Chapter Six

   Jess was glad she had opted to check out the club on South Beach earlier that evening. The Mirage had turned out to be just what she had needed. The crowded, high end club was lavishly decorated, mirroring the taste and class of its young, successful owner Ari Al Akresh. Wealthy, and with dark Arab good looks, Ari was the perfect tonic to cure her ills. With polish only acquired through the poshest of upbringings, Ari had been her constant escort the entire evening, proving to be the most charming person she had ever had to interview.

    After several hours of talking, dancing and sipping champagne with her gracious host, her temperament had sweetened, especially at the prospect of returning to the club for some daylight shots of the place. The drive back to the Dusk to Dawn had been a pleasant one, so much so that Jess couldn't conceive of anything spoiling her mood. After a few glasses of champagne, her wrist hadn’t even throbbed once all night. Ari must have served her top quality champagne because Jess wasn’t even suffering from her usual ‘champagne headaches.’ Even the scene out in the parking lot lost most of its sting. Taking her usual seat at the bar, Jess was feeling no pain.

    "Hey Jess," Sally said, rushing behind the bar to mix some drinks, a look of anxiety on her face. She leaned in towards Jessie, laying a napkin before her. "Have you seen Mitch or Angel? Betty and I are swamped.."

    "They're having a little.. talk.. outside. I'm sure they'll be right in," Jessie frowned. How could they leave the bar like that, and leave the waitresses to fend for themselves? "No sweat," she smiled, flipping up the hatch, and joining Sally behind the bar. "Help has arrived. I'll tend bar til they get back.

    Sally's mouth gaped open in a mix of surprise and relief. "Oh thanks, Jess.. you're a life saver!"

    "Any time sweetie," Jess smiled. glancing at the front door of the bar. I'm doing this for Sally, Mitch, she thought, not you, you jerk. "What'll ya have?" she said, to a customer who walked up to the bar.

    His patience had paid off. All night long, Nick had kept an eye out for her, watching people weave in and out of the dance floor, and surrounding tables. Interesting, Nick thought, spotting Jessie behind the bar, as they finished their current song. The crowd applauded its approval, and Nick decided to make his move. "Yo Johnny," he called out to the lead singer.

    "Yeah?" Johnny called back, taking his bows.

    "How about a break?"

    Johnny was busy eyeing a cute blonde in the crowd, and was more than keen on the idea. "Sure thing," he answered, smiling back at Nick. "Thanks folks. Keep those dancing shoes on, we'll be back to rock ya some more after a short break."
 wpe3E.jpg (977 bytes)Laying down his drumsticks, Nick stood, leaning back to indulge in a smoke, as he assessed the situation. So she works here, he thought, taking a drag on his cigarette. Or did she? What waitress ever looked like that? Maybe he had not only sold the bar short, but the manager as well, Nick smiled, blowing a puff of smoke up into the colored stage lights. Only one way to find out, he decided.

    "What can I say?" Jess smiled, handing a customer his drink, "a gal has to know more than how to dress herself."

    So this is why Mitch likes his job so much, Jessie smiled. Socializing and getting paid for it. Thanking the man for his tip, she tucked the bill in her cleavage, and turned to help her next patron. "And what can I get you?" she asked, reaching under the bar for a cocktail napkin.

    "Let's start with your phone number," Nick answered, smoothly.

    Jess straightened up to find the older gentleman she was about to serve, gone, in his place, a tall dark stranger. Dressed head to toe in black, devilment dancing in his dark eyes. "And you are?" she grinned. Poor guy picked the wrong gal and the wrong night, she thought.

    "Just a hired hand," Nick grinned, "trying to make the best of the evening.. like you."

    He actually thinks I work here, Jessie grinned. "Don't you know the rules?"

    "Some rules are made to be broken," he grinned, extending his hand to Jessie. "The name’s Nick.. Nick Gregory," he continued, taking Jessie's hand and kissing it.

    "Charmed to meet you Nick," Jess answered, playing along, pulling her hand away sweetly, but determinedly. "But one of the rules of working here," she lied, "is no dating fellow employees.. management doesn't take kindly to it."

    "I bet," Nick grinned, taking a seat.

    Yup, that champagne must have been top notch, for Jessie was being really ballsy tonight, even for her. "Brew?" she asked, pouring Nick a glass of beer from the tap.

    "Anything from you would be like nectar from the Gods," Nick said, laying it on thick. He'd soon find out if his charm was working by whether she tossed the beer in his face or not. "You have me at a disadvantage," he added quickly, waiting to see what Jess would do next.

    "Somehow I doubt that," Jessie chuckled, good-naturedly, handing Nick his brew.

    "Ah, but you do. You know my name, but I don't know yours.."

    "My name's Jessie.."

    "Thank goodness, Angel's back," Sally said, rejoining Jessie behind the bar to fill her latest bar orders. "Thanks for stepping in like that.. I'm sure Angel appreciates it as much as I do.."

    Jessie stifled a giggled, pouring herself a beer, before emerging from behind the bar. "Anytime, Sal."

    "Your cover's been blown," Nick laughed.

    "What can I say," Jessie said, giving Nick a dazzling smile. "I'm in a good mood, and your lines were too hard to resist."

    Nick pulled up a chair at one of the tables by the dance floor, and motioned Jessie to sit. "I'm crushed."

    "No, you're Nick," she laughed, sitting down.

    "Nick.. dude," Tate, the third member of the band, interrupted, "we're ready to start."

    "In a minute," Nick said, shooting Tate a look.

    Out of the corner of her eye, Jessie spotted Mitch entering the bar. Making sure not to turn her head, she kept her attention completely on Nick. It was her turn to turn on the charm. Leaning back in her chair, she unabashedly looked Nick up and down. Not half bad, she mused. She always did have a thing for men in black, especially men with bods to fill out tight, black jeans. "No wonder I didn't recognize you," she said, looking back at the stage, as she leaned in towards Nick.

    "I'm the drummer for Triple Threat.."

    "Triple Threat," Jessie smiled, "catchy name."

    "Thanks. We're trying out this week for the gig as house band here. What do you think? Think we have a shot?"

    "Definitely," Jess smiled, "I've never the crowd here react to a band like they have to yours."

    "Come here often?"

    "All the more now that you're here.."

    Jessie knew she shouldn't be doing it, but what the hell. Nick was offering back lines as quickly as she was dishing them out. Nick had turned his back a moment, talking to one of the other band members, giving Jess the chance to eye him appreciatively again, this time from behind. Nick would be perfect in the role of payback to Mitch.

    Mitch reached for the bottle of aspirin he kept hidden behind the bar, right next to the jar of peanut M & M's. The jar was full, untouched by Jessie. Jessie, he sighed, wondering if she was even still there, and thinking about how badly he had screwed things up with her. Downing the pills, he looked up to survey the patrons at the bar when something caught his eye. Speak of the devil.. Jessie.

    Seated at one of the smaller tables, she wasn't alone. It took Mitch a moment to realize who she was sitting with – Nick, the drummer from the band he was auditioning. A knot formed in his stomach as he watched Jessie lean in to talk to Nick, flipping her long hair over one bare shoulder. Mitch tried to distract himself, serving drink after drink at a break-neck pace, but it was no use. His attention kept being drawn to Jessie, and the slick drummer.

    Even when the band resumed their set, Mitch could feel the chemistry playing back and forth between Nick and Jessie. Not once did Jessie move, let alone take her eyes from the stage. She swayed two and fro, tapping her fingertips enthusiastically against the table to the beat that kept her captivated. The last straw came when the band finished their final song. Bidding the crowd goodnight, Mitch was sure Nick would leave the stage and the bar along with his bandmates, but he didn't. Bold as day, he walked over to the CD jukebox, selected a tune, and walked over to Jessie. Taking her hand in his, he pulled her onto the dance floor as the sultry music started to play.

    'Never seen you looking the way did tonight,
    never seen you shine so bright, you were amazing,
    never seen so many men ask you if wanted to dance,
    looking for a little romance, given half the chance..
    and I've never seen that dress your wearing,
    or the highlights in your hair catch the light, I have been blind...'

    Jessie clung to Nick, as he pressed his body seductively to hers, her arms looped around his neck, as he spun her around, and back into a deep dip. They spun around and around, as if they were the only two people on the dance floor, allowing Jess brief glimpses of Mitch, as he watched them from behind the bar. She was lightheaded, from the sexy fluid motion of her body as Nick spun her around, from the last of the champagne's effects and from knowing that Mitch was watching them, seething with jealousy. Payback is a bitch, Jessie thought, as Nick pulled her close, and tilted her chin up for a kiss..

    Mitch's eyes darted back and forth between his work at the bar and Jessie. He knew how Jessie acted, and realized full well what she was doing. She was having her fun, just like she had done in the past when Zach neglected or abused her. But she had never gone this far, and, he thought, he wasn’t Zach.

    Mitch's hand shook, some beer spilling over the rim of the glass, and he quickly wiped it up with a bar rag. I'll just ignore her, he thought. "The same?" he asked, seeing an empty glass in front of one of his patrons. Hearing Jess laugh, he pulled a bottle from the wall behind him, gave it a quick flip, and caught it with a loud slap, instead of his usual light handed touch. At least I caught it, he thought, pouring a drink, as he caught sight of Jess, her face dangerously close to Nick’s.

    "Hey!" a customer exclaimed.

    Mitch grimaced, looking down at the glass he had been filling, to see Scotch overflowing onto the bartop. "Sorry," he apologized, wiping up the mess.

    "Maybe you should call it a night?" Angel said, seeing how his friend was struggling.

    "I'm fine.."

    "No, you're not, you're a mess. Lemme cover the bar. I can handle it, I know my drinks.."

    "I'm telling you, I'm fine," Mitch said, with a quick smile.

    Mitch turned for a bottle, pulled it out, and caught sight of Jess again as he turned. She was smiling, her eyes sparkling, her mouth, just barely open, arms looped around Nick’s neck, as he pulled her close for a fiery kiss. The bottle slipped out of Mitch’s trembling hands, hitting the edge of the bar, before it fell, spilling its contents all over the floor.

    "Mitch.." Angel said, kneeling down to pick up the bottle, "it's a night."

    "I'm sorry, I thought I could handle it.."

    After what Mitch had told him over the last two night, Angel was amazed Mitch had held it together this long. "I don't think anyone could handle this."

    Mitch felt like he was the star pitcher in the World Series, who had been just pulled off the mound for giving up a grand slam. "Here," Mitch said, handing Angel the bar rag, "I'm sticking around just in case you all get swamped," he said, "and I'm closing."

    Angel grabbed a bottle for the next customer and nodded. "Deal."

    Taking a seat in a darkened corner of the bar, Mitch looked over at Jessie again, wondering how in the world things had gotten so screwed up. He could barely stand to watch the way she had her head resting on Nick’s shoulder, her arms wrapped around him, hands hanging loosely on his butt. He had always dreamed of a romance with Jess, ever since he first met her. He would have given anything to be on the receiving end of those lips, just once. But after all that had happened, Mitch felt the hope of that ever happening slipping away.

    You had your chance, Mitch thought, and you blew it. What was worse, he realized, his heart sinking, swallowed up in sadness, was that it looked like he'd also lost her friendship forever as well. Not being able to take anymore, he headed upstairs. What good are dreams? Mitch asked himself, trudging slowly up the stairs. Looking around the loft, he noticed that Jessie's stuff was still there. The last thing either of them needed was a confrontational scene to cap off the evening. Mitch needed to think, his mind overflowing with thoughts from the last few days. He felt like a pair of sneakers in an empty dryer – his pulse slamming in his temples. I need some fresh air, Mitch thought, lots of it.

    Sally saw Mitch emerge at the foot of the stairs, his eyes evenly focused, gazing far in front of him, maybe at the jukebox. Mitch always liked the Wurlitzer because of the colors and bubbles, and would just stare at it sometimes, while listening to his favorite Eighties music at the end of the night. Sally picked up a chair and placed it up on the table in front of her, and sighed. What a night.. Angel had filled her in on what had happened, and she felt for Mitch. As far as she knew, Mitch never did anything bad to anybody. If anything, Mitch always did what he could do to help other people, including his friends. It broke her heart to see Mitch this way.

    Putting up the last of the chairs, she pulled her hair loose from the clip she was wearing, and shook her hair free, running her fingers through her long, dark curly hair, looking over at him to see if he was watching. Mitch always did say he liked her hair loose, even if it wasn't very practical during business hours. Sally had caught him watching her in the past, when she would play with her hair. He would smile, and give her a playful wink. She didn't mind it when Mitch looked at her - he had a way of making her feel special, and pretty at the same time, not like some of the men who leered at her, making her feel like an object of lust.

    He would gaze at her when he thought she wasn't looking, a look of admiration in his eyes. Sally liked how Mitch's smile would make her smile. She would answer his winks by puckering her lips, and blowing him a kiss. Mitch's face would turn red, and he'd turn away shyly. Yet Sally couldn't help but wonder if he was flirting with her, or if he was being his usual friendly self. I should do something, Sally thought, as she walked behind the counter, and came to Mitch and hugged him, wrapping her arms around his waist, and pulling him into her. "Looks like you need a hug," Sally said.

    "Thank you," Mitch said, giving Sally a quick smile, his words laced with pain.

    "Got a lot on your mind, huh?"

    Mitch nodded. "A lot."

    Sally squeezed him tighter, snuggling her head into his shoulder. "You poor thing. Wanna talk about it?"

    "I'm alright," Mitch sighed, "don't you worry about me."

    "Don't think I'm going to just let you be," Sally said, tightening her hold on Mitch.

    Mitch leaned his head down, and smelled Sally's hair. He inhaled deeply, closing his eyes, feeling her curls tickle his chin. "Thank you," he whispered, kissing Sally softly on the top of her head, as he brushed away a tear before Sally could see it. "Lock up for me?"

    Sally nodded. "Mitch?"


    "I'm off tomorrow. Why don't you come by.."

    "Maybe some other time," Mitch said, cutting her off, as he made a hasty departure out the front door.

    Sally locked the door behind Mitch, switching off the marquee. She was just about to set the alarm, when she remembered she had seen Jessie and Nick heading back to the small employee lounge over by the kitchen.
helmet2.gif (1964 bytes) Mitch put on his helmet, tuning the radio on the bike's dash to his favorite radio station. Music would help clear his mind, he reasoned. Pushing the kick stand up, with a twist of his wrist, he was off.

    'The sun goes down, the night rolls in
    You can feel it starting all over again
    The moon comes up and the music calls
    You're gettin' tired of starin' at the same four walls..'

    This is what I needed Mitch thought, swerving his motorcycle down Hollywood Boulevard and onto I-95, to get away from the bar. Just too much has happened today..

    ‘You're out of your room and down on the street
    Movin' through the crowd and the midnight heat
    The traffic crawls, the sirens scream
    You look at the faces, it's just like a dream..’

    Mitch shivered, the cool October night making him wish he had worn a jacket. A plane roared above him, as he zipped by the airport. The noise from the airplane clouded Mitch's mind, making the music impossible to hear, as the faces of the last few days came to mind. Sid's hysterically funny laugh as he teased Jessie.. Jessie, troubled again with Zach.. Sally showing up to work with a smile on her face, as usual.. Angel appearing out of the blue.. Zach and his snake oil grin.. Jessie's surprised expression as they kissed.. her eyes during the night they spent together.. Jessie's eyes as she saw him kissing Lynn.. Kelly..

    ‘Nobody knows where you're goin'
    Nobody cares where you've been...’

    Taking the ramp that headed west to 595, Mitch felt like an airplane himself, rising in the air. He only wished he was a plane, so that he could fly away from all his problems.

    ‘'Cause you belong to the city, you belong to the night
    Livin' in a river of darkness beneath the neon lights..
    You were born in the city concrete under your feet
    It's in your moves, it's in your blood
    You're a man of the streets..
    When you said goodbye you were on the run
    Tryin' to get away from the things you've done
    Now you're back again, and you're feeling strange
    So much has happened, but nothing has changed
    You still don't know where you're goin'
    You're still just a face in the crowd..."

    He turned off 595 onto I27, the wind at his back, only a few cars on the road. With a twist of his wrist, he revved up his motorcycle, passing the cars into the darkness..

    Sally headed back to the employee lounge, trying to keep her anger in check. How could Jess treat Mitch this way, especially if they had been friends for so long? Sally never would have taken Jessie to be the cold-hearted type, but she had to be, the way she had carried on with Nick, right in front of Mitch. Anyone could see that Nick was a player, and that Jessie would be burned sooner or later if she continued her interaction with Nick.

    Some women have all the luck, Sally thought, switching off most of the overhead lights, as she made her way towards the back, knowing full well that Jess and Nick were back there. Jessie had Zach, a wealthy, successful guy. If that weren't enough, Mitch cared about her, anyone could see that. Well, Sally thought, gathering up the energy to walk into the employee lounge, if you don't want him, I'll take him.
coffee2.gif (6556 bytes)Getting an armful of tablecloths from the supply closet, Sally walked into the room. To her relief, the earlier displays of affection between the two had run their course. Jessie and Nick looked up at her from the table at the other side of the room, where they were drinking some coffee.

    "It's time to get going," Sally said, dryly, "everybody's gone but me and Angel, and Mitch asked me to close the place up for him.."

    Jessie's brow furrowed, never hearing Sally speak to her in quite that tone before. "Um.. we're almost through here Sal," stated Jess, "besides, go ahead and go. I know the security code. I'll lock up."

    Nick fought to hide his amusement at the other woman's catiness, concluding in his arrogant mind that Sally might actually be jealous. Then and there he made a vow to land the gig at the Dusk to Dawn, no matter what it took. A decent crowd, women fighting over him from day one, what else could he ask for?

    "Whatever," Sally muttered, "make sure to turn off all the lights," she said, getting her purse out of her locker, and abruptly walking out.

    "What's up with her?" Jessie asked, thinking aloud.

    "Must be jealous," Nick laughed, sipping his coffee.

    Jessie got up, pouring the rest of her coffee in the sink, and rolled her eyes. In the quiet, non alcohol hazed light of the employee lounge, Jessie couldn't help but wonder if she had jumped the gun a bit with Nick. From the moment he had approached her, Jess had clearly seen that Nick was a flirt, but this? He actually believed that Sally's tense tone meant that she and Jessie were fighting over him. How wrong you are buddy, Jessie thought.

    Nick was a distraction, pure and simple. Her problems with Zach and now the added tension with Mitch was just about all she could handle. She wouldn't be adding Nick to the melee. The men currently in her life were testing her patience as it was. Nick, she decided, would be a fun diversion, someone to dance with, and a tool she could use to dish Zach and Mitch some of their own medicine. "It's late," stated Jessie, her patience wearing thin, "and I gotta get going."

    Nick rethought his last remark. Not wanting to press his luck with Jessie, he paused a moment, coming up with the best way to proceed. The coffee, he decided, had been a bad idea. Gone was Jessie's previous carefree mood. She stood there now, arms crossed, waiting for him to get up.

    "No problem," Nick answered, cavalierly, "I have things to do myself. "But," he said, with a wry smile, walking over to her, "not before I get my goodbye kiss."

    If she flinched, the cocky Mr. Gregory would gloat, knowing he had gotten under her skin. You think you have this game all figured out, Jessie mused, smiling sweetly at Nick, but you picked the wrong woman to try and play. "I had a nice time tonight," Jessie said, leaning her forearms on Nick's shoulders, nursing her sore wrists.

    "Me too babe," Nick answered, looking deep into Jessie's eyes.

    Nick leaned in, as if he half expected to get a cursory kiss on the cheek. That's what you think buddy, Jess thought, meeting his gaze. Taking his face in her hands, she planted a full fledge kiss on the unsuspecting Nick's lips.

    Taken by surprise, Nick shifted his weight unsteadily, leaning in to return the kiss. "If I woulda known this was what I was to be treated to, I would have said my goodnights ages ago," Nick chuckled.

    "Goodbye Nick," Jess smiled, wickedly, giving his butt a playful swat.

    Walking Nick to the door, Jessie locked it, holding off on setting the alarm til she went upstairs and got her things.

    "All locked up?" Angel said quickly, covering his surprise at seeing Jessie come upstairs.

    "Yup, I'll be out of your way in a sec, I just gotta get my things."

    "Jess.. you're not in the way," Angel sighed.

    "Oh?" she answered, getting her clothes out of Mitch's closet, "coulda fooled me."

    "Today was quite a night, for all of us.."

    Angel couldn't believe how stupid his friends were acting. Didn't they see what a waste all this was? Jessie wasn't even asking about Mitch. Don't stick your nose in, he reminded himself, being in the middle of a love quarrel is the last place you wanna be, he thought.

    "This is the last of it," stated Jess, stuffing her bathroom supplies in her bag.

    "And.. that's it?" Angel said, looking up at Jess from the couch.

    "Yup, that's it," Jess answered, not in the mood to get into it right then with Angel, no matter how well intended he was.

    "Where ya headed to in such a hurry?"

    "Where else? A hotel.."

    Angel debated on whether or not he should find out which particular hotel Jess was going to, but decided against it. "Make sure to wrap that wrist up again," Angel sighed, "wouldn't want it to get worse."

    Jessie smiled, knowing he was sincere in his concern. "I will," she answered, softly.

    "You know WE'RE here if you needed anything.."

    Jess started down the stairs, and stopped. "Yeah. I know.." she said, smiling her thanks to Angel, "see ya."

   Jessie chose the most expensive hotel on the Fort Lauderdale strip - the Bahia Mar. Hey, if I'm gonna stress out, I might as well do it in style, she chuckled to herself. She charged her room on the paper's corporate American Express, knowing full well it would quite possibly lead Zach right to her. What the hell, Jess thought, she'd have to face him sooner or later. Besides, he was the reason why she was there in the first place.

    Slipping into a lush cotton terry robe, Jessie snuggled up in the big bed in her suite. Her body started to unwind, the stress of the last two days finally starting to catch up with her. Closing her eyes, she lay back onto the fluffy pillows, and sighed, thoughts filling her weary mind. Leaving Zach had set into motion a turn of events she was sure would only get more and more complicated as the days passed. She would have to think things through if she expected to get through all this unscathed, well, relatively so.

    It was late. The double sliding glass doors across from her bed offered a spectacular view of the ocean just beyond the hotel's private beach. Tomorrow she'd call Cassie, she thought, and maybe they could spend a relaxing day at the beach, when all she'd have to deal with was how good of a tan she was getting. Tinges of pink and lavender foretold the sun's eminent arrival. I'd better get to sleep, she thought, or I'll end up sleeping the whole day away.

    Opting to leave the curtains open, Jess leaned over and turned off the table lamp. Slipping under the covers, she took off her robe, discarding it on the vast emptiness of bed next to her. Sighing, she rolled over, and gazed out at the lightening horizon. In the stillness of her hotel room, her thoughts went to Zach. Who was sharing his bed that night? she wondered, with a groan. And Mitch.. Was he alone, looking out into the night sky?

    Dressed only in a pair of panties, the coolness of the sheets, usually a pleasure, was now a painful reminder of how alone she was in that empty bed, with no one to snuggle up to as she slept.


* * * * *

Copyright 1998 Susana Audrain  All rights reserved, which includes the right to reproduce this novel
or portions thereof in any form whatsoever except as provided by the U.S. Copyright Law.

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