Light A Candle, Chase the Devil Away

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Chapter 9

Nick awoke to the sound of a doorbell and the reflection of three naked bodies entwined on a bed in the mirror above him. Disoriented, he stared up at himself and the two models sleeping next to him. He rubbed his eyes and struggled to push himself into a sitting position on the slippery satin sheets. Rachel’s head rolled off his chest. Ebony’s bare leg slid off his hip as she rolled onto her stomach. She moaned and stretched a limp arm toward him.

The doorbell rang again. It took all of his strength to swing his legs over Ebony’s prone body and stand up. His head pounded and his tongue stuck to the roof of his dry mouth. A bitter taste mixed with sour alcohol coated the back of his throat. Nausea and dizziness swept over him when he bent to rummage through the tangle of clothing strewn across the floor. He grabbed the nightstand with both hands to steady himself. Empty glasses and beer bottles rolled off the table and fell on the carpet with soft thunks. The tabletop felt gritty. He lifted his hands. Traces of white powder clung to his palms. The doorbell rang again, a rapid succession of rings this time.

“Shit, what if it’s Katie.” His mind reeled and his heart raced as he made his way to the bedroom door. He shut it behind him. Holding the hallway walls for support, he staggered to the front door.

“Who is it?” He pressed his aching forehead against the cool, metal door.

“It’s me, Stephanie.”

“Steph? Whaddya want?”

“Can I come in?”

“No. Um, not now. Later?”

“Nick, it’s important. Mr. Ruby wants to meet with you at nine o’clock sharp.”

“Shit.” Nick fumbled with the double locks until the knob turned and the door opened.

Stephanie gasped. “You’re naked!”

“Sorry.” He stumbled toward the living room. Stephanie stomped past him, grabbed a chenille throw from the sofa and flung it at him. He caught a corner of the material and clumsily wrapped it around his waist before collapsing into a chair. He covered his face with his hands and rubbed his temples.

“What the hell happened last night?” he mumbled through his hands. “Katie got sick and left, right? Then the press conference. Those two models. I can’t remember after that.”

“Well, apparently you partied all night,” Stephanie said. “And yes, Katie left sick about an hour after you got there. You need to get cleaned up and dressed now.”

“Let me rest a few minutes. My head’s killing me.”

“Absolutely not. Get up and take a shower. I’ll make coffee.”

She tugged on his arm and nagged at him until he managed to stand on wobbly legs.

“C’mon.” She slung his arm around her shoulders, slid her arm around his waist and led him to the bathroom. He leaned against the door jamb with his eyes closed while she turned on the water in the shower.

“Get in,” she said. “The hot water will help sober you up.”

The throw slipped to the floor as he stepped into the shower.

“Oh God, you have lipstick on your. . ..” She rolled her eyes and walked out, slamming the door.

Twenty-five minutes later, Nick emerged from the steamy bathroom. Although his head still throbbed, the long shower refreshed his body. The smell of coffee filled the apartment. He paused outside the opened bedroom door and peeked inside. The bed had been stripped. The naked women were gone, along with the mess of clothing, drink glasses and drug paraphernalia. A clean shirt and a pair of jeans were laid out on the bed.

He dressed and then found Stephanie sitting at the kitchen counter. She handed him a mug of black coffee and four aspirins. “We have to leave in fifteen minutes to get to the office on time.”

Nick tossed the aspirins into his mouth and swallowed a long drink of coffee.

“I’m sorry about before. I wasn’t thinking straight.”

“Forget it.” She sipped her coffee.

“Those models, were they really in my bed this morning? Please, tell me I was hallucinating.”

“You weren’t hallucinating. I sent them home.”

“Oh God, I can’t believe I . . .” Nick buried his face in his hands. “What the hell have I done? Man, I really screwed up.” He looked for his cell phone. It wasn’t on its charger. “I have to call Katie. Have you seen my cell?”

“You lost it at the party last night, remember? I looked everywhere but couldn’t find it.”

“Damn it.” Nick walked back to the bedroom and dumped the contents of his clothes hamper onto the floor. His head felt like it would explode when he bent over to search through the dirty laundry. The sickening sweet scent of Rachel’s perfume permeating the sheets nauseated him.

Stephanie stood in the doorway. “Let me do that. You look like you’re gonna puke any second and I’m not cleaning that up.” She picked through the laundry on the floor. “It’s not here. You can use mine.” She held out her metallic pink iPhone.

Nick took the phone. He had to think before pressing each number. The phone went straight to a mailbox. “Katie, it’s me. Hope you’re feeling better. I have a meeting with Ruby this morning, but I’ll come see you as soon as I’m done. Love you.”

“Thanks.” Nick handed Stephanie her phone. “What does Ruby want? It’s freaking Sunday and I feel like crap.”

“He loves working on Sundays. Says it’s a day when everyone else rests, but not him. He said to make sure you were there at nine but didn’t say why.”

Nick drove behind Stephanie’s Volkswagen beetle. Dark sunglasses shielded his eyes from the sun glinting off the neon yellow paint. At three minutes before nine, Stephanie unlocked the office door and flicked on the lights.

“Sit down, you look awful,” she said. “Mr. Ruby’s not in yet.”

“Can I use your desk phone to call Katie again?”

She sighed and pushed the phone across the desk.

Nick put the receiver to his ear as Ruby entered the office. He hung up the phone.

“Hello, my dear.” Ruby nodded to Stephanie. “Nick, you’re looking a bit under the weather this morning. Come in.”

Nick followed Ruby into his office and sank into the guest chair. The smothering heat in Ruby’s office magnified the steady pounding in his head.

Ruby didn’t waste time. “You should have consulted with me first before bringing a date to the VIP party.”

“Katie’s not a date, Mr. Ruby. She’s my fiancée,” Nick said.

“I’m marketing you as an available bachelor, Nick.” Ruby tapped his fingernails on the desk. “Lose the fiancée.”

“Lose Katie? You can’t be serious?”

“I am. Though, after your infamous debut last night, the situation may resolve itself.”

“What do you mean?”

Ruby pointed a remote toward the enormous flat screen television mounted on the wall. He flipped through the channels and settled on an entertainment news show. “It’s been playing all morning.”

The screen displayed the entrance to the Grande Plaza Hotel. A female reporter described the gala event. The camera panned across the long line of guests entering the hotel for the VIP party. The scene switched to video clips of the party in progress with a voice-over detailing the celebrities present.

“. . . featured an all-star line-up including best-selling horror author Joseph Cullen, heavy metal rock star Ian Slaughter and his band Blood Lust, film actors Bethany Grant, Lee Woods, and the cast of two hit cable TV series, Full Moon Coming and Dark Reflections. A newcomer on the music scene, Talon, turned heads in her leather bikini and black feathered wings. The six-foot-six singer caused quite a spectacle when she shoved Ian Slaughter off the stage and led the band for the rest of the evening. Ruby International Promotions will not confirm if it was a rehearsed publicity stunt or something more serious. On the heels of their first platinum record, rumors have been circulating that Ian Slaughter is quitting the band to pursue a solo career. Neither Talon nor Slaughter have answered our calls to comment.

“During the press conference portion last evening, new horror author Nick Tera, was introduced as Ruby Promotion’s talent search winner. Mr. Tera is said to have a quite a reputation with the ladies. As you can see from our clips, he did not disappoint.”

“And there you are, Mr. Tera.” Ruby chuckled and pointed at the screen.

Nick watched Rachel and Ebony kissing him and opening his shirt on stage. The two models hung on Nick in every video clip. The segment ended with a dimly lit shot of the three entering Nick’s apartment building. The final shaky footage depicted Nick shoving a camera man who attempted to follow the three into the lobby of the building.

The reporter closed with, “Nick Tera’s outrageous behavior, made musician Ian Slaughter look like a choir boy tonight. It’s unusual for a writer to outdo the antics of a rock star, but Nick Tera’s debut is causing quite a buzz in the entertainment world this morning.”

“No! That’s on television?” Nick stood. A sour bile taste inched up his throat from his queasy stomach.

“Yes. And in newspapers and on the internet.” Ruby grinned showing his unnaturally white teeth.

“You think it’s funny?”

“I think it’s a gift. We couldn’t get this much publicity if I’d taken out a full-page ad in the Sunday Times.”

“I look like a drunken jerk. How’s this going to sell my book?”

“Ah, Nick, so naive. Book orders are pouring in as we speak. As are requests for you to appear for book signings and talk shows. The reporter hit on something I hadn’t considered. A writer acting more outrageously than a rock star. Mr. Slaughter has lost his edge. It appears you’re my new poster boy for bad behavior.”

Nick eased himself into the chair. Leaning forward, he pressed his palms against his temples. “Mr. Ruby, I don’t understand what you want from me. I’m grateful you agreed to publish my book. But this image you’ve created, it’s not me. I wanted to be a writer. The only publicity I want is for my books. Putting those models on the stage with me last night was embarrassing. And, if you’re asking me to choose between Katie and the book deal—”

“Ah, yes Katie,” Ruby interrupted. “Beautiful girl, I understand your attraction. I enjoyed talking with her last night. She’s very bright. It’s unfortunate, the poor girl fell ill.”

“I should have taken her home.”

“The show was about to start, and she didn’t want to interfere with your debut. Besides I told you, my driver took her home.”

“Yes. I appreciate that.”

Ruby patted Nick on the shoulder. “How about a compromise, Nick? You’ll appear solo at all promotional events. Keep your engagement private for now.”

Nick looked at him with bloodshot eyes. “If Katie sees the video of those two models going into my apartment, I will be solo.”

Ruby pressed his intercom button. “Stephanie, send one dozen red roses to Ms. Katie Harrington at,” he glanced at Nick, “her address?”

“737 Piermont. Apartment 7.”

“737 Piermont. Apartment 7. And send a box of those chocolate covered strawberries. The ones we had at the VIP party. She remarked how much she enjoyed one last night. Put Nick’s name on the card.” Ruby cut off the intercom. “There, feel better?”

“Thanks, but I doubt flowers and fruit will make up for the two women in my bed this morning.”

“Then lie to her.” Ruby waved his hand. “Tell her it was a publicity stunt. Blame it on me. Keeping up the bachelor image.” He laughed. “After all, the video is at the entrance to the building, not inside your bedroom. Celebrities leak controversial videos and photos all the time. It’s the oldest trick in the book to gain instant publicity.”

“I hate the thought of lying to Katie.”

Ruby rolled his eyes. “Fine. Tell her the truth. While she was home wretchedly sick, you got shit-faced drunk and after your very public foreplay, you banged two gorgeous models all night. Does the truth cleanse your Catholic guilt?”

“No. It has nothing to do with religion. I don’t want to hurt her.” Nick sighed. “I’ve never lied or cheated on Katie.”

“Such dramatics over one night of sex.” Ruby lit a cigar. The cloying odor of the smoke mingled with the suffocating heat. “You like to screw women. So what? A juicier story will come along. The media will get bored with your sexual antics. Who knows, tomorrow a Hollywood starlet could overdose or a rock star might fling himself out a window. Embrace the publicity. It doesn’t last forever.”

“Katie’s the woman I want to marry, have a family with. I’m not interested in other women. If I hadn’t gotten so drunk—”

“Enough.” Ruby tapped his cigar against the edge of his ashtray. He walked to his computer station and pressed a key on the keyboard. Six large monitors lit up on the wall.

“Ha! I so love the Internet,” Ruby said. “Hits on your website have quadrupled since last night. The digital age. Makes it so easy to reach thousands of souls, possibly millions.”

“I have a website?” Nick joined Ruby in front of the bank of monitors.

“Of course, and a Facebook fan page, and Twitter account. All necessary for marketing.”

Nick squinted at the bright screens. “Who’s doing the tweets and the posts on the website?”

“Not your worry. Part of my publicity staff are devoted solely to social media.” Ruby pointed to another screen. “Look. Book orders. And posters and tee shirts. Fantastic! The electronic version of your book will be released shortly and will open up another market. I’ll cut a check for you tomorrow. From the looks of these numbers, quite a large check. That should assuage your guilty conscious.”

Nick’s temples throbbed. Sweat coated his body from the oppressive heat in Ruby’s office. Simply standing upright made him feel like he might vomit.

Ruby took him by the arm and led him to his office door. “You have a busy week ahead. I’ll have Stephanie call you tomorrow with your itinerary. We’ll need to get the manuscripts for the rest of your trilogy over to the publisher. Finish your next book. You’ve got a long way to go to catch up to ol’ Joe Cullen.”

Ruby stooped to pick up a long, bluish-black feather from the carpet. “Go to your apartment and rest, Nick. I need you fresh for next week.”

“I’ll be fine after I get some sleep. I apologize for getting so drunk last night.”

“No need to apologize. I’m a huge fan of self-indulgence.” He stroked the feather against his carefully groomed beard. “I couldn’t be more pleased with your debut.”

Nick left the building upset over Ruby’s dismissive attitude toward his engagement and confused about his gleeful reaction to the bad publicity. He should have balked against keeping his engagement secret, but his hangover left him little energy to debate Ruby.

His started up the Mustang and drove to Katie’s apartment. As he passed the hospital, he remembered Katie was scheduled to work today. She turned her phone off when she was at work. He hoped that was the reason he reached her voice mail earlier and not Katie refusing his calls after seeing his televised fiasco.

He made a U-turn and parked in the side lot of the hospital. The nurse sitting at the desk recognized him and told him Katie had called in sick.

Katie never called off work. Worried, he sped down the four short blocks from the hospital to her apartment. Seeing an open parking space, he hit the brakes hard. Something slid on the floor of the car and bumped against his foot. He picked up his cell phone. The battery was dead.

The sunny morning turned cloudy and cool. Thunder rumbled in the distance as he walked up the path. Katie’s front door stood wide open and bags of groceries lined the stoop.

His head hurt as he bent to scoop up the plastic bags and carry them inside. Tara stood with her back to the door talking to Katie.

“. . . sorry, sweetie, I know you love him, but let’s face it, he’s a no-good whore dog.”

Katie sat at the kitchen table, dressed in pink leggings and one of Nick’s tee shirts. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail emphasizing her pale, drawn face. She looked up when Nick entered. Tara continued her monologue as she unpacked groceries. “You know what they say, the bigger the rock they give you, the more women they have on the—” She turned to see what Katie was staring at behind her. Her eyes widened. “Nick! I didn’t hear you come in.”

“You were too busy bad-mouthing me.” He plunked the bags on the table and looked at Katie’s red, puffy eyes. She pushed herself up from the chair and hurried to her bedroom. Nick followed a few steps behind. She closed the door, leaving him standing in the hallway.

“Katie?” He knocked softly on the door. “Can I talk to you, please?”

Nick glanced over at Tara. She stood in the kitchen with her arms crossed, watching him.

“Mind your own business.”

“It is my business,” she said. “Katie’s my best friend.”

“Since when.” Nick knocked again. When Katie didn’t reply, he turned the knob and the door opened. He slid inside and closed it. Katie lay on her bed, her back facing him.

“Go away.” Her voice quivered.

He walked around the bed and knelt on the floor to face her. Tears ran from her eyes. She rolled over, putting her back to him again.

“Babe,” he said stroking her hair. “How are you feeling?”

Katie inched away from his touch. “How do you think I feel?” she murmured into her pillow.

“I’m so sorry.” He eased himself onto the bed next to her and put his arm around her waist.

Katie shrugged off his arm and moved to the far side of the bed. “What exactly are you sorry for?”

Nick sighed. “Everything. I’m sorry you got sick and couldn’t be there last night. And that I wasn’t there to take you home. Sorry I drank too much and—”

Katie turned and glared at him. “Sorry you slept with those two—” Soft sobs cut off her words.

“No,” Nick moved toward her.

“You’re not sorry?”

The betrayed look in Katie’s eyes wrenched at his heart. “I meant no, I didn’t sleep with them.” In a split second, he decided to lie to spare her more hurt. He feared the truth would end their relationship.

“It’s all over the TV and the Internet. Tara showed me your tweets and posts on your website.”

“Of course, she did,” Nick mumbled. “Katie, Ruby set up everything. It was a stupid publicity stunt. Those aren’t my tweets, or posts. He pays a staff to run the social media.”

“The video of the party shows you kissing those women and more. And then all three of you going into your apartment building.” Katie drew her knees close to her chest. “You proposed to me only three days ago. How could you do this?”

Nick pulled her shaking body close to him. “I didn’t sleep with them.” A hollow feeling filled his stomach and throat. He felt thankful he didn’t have to look into her eyes as he lied. “I was drunk. And nervous, so I kept drinking. I didn’t feel anything from the alcohol until after the press conference. It hit me all at once. I was passing out when they were hanging on me at the party. I wanted to leave and come see you. I couldn’t think straight. Ruby told me this morning it was all planned. He’s marketing me as an available bachelor. He hired the models to pose for photos outside the apartment building. I was too damn drunk to stop it.” He put his arm around her. “And, for that, I am the most sorry.”

Katie pulled away from him and hugged her pillow. A folded piece of paper poked out from beneath the pillow. He recognized his typed marriage proposal.

“I called you so many times. You never called me back,” she whispered.

“I lost my cell. When Steph and I came back to the party, Ruby told me you were sick and left. I wanted to call you, but my phone was gone. The show was starting, and I had to get backstage. I asked Steph to look for my cell.” Nick rubbed Katie’s back. “After the press conference, I went home and passed out. I called you this morning, from Steph’s phone. I left a message.”

“I didn’t get any message,” Katie said.

“Babe, I swear I called you. I’m used to pushing one programmed button. Maybe I dialed wrong.” Nick sighed and rolled onto his back to ease the incessant pounding headache. “I found my phone in my car when I pulled up here. The battery’s dead.”

“I watched the press conference on TV. The question about all the women you’ve seduced– why didn’t you deny it? Then those models came out. You never told me they were at the photo shoot with you. Tara showed me the poster with the three of you,” Katie said.

“Janis Ford asked that question. It wasn’t one of the approved questions. You saw the press questions. Janis hates me. I said it wasn’t true, but the microphone wasn’t working. As for the models,” Nick blew out a long breath, “I never mentioned them being at the photo shoot because it was stupid. I didn’t know Ruby planned on printing a poster. I thought I’d never see them again.”

Katie lay silent, curled up away from him. He closed his eyes. The cool, quiet room and the rhythmic drumming of rain falling outside soothed this head. “Katie, I was on a stage. I tried to push them away. What could I do, punch a woman on live TV? Not that it matters, I came across looking like an ass—”

Katie jumped up and rushed out of the room. The bathroom door slammed. Pain jolted through his temples as he sat up and followed her. He heard her coughing and retching behind the closed door. The sounds made his own queasy stomach lurch. He walked into the kitchen to wait.

Tara sat in the living room watching the recorded VIP party. The Sunday newspaper and The Entertainer were on the kitchen table, both opened to stories and pictures of the VIP party.

“Tara,” Nick said. “Would you please stop playing that?” He folded the newspapers. Tara muted the television and strolled into the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator and took out a shiny, gold box. “These are delicious, want one?” She offered a box of chocolate-dipped strawberries.

“No. Did the roses come?” he asked.

“Yes! They’re gorgeous. Katie didn’t want them. I hated to throw them away, so I put them in my room. Wanna see?”

“No. Would you check on Katie? It sounded like she was throwing up.”

“Duh. She’s been vomiting all night. Not sure if it’s a stomach bug or food poisoning. I bought Gatorade and ginger ale, so she won’t dehydrate, and some saltine crackers.”

“Thanks.”

“It sounded really lame, by the way.” Tara made a loud slurping sound as she bit into a strawberry and sucked the juice.

“What sounded lame?”

“Oh, c’mon, Nick,” Tara laughed. The high-pitched sound sent shock waves of pain through his head. She deepened her voice to mimic him, “I lost my phone. The microphone stopped working.” She laughed some more. “You’re a writer, couldn’t you come up with something better? What’s next, I tripped and my penis accidentally fell into a super model? Oh, I mean you tripped twice and—”

“Shut up. You were listening outside Katie’s door?” Nick took a step toward Tara. “You have no right making up lies about me. Katie’s sick and you’re making things worse. Some damned best friend you are. Did you tell her about all the times you came on to me when she wasn’t around? If I’m such a dog, then why didn’t I take you up on your offers?”

“Dogs don’t poop where they eat. If I didn’t live with Katie, you’d be all over this.” She pointed to herself and wiggled her hips.

“Oh please, don’t flatter yourself.”

“Please stop yelling.” Katie stood in the open bathroom doorway with her palms on her temples. Her red-rimmed eyes stood out against her paper white face. She turned, and holding onto the wall, walked into her bedroom.

Nick hurried after her. She sat on the edge of the bed and tried to sip a glass of water. Her hands shook so, she couldn’t bring the glass to her mouth.

“Here.” Nick held the glass to her lips. Katie nodded when she had drunk enough and then slumped backwards onto the bed. He swung her legs up onto the bed and slid a pillow under her head. “What can I do to help?”

“Just go.” Tears dripped from the corners of her closed eyelids. “I can’t talk now. I feel awful.”

“Can I get you more water or something?”

“Excuse me.” Tara brushed by Nick carrying a small tray. She placed it on the nightstand. “Here’s some ginger ale and crackers. And a cold rag.” Tara wrung out the washcloth in a small bowl of ice water and draped it over Katie’s forehead.

Nick stood watching Katie after Tara left the room. His frustration and guilt grew by the minute. He wanted nothing more than to lie down next to her and fall asleep holding her. He saw his book under the tray on her bedside table. Yellow post-it notes stuck out from between the pages. Sliding it out, he saw Katie’s neat handwriting detailed the changes from his original story on each note.

“I read it. Go ahead. Take it.” Katie pulled the sheet up to her chin.

Nick leaned and kissed her on the cheek. “Get some rest. Call me if you need anything.”

Katie didn’t reply.

“Call me later, please?”

Katie lay silent with her eyes closed. Nick whispered in her ear. “I love you.”

He quietly closed the door. Tara sat at the kitchen table staring at her laptop. He saw his website’s home page displayed on her screen.

“Tara, keep an eye on Katie and don’t upset her.”

“What do you think I’ve been doing? I am a nurse, you know. I’m the one who’s been taking care of her all night while you were out taking care of yourself.” Tara giggled and pointed at the screen. “One click, and I joined your new Fan Club.” She laughed again. “And you posted that you gave Rachel a nine score in bed, but, gave Ebony an eleven because she used to be a gymnast.”

“I’m standing right here. It’s obviously not me posting that bullshit.” He grabbed some of the empty plastic grocery bags from the table and wrapped his book to protect it from the rain. He crumpled up the newspapers on the table and stuffed them into the bag.

“Hey!” Tara yelled. “I bought those as souvenirs for Katie.”

Nick restrained himself from yelling so as not to disturb Katie. He held up his middle finger as he opened the door. He stepped off the front stoop into the rain. Tara leaned out the open door and called after him. “Is that an invitation?”

Halfway to his car, a loud clap of thunder signaled a torrential downpour. Drenched to the skin and too exhausted to run, Nick trudged to the curb with his book clutched against his chest. His jeans made a squishing sound when he sank into the leather car seat.

The hurt in Katie’s eyes wouldn’t leave his mind. The guilt of cheating on her and then lying about it burned an acidy hole in his empty stomach. If Katie found out the truth, she would leave him. A wave of nausea swept over him. He pulled into an empty parking lot and opened the driver’s door to vomit, but only dry-heaved. The wrenching motion in his gut tore a new blinding pain in his head.

Nick peeled off his wet clothes, hung them in the bathroom and then showered. He pulled on a pair of his old sweatpants. A small comfort from before Victor Ruby ruled his wardrobe.

After plugging his cell phone into the charger, he studied the maze of buttons and digital displays on the coffee maker Stephanie had given him. A one-inch thick instruction manual sat on the counter next to it. He didn’t have the patience to look up how to brew a simple cup of coffee. Instead, he poured the cold, leftover coffee Stephanie had made that morning into a mug and heated it in the microwave. He shook out four aspirin from the bottle she had left and carried the warm mug to the couch.

Sitting on the overstuffed leather sectional, he took a drink of coffee and swallowed the aspirin. As the pills washed down his throat, it triggered a memory. Ebony had used her tongue to push a pill into his mouth. She drugged him. That’s why he couldn’t remember most of last night. He almost called Katie but thought of Tara’s words. He hated to agree with her, but his explanations did sound like lame excuses. Any conversation about the VIP party would involve telling Katie more lies. He stretched out and rested his aching head on the cushioned sofa arm.

It was late afternoon when Nick woke. To his relief, the headache was gone and hunger pangs replaced the sour churning in his stomach. Although the rain had stopped, a dense grey blanket of clouds covered the late spring sky.

After checking his cell phone for any missed calls from Katie, he went around the apartment and opened the windows. The French doors in the bedroom opened inward. Gusts of wind cleansed the last clinging traces of Rachel’s perfume from the air.

He found clean sheets in the linen closet along with a flyer detailing the building’s laundry services. After making up the bed in fresh, cotton sheets, he stuffed the soiled satin ones and his clothes into a canvas laundry bag. He set the bag in the hallway outside his apartment door with the filled-out form.

After purging the apartment of all remnants of his indiscretion, he cooked bacon and eggs and ate at the counter as he thumbed through his novel. He had read the words on his computer screen countless times, yet this was the first time he read them in a hard-cover book. Katie’s post-it notes demonstrated how she had pored over each line and added more weight to his guilt.

He checked his cell phone, though he knew it hadn’t rung. It had finally charged enough to retrieve last night’s messages. There were seven from Katie. She had called him from the rest room when she first felt ill. The series of calls continued throughout the night into early morning. Her voice sounded increasingly shaky with each message. In her last, after one in the morning, she broke into sobs. Nick pushed the delete button and then texted Katie, Don’t want 2 wake U. Call me. We have to talk. Luv U.

An eighth message from his brother, Sal, had come in later this morning. Nick pressed the call back button.

Sal answered on the first ring. “Hey Nick, Nonna wants to talk to you.” He lowered his voice. “She’s super-pissed.”

Nick waited while Sal handed the phone to his grandmother.

“What’s the matter with you? Disgrazia!” she shouted. She alternated between Italian and English when she was upset. She said her friends told her he was on television. She turned on the set and saw for herself. “We raised you better than that! You embarrass the family and yourself! Disgrazia! You disrespect Katie! The girl you want to marry! What kind of people you work for?”

Nick listened to her tirade in silence. During her brief pauses, he mumbled, “Yes, ma’am,” and, “I’m sorry.”

“I say an entire rosary for you this morning, Nickie,” Nonna said. “You apologize to Katie. Stop acting like a prostituto maschio! Disgrazia. Cane in calor! You hear me?”

“Yes, Nonna. I already apologized to Katie and I’m sorry I embarrassed you. I drank too much. I promise, it won’t happen again.” His grandmother wouldn’t understand Ruby’s manufactured publicity. It was simpler to blame his behavior on alcohol.

“You go to confession, Nickie. Ask God’s forgiveness. Talk to Father Santore.”

“Yes, Nonna.”

After a few seconds of silence, Sal came back on the phone. He whispered, “Hey, Nick, did you really do it with those models? Two at the same time?”

Nick ended the call and slammed his cell on the counter. He paced the apartment. In one night, he had screwed up his relationships with Katie and his family. Ruby’s publicity stunt and his own drunkenness cost him dearly. He had to repair the damage.

Picking up his book, he walked to his desk and turned on his laptop. Referring to Katie’s notes, he focused on mending the story line in his second and third books. The revisions Ruby ordered changed key scenes which resulted in the protagonist, Julian, becoming a blood-thirsty murderer. Nick’s original story portrayed a sympathetic Julian who reluctantly abandoned his love, Caroline, in order to protect her from evil Diana a jealous vampiress. Ruby’s version allied Julian with Diana, and had Julian kill Caroline in a blood-filled vicious attack scene.

With the book now printed, there was nothing he could do to salvage his first story. Instead, Nick typed for hours revising the second book to bring his main character back to redemption. He stopped long enough to skim a few pages of the coffee maker manual and brewed a fresh pot of coffee.

At midnight, he sat in front of his computer screen, sipped coffee and read over his work. He liked it better than his original. In the third volume, Julian reunites with his reincarnated love, Caroline. After a climactic battle with Diana, Julian kills the evil vampires. He added a twist at the end; to save Caroline from becoming a vampire, Julian must destroy himself. It would be a bitter-sweet ending, with the hero regaining his soul but sacrificing his life to save the life of the woman he loves. He started typing the new ending when his cell phone beeped. He ran to the kitchen to check his phone.

Katie texted good nite. The simple message made him smile. While he would have preferred she had called, her text was a positive sign. He texted back, Good nite, I Luv U.

Feeling wide awake after his long nap and a pot of coffee, he returned to his computer and continued to write. Bringing his story closer to the original version made him feel in control of at least one aspect of his life. The real test would be convincing Ruby not to change it again.

The sound of the doorbell startled him after one in the morning. He wondered if the laundry service worked this late. He opened the door to find a thin, barefoot girl with two long, red pony tails. It took him a second to recognize Stephanie without her usual make-up, designer clothes and high heels. She looked prepubescent in a baby blue tank top and pink shorts.

“Steph, is everything okay?”

“Chris is dead.” She stared up at him with wet, blank eyes. Her arms hung limp at her sides. She clutched a brown envelope in one hand.

“Chris Turner? What happened?”

Stephanie opened her mouth, but only ragged gasps came out.

Nick put his arm around her shoulders. “Come inside.” He led her to the couch, and she collapsed onto it, sobbing.

Nick knelt on the floor in front of her and squeezed her hands. “Steph, calm down. Tell me what happened.”

She buried her face against his bare chest. The gesture made him uncomfortable and he excused himself and left the room. He had no tissues, so he grabbed a roll of toilet paper from the bathroom and a T-shirt from his closet. Setting the tissue roll on the sofa arm, he hurried into the kitchen to get a glass of water. He pulled his T-shirt on as he walked.

Stephanie sat, wiping her eyes when he returned with the water. As soon as he sat down, she cuddled next to him.

“What happened?” Nick said.

“It’s on the news. They said he jumped out the window of his hotel room.”

The hair on the back of his neck prickled. Ruby’s words about a rock star throwing himself out of a window replayed in his mind.

Nick picked up the television remote and scanned through the channels. It didn’t take long to find a news station with Chris’s picture displayed above a red breaking-news banner. He leaned forward and listened to the reporter.

“. . . hotel staff told police a loud party raged on for hours tonight in the rock star’s room. Shortly after eleven o’clock, police responded to noise complaints and ordered the guests to leave the premises. A young woman at the party told reporters that Slaughter was high on drugs and alcohol. Chris Turner, whose stage name is Ian Slaughter, has been rumored to use crack cocaine and methamphetamine. Allegedly, he bragged to several party guests he could fly. Witnesses claim the thirty-two-year-old singer climbed atop the balcony railing outside his window. Details are murky and police have declined to comment about this open investigation. Speculation is, he either fell, was pushed, or he jumped fifteen stories to the parking lot below. Ian Slaughter was pronounced dead at the scene. This story is still breaking. Stay tuned for updates.”

Stephanie covered her face with both hands and cried harder.

“Sorry.” Nick muted the set and stared at the silent images of Ian Slaughter and the Blood Lust band flicker and fade across the screen. Finally, a photo without the stage makeup revealed a smiling young man with a tan complexion, strong jaw line and brilliant teal blue eyes. Aware of Stephanie’s muffled sobs, Nick turned off the television. She burrowed against him. He sat back and put his arm around her. Although he had only talked to Chris for a few minutes, he liked him and found it difficult to believe he was a drug addict, especially after he refused any alcohol before taking the stage last night.

Stephanie’s sobs gradually subsided. She sat up and dabbed at her eyes with the tissue.

“What’s in the envelope, Steph?” The sealed envelope had Stephanie’s name and address on it.

“My demo CD. It came in the mail today. I can’t open it now. Chris helped me record it. We sneaked into the recording studio a few weeks ago in Ruby’s building. Chris said I was a talented singer and wanted me to quit Ruby Promotions.”

Stephanie unrolled more paper and blew her nose. “It’s mostly country songs, but he and I did a couple of ballads together, too.” She picked up the glass of water. “Do you have any alcohol?”

“I have beer and wine in the fridge.”

“Could I have some wine, please?”

Nick’s first instinct was to tell her she was too young, but he had grown up drinking wine with dinner since he was a child. Under the circumstances, he didn’t think a glass of wine would do any harm and it might calm her. “Sure.” He walked into the kitchen. Stephanie followed and sat on a tall stool at the counter while he poured two glasses of red wine.

“Mmm.” Stephanie drained her glass in two long gulps, then picked up the bottle and poured herself another. “I drank about a half a bottle I had upstairs, but I don’t feel drunk yet.”

“Take it easy. Getting drunk won’t help. Trust me, I know.”

“I want to numb out. I can’t believe Chris is gone. I just talked to him at the party last night.” She poured more wine into her empty glass. Nick took the bottle from her hands in mid-pour. “That’s enough, Steph. You’re a lightweight.” He put the nearly empty bottle back into the refrigerator.

“I don’t believe Chris killed himself,” Stephanie blurted. Her eyes filled with tears. “He was going home tomorrow to see his daughter and to work things out with his wife.”

“I didn’t really know him, but he didn’t seem like a drug addict, either.”

“He wasn’t! That’s all Ruby’s doing. His stupid stereotype image for rock stars. Drugs, sex and wild parties. Chris is . . . was . . . so sweet, kind. He was my friend.” Stephanie buried her face in her hands. “Now I have no friends.”

Nick rubbed her back. “I know what it’s like to lose someone you love,” he whispered. “It takes time, but it will get easier.”

Stephanie grabbed Nick’s glass on the counter and gulped it down. She swayed when she stood. “Ruby had Chris killed.”

“What?”

She leaned against the counter for balance. “He hated Chris. Chris hated him. All they did was fight over that stupid contract.”

“A dispute over a business contract is a long way from murder, Steph.”

“Victor Ruby’s evil.” Stephanie clamped her hand over her mouth and looked around the room.

“Ruby’s strange. The fingernails. Keeping his office like a damn oven. His unorthodox ways of promoting people. The guy definitely lacks morals, but murder?”

“I’ve seen and heard stuff.” Stephanie stared wide-eyed at Nick.

“Steph, you’re upset. Hearing about Chris is a shock. And you’ve had too much wine. You want to lie down awhile? Or, do you want me to walk you upstairs to your apartment?”

Stephanie took a few faltering steps toward Nick. Her knees buckled. Nick grabbed her under her arms before she fell. She clutched his shirt. “I’m afraid to be alone. Can I stay here tonight?” She managed to stand by holding on to him. “Please? I’ll sleep on the couch.”

“I’ll take the couch. You sleep in the bed. C’mon, you need to lie down before you fall down.”

“I don’t mean to be any trouble.”

“You’re no trouble. Besides, I owe you one after yesterday morning.”

Nick carried her the last few steps to the bedroom. As he leaned over to lay her on the bed, Stephanie threw her arms around his neck and pulled him off balance. He landed on top of her in the bed, straddling her shoulders with his hands and her legs with his knees.

“I love you.” She pushed her lips against his.

“Whoa, Steph, stop.” Nick extricated himself from her arms and eased himself off the bed.

She tugged on his hand. “You can make love to me, if you want to.”

“You’ve had too much wine.” Nick gently pulled his hand away. “Try to get some sleep, okay? If you need anything, I’ll be in the living room.”

Stephanie sat up. “You don’t want me.” Her narrow shoulders shook as she cried. “Katie’s so beautiful. I’m ugly, skinny.”

Nick sighed. “Don’t say that. You’re not ugly.”

“Yes I am. I used to think Chris loved me, but he loved his wife. And you have a gorgeous fiancée. Nobody wants me. I try so hard to look grown-up and pretty, but everyone sees me as a stupid, ugly kid.”

“That’s not true, Steph. You’re a very pretty, smart girl. You’ll find a guy. One who’s not married or engaged. You need to meet people your age.”

“I thought if Chris got divorced, he’d marry me. We could raise little Brittany together. Then he told me he thought of me like a second daughter. You don’t want to make love to me. I’m the one who should kill myself!” Stephanie bolted across the bed.

The French doors leading to the balcony stood wide open. Nick dove onto the bed, grabbed Stephanie’s ankles and dragged her back onto the bed.

“Jesus, Steph! What are you doing?” Nick knelt over her, pinning her arms and legs.

“Let me go! I don’t want to live anymore. I hate you! I hate my life!”

“If I have to freaking tie you to this bed, I’m not letting you jump off a damn balcony. Now, please, Steph, calm down.”

She kicked Nick. He rolled to one side to protect his crotch from her flailing feet. She squirmed one arm free and punched him until he managed to grab her arm and stop her. He held her down until she stopped fighting, twisted onto her side and sobbed. He sat next to her until she passed out.

Nick closed the balcony doors and then took a wire hanger from the closet. Straightening it, he wound it around both handles to secure the doors. He left the bedroom door ajar so he could hear if Stephanie attempted to open the doors.

Exhausted, he sat on the couch and stared at the television screen. He kept it muted and listened for Stephanie, fearing she would wake and try to kill herself.

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