After they were done writing the lyrics to “Story of My Life,” Claudia-Michelle declared that they needed sustenance, so she ran out to get food. She had given Nick a look that indicated she’d start removing appendages that he would need if there were any maneuvers of the sexual kind while she was gone. His returning look had dimly assured her that he and Jessica would behave themselves.
But hey, who could make promises?
For Claudia-Michelle, he would control himself. Deep down inside, he loved her like he would a little sister. And for Jessica, who didn’t look like she could handle an affair with him.
In the back of his mind, he wondered if she would ever. And what it meant in the fact that he could. And was ready to.
“Look, I know the two of us haven’t had a chance to talk since Mammoth Lakes,” Nick began as Jessica scribbled idly on the legal pad.
She paused, then looked up at him. “I know. I suppose…” She started drawing a miniature pom-pom on the page. “I suppose I thought I wasn’t ready to talk to you yet. It still hurts a little, what happened between us.” As Nick looked away, she found her resolve getting stronger. “That hurt not hearing from you, Nick. Do you know how many times I raced to the mailbox after school to see if you sent me a letter? Do you?”
“And I apologize,” Nick said abruptly. He exhaled slowly. “Things got manic after we moved away. Dad got sick, then Drew and I got that record deal…” Unshed tears glittered in Jessica’s eyes and nearly broke him. Without realizing what he was doing, he lifted a hand and cupped her cheek. The tears sprang to her eyes, then, at his touch. “I thought about you, Jessica. But by the time I’d worked up the courage to do anything, I figured you had moved on.”
Jessica shook herself from his grasp. “But it still would have meant something to me anyway.” She stood jerkily and strode toward the door.
Nick climbed to his feet. “I…” He saw Jessica pause. Then she turned. Fury brightened her whiskey-colored eyes.
“I am tired of apologies,” Jessica said in a low, shaky voice. “I’m sick of excuses. You left me behind.”
“No,” Jessica said forcefully, cutting him off. “You left me behind. And the worse part is, every single day for three years, I thought like some naïve princess you were going to come waltzing back into my life and sweep me off my feet like in some fairy tale. But it didn’t happen, Nick. It sure didn’t. While you were off jet-setting around the world and clinking champagne glasses at rich parties, I was mending my broken heart. And no amount of sorries you fling at me is going to change that.”
Jessica stood there, chest heaving. Nick lowered his head under the weight of her words. She had probably waited a long time to say them, but the heat in them didn’t make them less meaningful. He caught himself before he apologized again. That would only make her angrier.-
“So what do we do now?” Nick inquired.
Jessica shook her head and threw her hands up in the air. “I don’t know.”
“I meant what I said when I said I wanted to be friends with you, Jessica,” Nick said. “I would like to leave the past where it is and move on to something else. You’re married now, and I’ve got Katie.”
“Yeah, married.” Jessica wandered to the armchair and slumped down. She wiped her eyes then ran her hands through her hair. “Sometimes I wonder how long that’s going to last.”
Sensing another problem at hand, Nick walked to the other end of the couch and sat down. “Jessica,” he began, “have you told Josh about…about this?” He gestured toward the lyrics to “Story of My Life” sitting on the coffee table.
To his surprise, Jessica shook her head. “No. I haven’t had a chance. He’s been so busy with work, and we had a fight…” She trailed off as yesterday came back to her. She remembered the fight…going to work…and her talk with Aidan.
“Because Nick and Josh have quite a bit of acrimony between them, Jess. So Josh being jealous of Nick is not something new.”
“What?” Nick queried, breaking through her thoughts. “What happened?”
“Josh got angry because I told him that I stayed over Claudia’s,” Jessica responded softly. “And that you were there.”
Nick blinked, then he looked away again. “Josh and I aren’t exactly friends, Jessica.”
“So I’ve heard,” Jessica retorted. Nick raised an eyebrow. “No need to go into detail about it. I got the gist of it already.”
“So that saves some breath,” Nick commented. “But that still doesn’t erase the problem. If Josh doesn’t find out soon, it could drive a wedge between you. You need to discuss this with him.”
“I will,” Jessica promised. “I just…” She shook her head absently. “I just have to find the right moment.”
At that moment, the door opened. Startled Jessica sat up straight as Claudia-Michelle came into the living room. She sighed with relief. If Josh had come home early and found her and Nick together…and alone…?
Claudia-Michelle held up a paper bag. “I got Chinese. I felt like gorging on Lo Mein noodles. Should I put this in the dining room?”
“Yeah, we’ll eat there.” Jessica stood and took her house key from Claudia-Michelle when Claudia-Michelle offered it to her. “Chinese tends to be messy, and I don’t want to get anything on the furniture.”
“I absolutely understand. I’ll set up while you two tidy up in here.” With that, Claudia-Michelle disappeared. Nick picked up drinking glasses while Jessica placed the legal pads back into Claudia-Michelle’s briefcase.
Before she got to close it, Nick remarked, “You know, we can just wash these out and reuse them. I’ll put them in the kitchen.”
“No,” Jessica insisted, “let me.” She took them from him, and their hands brushed. Something flickered in his eyes, and she found herself gazing into them. She told herself to move away, but she couldn’t. He placed his free hand on her cheek again, and her heart started to gallop. She would have dropped the drinking glass if he hadn’t inched closer.
But the proximity didn’t help at all when his lips brushed hers gently, because the glass in her hand tilted sideways, its contents on the couch.
Brought back to earth by the sound of liquid hitting expensive cloth, Jessica fumbled with the glass and watched helplessly as it fell to the ground. And shattered.
“Dammit,” Jessica swore. “Josh is going to kill me.”
Claudia-Michelle came rushing into the room, eyes wide. Before she spoke, she took in the scene: Nick and Jessica standing a little too close together, a water stain on the couch, shards of glass on the floor.
She raised her eyes to Nick’s and glared. Nick just shrugged.
“It was an accident,” Nick told her.
“Like hell, Nicholas Scott.” She amended her look for Jessica, who looked downright sheepish. “Look, everything’s ready. The faster we clean this up, the faster we can eat.” And I can keep an eye on the two of you.
* * *
An hour later, the door slammed hard enough to shake the windows. The trio, sitting at the dining room table with Chinese food containers and dirty, empty plates, shared glances as they were shaken from their satisfied stupor.
“What was that?” Claudia-Michelle asked.
Jessica, terrified, already knew what that was…
“Um…” Jessica stood hurriedly. Confused, Claudia-Michelle and Nick stood, also. “That’s Josh. I…”
The yell came from the living room down the hall. “Jessica!”
Claudia-Michelle recognized the tone of Josh’s voice. Images from childhood of angry calls yielding painful discipline had her grabbing Jessica’s arm like a protective older sister. It was more instinctive than rational; she wasn’t completely certain that Josh would hit Jessica, but she didn’t want to take the chance. Aidan was on his way to pick her up but she knew she needed time to make sure Jessica would be alright. He would understand.
“I’m going with you,” Claudia-Michelle told a perplexed Jessica. “Lachey,” she said briskly, “you’d better keep your ass in here. Got it?”
Nick, shocked at Claudia-Michelle’s terse command, had no other choice but to agree. Claudia-Michelle wrapped an arm around Jessica’s shoulders and together they walked out into the hallway. Josh could be heard in the living room, swearing at someone. Claudia-Michelle and Jessica stood together in the doorway. Josh was on a cell phone, face red with fury. As Josh noticed their presence, Claudia-Michelle tightened her grip on Jessica’s right shoulder.
“Hi honey,” Jessica greeted him in a soft voice. “Did the meeting go alright?”
Josh grunted and walked past them and into the den down the hall. When Jessica and Claudia-Michelle entered the den, he was gulping down two fingers of scotch. It appeared that it wasn’t his first drink of the day.
“Josh?” Jessica prodded. “What’s wrong?”
Josh chuckled sardonically and looked down at the glass in his hand. Then he heaved it at the wall. Jessica jumped. Claudia-Michelle tensed. She reached down and squeezed Jessica’s left hand.
“That bitch Daniella Thomas!” Josh exploded. “That’s what’s wrong. How dare she? She lured me out to that goddamn lunch and told me in that insolent voice of hers, I only asked you to lunch because I wanted you to be the first to know that I’m starting my own record label. I wish you luck, Mr. Martin.” He shook his head. “That bitch ought to pay for wasting my time.”
Claudia-Michelle felt protectiveness rise up inside of her, but now she was really playing big sister. “I’d appreciate it greatly if you would not refer to my younger sister as a bitch in my presence, as you have done twice now.”
Josh turned volatile brown eyes on Claudia-Michelle. He was not intimidated by her tone. “You knew about this didn’t you? You knew that sly slut was going to screw me over—”
“I didn’t know,” Claudia-Michelle interrupted tersely. “And if Danie wanted to strike out on her own, it’s her own prerogative, not yours. She certainly is ready for it. I will not let you call her names in my presence just because she chose her own path instead of walking with you on yours.”
Rage rose to a fever pitch in the room, and Jessica released Claudia-Michelle’s hand to stand in between her husband and the seething, aqua-eyed musician. Trying to remain calm, Jessica walked to her husband and began to plead with him. He shoved Jessica aside, making her crash into the end table nearby. Claudia-Michelle’s hand clenched. –
“Josh, calm down,” Jessica ordered, ignoring the pain in her side that had connected with a table edge.
“I will not,” Josh snapped. “Claudia-Michelle owes me an explanation as to why she is lying to me about not knowing that her sister was going to start her own record label.”
“Like hell, Josh,” Claudia-Michelle countered. “Danie and I don’t tell each other everything. Knowing her, she probably was going to tell me after the arrangements were made. And I had no idea you were going to ask her to come to your label. You didn’t tell me.”
“You think I’m worthless, don’t you?” Josh demanded. Jessica watched in horror as he grabbed Claudia-Michelle by the arm. “You and everyone else.”
“Let go of me,” Claudia-Michelle warned in a low tone that was as steady as it was dangerous.
“I’ll let go when I feel like it,” Josh told her. Jessica gasped.
The next few moments happened so fast that Jessica could barely remember them. Claudia-Michelle defied her polished image and punched Josh in the mouth. Jessica stood, gaping and Claudia-Michelle shook out her right hand as Josh was keeled over holding his mouth. Made even more angry that a woman busted his lip—a woman that was the older sister to the woman who had betrayed him—Josh lunged for Claudia-Michelle.
But Claudia-Michelle wasn’t standing in that spot. Nick was.
“I think you’d better calm down right now,” Nick said evenly.
Eyes wide, Josh whirled on Jessica. “What the fuck is he doing in my house?!” As Jessica sputtered, Josh grabbed her by the arms and shook her. “How dare you invite him into our home?”
“It’s my house, too!” Jessica cried. “I can invite whomever I want whenever I want. Besides, he’s a friend of mine, and you can’t control who my friends are.”
“The hell I can.” He shook her. Claudia-Michelle had to place a firm hand on Nick to keep him from throttling Josh. “You are to never to see that fucking bastard again! You hear me?”
“Leave her alone, Josh,” Claudia-Michelle ordered from beside a tense Nick. “I invited him and myself over. Jessica had no idea we were coming.”
Done with his wife, Josh released her with the same force that had made her crash into the table earlier. Instead she lost her balance and hit the corner with her hip. She also lost her balance and twisted her ankle, sending her to the ground on her wrist. Before she could fall completely, Claudia-Michelle rushed forward before she could fall on it. Josh went for Nick to cause bodily harm—but Nick was already sending a punch into his nose.
Nick and Josh grappled above them, but Claudia-Michelle was more concerned about Jessica. Turning Jessica so that she was in a sitting position, Claudia-Michelle placed gentle fingers upon the hip that hit the edge of the end table. Jessica flinched, and more tears flooded in her eyes. Grimly, Claudia-Michelle touched Jessica’s wrist and found that it too was hurt.
Before either of them could blink, a third man rushed into the room and broke Nick and Josh apart. When Josh tried to punch him, he dodged and punched Josh in the stomach. He sent Nick away to cool off as Josh cowered on the floor in pain.
“Aidan!” Jessica breathed.
“How the hell—?” Claudia-Michelle took in his dirty clothing and guessed. “I don’t even want to know. Could you take Jessica? I think we’d better be leaving now.”
“Yeah,” Aidan panted. He reached down and picked up Jessica as gently as he could. Claudia-Michelle shook her head when he placed a hand on her hip, and he adjusted his grip.
Josh suddenly righted himself to an upright position and glared at them with one good eye. The other appeared as if it would carry a good shiner on it in the morning.
“Where the hell are you taking my wife?” he demanded hoarsely.
“That’s none of yours, mate,” Aidan responded, the anger in his tone clipping his words. He softened his tone for Jessica. “Jessica love, when we get home, I do believe you deserve some pampering for that nasty bruise you’re going to have on your hip. Yeah?” Jessica gave him a tremulous smile as she tried to beat back her tears. “Smashing. Where’s your purse?”
Aidan chattered with Jessica as they exited the house. Claudia-Michelle stood over Josh, hands on her hips. Without gracing him with a word, Claudia-Michelle turned on her heel and walked out, remembering to stop by the living room to get her own belongings.