“Mr. Moretti, I have a man here who says he wants to see you urgently.”
It’s my assistant Wendy’s voice, coming from my intercom. She sounds mildly distressed, which is unusual because she’s always really calm. If I’d followed through on what I had planned to do to John Lombardi, I’m be shitting my pants right now. But as it is, I’m more curious than anything.
“Who is it?” I ask her.
“He says his name is Seth Parsons.”
Seth Parsons. It takes me a few seconds to place the name. Then it hits me—Jessie’s fiancé. He’s here. And it’s not hard to guess why. I have to give the guy some credit though—if he has any clue who I am, it took a lot of nerve for him to show up here. He must really like her—not that I can blame him.
“He seems really upset, Nick,” Wendy murmurs into the phone. “I think he wants to make trouble. Do you want me to call security and have him escorted out?”
I won’t lie. I like the idea of having Jessie’s boyfriend tossed out by my thugs. But it wouldn’t help me get what I want. If I want Jessie to sing at Cleopatra’s, I gotta make nice to this Seth guy.
“No,” I say. “Let him in.”
“Are you sure, because—”
“Don’t worry about it, Wendy. Let him in.”
It’s not like I never been in a situation like this before. I have, and I know exactly what to do to diffuse it.
I wheel out from behind my desk. I see that my feet are crooked in the footplate. The left one is okay, but the right one is turned in about thirty degrees. If I were going into a meeting, I’d fix them to make sure they were both pointing straight ahead. But instead, I leave it as it is.
Seth Parsons bursts into my office a few seconds later. I vaguely recognize him as the man who was escorting Jessie to her father’s funeral three years ago. He’s average-looking—so nondescript he’d make a good hitman. But he’s tall and lean and has a certain determination I can imagine Jessie finding attractive.
The anger in Seth’s eyes is plain. He’s ready to tell me where I can shove that Cleopatra’s job. But then he sees me—all of me—and the anger immediately fades.
“Oh,” he sputters. “I… I didn’t realize you were…”
I raise my eyebrows at him.
“It’s just…” He rakes a hand through his hair, making it stand up. “In the photo I saw, you weren’t… you know…” When I don’t respond, he quickly says, “Never mind.”
It’s amusing at the same time it’s insulting. Because I’m in a wheelchair, I’m no threat to his girlfriend. We’ll see about that.
“Can I help you with something, Mr. Parsons?” I ask him in my most bland, polite voice.
“No, I…” He smiles crookedly. “I’m Jessica Schultz’s fiancé.”
I make my face blank. “Who?”
“She… she’s a friend of Chrissy’s,” he says. “You helped her get a job at Cleopatra’s Lounge…”
“Oh.” I nod, pretending I’m placing her for the first time. As if I could forget Jessie. “Right. So she got the job then? Good for her.” I smile apologetically. “I don’t make the hiring decisions at the club.”
“Of course,” Seth says quickly. “I’m sure you have much more important things to do than that.”
“Yes. I do.”
“But…” He forces that smile again. “I just wanted to thank you personally, because… well, Jess is really happy about the job. I mean, this has always been her dream, ever since we were in college, so… thank you.”
Actually, it was her dream long before that. But what does he know? He doesn’t know Jessie like I do.
“Glad to help,” I say.
His smile becomes more genuine. “She’s been going around our apartment all week, singing ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart.’ You know that song?”
“I think I know it,” I mumble. I can’t keep up this façade much longer. I glance at the pile of paperwork on my desk. “Is that all, Mr. Parsons?”
“Uh, yeah.” He squeezes his fists together anxiously. “Well, one other thing. You think… maybe if you see Jess, don’t mention I was here. She’d be, you know, embarrassed.”
“Of course,” I say.
I’m pissed off he’s asking me to lie to her, but at the same time, I get it. If I were him, I wouldn’t want her to know what he tried to do either.
Jessie’s first show is on a Monday night at midnight. It’s a terrible time slot—Cleopatra’s is usually practically empty at this time. But that makes it a great time slot for her first performance. She doesn’t need a full house to get her nervous. If it works out well, I can make Alex give her a better slot.
I show up half an hour early because I wouldn’t miss this for anything. The first thing I do when I come in is scour the tables for Seth Parsons. I assumed he’d be at his girlfriend’s first performance but I don’t see him anywhere. I’m pissed off on her behalf, but I’m also glad he’s not here in my club. Who needs the guy?
When I confirm Seth isn’t already here, go back to the entrance to talk to the bouncer. The bouncer today is Wilson—six feet four inches, two-hundred-fifty pounds of muscle. Terrifying as shit. Nobody gets past Wilson.
“Listen,” I say to Wilson, craning my neck to look up at this face. He’d be taller than me even if I could stand, but since I can’t, he towers over me. “If a guy named Seth Parsons shows up, don’t let him in.”
Wilson nods, without asking further questions. Any bouncer at Cleopatra’s knows how to follow orders from the boss. And now I don’t have to worry about Seth showing up. That asshole missed his chance.
One of the waitresses tells me that Jessie is backstage, so I figure I’ll go see her and wish her luck. Only trouble is that there are four steps to get to the backstage area. I wouldn’t have made it that way, but I didn’t build this place. Four steps, especially without a railing, isn’t something I can do easily. One or two maybe, but not four.
It frustrates the hell out of me. This is my club. There shouldn’t be a place in it that I can’t get to. I fucking hate stairs.
Luckily, our host Duke is at the front and looks like he doesn’t have much to do. I wheel up to him while he’s pacing the room. “Duke,” I say, “I need you to help me with some stairs.”
His eyes light up. “Sure, Nick. Just tell me what you want me to do.”
Duke’s eager to please. He wants Alex’s job, and he knows I’m the one who would give it to him. Maybe someday, but not now. Alex is too good at what he does, and Duke hasn’t proven himself yet. Too green.
We get to the stairs, and I back up against them. I pull out the handles that fold down on either side of my chair. “Just tip me back and pull the chair up,” I explain.
Duke looks nervous, which doesn’t make me happy. This isn’t rocket science. All he has to do is pull a wheelchair up four steps. I cross myself instinctively—it’s a holdover from my childhood.
He gets behind me, and of course, tips me back too much and too fast. I grab my legs to keep them in place, and patiently allow Duke to bump me up the four steps. When we get to the top and he lets me down so fast that I feel like I’m about to bounce out of the chair, I feel a rush of relief. We made it.
“Thanks,” I say. And since Duke is looking at me expectantly, I add, “Good job.”
I find Jessie in the smaller dressing room—a small room with three vanity mirrors, stacks of beauty supplies, a leather sofa, and lots of chairs. She’s sitting at one of the mirrors, but she isn’t doing anything to herself. She’s not fixing up her makeup or her hair—she’s just sitting there, staring at herself. Come to think of it, she’s not wearing makeup at all and her golden hair is loose and disheveled. But she’s wearing a blue dress that shows off every curve she’s got.
I quickly adjust my tie, making sure the knot Chrissy fixed for me earlier is still intact. I brush lint off my pants. I adjust my legs, making sure both my feet are pointed straight ahead. I look as good as I could manage, whatever it’s worth.
“Hey, Jessie,” I say.
She startles and turns to look at me, her blue eyes widening. “Nick… what are you doing here?”
“I came to see you sing,” I say. “You think I’d miss that?”
She smiles wryly. “Seth couldn’t even be here. He has an early case tomorrow.”
Jessie looks down at her hands in her lap. I see her swipe at her eyes, and the next thing I know, there are tears running down her cheeks. Shit. I never know what to do when girls cry. I grab a tissue from the vanity table and hand it to her.
“You okay?” I ask, which is a dumb question because obviously she’s not okay. What the hell is wrong with me?
“Nick.” She shakes her head at her lap. Her eyes are starting to swell up and her nose is turning pink. She looks adorable, but it’s not so good for onstage. She should pull herself together. “I can’t do this.”
“Why the hell not?”
“I mean…” She wipes her nose with the tissue. “I shouldn’t do this. I appreciate that you’re trying to help me, but I’m not right for this club. I never was. I’m not pretty, I’m not skinny with big tits, and I’m not even young enough anymore. I feel like a fool going up on that stage. You didn’t have to do me a favor by getting me a job here.”
I lean back in my chair and look at her. “You know, Jessie, if anyone else but you questioned my judgement, I’d fire their ass.”
She looks up sharply at me.
“I said you were right for this club,” I say, “and I wouldn’t have put you up here if I didn’t really think so. If you don’t want to sing tonight, I’m not gonna make you. But I think you’re gonna be great.”
“Alex Mitchell didn’t think so.”
I narrow my eyes. “Was Alex giving you a hard time?”
“No,” Jessie says quickly. “He wasn’t. At all.” She pauses, studying my face. “If I told you he was, would you…?”
“He’d be gone.”
A tiny smile emerges on Jessie’s lips. “Do you stand up for Natalie this way?”
She doesn’t know I broke up with Natalie.
“No,” I reply honestly. “Just you.”
We’re just staring at each other now. The dressing room is real quiet, so I can almost hear my heart pounding in my chest. Jessie leans forward—it’s almost imperceptible, but I see it. She’s giving me an in—she wants this. So I lean forward and kiss her.
It’s been so goddamn long since I kissed Jessie Schultz. Too long. But her lips feel familiar—like the ones I’ve been searching for every time I kissed a girl for the last thirteen years. I never want to kiss anyone else—nobody can possibly come close to this. Nobody else can get me worked up the way Jessie does. If she feels for me half of what I feel for her, she needs to dump her fiancé right now.
When we part for breath, she’s shaking and there’s a nervous smile on her face. But then her eyes suddenly widen and she pulls away from me. Something made her not want to kiss me anymore. Something that’s making her inch away from me like she’s scared for her life.
To be continued....