Claudia-Michelle’s house was a testament to her personality. It was big enough to suit her generosity but not big enough to be ornate. She decorated most of the house in shades of teal, from the light and flighty to the dark and rich. In the foyer as Claudia-Michelle made up Jessica’s room, Jessica fingered a deep teal tapestry embroidered in white and gold, marveling at its smooth, soft texture. Looking at the tapestry, Jessica read the words, La mujer quien toque su propia música es una joya de la Tierra. Jessica frowned over it until Aidan came up to her.
“ ‘The woman who plays her own music is a jewel of the Earth,’ ” Aidan translated. “I believe her mother had that made for her. It was an old saying in their family.”
“It sounds very clever, doesn’t it?” Nick asked.
“It does,” Jessica agreed, feeling like she wanted to be alone at the moment. Aidan picked up on it and quietly excused himself to go shower. Nick remained. She could sense him, smell him, rather than see him. It suddenly made her uncomfortable. She turned slightly and stared at him sidelong. She found him staring back. She looked away and blushed. The corners of his lips turned up.
“Are you afraid of me?” Nick asked Jessica.
Jessica managed a snort. “Who me? Why would I be afraid of you? That’s silly.”
Nick stepped closer to her. Her heart thumped so loud, she was surprised if Nick was oblivious to it. But Nick knew. He was erudite enough in the realm of gender relations that he noticed the minute and quick dilations of the pupils in her wide eyes.
“I’m not going to bite you,” Nick assured her. “You’re married, and I’ve got a girlfriend. I’m not some horny teenager who wants to sleep with every woman he lays eyes on.” When she didn’t speak, he added, “I meant what I said about us being friends.”
“Maybe I need more time,” Jessica murmured, and turned away. Nick started to grab her arm, but Claudia-Michelle was coming down the stairs at that moment. The spell was broken.
“Your room is all ready for you,” Claudia-Michelle announced, descending the stairs gracefully. “That offer for soup and a good novel still stands.”
Sensing Jessica’s discomfort, Nick quietly excused himself as Aidan had and went to take a shower in the other bathroom. Claudia-Michelle frowned after him, and figured that something had happened between them. Looking at Jessica’s face, she figured she should hold off on pressing the matter for a little longer. She smiled reassuringly at Jessica and led her into the den.
“You don’t look like you’re ready to go to bed yet,” Claudia-Michelle observed. “Maybe we can hang out here for a little while.”
“Okay,” Jessica agreed. She looked around Claudia-Michelle’s den and tried to relax. Nearby, Jessica spied a picture of Claudia-Michelle with her family and smiled. She went over to the picture and touched it with her fingertips. With Claudia-Michelle was a dark-haired, blue-eyed woman that Jessica knew was her mother. Around them were more dark-haired women who were nearly identical to Claudia-Michelle except for hair styles. Claudia-Michelle wandered over.
“That picture was taken last Christmas,” Claudia-Michelle explained when Jessica looked at her. “The woman in the blue sweater is my mother. Those are my sisters Gretchen, Moira-Selene, and Danie.” After a pause, she revealed, “We’re quadruplets.”
“Really?” Jessica said this with awe, only able to imagine (and glad that she was only able to imagine) the experience of giving birth to quadruplets.
“Really,” Claudia-Michelle said with a laugh. “But you can tell them apart. They’ll probably be roaming around her come Christmas time. Maybe you’ll meet them.”
The unspoken offer of friendship made Jessica smile again. “I’m sure I will. They seem like interesting people.”
“You don’t know the half of it. There’s something about Christmas, though. I think it may be the eggnog or something.”
Jessica laughed, then let out a wistful sigh. She missed her family, and Ashlee was occupied at the moment with Ryan and his family. She suddenly recalled Christmases laden with the smells of pine and baked treats and the good cheer of loved ones. The last Christmas she’d had with her family seemed strange with Josh around, but Jessica didn’t dwell on that now. Glancing at the snow falling outside, she felt the urge to sing one of her favorite Christmas carols.
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child…
Like the moment when Aidan had begun singing earlier that night, something inside Claudia-Michelle stilled. She sensed that there was something more to Jessica Simpson Martin that met the eye. And something inside of her told her that this person hiding needed to be freed.
“Jessica?” Hearing the quiet intensity in Claudia-Michelle’s voice, Jessica paused, and stared at her with slightly wide brown eyes. “I want you to sing something for me.”
Jessica’s eyebrows came together in a frown. “Sing?”
Claudia-Michelle nodded simply and said nothing.
She figured since Nick and Aidan were both out of the room, it would be a good a time as any. Claudia-Michelle flipped through a CD booklet case and slipped an unmarked CD from the pouch. Jessica watched as she slid into the CD player nearby. She pressed the skip button a few times before settling on a song.
“Are you serious?” Jessica asked nervously.
Claudia-Michelle shrugged. “Just try it. It won’t hurt. You know the song, so that part won’t be the hard one. Just forget I’m here.”
Jessica sighed and sang along with the music as best as she could with the nerves permeating every part of her body. To block out the image of Claudia-Michelle looking at her, she closed her eyes.
You must understand
Though the touch of your hand
Makes my pulse react
That it’s only the thrill upon meeting you
It’s physical, only logical
You must try to ignore
That means more than that, oh oh oh
What’s love got to do, got to do with it?
What’s love but a secondhand emotion?
What’s love got to do, got to do with it?
Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?
It may seem to you
That I’m acting confused
When you’re close to me
If I tend to look dazed
I read it someplace, I’ve got cause to be
There’s a name for it, there’s a phrase that fits
But whatever the reason, you do it for me, oh oh oh
Claudia-Michelle, meanwhile, could feel Jessica’s nerves but was pleased with the performance. Jessica’s voice was clear as a bell, and stronger than average. No, it wasn’t merely stronger than average. The young woman had a set of lungs on her. The song wasn’t an easy one, but Claudia-Michelle knew that she had much more skill—or she could be induced to show that she had it.
With this in mind to tell her, Claudia-Michelle reached over and pushed stop. Jessica was in the middle of a verse and stopped abruptly.
“It scares me to feel this way, oh, oh, oh—” Jessica opened her eyes and peered at Claudia-Michelle quizzically. “Where’s the rest of the song?”
Claudia-Michelle shook her head slowly. “You don’t need it. I’ve heard enough.”
Jessica’s face fell comically. “Was I that bad?”
Claudia-Michelle took in Jessica’s disappointed face, her hopeful eyes. “No Jessica. You weren’t bad at all.” She reached across and took Jessica’s hand, knowing that she was forging a connection with someone who needed it. “How would you like to let everyone hear you sing?”
* * *
Aidan came down the stairs from Claudia-Michelle’s second bathroom yawning. Now that he was clean and warm, he desired nothing but a soft, comfy bed and a soft, comfy woman to share it with. Thinking of the latter, he headed toward the sound of music playing. The den? He mused and frowned. Why’s Claud playing Tina Turner this time of the night? Then the frown deepened. And who’s that singing—?
A shadow shifted in the near-darkness and Aidan had to hold back a startled yelp. Nick was standing just outside the doorway to the den where he couldn’t be seen. Aidan opened his mouth to speak but Nick placed a finger over his own mouth.
“What the hell is going on, Lachey?” Aidan demanded in a stage whisper.
Nick shook his head and pointed to the den. They glanced at each other, then leaned in to peek together.
Jessica was sitting on the couch and Claudia-Michelle was standing near the entertainment center. Jessica had her eyes closed. Oh, she was the one who was singing!
“Well,” Aidan muttered, trying to get a laugh out of Nick. “So much for my clean sweep in the music biz.”
Nick wasn’t listening. As Aidan looked at him, he realized that Nick was completely gone over another man’s wife. I guess that whole conversation at Corrigan’s was a waste of breath after all.
Jessica stood up and faced Claudia-Michelle, her back to Nick and Aidan. “You think I can sing?”
Claudia-Michelle shook her head. “No, Jessica. I know you can sing. And you’re going to do it.” She sat down beside her and placed her hand on Jessica’s. “I’m going to help you.” When Jessica hesitated, Claudia-Michelle added, “But that’s only if you want me to. If you feel like you don’t want to go through with what I’m proposing, then we can stop.”
“What about Josh?” Jessica asked.
“If Josh doesn’t agree, then there are other avenues,” Claudia-Michelle told her. I have pull in many places, and I’m willing to give you the financial support that you need.”
Jessica’s head swam with the concept. As she thought about it, Nick stepped into the room, clad in only pajama bottoms. He had forgotten, obviously, that he was bare-chested and that might be uncomfortable for Jessica to see.
And indeed, it was uncomfortable alright. In places that Jessica didn’t want to explore in the fear that she might start something that she couldn’t stop. And the fear that it would ruin her marriage.
Her heart skipped again when she saw him. Aidan slipped into the room also, bare-chested like his friend. But his cheeks were a little red out of embarrassment—where the embarrassment came from, no one was sure.
“I would like to help,” Nick announced. His gaze switched to Jessica. “That is, if you want me to.”
Another moment fraught with tension ensued. Jessica nodded a bit. “I would like that.”
“Oh and I would like to offer my assistance,” Aidan piped up gallantly. He wanted to badly to break the sexual tension. It was killing him at this point. “Though, I am not all that confident on my singing abilities.”
That made Jessica grin. “You? Sing with me? I wouldn’t do anything like this without you, Aidan.”
“Aw hell,” Aidan said sheepishly. “I’m flummoxed.”
Jessica forced herself to look at Nick again. It wasn’t that hard, but again, she was afraid her gaze would linger for the wrong reasons. “Thank you, Nick. In advance.”
Nick’s mouth turned up slightly. “For you, Jessica—anything.”
Aidan and Claudia-Michelle shared looks and said nothing.
“What’s Love Got to Do with It?” originally performed by Tina Turner. Written by Graham Lyle and Terry Britten.