I’m strumming my own arrangement, something without words, but the melody speaks for itself. The tempo is lazy but happy with an undeniable country influence. It reminds me of our honeymoon. We already lived in LA with a coastline of white beaches so we wanted something different. We drove through Arizona and stayed at a ranch with endless rolling hills at our disposal. We rode horses and trekked and rejoiced in sharing the experience and more importantly, our time. Our busy lives were already beginning to pull us apart and so this unreserved time together in our own little nirvana was perfection. If ever I need reminding of how amazing we can be, I only have to cast my mind back to that vacation.
I’m not aware that I have an audience until I look up to see Reid smiling at me, his glasses lifted onto his head as he leans casually against the wall.
“Sing for me,” he says, his green eyes bright and pleading.
“What do you want me to sing?”
“Our wedding song, Songbird,” he responds with no hesitation. A smile flickers on his face and I wonder briefly if he can read my mind.
“I was just thinking about our honeymoon.”
“You were?” His grin widens. “We’ll have to go back some day. We can drive to LA and see my grandparents too.” I nod, unwilling to declare just how much I’d like that for fear that speaking my wish would break it. “So you gonna sing?”
Narrowing my eyes in the pretence that I’m only considering it, I linger over the strings for several seconds before beginning the delicate arrangement. I love this song but it arouses such emotion in me, and it’s so difficult to try and replicate Eva Cassidy’s effortlessly angelic voice.
Reid watches me from a distance as I sing about everything being alright as long as I’m with him. I watch him back. His eyes twinkle wistfully and his smile is slight. My chest feels heavy as I remember dancing with him to this very song. Lanterns hung over our heads and rose petals layered the floor beneath our feet. Our friends and family circled around us but the only thing, the only person that I was aware of was the man before me. The man I was gladly going to spend the rest of my life with.
His eyes, a brilliant green and alive with youth, glistened with unashamed tears as we sang this to each other. We sang it with as much heart as we said our vows, perhaps more so. I sing these words now and regret that they are just as tarnished as our marital promise. The thought brings tears to my eyes, and a lump to my throat that makes my voice raw and tense.
I continue to sing with hoarseness and cling to the words, trying to renew their meaning, wanting to attribute them to our lives now, this second, rather than the weeks that have passed and the mistakes that both Reid and I have made. He must sense the atmosphere shift because Reid crosses the room to sit behind me on the couch. Closing the space between us, he leans into my back and presses his lips gently to my shoulder. I don’t stop for him. He doesn’t want me to.
I struggle through the final chorus with hot tears lining my cheeks and a weight against my chest. Reid’s kisses linger at my shoulder while his hands sit at my waist, his thumbs tracing circles over the skin under my shirt.
When the last note fades Reid reaches around for my hand and brings it to his comforting lips. I’m attempting to hide the tears, but I think he knows of their presence.
“I forgot how much I love that song, and you singing it. It means so much more now, doesn’t it?” he says, speaking gently. I nod, still with my back to him.
I feel tickling over my wrist and when I turn to look I see a bracelet fastened around it. I narrow my eyes at Reid before inspecting the jewelry. It’s silver in color with a thin, delicate chain that is joined together by the silhouetted wings of a bird. A songbird? It’s beautiful, just the outline of the creature. It’s perfect. Simple and elegant, and more importantly, relevant.
My tears come again but they fall from a happy place. I look at Reid and offer a smile. Twisting in my seat with the guitar still on my lap, I place my hand against his cheek, guiding him to my lips. His compliance is soft, and when he pulls away he rests his forehead against mine.
“Thank you, it’s beautiful,” I gush. “What’s it for?”
“Darlene, I don’t need a reason to show you I love you. We don’t need reasons. We aren’t one of those couples.”
“No, we’re not.”
“I’m going to show you every day, in one way or the other, that I love you. Add that to our vows because I mean it as much as I meant those.” His voice is as tender as mine and I can only assume that he is holding back the emotion that I have let out. He seals his promise with a tender kiss to my temple.
“You’re beautiful to me. I don’t deserve you.”
“No, you deserve more. You should be with someone who showers you in effortless affection and worships you. You have no idea how perfect you are and how grateful I am that you have chosen to spend your life with me. I can only hope that I’m enough for you.”
My heart is squeezed so tight I fear that it’s going to burst. How can he conceive his words to be true? It is me who doesn’t deserve him. He puts me on a pedestal at the time I deserve it the least. I will spend the rest of my life assuring that I am worthy of his love and counteracting the wrong that I have done.
“Don’t talk like that. You don’t have to be grateful. The love is felt both ways, Reid.” Our lips meet again with increased strength, spurred on by our spoken devotions.
“Sing it again, baby,” Reid whispers low against my parted lips.
I open my eyes in surprise. “Again?” He nods while a smile widens over his flush face. A wicked, lopsided smile.
What’s he up to?
Turning myself back into position, I take Cash in my hand and start Songbird again. The words flow easier now that some emotion has fallen from the lyrics but it’s no less difficult to get through. Reid’s lips have returned to my shoulder, but his mouth is suckling rather than kissing, and the feel of his hot tongue against my skin is increasingly distracting. After sweeping my hair away from my neck his lips ascend, breathing goosebumps over my hypersensitive skin. When his mouth reaches my ear and he takes my earlobe into his mouth I gasp and the music stops.
“Don’t stop,” he croons.
“I can’t concentrate, Reid.”
“Then try harder.”
I sigh in frustration but rise to the challenge, picking up on the chorus. His hand leaves my hip and dips further under my shirt. I falter when I realize his intentions. His fingers walk over my ribs and squeeze between my chest and the guitar. He cups my braless breast in his hand and rolls his palm leisurely over the plumpness. I have to work harder to control my breathing, but when he takes a nipple in his fingers and tugs gently I moan.
“That’s not part of the song,” he says teasingly into my ear. I like this challenge. I like it even more when his other hand settles on my thigh, massaging menacingly as his fingers creep closer to my center.
My singing is failing miserably. It’s breathy like Marilyn with moaning like Britney. My fingers are sloppy as I fight the urge to stop playing. Reid knows this and smiles against my neck when I mess up.
When his fingers stretch against my sex the fabric of my jeans may as well not be there. The pleasure is immediate and I grind my hips in response.
“Reid, please. I can’t...”
“Okay, baby, turn around,” he happily relents.
I slide my guitar onto the floor and twist round to continue this game face to face. He doesn’t stop the sweet, sweet torture. My hands begin working on undressing him, lifting his shirt over his head, as the impatience in me grows. I’m trembling with need and without an outlet I’m going to burst.
“That was so hot,” he says between sharp kisses. “One day, I’m going to record you singing and we’ll make love to it. I want to make love to your voice so much.”
“What would you have me sing?”
“Anything, anything sexy,” he answers, his erratic fingers working on the buttons of my pants. I work on his and within seconds I am stripped from the waist down, Reid completely naked. He leans back into the couch and I waste no time in straddling him. My shirt is thrown to the floor leaving my breasts to fall free. They are immediately gathered in Reid’s eager hands.
Bringing my lips to his neck, I deviate from my one track mind, scrolling through the millions of songs that sit in wait. I pick the sexiest song that I know.
I sing softly against the prickled skin of his neck, pulling up slowly to breathe purposefully into his ear. I’m grinding against him to the rhythm of my voice, my seduction, and I can feel him twitching underneath my wetness. I’m already struggling, my words being sung between moans and sharp breathes, but I’m enjoying the effect I’m having on him. He is so hard beneath me, his fingers so rough and unreserved. His skin puckers under my touch and his hips are grinding with greed.
“More,” he pants as his mouth joins his hands and he teases my nipples with his talented tongue.
Singing through my escalating desire, I rise to the challenge, the competition that Reid knows how to incite in me. I’m rubbing my wetness over him, finding immense pleasure in the slick maneuver of him against me.
My voice rises on the last note as he impales me harshly. He’s buried to the hilt within a split second and I cry out at the sudden fullness. The sensation is all encompassing and unleashes a ripple of tightening throughout my entire body.
Reid guides my hips, up and down, slow but deep. “More,” he demands again and I don’t know if I can.
I push through the verse, demoralizing the beautiful song with groans and gasps. Reid’s mouth is relentless at my breast as his free hand moves down between us. My voice cuts out as his fingers press the button that propels forth my orgasm. The melody is then replaced with an uncontrolled cry as I scream Reid’s name. His pace quickens and his thrusts harden in response, piercing me repeatedly with cries of his own. With his final push he bites down on my shoulder, an echo of my name grating from his abused lips.
“I don’t know what’s sweeter, your singing or your screaming,” he says as his breath evens out, cheek to cheek with me as we float down from our united orgasms.
“I’m less embarrassed by my singing,” I laugh, lazily. “Although, that was terrible.
“No, that was hot. The hottest. I couldn’t love you anymore than I do at this moment.”
“Well, looks like I’ll still be performing after all.”
He bites his lip as his smile swells. “To your biggest, most adoring fan.”
“Best fan ever. He shows his appreciation with more than just applause.”
I’ve showered, dressed, styled my hair and I’ve still been waiting for more than an hour for Darlene. I know she’s trying hard. It’s the first function she’s accompanied me to for work for some time, and this one is a biggy. It’s advertised as a fundraiser for a charity we support that provides educational supplies to disadvantaged children, but we all know that its purpose is to network. Clients, old and prospective, have been invited, as have agents and other such relevant businesses. I’m going to be selling tonight, selling myself, selling my services, our brand, and Darlene, whether she likes it or not, is a part of that package.
I’m just about to check on her for the millionth time when I hear the bedroom door open. She glides into the room in a wind of panic as she searches her purse for something. She is completely unaware that my jaw is on the floor along with my ability to speak.
Her dress is almost the exact color of her skin and it wraps itself tight to her chest, flowing out above her waist and down to her knees in soft pleats that act like a dancing extension of her. Her hair is pinned back, showing off each flawless stroke of bared skin. When she coats her full lips in cherry red she’s no longer my demure wife. She’s a vixen, a temptress, screaming to be looked at. It may not be her intention, but it’s fact.
I blink hard, reopening my eyes to find Darlene fanning out her skirt and looking at me with anxious Bambi eyes.
I clear my throat but it still feels too tight. “You’re stunning.” I step closer, running my fingers around the silkiness of her dress. Tugging her nearer, I breathe in her vanilla scent and fight the urge to take her back to the bedroom after waiting for her to get out of there for hours. “You’re sexiness personified. I don’t want to share you tonight. Let’s stay in.”
She chuckles a harmonious laugh as pretty as the sweetest bird’s song. “I don’t think your boss would be impressed if you blew it off.”
“If they fired me I could stay home with you all day,” I only half joke as my lips linger at her rosy cheek.
“That wouldn’t be very productive.” She smiles. “Besides, if you didn’t work, I’d feel even guiltier about buying these shoes.”
I glance down to see her feet strapped into thin gold heels. Quite possibly the sexiest shoes I have ever seen. “Fine, we’ll go, but only if you promise to wear them later.”
She cranes her neck until I feel her breath warming my ear. “Deal.” I growl in my excitement as my already tight pants tighten against me. “I like this,” she says, pulling back and teasing my bowtie. “And this.” She tugs at the lapels of my wine-colored jacket.
“Why don’t you wear it? You need a jacket. You’re wearing a jacket, right?” I insist, imagining the eyes that will no doubt feast on her tonight.
She insists harder. “No, I’ll be fine. We’re taking the car aren’t we?”
I nod, biting my tongue. Tonight’s going to play out through a haze of green.
The gala is being held in an extravagant hotel on the waterfront and no expense has been spared. We are greeted with champagne flutes and ushered into a room with tall ceilings and overly polished floors. Darlene takes my arm for fear of slipping and I take pride in the spectacular woman at my side. She outshines any of the decor here tonight, even the lavish ice sculptures.
I spot James immediately and play at being good friends for as long as I can stand, all the while trying to ignore the fact that he is paying more attention to my wife than to his date, whom he has yet to introduce. When we manage to tear ourselves away we circle the room as I introduce Darlene and watch her country charm do my job for me. Everyone is besotted with her, even before they converse. Of course, she’s oblivious, which makes her even more endearing. My boss and bosses boss are so overcome with interest that we are invited to dinners and I’m expected to play golf with them next month.
Between the numerous introductions I manage to steal a moment with Darlene. We’ve made it on to a thin strip of balcony where the few smokers in attendance have gathered. We move to the right, away from the pungent smell and into the warmth of an outdoor heater. It’s eerily dark out with charcoal clouds hanging low in the sky like its very own ceiling and the wind is sharp, causing busy waves to lap before us. I’m more than disappointed that we’ve missed the sunset. That would have been a nice touch to this evening.
The air feels damp but there is no rain as yet, it can only be a matter of time though. Darlene shivers, promptly leaving me without my jacket. She shrugs it over her shoulders and buries herself against my chest, my arms closing automatically around her. When I look down she has her eyes closed.
“What are you thinking about?” I ask, anxiously.
Her eyes flicker open in response. “I’m just enjoying the sound of the waves. I miss the beach.” Her voice is soft, wistful, as she rests her chin on my chest and looks at me earnestly.
“Do you miss anything else?”
“I miss it all. The warmth, our friends, my job.”
Her honesty is nothing I didn’t know already, but it makes it no less easy to hear. I miss it all too, but I also really like it here. I always imagined living in a bustling city. I enjoy the loudness and the mechanics of such a place. And I wanted a job that was hectic with pressure that I could rise to. I have everything I’ve ever wanted except for the person I love most in the world to be happy.
“Do you think you’ll ever let go of that longing? Do you think you will ever be able to give Chicago a real chance?”
“I am. It’s getting easier.”
I don’t truly believe her. I think she’s just trying harder. Maybe us coming here was wrong all along. It’s starting to feel like our move was the beginning of the end for us. Even with how well things have been the last few days, can I really expect that to last if underneath it all she resents this place, resents me? What’s happened with Blue maybe a drop in the ocean to how bad things could get if Darlene never really settles here.
Darlene’s slim fingers entice my gaze back to her. “You’re thinking too much about it. Stop. I’m dealing with it, okay?” She presses her lips gently to my jaw and then smiles, wiping what is no doubt an imprint of her painted lips from my skin. “Let’s go inside before we’re just another ice sculpture.”
On our return we are invited into a larger room with the rest of the guest’s already seated at long tables stretching across the room. Of course we are guided to the rest of my department, meaning dinner will be enjoyed opposite James and his date. I try to forget about that as I work on enjoying my time with Darlene in this beautiful setting.
The largest wall of the long room is made entirely of glass, giving an unobstructed view of the harbor. The sky has been gifted a million more stars as the lights of the intricate chandeliers reflect in the glass. The room itself is shrouded in cream, gold and brown and huge displays of flowers run along the rows of meticulously laid tables. Darlene is fascinated with the nearest arrangement as they start to bring out the food.
“So,” James begins, almost completely turning his back to his date. “We should get together more often, yeah? Reid needs to stop being so selfish and share you with the rest of the world.” His smile tells me he’s joking but I don’t care. He’s bugging me big time.
“Oh, I don’t know. You’d only get bored of me,” Darlene replies, a fixed smile on her face.
“Never, Darlene.” I hate the way he drawls out her name, as if it has five E’s at its center rather than one. Darlene attempts to chuckle politely, but she lowers her head enough to tell me that she’s uncomfortable.
“What about your date? Miss...?” I ask the bottle blonde as she finishes her champagne with a loud gulp. She turns to James, expecting him to answer for her. He stutters through several names before giving up. She doesn’t even care. She calls for more champagne and settles her back against the chair.
The food comes and it’s delicious, but it’s not enjoyed. I can only concentrate on James as he tries to coax conversation out of Darlene. She’s opening up the more she drinks and before long the dialogue is equally rallied and I am as mute as the drunk blonde.
As we wait on dessert I feel Darlene’s hand against my thigh, squeezing lightly as she laughs at something unfunny.
Too little too late, D. Don’t mind me as you enjoy yourself.
She squeezes harder until I take her wrist in mine, toying with the bracelet absentmindedly through the last course.
During dessert, Darlene excuses herself from the table to use the restroom. Mine is not the only head that turns to watch her leave. I’m both proud and appalled but excused of my worry by a sharp ringing that comes from her purse. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t even think of looking, but Darlene’s actions haven’t been completely wholesome lately.
I take the phone and place it on my lap to delve where I have never needed to delve before. The missed call flashes across the screen but it is an unsaved number. That doesn’t negate my concern. I go to her messages and find the same number there from earlier today. When I find a message signed off with a ‘B’ the red explodes. Text message after text message are relayed of how they miss each other, and about how he needs to back off, but her words hold no malice. None like he deserves. It doesn’t match the vision I had in my head of her busting his lip as she told him he was the biggest mistake of her life and that if he came near her again she would kill him.
Disappointed is an understatement, or completely the wrong word. Furious would be a better description of how I currently feel. Blood red blemishes every inch of the room and so I close my eyes. My teeth clamp together like a snare and the phone almost collapses in on itself under the force of my grip. I breathe deep, counteracting my anger with the logic that I am in a crowded room surrounded by the people in control of my paycheck.
“You okay, man?” James’ voice is a distant distraction. When I open my eyes I see his are not the only eyes on me. I slip the phone back into Darlene’s open purse.
“Yes, umm, I have a headache.” He nods in response but he believes me about as much as I believe myself.
Darlene approaches, oblivious to the hungry eyes that follow her as well as my obvious discomfort. She smiles warmly at me but it doesn’t compare to the heat that travels through my veins.
“You okay?” she asks. The V forms between her brows but it doesn’t offer its usual reprieve.
“Headache,” I announce and she leaves it at that.
After several speeches about the latest successes of the charity and the work still to be done, a crash of cymbals signals the end of dinner and the band starts up in yet another room. We are herded into the open space with tables surrounding a large square dance floor, and a bar on the nearside. Darlene’s eyes come alive at the band. Drums, piano, trumpets, saxophones, trombones. She’s pulling me to the dance floor with a smile I can’t deny, even now.
I gather her in my arms, a hand around her waist and the other entwined with her fingers. We move in sync, but tension is clear in both my frame and step. It doesn’t take Darlene long to notice. “This music is meant to make you happy,” she says, frowning a playful frown, that V failing to encourage me from my angst.
“Well, I’m not as good at pretending as you are, evidently.”
She tilts her head, her energy slipping. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Sounds like more than nothing.”
“You know what?” I pull away. “I don’t feel like dancing anymore. Let’s drink.”
She nods despite her obvious annoyance and I walk to the bar with her trailing behind. I order us beers and she rolls her eyes as she brings the bottle to her mouth.
“What?” I bite, unable to stop myself.
“Corona doesn’t really go with all of this,” she replies, signaling to her dress and then the plush room around us.
“Well, I’m sorry. Maybe James will buy you champagne,” I mumble beneath my breath before taking a drawn out swig.
“Forget it. Excuse me.”
I don’t turn back as I stalk off in search of the bathroom. I can feel the red mist descending again and I’m aware of how inappropriate it is, but I can’t stop it. James is becoming an outlet for the hatred, the jealousy, the anger I feel having been so bitterly reminded of Blue and what they have done. James’ actions are insignificant in comparison, but they’re all I have to openly relieve some of my frustration.
The restroom offers no calm but I splash my face with cool water regardless. I mentally chastise myself for getting so worked up over something I already knew about and for using James’ sickening flirting as a means to vent. I know Darlene doesn’t care for James, I do; he’s a complete sleaze and she’d be blind not to see that, but my irrationality is unaffected by forced logic. The only option is to remove myself from the situation, and that means removing Darlene too. Let’s go home and pretend this whole evening never happened. We’ll slip right back into the roles we have been playing for the last couple of days because at home, alone, the pretence comes easier.
With determination I seek out Darlene but I’m cruelly tested when I find her on the dance floor with none other than James himself. I watch for as long as I can stand. His thumb strokes too much against her back, his chest is pressed too close to hers, his smile too perfect to be natural. The ropes of my restraint have snapped and I’m freed in my increasing anger, but I know where I am and I know how I should be behaving. I’m pushing through the dancing couples until my chest brushes James’ back. He stops at once but I speak into his ear before he can turn.
“Let go of her,” I mince through my clenched jaw.
“Excuse me?” he replies, turning his head to look at me. He has to look up a little and I’m thankful for the advantage.
“Neither of us wants this to escalate, so I suggest you take your slimy hands off of my wife and I won’t beat the living shit out of you.”
He does as he’s told but he doesn’t stand down.
“Reid!” exclaims Darlene in a hushed shout, pushing to separate us. “You’re being ridiculous.”
“I’m ridiculous? Who’s the one unashamedly pawing at another man’s wife?” I direct my question to James, who is mere inches from my face.
“Pawing? Get a fucking grip, Daley. We were dancing. If you can’t handle that then that’s your issue, not mine.”
James has hit the nail on the head but I’ll be damned if I’m going to admit that now. “Come on, Darlene,” I urge, reaching for her hand as I turn to leave. She pulls it sharply from my grip and looks at me with utter disgust. I stare at her bare back as she makes her way outside but the second we are free from the hotel she turns and pushes me hard in the chest.
“Are you for real? Do you have any idea how embarrassing that was?” A deafening clap from the heavens highlights her anger, and seconds later the skies light up a nightmarish white. She automatically flinches closer before correcting herself.
“How embarrassing do you think that was for me?” I counter and without missing a beat ask, “Are you fucking James?”
The slap comes louder and harsher than the thunder, leaving a bitter sting behind. When my head flicks back to her, her face shows hurt that goes far deeper than my words. She may not be fucking James, but she’s fucking somebody, and I in no way deserved that slap. She knows it.
“I’m not fucking James,” she mutters before turning and walking away. I follow, my feet matching hers like I am tied to her.
“So you just let anybody flirt with you like that? Hold you like that? Those are the actions of a slut, Darlene, not my wife!” The words spill from my mouth with no filter but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t true. Nor are they lies. Just reactions, I guess.
She spins with determination but her words falter at her mouth, unleashing nothing but a growl before turning back and walking more.
“Where are you going?” I ask as she walks past the parking lot we need.
“Home!” she cries over the low rumbles of a festering storm.
“Then you’re going the wrong way. The cars over here!” I stand firm, pointing to the exit we need.
“I’m not getting in a goddamn car with you, Reid! I don’t want to be near you. Just go, I’ll get home by myself.”
“No way! You’re being fucking childish.”
“And you’re being a fucking hypocrite. There is no bigger child than you right now!”
I rattle out a chesty growl before shouting, “Fine!” I storm off in the direction of the car, kicking the wheels and hitting the roof in unbridled irritation. Inside the car, I calm my breath as best I can but it still exerts itself with pace. I turn the ignition and feather the gas until the car lurches forward. It screams around the parking lot and out onto the street as I look for Darlene. I don’t have to look far. Those damn heels allow little more than baby steps.
The rain has started with no build up, it’s thick and immediate and it bounces off of her skin as she moves jacket-less through the street. I lower the window as I slow to her side.
“Get in the car, Darlene.”
“Get in the goddamn car, now!” I shout, my voice loud but dampened by the prickling sound of the rain hitting tarmac. “Please, just get in the car and listen to me.”
“You do not get to tell me what to do, especially after calling me a slut and accusing me of sleeping with James, of all fucking people, Reid!”
“So you’d rather walk and catch pneumonia than allow me to apologize?”
“I won’t. I’ll get the train.” She points to a sign signaling to a station.
“You’re serious?” I’m sickened by her answering nod. Things are that bad? I push my foot to the floor and spin away, not looking back as I battle with the return of red.