Smoke hangs in the air like a thick layer of fog. Heavy, cloying and stale, mixed with an even less inviting scent of old sweat and old beer. The dim lights fight to shine through it, weakly illuminating swirling patterns just above the patrons of the dive bar.
My lip curls as my gaze roves over the dubious looking ragtag bunch of people milling about Reacher’s Row, somehow known as the hottest pub in the Section. Clearly ‘hot’ needs to be redefined. They’re all swilling drinks and grinding their hips on one another. My gaze lands on one couple practically naked in the corner, and I hastily avert my eyes. Patrons is definitely too nice a word. Tonight’s gig is anything but glamorous.
I tuck my hair behind my ear and run my fingers along the keys of the baby grand in front of me, mentally rehearsing my starting note. Taking a deep breath, I jump into the chorus of one of my favorite songs and close my eyes, letting the melody wash over me. The words coming out of my mouth, straight from my soul, sparkle. They remind me of what could be. Of better times. Not that I’ve known many of those.
Most of the audience is already well on their way to complete intoxication. Either from one too many drinks, or from the drugs they took before coming in. Typical.
But there are a few–just a few–who actually stop what they’re doing to listen. I can see them in my brief glances around the dim room as I play and sing. Their eyes follow my hands as they dance across aged black and white keys and their lips turn up at my snarky comments, thinly veiled by music and melody. My own lips curve slightly in acknowledgement, one snarky soul to another.
I am a rebel in my own right. But my songs are as far as I can go. As far as I’ll ever go.
The door swings open, letting in a rush of cool air that tingles across my hot skin. Goosebumps rise along my forearms, and a small quiver tightens my abdominal muscles. The man walking in captures my attention even before I realize it, like a shock of electricity in the air, zinging between us. I lift my eyes, still singing, and track his progress across the room.
He strides confidently to the bar and orders a longneck. My nose wrinkles imperceptibly. Figures. He looks like a beer drinker. Then he sits down, but not with his back to me like I expected. That’s the first thing that surprises me. The second is his intense stare. He’s bold. I like that.
I let my own gaze linger, wishing one of the dim lights would shine on his face like a spotlight. I want to see the features I only glimpsed when he walked in. The firm set to his jaw. The piercing nature of his eyes. The dark stubble along his chin. I smile inwardly, amused with myself. My memory fills in more than I ever could have actually seen. Maybe it’s better there’s no spotlight. Always a chance he won’t live up to expectation.
I run my fingers along the keys as the last chord fades and a round of spotty applause fills in the empty spaces. I lift my gaze briefly, glancing in his direction again and notice he’s set his beer down to join in. Color me impressed.
My eyes find the neon clock on the wall above the bar, noting the time. There’s one more song in this set, then I have a fifteen minute break scheduled. I hesitate, mentally arguing with myself, Cover song or original?
Original wins out and I start the haunting melody to my favorite ballad. It pours out of me, pulled smooth like taffy, and I close my eyes, my fingers dancing along the keys, letting the words do the rest. It’s about love and loss. Joy and sadness. Tears and laughter. It’s about me, mostly.
With a final exhale, I finish the song with a delicate arpeggio and pause, savoring the stillness as the final note rings out and fades to oblivion. Then the applause starts up again, stronger this time, and my lips curve. I speak into the mic, my voice husky from smoke and singing, “Thanks all. Don’t go too far now—I’ll be back.”
I rise to my feet as the murmur of conversations start up all around me and make my way off of the rickety stage, taking care not to fall in my thick, rather dangerous looking wedges. It’s all for show, I’d never be caught dead in these things at any other time. A girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do.
I manage to land safely on the dingy carpet and stop, goosebumps rising along my flesh again. I can feel those eyes of his drilling into me, like he can see right down to the core of my being. It’s at once provocative and inviting, though not in a bad way. Maybe somewhat unsettling, if I’m honest. I chew the inside of my lip, but something draws me forward in an uncharacteristic move. I’m not normally the girl that demands a guy buy her a drink, but tonight… tonight I think I could be her.
“You have a beautiful voice.” The timbre of his own voice is like dark chocolate, smooth and rich but with a bite to it. Maybe a hint of salt. It washes over me as I approach, sending a rush of warm heat to my already flushed cheeks.
My lips part and my brow wrinkles. Caught off guard, I’m surprised at his opening line. I resist an urge to joke back and ask if that’s the best he’s got. Ha. Like you’ve got anything better, I chide myself. Besides, something tells me he’s being genuine.
I clear my throat, shifting on my feet. I wince inwardly when my pinky toe is pinched in pain by my heinous shoes. “Thanks. You’re new.” My voice is strangled and my words are lame, but I can’t think of anything else to point out. His lips quirk at the corners, and I see a brief flash of white teeth.
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