when she kissed me back.
Do it, you chicken shit!
I lean forward slightly and it seems like she does the same. I shift in my seat, trying to get closer, but that’s when my knee bumps against the hand controls, setting off a spasm in my right leg. I swear loudly as my leg starts jumping up and down on its own volition. Jessie’s eyes widen.
“I… I better go,” she stammers, her face pink.
I grab my knee and the spasm quiets quickly, but it’s too late. My goddamn body has ruined the moment. I take a deep breath, pushing away my frustration, and force a smile. “Yeah, okay.”
After Jessie races out of the car and gets safely inside her building, I let my head drop down against the steering wheel. “Shit,” I mutter under my breath.
I wonder how much that goddamn spasm set me back. I thought I was close to kissing her only two minutes earlier, but I could see the surprise and discomfort on her face—she couldn’t get out of my car fast enough. So much for making her think I’m the same guy I always was.
Winning her back isn’t going to be easy.
But once I get her back, you better fucking believe I’m never gonna do anything to screw it up ever again.
To be continued...