Almost two hours of reading later and we’ve touched down in New York. Once we’ve collected our bags I turn on my phone to text Darlene that we’ve arrived. There’s already a message waiting for me.
-I got the job. Start September-
I immediately write back.
-Congrats! We’ll celebrate when I get home, promise-
She doesn’t reply. I can only assume she doesn’t believe me. Heck, I wouldn’t believe me. But I will make this up to her. I’ll make it all up to her.
Having settled in our hotel rooms James and I have descended into the bar. We last an hour before moving on to the first club we stumble upon. It isn’t my intention to get drunk, but James is ordering drinks for me like I’m a prospective lay, and when each drink eases a little of my angst I find it harder and harder to say no.
James has been working tirelessly on many women but to no success. His actions only instill my appreciation at being married, a failing marriage, but a marriage nonetheless. I haven’t missed this at all, I never have. I tell this to James and he laughs too loudly into my ear.
“You’re in denial. You just haven’t truly embraced tonight,” he slurs, before tapping me harshly on the cheek. I can abide James in a work environment and occasionally socially, but never drunkenly. The sooner we leave the better. I’ve gotten the alcoholic release I came for and now I’m ready for bed.
“Tonight is all about you getting laid, apparently. How am I supposed to embrace that?” I ask, leaning away from his harsh breath.
“By helping a brother out! I’m not leaving here until I have at least gotten one damn phone number,” he declares.
Oh, this is going to take all night. Unless...
“I’ll get you a number, and then we’ll leave, right?”
“Oh, we’re going all tenth grade? Okay, I can live with that.” He nods happily as I down the rest of my beer and stalk across the room. It’s been a long time since I have even looked at women in a bar, let alone sought them out. I know I garner their attention because Darlene is always keen to point it out, so maybe this should be easy.
Choosing a couple of ladies having a quiet drink over a rowdy hen party, I approach them cautiously. I am clocked by the blonde and she smiles sweetly, too sweetly. This is going to be very easy.
“Good evening, ladies,” I say, smiling coyly as I hide the hand with my precious wedding band in my jacket pocket. “I have an unusual request. Do you think I could sit down and hit you with it?”
They eye me greedily before the brunette shuffles over and allows me into their booth. I feel their attention on me, thick like heat, as they welcome me, a perfect stranger into their space.
“So, my friend over there…” I point to James who is watching us curiously. “…He’s pretty shy. He’s just gotten out of his first and only relationship and he’s never really done the bar scene. He’s been staring at you all night,” I say to the blonde, feeling as though she is the more desperate of the two considering I can practically see her nipples through her shirt. “I told him to come over here and say hi, but he said that you’re just too beautiful. I told him that despite your overt beauty, you are still probably a good person and that you would still be willing to take a chance on a softy like him.”
She rolls her eyes but she can’t hide the proud smile on her unnaturally plump lips. Her friend has all but slumped into the seat, fingering the rim of her margarita quietly. I feel a little bad. Maybe I should have given her friend the confidence boost that Nipples obviously doesn’t need.
“So...Shall I give him your number or have I got to walk back over there and break his already hurting heart?”
“That depends. I’m not looking for a onetime thing anymore, if that’s what he’s looking for.” Her voice is heavily accented and her hand gesture to word ratio is unbalanced.
“Oh no, he’s looking for the one and he’s adamant that you’re it,” I say, inwardly cringing.
“Aw, he’s a sweetheart!” She reaches into her bag and pulls out a handily prepared thick marker pen. Yanking my hand across the table, she scrawls her name and number on my palm. Replacing the cap, she flicks her hair over her shoulder and twinkles her fingers in a wave toward James. I thank them for their time and make to leave when the brunette reaches out for my arm.
“Don’t you want my number?” she asks quietly. I can practically see the nerves dripping off of her as she worries her teeth over her bottom lip. Her big eyes remind me a little of Darlene, even if her lack of confidence is the complete opposite. Knowing that I’ll never even see her again I permit her this ego boost and allow her to put her number in my phone. She smiles a bright smile and I take a little pride in that as I walk away.
James is ecstatic when I thrust my pen covered hand in his face. I have to pry him away from wanting to speak to them immediately, telling him that he can meet them on his own tomorrow. I spill him the back story I fed them and he agrees that he needs to play it cool.
Back in my room, I shower away the stink of the bar, the faint touch of the quiet admirer, the dirtiness of playing James’ games for him, and the thick ink on my palm, before jumping into bed. Tonight I feel more grateful than ever for the ring on my finger. I text Darlene a goodnight message, and she responds with her own brief goodnight. I wish I could call her and fall asleep to the sound of her sweet voice, but we both know that’s not going to happen. I was bereft of her nighttime company when I was in the same apartment as her, so why would it be any different when we are miles apart.
For the first time all week I have woken up in my own bed. While it’s been the comfiest night I’ve had in days it’s certainly not been the most restful. With a million thoughts intruding my mind and an ever present cold spot on the other side of the bed, sleep was an infrequent friend. I have found myself on Reid’s side, sleeping on his pillow after having dreamed that I could feel his warmth residing there. No such luck. And from his drunken attempt at a text message last night it doesn’t appear that he’s feeling my absence in the same way.
Rolling out of bed to begin my day, I vow to have a better time than yesterday. After moping around during the afternoon that Reid left I moped around all night too. Cash kept me company while I worked on some songs for Monday’s gig and when he failed to rouse some life from me I gave in to my melancholy and picked the first Nicholas Sparks novel off the bookshelf I could find and settled into bed.
After a plentiful breakfast I shower and dress, paying more attention to my hair and makeup than usual because I need a little pick-me-up. I spend the morning picking up bits and pieces from Printers Row market. It’s nice seeing the park so busy and everyone is always so friendly. After stocking up on vegetables I treat myself to a bunch of flowers. I can get rid of the depressing reminder of my dry marriage that sits in my kitchen and choose something refreshing, something more to my taste. I opt for a calming palette of white gerberas and carnations with a splash of yellow courtesy of sunflowers. All are tied together artistically with large folded leaves and twine. I’m smiling as I leave the park and bump into Blue.
“You know, I can’t recall the last time I came to the park and you weren’t here,” I say by way of greeting.
“Well, that’s because I’m stalking you, obviously.” He pauses for dramatic effect but he’s smiling his telltale smile that tells me he’s joking. “Or maybe I needed to pick up veggies for dinner.”
“Ah. I’ll cancel the bodyguards then.”
He smiles before regarding my handful. “You really shouldn’t buy your own flowers, ya’ know,” he says, trying for playful but I think I detect a trace of a frown.
“Why not? I like to. Girl power and all that.”
“Girl power means that you can, not that you should.”
I shrug weakly as I look toward my apartment block. I don’t want to have this conversation. It feels like he’s waiting to pick at Reid and despite my own annoyance with him it feels completely wrong for me to encourage Blue’s disdain.
“I thought I might see you last night, Pilgrim.”
“Well, I thought I’d give you a night off,” I reply, with an awkward smile. In truth, I thought that I could use a night off.
“You don’t ever have to give me a night off,” he says with a grin. “Are you coming tonight? We have a band on.”
He nods excitedly. “You’ll like them. They might teach you a bit about the blues.”
“Ah, well maybe I’ve been doing a little research on that very subject.” I forget why I’m encouraging this little game that we have going on, but when he smiles with delight I can’t help but feel thankful that I am.
“Really? Am I going to hear Little Miss Country go all bluesy for me come Monday?” he queries with an electric gleam in his dangerous eyes.
“If you’re a good boy,” I tease, but it plays much worse than it sounded in my head.
I start drifting toward the direction of my building, needing to stop this flirting that we so easily slip into. “I should go. These flowers need water.”
“Okay. Tonight?” he asks, although I’m not sure he really intended it to be a question. I nod in response before I even have time to work out whether it’s a good idea. I really do just rely on impulse when I’m around Blue. That can’t be a good thing. To the beat of my feet I repeat the words like a mantra in my mind…
I shall not drink tonight. I shall not drink tonight.
I put down the phone to Reid, having ascertained that everything is going great in regards to this new author. I tried to sound pleased for him and he tried just as hard to enthuse about my new job, but after everything that happened before his leave it all felt a little forced.
Eyeing myself in the mirror, I smile a little, forcing a deep breath to clear the nerves that linger in my stomach. Inspired by the sunflowers, I have found my favorite black tunic dress with a scattering of yellow flowers over its entirety. It’s a tad girly for me, but teamed with my black cowboy boots, a leather jacket and big hooped earrings, I’m totally rocking it. Under the illusion that because I coped with the chilly air earlier today I can cope without the tights tonight, I leave my apartment and brave the streets of Chicago.
I was wrong to be so naive.
I practically run to The Nest, willing the exercise to warm my body. I’m instantly okay when I enter because it is jam packed. I manage to squeeze through to the bar to find Nile and Veda with an unfamiliar face; a young girl with hair that falls to her waist, even when it’s tied up high on her head. Her eyes are tight like a cat’s and they are the sharpest blue I have ever seen. She’s beautiful. She steps forward to take my order before Veda interjects, handing me a Corona with a big smile. She points toward the stage and when I follow her finger I see Blue laughing with a small group of men.
“He told me to send you over when you got here,” she explains. Of course he did.
“Thanks, Veda,” I call as she moves on to another customer. Cat Eyes creases her pretty little face with a deep frown. I hesitate before making my way over to Blue. The crowd is thick and even more raucous than normal. I don’t recognize many faces so I can only assume that the band has bought in new clients. I don’t want to interrupt so I linger a little off the dance floor, but when Blue sees me he bounces over and tugs me to the group of guys sitting on the stage edge.
“I’m glad you came,” he says directly into my ear. “I want you to meet these guys; Jules, Chester, Dean and my uncle, Robbie.” He’s beaming as he points to each gentleman in turn. I smile and wave politely but Uncle Robbie pulls me into a bear hug that could shatter bones. He’s warm and smells comfortingly like tobacco.
When I can breathe, let alone speak, I greet them all. “It’s nice to meet you. I can’t wait to hear ya’ll tonight.”
“That’s very kind of you. Blue tells us that we’re to educate you, and educate you we will,” Robbie claims with a smile so wide it rivals Blue’s, the whiteness of his teeth exaggerated by the darkness of his skin.
“You’ve been talking about me?” I ask, turning to a gleeful Blue.
“Of course. Robbie likes to know all about the local talent,” he answers, covering himself well.
“Yes, but I don’t always believe Blue’s testimonies. He hasn’t always got the best of taste,” Robbie says with no malice. He’s teasing Blue, I figure, as he knocks him playfully on the shoulder.
“I’m sure we can tempt her to prove her talent. Right, Pilgrim?”
“Oh no, I’m taking a night off. I’ll be singing Monday,” I tell Robbie, feeling the need to appeal to the more senior of the two.
He chuckles but pacifies my nerves. “I’ll just have to imagine that you have the angelic voice Blue brands you with then.” He pats me lightly on the shoulder before checking the time. “Let’s get it started,” he says to Blue and his band before leaning in to me and taking my hand. “Enjoy, sweetheart.”
When they take to the stage Blue guides me toward two seats that he’s kept for us. I feel a little disappointed that I was so much of a dead cert, but I can’t help but be thankful that we at least have seats; it’s ridiculously busy in here. More so than when I have performed and everyone seems more intent on crowding the stage.
“Angelic voice?” I ask, maybe fishing.
“Don’t fish. You know you kick ass.”
I can’t contain my giggle, but it’s disrupted by a louder laugh behind the bar. I look over to find Cat Eyes staring and smirking with a clearly confused Nile. “Are you not working the bar tonight?” I ask, tearing my eyes away.
“No, Nina came back yesterday so she’s covering.”
“Oh, she’s not new?”
“No, she’s just been visiting her ‘rents in New York.”
“She’s pretty.” I’m aware of how my comment may come across before Blue looks at me and chuckles. “What? She is!”
“I know she is, but she knows she is too.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” I reply, knowing that it’s healthy for a girl to appreciate her own good looks, but still feeling a stab of dislike toward her. I don’t know why.
Before he gets chance to respond the music starts up, shocking my ear drums into a state of hyper alertness and that’s how they stay for the rest of the set. I am introduced to a world of blues that I had never known about. They begin with the foundations, with Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson before slowly digressing into more commercially known tunes. Blue has found great pleasure in educating me, rattling off the names of the songs and the history behind them. I can hear him singing along to every single word and I know he’s dying to get up there and perform with them. It’s not long before he gets his chance.
Taking to the stage in one swift movement, he hugs his uncle and nods at the rest of the band. They infer for just seconds before an excited Robbie plucks with menace at his electric guitar. Jules kicks in with the drums and Dean with the piano. When Chester pipes up with the saxophone I smile knowingly, recognizing Shake Your Money Maker from my research as it spills effortlessly from Blue’s lips.
He loves every second of performing with this amazing band, grinding provocatively against the microphone stand and beckoning the audience, who suddenly seem riddled with ladies. Some deep-rooted part of me flashes an incomprehensible shade of green and I have to blink back the alien thoughts. What a ridiculous thing to feel for someone that I have no ties to. I attribute it to mob mentality. I’m just going with the rest of the audience and being sucked into his glorious performance.
It’s his stage presence, that’s all it is.
I almost fool myself into believing my desperate excuses when Blue jumps off the stage and swaggers over to me. He has a devilish smirk on his face as he offers me his hand. I shake my head, highly aware of what happened the last time we danced, but he grabs my hand anyway, pulling me into the core of the crowd. Twirling me under his lengthy arm while continually singing, he has every eye on us. It should be discomforting, but my love of an audience lets me forget that.
Pulling my back against him, he dips us low and grinds against me, instructing me to shake my money maker, apparently. I’m not used to dancing this way, especially not as effortlessly as Blue, so my hesitance must be largely obvious.
During a small guitar solo Blue leans into my ear, pressing his lips heavily against my thick hair. “Stop fighting it. Just let go.”
I don’t know if his words hold any meaning off this dance floor, but I give in. Everyone’s eyes are on me and I feed off of their attention, the inner performer in me needing to give them a show. I work with the sway of his hips, dipping when he dips and circling when he circles. Our bodies are paired, if only for this brief moment, and I savor the feeling, knowing that I’m not permitted anymore than this. It could be pretty sensual if I weren’t so aware of the crowd and if Blue wasn’t blaring the words to the chorus in my ear.
Blue kisses my hand, his eyes alight with appreciation, and hops back onto the stage. As he finishes the song he takes a bow and then turns to hug it out with his uncle.
As I make my way back to my seat I am slapped repeatedly on the back, as if I have also performed. Blue finds me, his energy double what it was when we were last seated here.
“That was amazing!” he calls, shaking my shoulders firmly. “You were amazing. I’ve gotta dance blues with you again, baby.”
“Oh, I’m all danced out,” I lie, a little flustered by the endearment. I use that word all the time but I only truly understand the effect of it when it’s spoken by someone else, and when that someone is not my husband it feels…strange.
“Another time?” he asks and I nod, unable to be the one to put a stop to his childlike enthusiasm.
The music continues long into the night and it’s well after midnight when the last song is played. Blue and I continue to trample on my mantra as we drink through the customers leaving and the band packing up. They join us for a round before Blue sees them to their van, then it is just myself and Blue with his last two remaining staff. I’m too lost in my music bubble with Blue to realize just how late it is. Veda and Nina work around us as they clean up but we’re too busy relaying our favorite songs from this evening.
“I’d love to be able to sing blues,” I declare. “It’s so sexy.”
“If anyone can pull it off it’s you,” he insists, tilting his beer at me. I scoff and swig from my own bottle. “I’m serious. You’re gorgeous, but more than that, you’re talented. Why aren’t you singing professionally? I’ve no doubt you’d get a record deal.”
I smile toothily. “Thanks, but it doesn’t interest me.” I shrug, playing with the label on my beer. “That was my parent’s life. They were in a band. Me too, for a while. I loved performing, I still do, but I’ve seen a side to the music industry that I don’t like. There are so many temptations, and we both know that I’m not the best at saying no.” I watch him smile a weak smile. “Besides, I like singing for me.”
“You sing for me too,” he counters. I shrug. “Does anybody sing for you?”
I shake my head and catch a glimpse of the ever fleeting time. “I really should go.”
“Let me sing for you. Just one song.” Blue’s dangerous eyes don’t look so dangerous when they’re as wide and pleading as they are now.
I weigh up my options. Veda and Nina are putting on their jackets, meaning it will just be the two of us. I’m meant to be keeping things in the friend zone and alone time while being sung to doesn’t sound entirely platonic. But it would be rude to just run now after we’ve had such a good time tonight. He’s kindly taken me under his wing, and really, I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed myself this much.
Blue notices my hesitance so I bluff my reason for it. “Let me go pee first, okay?” I smile before hopping down from my stool and walking to the bathroom. After doing my business I wash my hands, entranced with my reflection in the mirror. The curl of my hair is wild from the humidity but it works, and my makeup is a little smudged around the eyes. What really catches my attention though is how alive I look. My cheeks are flush and my eyes bright.
I look so happy, and I am. I look so free, and I’m not.
I shouldn’t be.
Not because of a man other than my husband anyway. I’ve tried to kid myself into believing that the attraction I feel for Blue is for his looks alone and that it can easily be overcome, but my attraction to Blue is burying itself deep within our shared passion for music, and when he’s all that I have to share it with then the fight is so much harder.
With the weight of my realization on my shoulders I return, resolute in my decision to leave, only to be tempted by the sight that awaits me.
The girls have gone and the lights have been dimmed. Blue is sitting on the stage, tinkling the keys on the piano with the light of the spotlight overhead haunting his perfect profile. A cigarette burns freely in a nearby ashtray and the smoke is drawn to him, much like everyone else, me included.
I walk over, submitting to the pull that has been there all night. He doesn’t look at me when I stand next to him. Instead, he shifts right and nods to the space he has made at his stool. I sit, knowing damn well that I shouldn’t.
“I think I should go now, Blue.”
He continues to feather the keys as he shakes his head. He looks up but only to gesture with his deep browns to the Corona that sits atop the piano. I sigh, pointedly, before I take a sip. I don’t really want to drink anymore but I surrender, my ability to say no having left around the seventh bottle of beer.
Pointing to the cigarette that simmers above us, I state, “You don’t smoke often.”
“Only when I’m stressed,” he answers, still refusing to meet my eyes.
“Why are you stressed now?”
Finally looking at me, I can see the change in him but he doesn’t voice his reason for it. He simply regards me as if I should already know. But I only know the reason for my own misery.
Still playing, he looks at the cigarette and raises his eyebrows and chin in a gesture of, ‘gimme’. I pick it up and place it softly on his lips for him to take a long drag before signaling for me to take it. Instead of putting it back in the ashtray I bring it to my own lips. Sucking gently, I reacquaint myself with the taste and feel of the smoke as it coasts down my throat. I exhale with relief at the immediate satisfaction I find.
I’m not a smoker, but I dabbled with the idea through university. So many of my friends smoked and when I spent so much of my time in bars with them I inevitably took on the habit. It never stuck though. Once I was sober, the idea seemed abhorrent, but the desire has never completely gone away, not after a few drinks anyway.
“That looks incredibly sexy,” Blue says, his eyes focused unashamedly on my lips as the smoke passes through them.
“It’s filthy,” I answer, mocking a snobby accent as best I can.
“Then…that looks filthily sexy.”
I attempt a weak smile but it feels wrong somehow. Blue’s pained expression has rendered this a smile-free zone and so I sag further into my stool and take another drag on the dwindling cigarette.
Blue’s music is a song I don’t recognize but the emotion behind it is something I am becoming rather familiar with. Is he wordlessly trying to tell me something? I wouldn’t want to presume that I have anything to do with his demeanor, even if he has everything to do with mine.
The silence that envelopes us when Blue stops playing is almost painful, so much to my relief, he starts playing again. I think I recognize the tune and when Blue begins to sing I know for sure that I do. His voice is so soft that I have to strain to here the lyrics of Otis Redding’s These Arms Of Mine. The pressure of his words squeezes the air from my lungs and I have to grip the seat to stop myself from doing as he asks. Blue oozes Otis Redding’s smoothness but the pain is all his own. Does he find it easier to sing his thoughts rather than speak them? I can strongly relate.
Blue’s eyes leave his fingers where they have been for the entire song and find me, trapping me. I never could have imagined that he could hold so much depth in those dangerous eyes. He’s only ever the upbeat showman to anyone else. Is this another performance? Somehow I doubt it. His eyes are pleading and I have to fight harder and harder to stay seated.
He continues to croon, his eyes tight as his voice riffs effortlessly up and down the scale. I don’t know whether it’s the talent behind this display or the honesty, but as he continues to address my heart I find myself turning in my stool to face him. Taking his hard jaw in my hand and stroking my thumbs over his bristly cheeks I touch my forehead to his. His fingers are no longer playing but he is still singing, his voice quiet and his breath hot against my lips. “I need your, your tender lips...” So I give them to him, softly but with intent.
This is a goodbye.
Our lips are gentle as they mesh together but his hands on my hips are anything but. He lifts me from the stool and guides me in front of him, leaning me against the keys of the piano as a chorus of disjointed notes sound out. He stands and leans in to bring his lips back to mine but I deny them, instead, wrapping my hands around his wide shoulders and burying my face into his stone-hard chest.
Pulling away, I fight the ever present desire that hounds me whenever I am in Blue’s presence. “In some other time, some other place, this could have been something amazing. But not now. I’m married.”
“I’m not...” I sigh heavily, breathing out the fire that is raging inside of me. “…I’m not your baby. If you care for me, as a friend, then you’ll let me walk out that door and you’ll never let me back in. I can’t see you anymore. When I see you, I lose the ability to fight this and I can’t...I just can’t lose.” Somehow managing to pry myself away from Blue I leave to grab my purse and my jacket from the bar and summon all of my strength to walk away.
As a strong hand wraps around my wrist and spins me, I close my eyes, not wanting to confront what I am leaving behind.
“Darlene,” he says as he snakes an arm around my waist. “Open your eyes, Darlene.”
I do, because I’m weak, and I regret it immediately. He’s so close, towering over me with a dominance that I’m struggling to decline.
“You can stop worrying about us now, because I’m taking the decision from you. Your body is screaming that you want me and yet your mouth is denying it. Stop thinking about what is wrong with us and think about what is right. We work. Whatever we have just works. Give in to it.”
Shaking my head I gather the last scraps of my strength. “Blue, I...”
“It’s not a request.”
His body and lips crash against me at the same time, pinning me to the wall with such passion that I drop my jacket and purse. I contemplate pushing him away, but when his tongue teases my bottom lip I fall helplessly into his hold and part my mouth. The sweet ache that pulls at my southern muscles is too intense to ignore and the only way that I am going to soothe them is by giving in.
His hands waste no time in exploring my body; I guess he’s waited long enough. His fingers grip at my bare thigh with such hunger that I gasp in pain, or maybe pleasure. The line is so thin that it’s impossible to tell the difference.
Guiding my legs around his waist, he lifts me from the floor with such ease that I barely acknowledge the act. “These boots have been driving me crazy. You’re going to keep them on.” I only notice that we’re moving when he tears his lips from mine and whispers against my hypersensitive ears, “Let me have you on the stage where I first imagined how it would feel to be inside you, where I envisioned how you would look when I made you come, and how it would feel to hear you scream my name. Please scream for me, Darlene.”
I’m ignorant to his words but impassioned by the feel of them vibrating against the base of my neck. As I’m lowered onto the stage his lips lower on my chest. With my back flush against the cold surface, Blue plucks open the buttons that line the length of my dress with his dexterous fingers. His hands move slow but hard over my breasts, kneading them with intent.
My eyes are clenched shut; one part of my body that is still in denial. I’m worried that I won’t be able to fully let go if I am visually aware of the man above me. His hands slide down to the skirt of my dress, before lifting it. My underwear is at my knees when the hands that brought them there stop.