Desmond Black worked the doors of the New York City clubs for five years as he struggled to escape the haunting nightmares of his younger sister’s death. One night, he takes his anger out on an unruly patron, ultimately costing him his job. While drowning his sorrows in whiskey, Desmond meets the mysterious and talented bass player, Tianna Gadson. He senses there’s more to her than she’s letting on. The closer he gets to her, the more he realizes his feelings for her have become hazardous to them both—attracting the attention of a dangerous underground organization with its sights on Tianna and her family.
Is Desmond willing to risk his life for Tianna? Or will he be forced to keep their relationship strictly business?
Whiskey tends to taste better when my brain is wrecked. Not even the light jazz music playing on stage can soothe my nerves. My mind has been in a week-long spiral from hell, and I wish I could just forget.
But that’s not gonna happen. I’m a man with dignity, and I stand by my decision.
You didn’t take the first swing; he did, I keep telling myself. Last week is a blur. That beautiful girl—what was her name? Danielle?—thought she could sneak into the club with a fake ID and her fortysomething ‘boyfriend.’ But I’ve dealt with that shit in my line of work far too many times. Her sugar daddy thought she was privileged to go to this club or something because she was so young, so ‘innocent.’ No, you stupid sick fuck.
I’d expected the usual: a plastered look of utter shock, a declaration of authenticity, and a smirk as some rolled-up cash was discreetly forced into my hand. I would’ve proceeded to bounce them right on their pretentious asses. But no, this guy decided to be a punk instead, lashing out with a solid punch to my ribs. If I hadn’t stepped back, he would’ve broken his hand on my damn near harder-than-steel body. I’d returned the sentiment. My knuckles felt nice across that asshole’s face. But apparently, the ‘excessive force’ had cost me a one-week job suspension without pay. Unlike the grungier underground New York City clubs I’d been used to for years, the elite Posh Diamond Luxury Lounge preferred subtler means to remove unruly patrons. Thank God I had friends in high places who were able to get my assault charges dropped.
I pick up my shot glass and stare at its light-brown contents. I’m sure that bastard’s doing whatever he pleases to that poor girl. He strikes me as the type, and rarely am I ever wrong. It comes with the territory—and the job—of being around a lot of personalities for long periods of time. You can read people, know their intentions, empathize, almost like a sixth sense.
I down the shot in one gulp and set the glass on the bar top with a clunk, thinking about how fucked up some people are.
Charlie comes over with a bottle of whiskey. “You look like shit. Need another?”
I can’t waste away like this. I made a promise a long time ago that I wouldn’t. I nod and casually flick my hand. “Yeah, sure, man. One more.”
The corner of his mouth twitches, and he fills the shot glass. I swipe it up and stare at its contents.
“Listen, Desmond.” Charlie wipes the bar with a white cloth. “It could’ve been worse. At least you still have a job, y’know?”
I snort. “Shit like that gets under my skin, Charlie. There’re too many desperate people out there looking for acceptance. For love, whatever that means.” I down the shot. “I can’t help them.”
“No, you can’t. For some people, that’s the only life they know.”
I swivel in the high-backed barstool and look out at the crowd. The nightclub’s packed for a Thursday night. Couples sit at tiny tables and loungers, and larger groups claim the semicircular booths surrounding a small stage, where a four-man jazz band plays. “Say, you got any work around here for me?” I ask Charlie without looking at him.
“Nah, kid. Joe’s got it.”
Applause erupts from the crowd as the band wraps up. I look back at Charlie, who’s nervously checking his watch.
“Damn, where is she?” he mutters.
I arch an eyebrow. “Who?”
“Since when did you start hiring strippers?”
He chuckles. “She’s a local jazz artist. She was scheduled for an eleven o’clock gig, but...” He checks his watch again and frowns. “This ain’t the way to make a good first impression. Know what I’m sayin’?”
I nod and gaze out at the crowd, letting the lull of voices ease my mind. So many personalities and so many stories. Some of those stories I know all too well, like the three men in a round booth center right of the stage—players, all of them, from their too-nice button-down shirts and designer blazers to their flashy bling and gaudy sports shoes.
Their faces are flushed, their eyes glazed. They laugh and make lewd comments at an approaching waitress carrying a pitcher of beer. She hastily refills their drinks, avoiding eye contact, turns, and hustles to another table.
“Christ, there she is!” Charlie suddenly says, and I whip my head around.
A girl rushes through the entrance, snaking her way through a small group of people on their way out. She carries a black guitar case on her back. A bright-orange marigold is tucked in the white headband holding back her shoulder-length dreadlocks. Out of breath, she reaches the bar and plasters an exhausted smile on her full lips. “Hi, I’m Marigold,” she says between pants. “Sorry I’m late.”
Charlie’s lips form a thin line. “S’alright, Miss Marigold.” He gestures to the stage with his head. “Go on. Your audience awaits.”
She smiles graciously and brushes past me. For a brief moment, we lock eyes. She’s got those doe eyes, brought out with a little makeup. She’s beautiful. Her gaze falters and moves to a point beside me, as if she’s overwhelmed by the initial contact. I sense beyond that beauty, she carries an ugly story.
She gets up on stage, sits on the stool, and retrieves her bass guitar and a small MP3 player from her backpack-like case. It takes her less than a minute to set up. She does a quick tune of her strings then smiles at the audience. The stage track lights shine on her smooth mocha skin and bring out the bright red of her halter-top.
“Hi, everyone. My name is Marigold. Thank you for having me here tonight. I hope you’re all enjoying yourselves.” She scans the room as she talks, her eyes settling briefly at the bar—on Charlie, most likely. Lucky son of a bitch.
A mix of mellow drum and piano accompaniment filters through the stage speakers, and Marigold starts to play. Her fingers glide across the strings with ease as she produces some articulate vibes that I can’t help bobbing my head to. The audience falls silent, puts down their phones, and stares attentively toward the stage, moving their bodies in time with the beat.
Then she starts to sing. She doesn’t need a mic. Her beautiful voice, relaxed and flowing like smooth velvet, carries throughout the room, complementing the low, mellow strums of the guitar.
“...Why, oh why, do the birds gotta fly?
Fly so far, far away from me?
Why, oh why, can’t I spread these wings?
Spread these wings and fly so free...”
“Wow” doesn’t even begin to describe her multiple talents.
Charlie tends to a patron a few stools down then returns to me.
“She’s good,” I say.
Charlie nods. “Yeah. I guess I can forgive her for being late just this once.”
Smiling, I look back at her. She’s fearless as she sits up there alone, strumming her heart out. But fear and doubt are definitely in her. She reminds me of Little Miss Danielle, except Marigold looks several years older. Marigold’s song speaks of what I can see in her eyes. She sings about pain and running away, but she hides it in her catchy tune. The audience seems none the wiser.
My smile fades as I look at the group of guys in the corner, who appear pretty damn close to their drinking limits. They eye Marigold like a pack of hungry wolves. Thankfully, they stay put and quiet while she plays. Wandering waiters and waitresses keep their drinks coming.
Marigold sings four more songs, and before I know it, it’s already midnight. Marigold’s show is over. She rises from her stool, bows, and receives massive applause from the crowd. Even the drunk guys are on their feet, clapping wildly and whistling. She packs up her things. Some audience members make their ways to the exit.
I release the breath I’d been unconsciously holding. “Wow, Charlie, you have got to have her back here.”
“I plan to.” Charlie grins. “That was the loudest applause I’ve heard all night. Not bad for a stripper, eh?”
It’s my turn to laugh.
Marigold stops at the bar and smiles at Charlie. “Thank you so much for letting me play. And I’m sorry again for being late.”
Charlie shakes his head. “Don’t worry about that. You did a good show. When are you available to come back?”
Her doe eyes widen. “Whenever you want me, sir!”
He grins. “Okay, how about this Saturday? Same time?”
“That’s perfect! I will be here. Thank you so much.”
They shake hands, and she brushes past me again. The side of her guitar case bumps into my arm. She stops and turns around, her face flushed. “I’m sorry, sir.”
I smile at her cute look of embarrassment. “It’s all right. Hey, you were pretty good up there. Great show.”
I look at the case. “Do you need some help with that?”
“No, I got it. Thanks.” She heads for the exit.
I watch her leave, taking in every bit of her from behind. When she’s gone, I face Charlie, who smirks at me. “Ever the gentleman, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, and what of it?” I puff out my chest.
He laughs and moves farther down the bar, gathering up the empty wine and shot glasses.
I glance out at the rest of the club. The crowd’s gotten considerably thinner. I look for the guys in the corner, but they’re gone. A waitress is busy cleaning the table with a grateful look on her face.
Remembering the primal way those guys ogled her, I feel my throat tighten. Did those guys leave with Marigold? She couldn’t have gone far unless she took a taxi home. I tap the bar to get Charlie’s attention. “Hey, I’ll see you later.”
Charlie gives me a small salute and turns to another group of customers. I grab my baseball cap out of the empty chair next to me and hurry outside. Even on an early Friday morning, Midtown Manhattan is still busy. I look around for any signs of Marigold, but she’s nowhere to be found. Shoving my hands in my pockets, I cross the street toward the subway station. A small crowd emerges, and something on the stairs catches my eye. I stop. On the second step is an orange marigold, trampled by many feet. My skin prickles. Is she in trouble? I look down the stairs. A few more people come and go, brushing past me as though I don’t exist. I head underground…