It was Friday night, nearly two weeks later. She felt the nerves as she sat in the room she was using as a makeshift dressing room. The only people in the room with her at the moment were Danie and Ashlee. Claudia-Michelle, Aidan, and Ryan, whose mother was doing better, were sitting out in the restaurant. Ashlee and Danie, at the moment, were trying to pick out an outfit for Jessica and were not agreeing over anything.
“I think she should wear this,” Ashlee insisted, holding up a tube top.
“Yeah, if she was at a titty bar,” Danie disagreed hotly. “She’s wearing this.” Danie held up a satiny black dress with a ribbon tie. “It’s sexy, demure, and down-to-earth all the same time. That’s your sister.”
Ashlee turned away from Danie to appeal to Jessica. “Jess—what do you think?”
Sighing, a robe-clad Jessica got up from the vanity Danie had secured for her and walked to the rack of clothes—also Danie’s contribution. She considered a moment, then picked out a stylish black short-sleeved jacket with gold buttons and a black camisole to go underneath. Danie’s eyebrows raised in surprise. Ashlee nodded in approval.
“Well. That settles that.” She drummed her fingers on her left forearm. “So what about hair?”
Jessica allowed herself to laugh, trying to get rid of the jitters. “I think I’ve got that under control, thanks.” She walked back to her vanity. “I don’t want you arguing over my hair.”
Danie waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. She wore a pencil skirt and a collared blouse in burnt orange. Jessica guessed she was trying to be businesslike. It worked, in a strange way.
“We were just having disagreements, that’s all,” Danie said. “Right, Ashlee?”
“Sure,” Ashlee muttered. She walked past Danie to join Jessica at her vanity. “So how does it feel? You’re going to going up there soon. Are you excited?”
Jessica exhaled, her heart thumping. “If I got anymore excited, it’d kill me.”
Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. Danie strode to the door and opened it. When she turned around, there was a grin on her face.
“Look who’s here!” she announced. She stepped aside to reveal Nick behind her with a fistful of lilies. Danie didn’t even bother trying to talk to him; she could instantly see that he only came for Jessica.
“How are you doing, Jess?” Nick inquired.
Jessica’s cheeks pinkened and she smiled. “As well as can be expected.”
There was a silence as Jessica and Nick stared at each other. A beep from Danie’s cell phone interrupted the silence. Danie went to her purse and dug out her phone. She clicked a button and said, “What’s the situation?”
“Mad Dawg and his entourage have entered the building,” said a voice.
Danie nodded and didn’t blink an eye at the use of the name Mad Dawg. “Good.” She glanced around the room, assessed the situation. Yes, it was time to go. “I think it’s time for us to go out and leave Jessica on her lonesome, don’t you think Ashlee?” Danie asked Ashlee.
Ashlee gave Danie a dubious look. “I want to stay with—”
Danie came over and took Ashlee by the arm. “I said, I think it’s time for us to go out and leave Jessica on her lonesome, don’t you think Ashlee?” she repeated, enunciating every word.
Ashlee frowned, and met Danie’s meaningful gaze. Danie’s eyes darted in Nick’s direction once, then in Jessica’s. After she raised her right eyebrow, Ashlee’s eyes lit up in recognition.
“Um yeah!” Ashlee exclaimed. She leaned down and kissed Jessica on the cheek. “Good luck, Jess. See ya on stage!”
Jessica waved goodbye as Danie half-dragged Ashlee out of the dressing room. The door closed behind them. Feeling more jittery, Jessica turned to the mirror and teased her hair. Danie had suggested soft curls that made her look soft and grown-up at the same time. She felt Nick walk up to the vanity and just stand there. She met his eyes in the mirror.
“Thank you for your support these last few days,” Jessica said. “I know I’ve taken you from your work and your…normal life.”
Nick shrugged. “It wasn’t that much of a change in routine.” He came closer and placed a hand on her shoulder. The only thing separating his hand and her shoulder was a thin piece of cloth. “Besides, I promised I’d help you. And I never go back on my promises.”
Jessica turned from her mirror and looked up at him. His hand slid to her cheek. She had something in mind to say, but she couldn’t access it. She inhaled sharply as Nick reached down and traced a fingertip along the hem of the lapel on the robe.
“Nick,” she whispered, not able to find her voice. She placed her hand on his wrist before he could tuck his finger underneath the cloth. She opened her mouth to admonish him, but he grabbed her arm instead and pulled her up to him. The tie in her belt loosened.
“We shouldn’t be doing this,” Jessica said against his lips.
“Too late,” Nick said back. “We are.” And he crushed her against him, his lips against hers.
Unlike the last kiss they’d shared, this one was fraught with lust and frustration. Tongues slid over each other, teeth nipped lips. Nick slid a hand down her bare side, over the hip that was slowly healing. He brought it around to her lower torso, and Jessica placed her hands on his chest to push him away.
“I said, we can’t!” she exclaimed, and sent him backward into a chair. She hastily brought her robe closed and went for her clothes. She dressed behind the screen that Danie had set up for her. When she emerged, Nick was standing, back to her, hands clenched at his sides.
“I’m sorry, Jessica. I…”
Jessica shook her head and looked at herself in the mirror. Her lipstick was smudged, so she reapplied it. “Don’t apologize. I…” She allowed a smile to cross her features. “You’re not a bad kisser.” She sobered, thinking of her wedding ring in its safe place out of sight. “Maybe if things were different…”
Nick stared at her. She knew what he wanted to say, but he didn’t utter the words. Instead he kissed her on the cheek and wished her good luck.
A few moments later, when she was standing alone, James came in and told her it was time.
* * *
The performance was everything Danie had wished and more. She watched the faces of Josh’s bosses and smirked to herself. They didn’t know that Jessica had agreed—in writing—to join her newborn record label. She would simply, conveniently leave that little piece of information out the conversation they would have later until she could use it accordingly. Oh, she loved conveniently leaving out things with people she didn’t like.
She gazed around the table at her companions as Jessica sang. Claudia-Michelle clutched Aidan’s hand like a worried mother. Danie supposed she had the right to worry; it was she who had started this whole thing anyway. Ashlee could barely sit still. Ryan operated the video camera despite Aidan’s wanting the task. She would have loved to see how the coin toss over that had gone. And Nick…
It was Nick that completely diverted her attention away from Jessica’s singing. She knew the look of a man in love, and Nick exhibited all the features. She recalled all she knew of him: a solo singer on the brink of releasing a new album with the reputation of being a playboy before settling down (or seeming to, anyway) with print model Katherine Cross. He was a nice enough guy, and she’d shook hands with him at enough parties to know that he wasn’t in it for the reasons most were. He loved music, loved making it. Unfortunately, she also knew that Katherine Cross and her kind were no good, and were always up to it. She was conspicuously absent—a photo shoot in Miami or something for lotion. Or whatever.
As Jessica finished the song and the audience, who were made up of regulars who knew Jessica, gave her a standing ovation, Danie observed Nick’s reaction. Hm, she mused. Oh yeah. They’re going to sleep together alright.
She glanced back at her sister and found that she was staring at her. One of the eerie things about sharing the same womb for seven months was that it made for weird occurrences like reading each other’s minds later on in life. Judging from the look on Claudia-Michelle’s face, she had read her younger sister’s mind.
“No puedo creer que estás tolerando este,” Claudia-Michelle hissed. “¿No te molesta que ella está destruyendo su matrimonio?” I can’t believe that you are tolerating this. Doesn’t it bother you that she is destroying her marriage?
Danie smirked. “No me importa, hermana.” It’s not important to me, sister. Aidan raised an eyebrow and patted Claudia-Michelle’s hand.
To Danie, he said, “I think we ought to stay out of it.”
“Suit yourself.” She crossed her arms over her chest as Jessica sang the chorus to “Baby Baby” and concentrated on crushing a few record executive souls after the set.
* * *
Meanwhile, Josh sat a few feet away, trying to keep his astonishment at bay. His superiors were very charmed by the casual décor, the hot beef stew and cold brew, and the entertainment. He just drummed his fingers on the table and listened sullenly as Jessica sang an old Amy Grant song. He dimly recalled that it had been one of her favorites. But he didn’t care much about that little detail at the moment. He sipped on beer and waited for the performance to be over.
“She’s very charismatic,” said one of his superiors. “It’s almost as if she’s performed before.”
“Some people are naturally inclined,” remarked another. “She’s going to make it big.”
Those words made Josh even more sullen.
As the waitress came back to replace his beer, Josh spotted Danie sashaying toward them. When she was spotted by Josh’s superiors, heads turned and smiles bloomed on faces. Danie shook hands and prepared to do what she did best. Bullshit.
“So how are you all?” she asked the three men and single woman who had accompanied Josh that night. She knew that the woman was the head of the A&R department where Josh worked. The bald man with the sharp eyes was the CEO. The guy with the longish hair and the mustache was the president, and the other man was the vice president. Oh yes, some powerful hearts were to be broken tonight.
“We’re absolutely charmed by the place,” said the A&R woman. “And that young woman that was just up there was sensational.”
Danie’s grin was as warm as apple pie straight out the oven and her violet eyes were as sharp as Ginzu knives. “Well, I’m glad you enjoyed the show. So it wasn’t a total waste of your time.”
“Oh, it was a nice outing,” said the vice-president. “I thank Josh for persuading us to do something out of the ordinary for once.”
“Josh is the consummate gentleman,” Danie commented, looking at Josh with those sharp eyes. “I am so glad you’re here. Did you enjoy the show?”
Josh looked at his bottle before speaking. “I suppose I didn’t have a choice.”
“I know! It’s hard not to.”
Danie looked down at the card with a furrowed brow as if she had to think about it. “Oh,” she said, as if she couldn’t form the words to explain her feigned confusion. “Well. I’m not sure that I can give this to her. It would be a conflict of interest, honestly.”
“Conflict of interest?” The A&R woman appeared confused, also. “What do you mean?”
Danie tilted her head. “Josh didn’t tell you?” She paused to look into their faces as Jessica entered the room amid applause and shouts. Jessica crossed the room, smiling, eyes misty, and hugged her sister. She then accepted hugs from Ryan (still with camera), Aidan, Claudia-Michelle, and Nick. Danie noticed the darkening of Josh’s eyes when he spied his wife hugging Nick. She decided it was time to get ready for the blow.
The A&R woman looked at Josh with penetrating eyes. “Josh, what haven’t you told us?” She looked to Danie. “I thought we were supposed to talk about your coming to our label.”
Danie tried her hardest not to smirk and feigned confusion. “We were?”
Before anyone could respond, Jessica rushed over and hugged Danie. She didn’t seem to notice Josh for several seconds. She passed Jessica a secret smile before they both faced the table. Jessica let that steel her into a calmer demeanor.
“You were awesome,” the A&R woman commented to Jessica. Jessica thanked her and gave her a genuine smile. “So when are we going to make that first album?”
“Of course, we could sign you both at the same time,” the vice-president remarked.
Jessica glanced at Danie. “Didn’t you tell them?” Danie shook her head, her expression sheepish. She turned to Josh. “And you didn’t warn them?”
“About what?” asked the A&R woman. She looked at Josh again. “What’s going on here?”
“I’ll tell you,” Danie responded. “Josh has kept something very important from you. For one thing, I am not coming to your label, not now, not ever.” While they sat there, astonished, Danie barreled on. “And Jessica is my first act on my own independent label.” She stepped back from the table and raised her voice. “I would like to introduce to you all, the first Supernova Records recording artist, Jessica Ann Simpson.”
The restaurant erupted into cheers and applause again. Josh vaulted from his seat and angrily walked across the table to Danie. She met him face to face.
“You told me we would negotiate,” Josh hissed. “You promised me, and you didn’t deliver. You owe me for all I’ve done for you, Danie.”
Danie grinned impishly and wrapped an arm around Jessica’s shoulders. She looked innocently at Jessica. “Oops. Did I say that?”
He grabbed her by the shoulder, therefore separating her from Jessica. “Damn you, Danie—”
Jessica nudged herself in-between the two. “Back off, Josh.” She met his furious eyes with a strong gaze. “I think we’ve said enough and you don’t want to say anything you’ll regret.”
“The only thing I regret is being your husband,” Josh snapped. He then stalked away, leaving Jessica sighing with expelled emotion. Danie, lips pursed, walked up to her and wrapped an arm around Jessica’s shoulders. She could feel that Jessica was a little confused, but she couldn’t tell if she was devastated by the words out of Josh’s mouth.
“I think I need a vacation, Jess. Maybe after the album release.” With that, she led Jessica away. Jessica tilted her head up to look at Danie. Danie looked down at her and smiled. She was much stronger than Danie was led to believe. “See? Now wasn’t that nice?” Danie asked.
“That was awesome,” Jessica responded. “What do we do next?”
“Well,” Danie started, “we celebrate a little. And then, after we complete all the paperwork, we start on your album.” She gave her a genuine grin. “That’s when we start rocking the world.”