The next afternoon, Josh entered his house and dusted the snow from his coat in the hallway. It had been a long flight with terrible food, but excitement bubbled up inside him, and he couldn’t wait to see Jessica.
He hadn’t talked to her since the day he left. For the first couple of days, he didn’t have much time or energy to talk with his wife. He felt a tug of guilt and sought to make it up to Jessica. He knew that she would be upset at him for not calling. Peeling off his coat, he thought about finding his wife, catching her unaware. He thought about that soft, fragrant skin at the nape of her neck. A kiss there would certainly surprise her, make her smile. Make her laugh. Oh, he missed her smile. He missed her voice, her soft murmur when they were alone…
Suddenly, he heard singing coming from the kitchen. He heard music coming out of a stereo, but a voice rose over it.
And if you should find someone new
I know she better be good to you
‘Cause if she doesn’t, I’ll be there
Josh, alarmed that there was an intruder in the house, rushed to the kitchen and stood in the doorway, trying to figure out a plan of action. Then his heart stopped beating.
Jessica was padding around the kitchen putting up clean dishes from the dishwasher. She danced around the kitchen and…singing. His wife was singing…?! For some odd reason that made his blood go cold. He had never heard her sing before.
“Jessica?” Josh said in a strangled voice.
Jessica froze and almost nearly dropped the plate she was holding. She caught herself in time and placed the plate where it would be safe on the counter. She whirled around and turned off the stereo right in the middle of Mariah Carey finishing the song. Her brown eyes went huge, and she came over to give her husband a hug.
“Hey you,” she greeted him, embarrassment forgotten. As she took in his shocked expression, she thoughtfully considered how she was going to break her news to him. It would probably help to get him relaxed first… “How was your trip?”
Josh moved aside to take off his coat and turned to walk down the hall to put the coat away. Jessica followed him down the hall and into the living room when he veered off in that direction. She plopped down on the couch as Josh went to the fireplace and started a fire.
“Well, it started off badly,” Josh told her. He came to the couch and sat down, feeling warmer. “The artist we were going to sign to our label turned out to be…” He sighed and shook his head thinking about it. “Not what we expected.”
Jessica clucked her tongue in sympathy. “Well, that’s a shame.” Seeing a possible avenue, she opened her mouth to tell him her news, but he went on over her.
“But then, we had this gift from the heavens above,” Josh continued. “Have you heard of Danie Thomas?” Jessica shook her head. “Well, she’s this former supermodel turned rock singer. I thought she was another pretty face until I heard her CD. She is utterly amazing.” He took Jessica’s hands and stared into her face, eyes glittering. “But here’s the crazy part.” He paused a moment for effect. “Her label dropped her.”
“Dropped her? Why?”
“Apparently, she wanted to go in another direction and the record label didn’t.” Josh released Jessica’s hands and rubbed his own together in anticipation and delight. Jessica felt her confidence slipping. “So now we get to snap her up. We have a meeting with her next week.”
Jessica nodded absently as Josh rambled on about the possibilities of signing Danie Thomas to his label. She rose from the couch and went to the fireplace. On the mantle was their wedding photo. They were both grinning, eyes alight with happiness and eagerness for the future. Staring at the photo, Jessica found that she no longer knew this woman.
Noticing that his wife was not paying any attention to him, Josh quieted. Jessica turned away from the mantle and stared at him, eyes thinly veiled. He stood, ready to placate and smooth out rough feathers. He placed one hand on her shoulder and another on her pulled-up blond hair.
“I’m sorry, honey,” he cooed gently. “I totally forgot to ask you how your weekend went.” He brushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “How was it?”
Jessica nodded absently again. “It was okay.” She looked up into his eyes and saw that she really had his attention. “I went to work and ended up stranded.” Josh began to speak but it was Jessica’s turn to cut him off. “Luckily, Claudia-Michelle, Aidan, and Nick came along and saved me. And we had a little sleepover at Claudia-Michelle’s house, so I wasn’t alone.” Jessica placed a peck on his lips and frowned when his eyes started to flash with anger. “What…?”
“You spent the night with Nick Lachey?” Josh demanded.
Jessica shook her head, frowning. “I didn’t spend the night with him. Claudia-Michelle invited us all to stay at her house because it was snowing and…” She trailed off, and recognized the jealousy in his eyes. “Josh? Are you implying—?”
“I don’t know. You tell me.”
Red-hot anger flashed through the confusion. “I don’t have to tell you anything. It was exactly the way I explained it, Josh. I got stranded at work, and the three of them came along and took me to their place.” It had been Claudia-Michelle’s house, but she didn’t feel like amending her statement at the moment.
“And how do I know that playboy Lachey didn’t try to make a pass at you?” Josh asked in that same demanding voice.
Jessica sighed in frustration. “Nick is not a playboy. Claudia-Michelle and Aidan could tell you that.”
“Oh, so now you’re defending him.” Josh threw up his hands in exasperation. “Are you nuts, Jessica? Have you seen the stories about him?”
Angry now that he was questioning her sense of judgment, Jessica glared at him. “That’s what they are. Stories. And I can’t believe you’re freaking out like this. If it hadn’t been for the three of them, I might have been stuck in that car for hours. Shouldn’t you be thanking them?”
“Like hell,” Josh snapped with a snort. He shook his head, obviously infuriated. “This is what I get for not making you quit that job at that dump—”
“Excuse me?” Jessica’s glare turned laser sharp. “So it’s about my job now? Is it so bad that I want to work for myself instead of being some golddigger? Can’t I have some shred of independence?”
Josh shook his head and walked off. Jessica took a step forward.
“What the hell is it?” Jessica demanded. “You tell me. I’m sick of walking on eggshells about this.”
Josh paused in the doorway but didn’t turn. “I just want to be able to provide for you. I’d like to be able to think I can protect you. Is that so bad?”
But Jessica didn’t find this charming. “Oh, so I need protection now? How noble of you.”
“I’m just saying—”
“Nothing I want to hear,” Jessica snapped. She shook her head this time. “I’m done listening to you.”
With Josh watching, dumbfounded, Jessica grabbed her coat and left, rushing out into the winter cold and not even feeling the chill.
* * *
She ended up at Corrigan’s. It was her off day, but she needed to work.
It was one of those moderately busy weeknights where the noise level was low and no one had to shout to be heard. Jessica went through the motions, taking orders, filling beer mugs, smiling at lewd jokes. Inside, she was a twisted mass of anger and hurt.
Meanwhile, sitting at a table, Aidan was on his own. Claudia-Michelle was at a meeting with another musician; Nick was in the studio recording some songs that he and Claudia-Michelle had written. But Aidan enjoyed the chance to be out on his own, with his camera.
When he saw Jessica, he frowned. He knew that something was wrong with her by the look of disquietude in her brown eyes. She schooled her expression well, but her eyes spoke volumes. When she smiled, it didn’t quite meet her eyes. He wondered if something bad had happened. He recalled Claudia-Michelle commenting earlier that Josh was back in town. Tilting his head thoughtfully, he observed Jessica walking to the bar and putting in an order for a drink. When the bartender went to mix the liquor, Jessica stood alone, and pinched the bridge of her nose. There, Aidan thought, is her frustration. With inspiration, he picked up his camera.
Despite the looks he got, he aimed his camera and took a couple of shots.
After serving the drink, Jessica walked over to his table. When she saw him, something flickered in her eyes. Relief, maybe? Disappointment?
He greeted her with a smile. “Looks like you’re having a bad time of it tonight.”
In the midst of taking out her notepad, Jessica looked at him incredulously. “And what makes you think that?”
“You can smile all you want, but your eyes give you away,” Aidan told her. He glanced around, then stood. “Take a seat, Jessica.”
Jessica managed a chuckle. “Are you trying to get me fired?”
Aidan pulled out the seat across from his own. “Take a seat.”
Seeing that she wouldn’t get away unless she did, Jessica took the seat despite her better judgment. Aidan retook his seat in front of her.
“Let me pick your brain for a moment,” Aidan said. “It seems that something is bothering you. And I would like to know what it is.”
Jessica nodded slowly. “That’s nice of you, Aidan. But I’m wondering if your concern has anything to do with—”
“That bloke Lachey?” The crease between Jessica’s eyebrows straightened as her face went slack. “Partly. I’ve been watching the two of you and the way you act between each other worries me.” When she started to speak, he added, “Because I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
“All these gallant men trying to save me,” Jessica muttered. Aidan’s eyebrows cocked, but he didn’t press the matter. Later, he would ask about that comment. “How nice of you, but no thank you.”
“I care about you, Jessica,” Aidan remarked. “Not because you’re Josh Martin’s wife and not because I think you’re some damsel in distress. Because you’re you. And you are potentially getting mixed up in a situation you can’t handle.”
Fury flared up inside Jessica, and her brown eyes flashed with it. “Situation I can’t handle? What are you talking about?”
“With Nick. That’s what I mean.” He lowered his voice so that she only heard his next words. “Nothing has happened yet. I know it hasn’t. You’ve been distancing yourself from him, but sooner or later you’re gonna be faced with your emotions, and you might not make the right decision.”
Angrily, Jessica rose to her feet. “I don’t have to listen to this.”
Sighing, and cursing under his breath, Aidan rose, too. “Yes, you do. Jessica—be reasonable.” Desperate, he said the first thing that came to mind. “I don’t want to have to go to Lachey’s place with a sawed off shotgun to defend your honor. I don’t think that would help our friendship. Or perhaps the rest of my free life.”
There was a humming silence between them. Jessica’s lips trembled. In her head, she imagined the affable, easygoing Aidan William Channing Bloom with a shotgun, pointing it threateningly at Nick. He would probably be, with his long brown hair pulled back and black grease under his eyes, saying something Al Pacino-ish like, Say hello to my little friend. The image was so absurd that she began to laugh.
And she laughed, and laughed, much to Aidan’s relief.
That is, until she started sobbing without warning.
Aidan nodded at one of her co-workers and led her outside to the chilly night. They stood underneath the awning while Jessica cried, wearing his coat. Upon putting it on, she felt comforted, unlike the punch of red-hot lust she got when she caught Nick’s scent. It almost felt like wearing a big brother’s coat. Aidan stood in his sweater, trying to be manly about being cold. Being a gentleman was leaving goosebumps under his thick blue wooly sweater.
After a little while, Aidan prodded gently, “Are you alright?” Jessica nodded, sniffling. He placed a hand on her shoulder. “Would you like to talk about it?” Jessica said nothing and went to the bench nearby.
Aidan followed and took the space beside her. He waited, as he had learned with experience with females, until she felt comfortable enough to speak.
“Josh…” Jessica swallowed down the lump in her throat and then continued. “Josh and I are having problems.”
“Okay,” Aidan said, slowly nodding. “Is this like the lint-on-your-shirt problem or the bloodstain-in-your-jeans problem?”
Jessica shook her head. “I don’t know. I know that I care about him…I… I love him. But lately, he’s been distant.” Aidan remained quiet, waiting for her to elaborate. “He’s been working a lot. He’s been trying to meet with acts that he wants to make it big. But so far, none of the acts are achieving what he wants.”
“And it’s putting a strain on your relationship,” Aidan supplied. Jessica just gave a slight nod in response. “Have you told him?”
Jessica was silent. Then she looked up at him. There was something in her eyes that indicated there was more.
“He’s jealous of Nick,” Jessica revealed.
Oh shit. As Claud is fond of saying, the plot thickens. “Of Nick? You don’t say? Well…” It was Aidan’s turn to swallow. “I do believe that is expected. You told him about staying over Claud’s didn’t you?” When her silence confirmed the affirmative, he continued. “Not to mention…” Aidan frowned, coming to a stumbling block. The look in Jessica’s eyes indicated that she probably didn’t know… “Jessica, what has Josh told you about Nick?”
A wrinkle appeared between her brows. “Nothing. Why?”
Aidan sighed. The best way to do it was just to do it. Someone had to tell her before things got too far. “Because Nick and Josh have quite a bit of acrimony between them, Jess. So Josh being jealous of Nick is not something new.”
“But why? I mean, I figure it’s about me, but…”
Damn. Opened up that can of worms, didn’t I? “Nick…Nick and Josh have been rivals for a few years. Lately, it’s getting worse with Nick’s popularity escalating and the buzz around his upcoming album that he’s working on with Claud reaching a fever pitch. It’s been little things here and there, and I don’t know how it began, but now that…the two of you have been reunited, so to speak it’s most likely going to get worse. So his concern is perhaps only partly justified if you believe everything the tabloids say.”
Jessica gave Aidan a measuring look. “And should I?”
“No, actually. They really have a way of trumping everything up.”
There was a pause while Jessica took this in. Aidan knew that it would probably be confusing for her. Especially since she and Nick hadn’t really had a heart to heart. He hoped they would soon, and clear the air.
“So Aidan,” Jessica murmured, “what about my marriage?” She turned to look at him again. “Can Josh and I honestly continue like this? I feel so unhappy.” She stared at her bare hands, felt the cold rock of the diamond she wore under her palm. “Everyone said it wouldn’t last. Maybe they’re right.”
Aidan patted her hand. “I want you to listen to me closely. It doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks. Honestly it doesn’t. When you love someone, it only matters what goes on between the two of you. Well, that is, unless he’s knocking you about or something. If you feel like something isn’t right, then let it be known. But try your best. At the end of the day, if you don’t try to do something, what have you accomplished? Absolutely nothing.” He waited until she looked at him. “Try, Jessica. If you try to patch things up with Josh, really give it your best, and things still come out badly, only then can you say it’s over.”
Jessica nodded slowly. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right.” She squeezed his hand. “Thank you, Aidan.”
With that resolve, she went home.
* * *
Meanwhile, a cab pulled up to Nick’s house on the outskirts of town. Katie stepped out into the cold and appraised the house she stayed at with her boyfriend. Before much longer, this house will be half mine, Katie thought, and tipped the cab driver generously. Soon, she wouldn’t be spending her money—she’d be spending Nick’s. Well, at least some. She wasn’t a gold-digger was she?
No, if there was one thing in the world that Katherine Cross was not, it was a gold-digger. But that didn’t mean that she wouldn’t refuse if Nick offered her expensive, glittery baubles. She was a woman, wasn’t she? And indeed, she was. So she’d enjoy the pampering, the high life of two celebrities married to each other. It was the American way, in her opinion.
She went up the walk jauntily and pulled out her key at the front door. She fit it into the lock and felt a strange sense of being right at home as she strode into the dimly lighted foyer.
But there was no welcoming call, no loving hug, no warming kiss. Katie’s eyebrows furrowed as she closed the door.
Where was Nick?
“Nick?” she called out. There was no answer. “Nick?” she repeated. Afraid that something was wrong, she began to search the house for him, glancing into rooms, listening for sounds. He wasn’t dead, was he? That would be distressing—and awfully inconvenient. Sighing, she walked up the stairs to the second level. She saw light from underneath a door, the door that led to his study.
The lamp was on, but that was the only thing. In front of the desk in his favorite leather swivel chair, Nick was sleeping. Well, that explained why he didn’t come when she called.
She stepped over a ball of crumpled paper and went to see what he was working on. On the desktop, a leather-bound book was opened—a yearbook, Katie realized as she saw portraits of young faces. She traced her finger around a heart drawn on a certain picture. The placement of the picture indicated that the person in it was none other than Jessica Simpson Martin. Well, before she became Josh’s wife.
To Nick, I’ll always love you, Jess. Katie’s eyes narrowed. So there was the connection. They had known each other in high school. She shook her head, thinking about the way Claudia-Michelle had evaded her that afternoon over a teacup. More tea, Katherine? Her gray eyes turned to slate. She pushed Claudia-Michelle out of her mind as those eyes fell on the top sheet of the legal pad in front of her headed with the two words, For Jessica.
Just when I thought my love was gone
That I would spend my whole life alone
I found you, I found you
Just when I thought wishing wasn’t enough
So close to turning back and giving up
I found you, I found you
A smoldering anger began to rage inside of her. How dare he? He was writing a song about her. Just what happened while she was gone? She didn’t want to think about it. Besides, Nick got inspiration from ex-girlfriends all the time. But the words… Looking at them made her fist clench. No, she mused. This is not going to continue.
Drastic times called for even more drastic measures.
Throwing her hair back, Katie slid her coat off her shoulders and let it hit the floor. She slipped out of her expensive leather boots and sheer pantyhose. She reached under the skirt she had worn on the flight back from Barcelona and pulled down her lace underwear until they hit the floor. After stepping out of them, she undid the buttons on her blouse as she walked to her boyfriend. She also unclasped her bra for good measure and exposed her breasts. There, she thought, as she mounted him, still sleeping in the chair. Wake up, Nicholas. Time to play.
She reached down and undid his jeans, dipping an adroit hand into his boxers. He groaned, stirring in his sleep.
Then one word came from his mouth, making her vision go crimson.
“Jessica,” he murmured.
“That bitch,” Katie hissed. Nick didn’t hear her because he wasn’t quite awake yet. Katie’s eyes turned bright with fury as her hand moved faster inside Nick’s boxers. She watched his face with hard eyes as he slowly rose to consciousness. At this point, she could call him out on murmuring Jessica’s name in his sleep and start a big fight that would have him feel guilty. But suddenly, that didn’t feel satisfying enough. He was hers, dammit. And no dumb blonde from Texas with boobs like a Hooters waitress was going to ruin that.
You don’t get mad, in Katie’s world. You get even.
Painfully hard and half awake, Nick reached up and grabbed Katie by the hips, his blue eyes still dull from sleep. As he entered her, Katie felt the glorious sensation of triumph. She took his hands and brought them up to her breasts. Not wanting to give him time to think, she arched back and gripped the chair arms for support. She rode him like a cowboy would ride a bull, mercilessly and until they were both drained of all energy and desire. And believed, in some corner of her mind, that she had won this battle, because it was her name that he uttered on the brink of climax. But the war still raged on.