Chapter Six

Chapter Six

On a Friday night when the beer was cold and the beef stew was hot enough to scare the winter chill away, Corrigan’s was filled to capacity.

After dealing with the din that was indigenous to Corrigan’s for nearly five years, Jessica found that she was used to the noise of music, chatter, laughter, and shouts for food and drink. She actually welcomed it, especially after the unfamiliar territory the past few weeks had thrust her into.

After seeing Nick, Jessica decided that she couldn’t stay in Mammoth Lakes. She pleaded with Josh to leave early. Not quite abreast of the reason for his wife’s change in attitude, Josh chalked it up to Jessica missing her sister, and the duo left Mammoth Lakes. That morning, Josh had left for a business trip, leaving Jessica to immerse herself in work. But she started not to mind. She couldn’t mind. It would make her crazy.

In her tight jeans and tee with the name of the bar written across her breasts, Jessica drifted from table to table, refilling drinks, taking orders, making idle conversation. Her fellow waitresses were doing the same in various stages in the same mode of dress. She heard Lily giggling at some flirtatious remarks from a customer and shook her head. Yes, things were as usual here. Just what she needed.

On the stage some feet away, two men set up themselves on the stage at the back of the restaurant. Underneath the soft stage lights, James Sharp’s bald chocolate head gleamed, a stark contrast to the raven hair of Isidore Corcoran. James sat down on a stool with his acoustic guitar on its stand nearby. Jessica, having no immediate demands from her customers, wandered to the stage. James saw her and greeted her with a smile.

“There she is, our radiant angel,” James said. Jessica was past blushing at his flattery. “And to what do we owe the pleasure?”

Izzy looked up from his drum set. “Perhaps being in the same room with us?”

James gave him a mock glare that indicated that he was ruining the moment!

“Just being truthful,” Izzy said, shrugging.

James turned back to Jessica, charming and smiling all over again. “Ignore him. You look a little tired around the eyes. Everything alright? Is that Martin taking care of you? ‘Cause that offer to kick his white ass is still open.”

Izzy guffawed. “Oh, right. Like you could kick Josh Martin’s white ass. And what does him being white have to do anything?”

James and Izzy shared another look. James said nothing to him. It was all in their usual routine. James pretended to be exasperated with everything Izzy said. And Izzy played his part of exasperating friend very well. Almost too well. Jessica stepped up on stage and kissed Izzy on the cheek.

“Oh Jessica Ann,” Izzy responded wryly. “Are you trying to seduce me?”

“And cheat on my wonderful husband?” Jessica pinched Izzy’s cheek and he flashed a grin with wonderfully white teeth. “For you, gorgeous, I’d be an adulterer. In a sexy negligee and tall, red heels.”

Izzy gave a shudder. “Geez. You’re putting something illegal in my head there, Jess.”

“And what about me?” James demanded. “We bald black guys need some love every now and then.”

Jessica turned to James, hands on her small hips. “I’ll get you next month.”

“During Black History month? Are you crazy?”

Jessica laughed, as she wasn’t expecting that remark. “That’s not what I meant, James, and you know it.”

Before James could reply to that, Izzy’s iridescent blue-green eyes lifted to the hostess stand and then they filled with shock. “Fucking holy shit!” Jessica and James looked at him in genuine surprise. “Look who’s at the door.”

“Who’s at the door?” James asked, looking frantically.

“Just look. Look at the door. They just walked in.”

But James didn’t see anything, so he got flustered. “I’m looking, man. What the hell are you talking about? I don’t see nobody. You make it sound like the Dali Lama just walked in with Gandhi and Mother Theresa.”

As Izzy tried to explain, Jessica searched the door herself and figured out what Izzy was talking about. And she would have rather the Dali Lama had walked in instead.

Katie was missing this time, but Jessica’s stomach somersaulted all the same. Aidan was in the middle of a flippant remark that made Nick laugh, his eyes twinkling with mirth. Claudia-Michelle had an arm linked with Aidan’s and she was shaking her head with amusement.

And they were led to a table in her section.

James poked Jessica on the shoulder, noticing that she had gone pale. Jessica didn’t respond. It took Vivienne coming over and telling her that they were waiting to get Jessica moving. But she moved quite slowly.

Pausing before she presented herself, Jessica inhaled and took out her notepad. This is going to be a long night.

Aidan noticed her first, and his brown eyes filled with noticeable pleasure. He didn’t seem to notice her discomfort, or he hid it well.

“Jessica love,” he greeted her warmly, standing and kissing her on the cheek. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“Jessica?” Claudia-Michelle blinked as Aidan retook his seat. “You work here?”

“A girl’s gotta make a living,” was all Jessica could offer in her defense. Claudia-Michelle raised an eyebrow at this but didn’t say anything else. “So what will y’all be having tonight?”

Claudia-Michelle and Aidan ordered promptly and afterwards gave her their menus. Nick, on the other hand, seemed to be indecisive. He looked up at her inquisitively. Jessica tried to school her face and stomach to tranquility. With her face, it had worked, but her stomach jumped again.

“I don’t know what I want. What do you suggest?” Nick asked.

Jessica swallowed slowly, then responded. “I suggest the beef stew. It’s hearty enough for a strong guy like you.”

His eyes lingered on hers a bit too long. Claudia-Michelle’s right eyebrow lifted involuntarily. Aidan’s head tilted quizzically, but he didn’t say anything. There was suddenly too much sexual tension on this side of the room.

“I’ll have the beef stew and a beer,” Nick finally said, giving Jessica the menu. Their fingers brushed on the underside of the menu, but Claudia-Michelle and Aidan didn’t see it. At least not directly. Claudia-Michelle noticed that something flickered in Jessica’s eyes, and Aidan knew Nick well enough to recognize the meaningful way he looked at Jessica.

Oh bloody hell, both Claudia-Michelle and Aidan thought at the same time. Jessica left the table to place the order for their food and them to silence.

Aidan spoke first before thinking about exactly what he was going to say. “How is Katie doing in Barcelona?”

Nick gave Aidan an even stare. “She’s fine, if you were wondering. She’s having a grand old time.”

Claudia-Michelle frowned as the friction crackled between them. “Down, boys.” She turned to Nick. “Is there something you want to get off your chest? Is there something you want to talk to us about?”

Lily brought them their drinks instead of Jessica, who was tied up with other customers. Nick sipped on beer and shook his head. Before any of them could speak, James tapped on the microphone and got everyone’s attention. At the bending upward of James’s mouth, the regulars clapped and cheered.

“You guys know what time it is,” James declared into the mike. “It’s time for a lucky—or unlucky—someone to make their mark on this very stage. If you love them, they get your approval—and one hundred dollars. If you don’t”—James cocked an ear toward the audience—“tell our newbies what’ll happen.”

“Drinks on the house!” the chorused.

“That’s right,” James continued. “The unlucky person has to supply every customer in this lovely establishment with drinks—at their own expense.”

Claudia-Michelle raised her hand up high. “I have someone!” she yelled over the din.

Onstage, James’s lips curved and he gestured to Claudia-Michelle. “The lovely lady at table thirteen has a candidate. Are we going to hear your vocal stylings tonight?”

“No,” Claudia-Michelle answered. “You’re going to hear him.” And she pointed…to Aidan.

Jessica snickered from her vantage point, while Nick’s eyebrows arched. He lowered his head and tried to hide the fact that he had joined in the light laughter underneath the cheering that had begun over Aidan’s horrified expression.

“You can’t possibly be serious,” Aidan muttered.

“I am.” Claudia-Michelle grinned at him, elbow on the table, chin in upturned palm. “And you’re going to do it.”

Aidan gave her a dubious stare. “And you know this…how?”

Claudia-Michelle leaned over and whispered something in his ear that sounded extremely appealing to him and was probably illegal in most states. That got him out of his seat amid applause and shouts.

“This I gotta see,” Nick said amusedly, settling back in his chair for the show.

Aidan sauntered onto the stage and took the mike from Lily, who batted her eyelashes prettily at Aidan’s charming smile. Jessica leaned on table for a moment as James picked up his guitar.

“What’ll it be, mate?” James asked in a mock-British accent. Aidan leaned down and said a song in his ear. James’s lips curved a bit, and he turned to Izzy at the drums. A moment later, he strummed a chord on his guitar and Aidan brought the mike to his mouth. –

To really love a woman

The restaurant slowly went silent at the sound of Aidan’s unexpectedly dusky voice. Jessica felt something inside her stop and go as still as the people watching from the bar, in booths, at tables. Nick and Claudia-Michelle both sat up in surprise to hear their friend singing the familiar song. Of course, knowing privately of the sensuality of Aidan’s voice made Claudia-Michelle a little more shocked than Nick.

To understand her
You gotta know her deep inside
Hear every thought, see every dream
Give her wings when she wants to fly
And when you find yourself lying helpless in her arms
You know you really love a woman

Somewhere, someone cheered, and the clapping to the beat began. Lily and Vivienne started up a step that looked almost like a river dance with a Latin twist. Nick shared a glance with Claudia-Michelle who shrugged with shock and awe. Jessica grinned and joined enthusiastically in the clapping.

When you love a woman
You tell her that she’s really wanted
When you love a woman
You tell her she’s the one
‘Cause she needs somebody to tell her it’s gonna last forever
So tell me have you ever really, really really ever loved a woman?

Observing Jessica with a faint smile on his face, Nick rose from his seat and went to her side. Claudia-Michelle noticed this and her eyebrows arched. Nick didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to, because Jessica sensed him within an instant.

He held out his hand. Jessica looked down at it, and after a moment’s consideration, took it. He led her out on the dance floor where some couples were already dancing.

To really love a woman, let her hold you
Till you know how she needs to be touched

For a moment, Jessica and Nick swayed to the music. She found herself looking up into his eyes. Memories from the past floated up from the depths, and she had to clamp down on control.

You gotta breathe her, really taste her
Until you can feel her in your blood

Nick found himself having to do the same. He searched her whiskey-colored eyes and saw that the gnawing feeling of lust was mirrored in hers.

And when you can see your unborn children in her eyes
You know you really love a woman

On the spur of the moment, inspired by the music, Nick spun Jessica out and away from him before pulling her back to him. She giggled without any explainable reason, and Nick found himself laughing, too. Lust was diffused somewhat, and Jessica relaxed and let herself have fun in his arms. After all, they were friends before…what happened had happened. So this wasn’t romantic at all. It was just…platonic.

You’ve got to give her some faith, hold her tight
A little tenderness, you gotta treat her right
She will be there for you, taking good care of you
You really gotta love your woman, yeah

By this time, the most of restaurant was clapping to the music and swaying to the music. If people weren’t in their seats, they were on the floor with a partner. Claudia-Michelle watched from her seat at the table as Jessica swung her hips to the beat and Nick’s half-smile deepen. Oh, if only they could see themselves, she thought. Claudia-Michelle figured she should talk to Nick later. Something told her she should.

And when you find yourself lying helpless in her arms
You know you really love a woman

When you love a woman
You tell her that she’s really wanted
When you love a woman
You tell her she’s the one
She needs somebody to tell her it’s gonna last forever
So tell me have you ever really, really really ever loved a woman?
Yeah, just tell me if you’ve ever really, really really ever loved a woman?

When he dipped her, the world tilted backward, and Jessica felt her breath catch. But she felt safe. She didn’t think, not once, that he would drop her. As she viewed his face looming above hers, desire came rushing forward like a crushing tidal wave, and she had to catch her breath on the way back up.

Oh, just tell me have you ever really, really really ever loved a woman?

As Aidan sang the last notes of the song, Nick and Jessica’s faces were centimeters apart. Nick could see the flecks of gold in her eyes. He could see her lips parted, just ever so slightly. Jessica could smell his cologne. It clouded her vision, and her conscience at the edge of her mind went almost unheeded. When the applause filled the space the song had once filled, the spell between the two was broken.

Jessica, a little embarrassed, stepped away first, ready to speak when Aidan walked up to them. He sensed the sexual tension, but he chose not to acknowledge it. He was old enough to tell when that sort of things would complicate matters.

“So how was that?” Aidan asked Nick.

Nick disengaged himself from Jessica to slap Aidan on the back. “If you ever go into the music biz, you’d give me a run for my money, my friend.”

“Who says I wouldn’t?” He grinned at Jessica. He could see the nerves alive on her face and hoped to ease them. “I hope this bloke didn’t spend the whole time stepping on your feet.”

“Oh no,” Jessica managed. “He wasn’t half bad.”

“Hear that, Lachey?” Aidan joked when Nick remained silent. Jessica turned and picked up the tray she had discarded once Nick offered to dance with her. “We’ll let you get back to work.” Aidan placed a hand on Nick’s shoulder. “It would really be sad if you lost this wonderful career, wouldn’t you agree?”

Jessica laughed. The nerves eased. “Oh absolutely,” she shot back, and delved back into her work after excusing herself. It would keep her mind off of what had just happened. At least for the moment.

Unfortunately, Claudia-Michelle and Aidan, both unaware they were thinking the same thing, weren’t going to be content to let the issue rest.

“What the hell was that all about?” Claudia-Michelle demanded once Nick retook his seat.

Aidan blinked bemusedly because he was about to say the same thing. “Yeah,” he added idly.

Nick took a sip of his beer, immediately on the defensive. He didn’t hear Aidan speak. “Gee, no ‘welcome back, Nick’? No ‘you dance very well, Nick’? Just ‘what the hell was that all about?’”

Claudia-Michelle leaned forward. “Oh don’t give me that bullshit. You and I—”

“I happen to have excellent deductive skills also,” Aidan piped up, wanting to get a word in edgewise. Claudia-Michelle glared at him and he became content to sip on his beer for a moment.

“Fine. All three of us know that there was something between you and Josh’s wife. The question is what exactly.” Nick just stared at her coolly. There was a long pause. “This is the moment where you explain.”

“No,” Nick disagreed. “This is the moment where we change the subject and you stop bugging me about my past with Jessica.”

“Ah ha!” Aidan said triumphantly. “So you admit it. You did go out with her. Or something.”

Claudia-Michelle sighed heavily. “Aidan, you and your deductive skills need to shut the fuck up.” She turned to Nick. “Nick, I am not trying to bug you. I am saving you from a potentially dangerous situation that could compromise your relationship and even your career.”

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” Aidan pointed out diplomatically. Somehow, the stint on stage changed his perspective.

Claudia-Michelle glared at him again. “And nothing punctured, nothing bled. Do you understand what that means, Bloom?”

Aidan swallowed. He understood exactly what she meant. “Crystal,” he managed.

“Claudia,” Nick began, “I don’t see what the big deal is. If Jessica and I have a past, like I said, it’s our business.”

“Like hell. When it’s flashed in front of my face it damn well becomes by business.” Claudia-Michelle exhaled and decided to take a different tactic. “Look Nick, I care about you. I don’t want you to get hurt, or for Jessica to get hurt. Remember, you’ve got Katie, and Jessica’s married to Josh.”

“We’re not teenagers,” Nick reminded her.

Claudia-Michelle shook her head. “That’s what I’m afraid of. Sorry to say, but we still get jerked around by our hormones, no matter what age we are. We just find more inventive ways to hide that sort of thing as we get older.”

“She’s got a point,” Aidan said. Lips pursed together, Claudia-Michelle kicked him under the table and he nearly dropped his beer. “Dammit, Claudia—what the bloody hell was that for?” She just looked at him innocently and didn’t respond.

* * *

Jessica turned the key in the ignition and was awarded with silence.

It was nearly one o’clock. She had closed down Corrigan’s with the aim to go back to her big empty house with a book and a nice big bowl of chicken noodle soup. Everyone else had bade her goodbye and were on their way home. Temperatures were well below freezing, and the snow that was now falling was quickly turning into a mass of white concrete. Jessica wanted to be in a warm bed, inside from the whistling gusts and the wind-tossed snow.

All of the emotional upheaval seemed to crash down on her at once, and she leaned forward on the steering wheel and cried.

She cried in frustration. She cried because of her loneliness. She cried because there was a teenage girl inside of her that was shaken, wanting to be with her first love again.

Nick. The one word brought on a sense of immense confusion. Here she was stuck in the cold winter night, her car not starting, and for some strange reason, she found herself thinking of Nick.

“Get with the program, Jess,” she muttered aloud. There was no time for this. She had to get home. She turned away from the wheel and dug in her purse for her cell phone. She didn’t know who she was going to call, exactly. She just knew that she wanted to be out of the cold.

Suddenly, a knock on her window inspired a loud yelp from Jessica’s throat. She jumped, startled, and nearly rapped her head on the roof of the car.

As Jessica tried to still her beating heart, the knock came again, followed by a male voice. “Jessica? Are you okay in there?”

Jessica turned to the window and rolled it down. With eyelashes filled with snowflakes and a red nose, Nick Lachey peered into Jessica’s car and frowned. “Do you need a ride?”

Before Jessica could answer, a voice yelled from nearby. “What the bloody hell are you doing, mate?” That sounded like Aidan.

“Come on, Nick! The snow’s getting harder!” Claudia-Michelle, this time.

Nick yelled back. “I’m coming!” He turned back to Jessica. “Come on. We’ll take care of the car in the morning.”

Jessica didn’t have a chance to speak. She rolled the window back up and gathered her things. After locking the car up, she stepped gingerly out of the car and followed Nick. She lowered her head against the torrent of wind and snow and watched her boots. For a moment, she walked unsteadily. Nick reached out and brought her close. She smelled his cologne, emotions building and bubbling up inside of her. Seemingly out of nowhere looked a black sedan, and Claudia-Michelle was behind the wheel. Nick opened one of the doors to the backseat and helped Jessica inside. After Jessica was secure on the other side, Nick climbed in himself. He slammed the door and the car drove off.

Claudia-Michelle glanced at them in her rearview, then peered at the road carefully. “I suppose that’s why you had us stop.”

“I recognized Jessica’s car,” Nick explained. He turned to Jessica and added, “We just came from the grocery store.” He gestured to the plastic bag on the floor by Jessica’s boots. She shifted her feet so she wouldn’t crush it.

“You guys go grocery shopping together?” Jessica asked. “That’s very friendly of you.”

“Hardly,” Aidan responded. “Claud here insisted we needed bread and milk.”

“And we certainly do,” Claudia-Michelle said. “Especially now that we’re going to my house.”

“What are you talking about?” Nick demanded before Jessica could utter a word. “I need to go back to my own house.”

“Mine is closer. None of you are driving in this snow. I lived eighteen years in New York and I’ve never seen snow like this. So we’re having a little slumber party.”

“Smashing,” Aidan muttered.

Nick snorted. “Oh what are you complaining about? You were probably going to be sleeping over anyway.”

Aidan turned in the passenger seat and glared at him, but there seemed to be no heat in it. “And who are you to judge, my friend?”

Nick put up his hands in surrender. “No one. Just saying.”

Aidan shifted his gaze to Jessica, who appeared uneasy. He could think of many reasons why she felt that way, and one of them was sitting right beside her. “Would that be alright with you, love? I know you had your heart set on going home.”

Jessica shook her head. “It’ll be alright. Besides, my house is empty anyway.”

“Is your husband out of town?” This came from Nick.

She turned slightly and stared at him for a moment before speaking. “Yes. Josh is on a business trip.”

The air hummed between them for a fleeting instant before Claudia-Michelle spoke. Aidan took pains in hiding his smile as he turned back to the windshield.

“Well, then,” Claudia-Michelle remarked. “It’s settled. You’ll stay with us tonight. We’ll get you in a warm comfy bed with a nice book and a big bowl of soup.”

Jessica smiled, her frustration evaporating. “I would absolutely love that.”

“Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” originally performed by Bryan Adams. Written by Bryan Adams, Michael Kamen, and Robert John “Mutt” Lange. (If you’ve got this song, read the first part of this chapter while listening to it! It makes the scene so much better.)

 

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