One of my earliest memories is that of my parents kissing. It may not sound like a poignant or remarkable event, considering they were married and kissed several times a day, but this particular kiss has always stayed with me.
I couldn’t have been more than three years old. My father had a conference to attend in Florida, so my mother decided we’d all go. One day, when my father walked into the hotel room after a day of seminars, he kissed my mother, practically stealing her breath. When he pulled back, she murmured, “Welcome home.”
At the time, I thought it odd. We weren’t home. This was just a hotel room we were staying in for a few nights. When I asked my mother, she told me something I’ll never forget.
“Home isn’t a place. It’s a feeling. And when I’m with your father, I’m home.”
Since then, I’ve searched for that feeling of home, desperate to experience that same sense of belonging my mother did every time she peered into my father’s eyes.
I never thought I’d find it where I did.
* * *
A blast of wind whips my hair in front of my face. I smooth it behind my ear as I stare at the awning of a lounge near Bryant Park. Everything about it appears trendy and pretentious. I shouldn’t be surprised this is the type of place Jessie requested I meet him. He was never the kind of person to head to a neighborhood dive bar for a beer.
I could easily turn around, tell him something came up at the hospital and I had to work overtime. But there was something that urged me to pick up my cell when I saw his name flash on my caller ID. Something in his voice when he called that made me agree to his request. Guilt. Remorse. Desperation.
I’m not sure if it’s on my part or his.
When Jessie and I dated, then were engaged, he had a commanding presence. It may have seemed that way because his twenty-three years felt so mature next to my mere nineteen. He had this confidence that drew me to him, making me forget about everyone else who came before him.
Almost everyone else.
Regardless, in those few years we were together, he’d never sounded so lost, so uncertain as he did on the phone. Whatever he needs to talk to me about must be important if he called after not having so much as sent a text or email in the past nine years. I worry the secret I’ve been keeping is about to come out in a spectacular fashion.
Inhaling a calming breath, I smooth my hands over my wool coat, descending the short flight of stairs into the basement lounge on shaky legs. A wall of warmth assaults me the instant I step into the darkened room. It’s not your typical Manhattan bar — big, noisy, overcrowded. This place is small, maybe enough seats for thirty people between the small bar counter and lush chairs. There’s no loud music being piped in. Instead, ambient jazz sounds in the background.
“Do you have a reservation?” a petite blonde in a black dress asks as I attempt to unwrap my scarf, a few beads of sweat forming on the back of my neck, most likely from a combination of nerves and the drastic change in temperature from the frigid air outside.
“Actually, I’m meeting—”
I fling my gaze in the direction of that voice, my breath hitching when I see a man I haven’t in nearly a decade. A man I’d hoped to never see again. Not because he’d sought comfort in another woman’s arms before I’d officially returned his ring. But because I fear what he’ll notice in my eyes.
“Jessie.” I feel like I’m staring at a living memory, the act of peering into his dark orbs returning me to a time in my life when seeing him was an everyday occurrence. For over two years, it was.
Not a single strand of his chestnut hair is out of place, his jawline clean-shaven, making me think he probably has a weekly appointment with his barber. His tall, slender physique looks borderline intimidating in an impeccably tailored three-piece suit. Jessie always was the type to dress well, even when he was younger.
“Dress for the job you want. Not the one you have,” he’d say.
Now, based on what I know, he has the job he always wanted.
“Hey.” He scrapes a hand through his hair. “I’m glad you’re here. It really…” He exhales a shaky breath. “You had every reason not to, but I’m grateful you agreed to meet me.”
I press my lips into a tight line, not responding. How can I? I fear the second I open my mouth, the truth will fall from me like an avalanche. The unease about his invitation has been eating me up to the point I’ve barely slept since I received his phone call. Anyone else in my position wouldn’t have agreed, would have distanced themselves. But my curiosity got the better of me. As did my compassion. Despite our past, this is a man I once imagined spending the rest of my life with. A man I once loved.
One I probably always will.
“Can I take your jacket, miss?” the hostess asks, cutting through my thoughts.
“Thank you.” I remove my scarf and gloves before unbuttoning my coat.
As I shrug out of it, Jessie reacts quickly, helping me, as he always did. I offer him an appreciative smile. When he takes in the dress I selected for tonight, his eyes flare. It’s a far cry from the jeans and t-shirts I wore every day of my undergraduate career. The last time he saw me, I was a girl, only a few weeks past my twenty-first birthday. A lot can change in that time.
“Enjoying the show?” I retort playfully, crossing my arms in front of my chest, which only serves to accentuate my cleavage that’s already prominently on display, thanks to the plunging neckline of the sleek red dress.
“Um… Sorry, Iz. You just… You look… Wow.”
My cheeks heat. Regardless of everything that transpired between us, the fact he still finds me beautiful is a much-needed confidence boost after having recently celebrated my thirtieth birthday.
“This way.” He places his hand on the small of my back, leading me toward a secluded table in a darkened corner. When I slip into the lounge chair, Jessie ensures I’m comfortable before taking his seat across from me. “What would you like to drink?” He signals for a server. “I’m assuming you’ve outgrown jungle juice and kamikaze shots.”
My stomach roils at the mere mention. “You assume correctly. I can’t even think about triple sec without wanting to hurl.”
“Duly noted.” There’s a twinkle in his eye I never noticed before. He’s always been charming and charismatic. It’s what attracted me to him all those years ago. But now it’s more pronounced, his maturity accentuating all the qualities I once appreciated.
“What can I get you?” a tall redhead in a tight-fitting dress asks, placing a cocktail napkin in front of me.
“Dry martini, please.”
“Certainly.” She turns her attention to Jessie. “Another club soda?”
With a curt nod, he responds. “Please.”
I watch as she retreats, then turn back to him. “No jungle juice for you, either?”
“Nah. I’m not much of a drinker these days. At least not when I need to keep a clear head.”
I swallow hard. “And what do you need to have a clear head for?” My voice trembles, my mouth growing dry as a chill trickles down my spine.
He brushes the pad of his thumb along the length of his bottom lip, contemplative. His stare causes goosebumps to prickle my skin, a sinking sensation settling deep in my stomach. “Obviously I didn’t call you out of the blue to reminisce about the past.” His eyes gleam with amusement.
“I figured as much.” I run my clammy hands along the skirt of my dress, fidgeting with the hem in a desperate need to do something with my hands.
“I didn’t see any other option.” He narrows his gaze on me, much like my father did when he caught me sneaking in after curfew during high school.
But back then, I was simply having innocent fun with friends. This secret isn’t innocent, especially where Jessie’s concerned.
“Here you go,” our server interrupts, placing a martini glass in front of me and a small tumbler filled with a clear effervescent liquid in front of Jessie. As anxious as I am to get on with this conversation, I welcome the reprieve. Or stay of execution.
“Thank you,” Jessie says.
The waitress nods. “Holler if you need anything else.”
Once we’re alone again, he lifts his glass. “To making amends.” He raises his brow in expectation.
Hands shaking, I reach for my martini, bringing it toward his drink. “To making amends,” I repeat. But amends for what?
After we’ve both taken a sip of our respective beverages, he returns his glass to the table, clearing his throat. “I want to start by thanking you for coming. I realize I was cryptic over the phone—”
“That’s a gross understatement.” I pass him a coy smile, masking my nerves. “I can’t help but think you were intentionally that way so I’d have no choice but to show up to find out what you wanted.”
“Would you blame me if I had? If I were in your shoes, I’d be suspicious if my ex called out of the blue after eight years.”
“Nine,” I correct.
“Right.” He hangs his head. “Nine years.” He blows out a laugh, his eyes glistening with nostalgia. “In some respects, it doesn’t seem possible that much time could have passed. In others, it does.” He slowly lifts his gaze to mine. The remorse I see within is enough to bring me to my knees, my guilt festering even more, squeezing my lungs and tugging at my heart. “Izzy…” He reaches across the table, grasping my hand in his. He looks down as he toys with the barren ring finger where the symbol of his devotion once sat. “I kept it.”
“Your ring. I could have sold it. Hell, the jeweler I went to had a buyback program the saleswoman was keen to make me aware of, more so when she learned how young you were.” He laughs slightly, still caressing my skin. “But I couldn’t. Even though I knew selling that ring would help me pay off some of my student loans—”
“Why didn’t you?”
He drops his hold on me, taking a sip of his club soda. “It didn’t seem right. A part of me hoped you’d come back.”
I pull my hand away and bring my martini to my mouth.
“But the other part knew that would never happen. Not after I betrayed you.”
My stomach sours at the regret laced around every syllable. Every breath. Every small smile.
“You didn’t betray me.” I pull the olive from my martini and bite it off the cocktail sick. “Like Ross would say, we were on a break.”
His mouth kicks up into the same smirk that stole my heart once upon a time. “Still a Friends fanatic?”
“Some things will never change.”
He peers at me thoughtfully. “That’s actually comforting. Whenever I scroll through the channels and see Friends is on, I think of you. But our situation was a little different than Ross and Rachel’s ‘break’.”
He nods at my ring finger. “You were still wearing my ring, due to my insistence. If I wanted you to keep it so badly, why would I hurt you like I did?”
I hide my hand under the table. I wish I had the courage to tell him I hadn’t been wearing it. Not in private anyway. Around my friends and family, I made sure to keep it on, not wanting to admit they were right. That we were too young to get engaged. At least I was. Jessie was always mature beyond his years.
“I played a part in what happened, too. A big part. I ignored your calls, even after Asher…” I trail off, heat washing over my complexion at the mention of Jessie’s older brother. It’s the first time either of us has brought him up. Can he hear the affection in the simple way my mouth caresses his name? Can he see the longing in my expression? Can he feel the heartbreak from across the table?
Clearing my throat, I continue, lowering my voice. “Even after Asher reached out and told me you were in a bad place, begging me to talk to you, I didn’t.”
“We’d agreed to take a break from each other while you were home for Christmas. I didn’t expect you to pick up the phone and call me every day like you usually did when we were apart.”
I stare into the distance, recalling the argument that started the avalanche to follow. It was my last night up in Boston before I was to head home to Connecticut for Christmas break. I wanted to see Asher’s band perform at a local club. Jessie wanted a quiet night at home. At the time, I saw his insistence we stay home as a way to control my behavior. It was ridiculous and irrational. Further proof we weren’t ready to be married.
My friends warned me things would change once we were married. No more nights out. No more hanging out with friends. All my time would be devoted to Jessie.
In essence, this argument wasn’t about seeing Asher’s band. It was about my fear regarding the upcoming changes. My fear of Jessie pushing me away after he finally realized I wasn’t the person he thought I was. So, in typical Izzy fashion, instead of trying to work things out, I ran. Or at least tried to, but Jessie wouldn’t let me. It was almost like he knew.
“Do you know why I suggested the break?” Jessie runs a finger along the rim of his tumbler.
“Because you didn’t want to prove everyone right when they said we were too young to even think about getting married?” I joke.
He chuckles, a deep rumble that wraps around my heart in a comforting embrace. “No. Well, maybe that played a small part. I guess I hoped you’d realize how much you loved me. That I was worth it, despite the setback.” His expression falls. “And you did. Or I assume you did. Why else would you have been waiting for me at my parents’ house the night I landed in Boston after spending the holidays with them in Florida?”
I don’t have the heart to tell him the reason I was there was because it wasn’t fair to either of us to remain in a state of limbo. I still remember the words my mother relayed that prompted me to make the trip in the first place. “You’ll know it’s love when you see a piece of yourself staring back.”
And I did. But I also saw a piece of myself in another man’s gaze.
“I’m not asking you to forgive me for what I did.” His words force my attention back to him. I attempt to argue once more, but he holds up his free hand, interrupting me. “Do you have any idea how many times my finger hovered over your contact in my cell only to chicken out at the last minute?” His tone grows impassioned. “God, Izzy. So many times. I’ve wanted to apologize for years, tell you how ashamed I am of what I put you through. Tell you—”
“You have nothing to apologize for.” Although I didn’t make him believe so at the time. It was easier to use his supposed infidelity as the catalyst for our breakup instead of admitting the truth to anyone, including myself.
“Yes, I do.”
“Same Jessie York. Still always has to have the last word.”
“Same Isabella Nolan. Still always trying to see the good in everyone. Even someone who doesn’t deserve it. Not after what I did.”
As much as I doubt I’ll ever be able to tell Jessie the real reason I walked away, I still hate the idea of him shouldering the blame that seems to still eat at him, even after these years.
“Fifty-fifty split?” I offer with a smile.
He scrunches his eyes, furrowing his brow, seemingly confused by my statement. Then realization kicks in, as I knew it would.
Whenever we had a disagreement, we’d inevitably apologize, both wanting to bear the majority of the blame for the argument. Although back then, it was usually over my family’s love of the Mets and his love of the Red Sox. I could never bring up the year 1986 without it igniting intense emotions. That was the year the Red Sox got so close to winning the World Series, until an error allowed the Mets to take it. Regardless of the reason for the fight, we always agreed to share the blame equally. It was what made our relationship work so well.
Until it didn’t.
Smiling, he extends his hand toward me. “Fifty-Fifty split,” he repeats. I allow him to shake my hand, as we always did to solidify our agreement. I hope that’s the end of this conversation, as was always the case.
I’m about to make a crack about Billy Buckner when he cuts me off.
“I know where you’re going, and I don’t want to hear it. It’s still a bit of a sore spot, even though the curse is broken.” A hint of his Boston accent shines through his words.
I laugh, any lingering unease melting off as I joke with him. Like we used to. We always were good friends. I often thought we were better as friends than as a couple.
“I didn’t think I’d ever get to hear that again,” he remarks thoughtfully.
“Your laugh.” He smiles a pained smile. “Still as beautiful as you are.”
I lower my eyes. No other guy I’d dated ever admitted their feelings so unabashedly. With Jessie, there were no games, no questioning where he stood. After what I’ve done, I don’t feel like I deserve his compliment.
“You must be wondering why I called,” he says after a beat.
“It wasn’t to apologize?” I ask timidly.
“Well, yes and no.”
“No?” A knot forms in my stomach, my trepidation increasing with each silent second. Every sound is heightened. The clink of ice against glass. The occasional chuckle. The melody of Ella Fitzgerald’s voice as she sings about how much she loves the city of Manhattan.
A laugh rips from his throat. It’s not filled with humor. But not quite sarcastic, either. It heightens my anxiety even more.
“I never thought I’d reach a point where I’d have this conversation with you.”
“What conversation?” My words are barely audible, a weight bearing down on my chest.
“You’re going to think I’m crazy. But I’m left with no choice…” He trails off.
My heartbeat echoes in my ears, the hairs on my nape standing on end. He knows. He must. Maybe his apology was a front. A way to lull me into a false sense of security before he pounces, forcing me to reveal the secret I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep forever.
I wonder if this is how condemned prisoners feel when they’re led to the execution chamber and are asked if they’d like to make one final statement. No wonder many don’t. What is there to say? The people watching have already made up their minds. Nothing the accused says will change their opinion. Just like nothing I say to Jessie will lessen the sting of my actions. All I can do is beg for forgiveness.
“It’s about Asher.”
“I can explain,” I interject. “It didn’t—”
“He’s blocked,” he interrupts before I can incriminate myself.
Stilling, I blink. Once. Twice. Allowing my brain to process his statement. “Blocked?”
“He’s missed the past three deadlines. I don’t know how much time the label’s willing to give him. This next album can make or break his career. Can turn him from a one-hit wonder into a household name. Well, even more a household name than he’s already become, considering you can’t turn on the radio without hearing ‘Amante’.”
I swipe my martini glass, gulping down the liquid. “What do I have to do with any of this?”
On a long sigh, he reaches into the inner pocket of his suit. “This.” He tosses a folded piece of paper onto the table. But it’s not just any folded piece of paper. It’s folded into the shape of an origami dove. Something Asher and I always did as our way of settling the score after we’d gotten into an argument. Jessie and I had the fifty-fifty split. Asher and I had origami doves.
I look at the paper, able to make out a music staff and notes scratched on it, most likely discarded versions of a song Asher’s trying to find. “I’m not sure I—”
“Every song he’s written lately ends up as an origami dove. I know this was a thing between you guys. I didn’t realize you two were still in touch.”
“We’re not.” A sour taste fills my mouth. It’s not a complete lie, but not forthcoming, either.
“Then why is he making these damn origami doves? He’s refused to give me answers, so I figured I had no choice but to go to the source.”
“How should I know?” I peer into eyes that are borderline accusatory, grasping at straws. “Maybe he’s feeling a bit nostalgic. Wishes things could return to the way they were before he had all this pressure on him.”
He squints, seemingly toiling over this explanation for validity. My mouth grows dry and I take another large sip of my drink, but nothing settles my nerves at the prospect of Jessie putting the pieces together. Then his shoulders fall.
“I remember how you guys would stay up all night working on music. I guess that was one of the things I was always jealous about.” He laughs slightly. “I hated the mere though of him stealing you away, although he’d never do that. But all saw was my brother and girlfriend sharing a bond I’d never have with either of you. I’ve never exactly been…musically inclined.”
“You don’t say,” I tease in an attempt to lighten the mood.
While Jessie’s always had a great ear for music, he couldn’t hold a tune if his life depended on it, growing frustrated whenever I tried to teach him the basics of playing the piano or guitar. It’s all further proof that he and his brother truly are complete opposites. Whatever Jessie excelled at, Asher struggled with, and vice versa. Together, though, they’re a force to be reckoned with. Which is probably why Asher’s rise to stardom over the past year has been rapid. He writes addictive songs and performs them with a soulful presence you can’t help but be drawn to. As his manager, Jessie knows how to market his sex appeal and beautiful music to the masses.
“This is why I need you, Iz. All the songs Asher released on the last album were ones he’d written when you were in the picture. Trust me. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t necessary. I get the feeling all these damn doves are a sign. An S.O.S., so to speak.”
“S.O.S.? What are you talking about?”
He drags his fingers through his perfectly groomed hair, tugging it at. It’s clear whatever’s blocking Asher plagues Jessie, too.
“I have a proposition for you.” He reaches into the messenger bag at his feet, withdrawing several papers and extending them toward me.
“What’s this?” I ask, my eyes scanning the pages, which could be written in a foreign language as far as I’m concerned.
“A standard royalty distribution arrangement. I want to buy some of your time.”
“I’m not sure I—”
“Asher plans to head up north in a few weeks to work on the new album. To Grams’ lake house, where he wrote so many of his old songs. Where you helped him write so many of his old songs.”
“I didn’t do anything. I’m sure if he goes up there on his own, he’ll find that inspiration. I didn’t—”
“We’ve tried that, but it didn’t work. We recreated everything. Except there was one thing missing. You.”
I’m about to protest but he interrupts.
“I understand I’m asking a lot of you, considering our…past. I’m sure the last thing you want to do is hang out with your ex’s brother at his grandmother’s lake house in the dead of winter.”
I remain straight-faced, not wanting him to read between the lines of my expression.
“That’s why I’m willing to compensate you for your time. You’ll get points on the album.”
“Yes. In layman’s terms, a point is a royalty percentage. I’ll give you two points, or two percent of every album sold. Same goes for streaming royalties. Taking the numbers from his debut album, that would have already netted you nearly fifty grand.”
My eyes widen as I choke on my own saliva. “Fifty grand?” I knew Asher was doing well for himself. He’s been lauded as the next John Mayer, albeit with a more soulful and bluesy vibe. I didn’t realize he’d already become the next John Mayer. If two percent of sales equals fifty grand in six months, I couldn’t imagine the money Asher was pulling in.
“And early projections look like this upcoming album will easily be four times that, possibly more.”
My jaw drops. “So you’re offering me potentially two hundred grand just to spend time with Asher?”
“More or less.”
I blink, struggling to wrap my head around this. “This is an incredible offer, but I—”
“There’s more. An extra…incentive.”
“Like I mentioned, we’re past deadline here. This album was supposed to come out at the beginning of this year in order to help with notoriously low first quarter sales. The label gave us an extension, but it needs to drop in the second quarter. So I’m willing to offer you an additional twenty grand, payable at the end of his time up north, contingent on him writing a full album worth of songs by the time he’s set to go into the recording studio.”
“And when is that?”
“It’s already the middle of January, Jessie. You want me to find some way of inspiring him to write a dozen or so songs in a little more than a month?”
He shrugs. “He’s done it before when you were around.”
I shake my head. “It’s been years. I don’t—”
His hand covers mine, squeezing. “Please, Izzy.” His words are laced with desperation. “I’m out of options. I need you. Asher needs you.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Whatever it takes. Within reason, of course,” he adds quickly. “I’m not paying you to sleep with him like some managers hire girls to spark their client’s inspiration. Not that Asher would do that anyway. Not with our past.”
“Of course not,” I say with a tight-lipped smile, doing my best to keep my expression neutral. I feel his eyes skate over my face, the seconds seeming to stretch.
“Just… Do whatever you used to do whenever you guys burned the proverbial midnight oil. That’s what I’m trying to recreate here. Those nights you both stayed up all hours, which always seemed to result in him writing yet another song.”
I focus on the papers, the words bleeding into each other. This entire scenario seems absurd. The last thing I expected when I agreed to meet him was this kind of proposition. But no amount of money would make me agree to this proposition.
I close the royalty agreement and push it back toward him. “I don’t think it’s a good idea. Can’t you hire some songwriters to compose the songs for the album?”
“I tried. Asher refused. Said he’s a songwriter first. Performer second. It was part of the deal he made with the label. Only his material. He’d sooner give it all up before performing someone else’s song because some fuckhead in a suit told him to. His words, not mine.” He rolls his eyes. “According to Asher, I’d probably fit into that fuckhead in a suit category.”
I laugh, able to picture Asher saying those precise words. It brings a smile to my face.
“Please, Iz,” Jessie implores again, his voice turning serious. “At this point, I’m out of options. And time. If this album doesn’t drop soon, Asher’s career will be over. He’ll lose everything. His contract prohibits him from being picked up by another label or releasing independently for two years. By that time, he’ll no longer be current.”
“So if he doesn’t release this album, it’s all over?”
He nods. “Most likely. This industry is cutthroat enough as it is. If he disappears for two years, he’ll lose all his forward momentum. He’ll be starting from scratch. You know how much he wants this. How long this has been his dream.”
“Listen…” Jessie pushes out of his chair and stands, leaving the contract with me. Retrieving his wallet, he throws several bills down, enough to cover our drinks and a rather generous tip. “Don’t do it for me. Do it for Asher. Just…” He exhales a long breath. “Just look over the agreement and take some time to think about it.” He cracks a small smile. “But not too much. Time is at a premium. Can you promise you’ll do that? That you’ll think about it?”
I exhale a long breath. “Okay.”
“Thank you.” He turns, and I watch him make his way through the lounge, everything about his stride and the way he carries himself confident and mature.
“Hey, Jessie?” I call out before he can disappear.
Stopping, he turns, meeting my gaze with an arched brow.
“You were good to me. Just wanted you to know that.”
“Thanks, Iz. I needed to hear that.” A smile tugs on his mouth, then he continues out of the bar, leaving me alone to consider his proposal.
But there is nothing to consider. I can’t bring myself to fall into Asher’s world.
Not after I made the mistake of sleeping with him a year ago.