Ruby strolled into the Pink Pony and walked right up to the scarred mahogany bar. “Can I get a water? Warm. With some honey and a lemon wedge?” Her first day on the job, her throat was dry and tight. She’d have to take extra care to warm up her voice before rehearsal started.
Sporting a long and probably waxed walrus mustache, the bartender handed her the glass filled with cloudy liquid. Calling it water would be dubious. He plunked down a glass jar of honey, a spoon, and a bowl of dried-up lemon wedges. They must’ve been leftovers from last night.
Ruby climbed up on a ripped leather barstool, taped to hold in the stuffing, plopped her purse on the bar, and began to mix everything together. She’d come a long way, in the wrong direction. A little over a year ago, she’d been the most sought-after act in Vegas. Now? Hell, much as it killed her to admit it, she was lucky to have this job.
Davy, the Pink Pony’s manager, cleared his throat as he sidled up to her at the bar. “Hiya, Ruby.”
“Yeah, hi.” Her nose twitched at the stale smell of cigarettes, setting off the craving for one. It took her a minute to finish stirring her ritual, pre-singing drink, now yellow tinted. It looked vile. It tasted worse, but she took a sip anyway. If she could down it in one big gulp, it wouldn’t be so bad, but no. She had to take her time, let it coat her vocal chords.
“I, um, well … I’ve got some bad news,” Davy said.
“I’d kill for a cigarette.” She glanced at him, and his eyes practically bulged at her. Uh-oh. “What is it? Spit it out.”
“Let’s sit down.”
“I am sitting down, Davy.”
“Well, huh. I guess you are. Still, let’s go somewhere more private.”
Her stomach twisted at the suggestion, a big ball of not-happening growing inside her. “Oh, no. Listen, I don’t do that for a job, and especially not this job. Come on, say what you’ve got to say.”
“Oh, God, no. I wouldn’t try to … I mean, not like you’re not pretty. I think you’re plenty pretty, but I don’t run the place like that.” His cheeks blushed crimson, and if she weren’t so sure this was headed to shit, she’d have almost felt bad. She’d clearly misunderstood his intentions. Okay, move Davy into the column of good guys.
Ruby drained the glass, and it took a second to swallow the involuntary gag shuddering through her. Jeez, the drink was like runny, lemon-flavored phlegm. Ugh. She’d never found anything that worked as well, though. “All right, Davy. Let’s talk quick because I’ve got to warm up for a few minutes before we start rehearsal.”
Through the heavy wooden door, band members began to file in, some carrying instruments presumably too precious to leave here overnight, while others had taken their chances. They waved to her but averted their eyes. This situation stunk, and her gut clenched. She needed this job if she wanted to keep from living in a cardboard box.
She grabbed her knockoff pocketbook, and Davy led her through a hallway behind the bar into his messy and cluttered office. A sagging couch hid behind the open door. He gestured to it, then rubbed the back of his neck. “Why don’t you have a seat, honey.”
She sat, settling her handbag beside her on the couch. He pushed the door shut, and it clicked softly. She eyed him, waiting for any suspicious moves. No matter what he’d said, if he turned the lock, he’d get a knee between the legs.
“So, see, I’ve got some bad news.”
“You said already.” She glanced at the door, anxious to finally get back to singing, even if it was in a dump. “Can we get on with this, Davy? I’ve got to get to work. Is it my salary? Because I need every dime of the pittance you’re paying me.”
“No, no. I wish it was. I’ve got to let you go.”
A sound escaped her; the sound of desperation, she supposed. And her pride escaped as well, what little she had left gone up like a mist. And then finally a sea of red clouded her vision. Anger—that she could allow herself.
“Let me go? What are you talking about?” She jumped up and advanced on him. He backed up until he bumped into his desk, only a step or two. “You’re lucky to have me, and you know it. You’ve heard me perform.”
“It don’t got nothing to do with you, though. It’s nothing personal; I just can’t have you working here.”
“Explain it to me. You were thrilled to hire me. We shook on it, for God’s sake.”
“I—well, I suppose we’re looking for a different sound.”
“A different sound?” Ruby gathered her long red hair up and tossed it over her shoulder. “Be straight with me, Davy. What’s going on?”
“It’s all I can tell you, Ruby. You should go on and leave. We’re holding auditions this afternoon, and I’ve got to get out there.”
She could throw a fit and make a fool of herself, changing nothing, or she could leave with a little bit of dignity left. Might as well split the difference. “You won’t find anyone better than me willing to work in this dump and you know it.” Snatching up her purse by the scarf trailing from the handle, she almost dropped the whole thing.
She violently dashed a hand over the tears spilling onto her cheeks as she rushed out of the bar. When she blew her lid, when she got good and mad, the waterworks started.
She walked the six blocks to her apartment. When she got home, she’d clean the place, top to bottom. Things always seemed more … in control when she cleaned.
Cars beeped their horns, whizzing through the intersection in front of an old drugstore that took up the entire bottom floor. She lived above it.
Outside the door, she waved a hand in front of her face, drying her eyes. She’d go into the drugstore, have a cup of coffee, and maybe figure out her next move. Hunger gnawed at her because she’d skipped breakfast. Honestly, she hadn’t had anything breakfast-like in her place.
At least a couple dollars in change jingled at the bottom of her pocketbook, and the coffee in the drugstore would be better than the swill she’d make upstairs.
Where would she find another job singing in this town? A few weeks ago, she’d made a list of every dive bar and seedy lounge she could think of. The Pink Pony was the last of them. At the advanced age of twenty-six she was all washed up—divorced, broke, and out of work. Her preacher-man daddy would be thrilled to know her life of sinfully singing rock and roll had done her in. But he’d never get the pleasure of telling her “I told you so” because he’d disowned her after the divorce.
Anthony Rosas took a surreptitious glance at his watch as his mother mixed herself a martini. All of fifteen minutes past noon. Anthony loved his parents. They were hard people to love, and last he’d checked, of his siblings, he was the only one still trying.
“Don’t you want one, darling?”
“No, Momma. It’s a bit early for me.”
He waited to see if she’d take the hint, but she simply took a sip, settled on the couch across from him, and slung one leg over the other. “Well, you’ll never guess what’s happened. Or what won’t happen … Oh, you know what I mean.”
“Not really, no.” His gaze wandered around the lushly decorated living room. A mantel clock ticked under a painting of his mother and father completed during their early married life. She said she hated it because it made her look heavier (seeing as she’d already been pregnant with his brother, Dominic). His father loved it, probably for the very reason Vivian Rosas detested it, and so it had stayed in a place of prominence in their home for as long as Anthony could remember.
His father possessed a cruel streak and loved to make his wife feel insignificant by reminding her of the circumstances of their marriage.
Heat flooded Anthony’s face, filled with sympathy for his mother. Would she be who she was now if she’d married a kind man?
“I mean, ignoring what your brother and sister have already done to this family …” Another drink of the martini, this one a little more eager.
He picked up the coffee cup from its saucer on the table and took a sip of the bitter brew. His parents had struggled to replace their longtime housekeeper since his sister, Layla, had lured her to come work for her. The newest maid, a young girl named Lisa, made terrible coffee. If she was a decent bartender, though, she probably had a good chance of keeping her job.
His mother finished her martini, then checked the mantel clock. She’d wait twenty minutes before she made another one. The whole family was aware of her drinking habits, but no one had actually brought it up back when they were all at least still talking. That would have been in bad taste, they’d been taught, and he agreed. But it used to be two hours, not twenty minutes. Now his stomach burned when he wondered what would become of Momma.
Normally svelte and beautiful, she’d put on weight in the last year. It had been one hell of a year, what with his sister outing Momma for being unfaithful and Papà trying to claim Layla’s inheritance as his own. Then his brother Dominic had attempted to avenge Layla, by getting their father fired. He’d failed; or, rather, Dominic had withdrawn the pressure at the last minute. Sympathy for his siblings pulled at Anthony, but he just wasn’t ready to give up on Momma yet. “You’re ignoring what they have ‘already done’ to you and Papà?”
“Of course not! You know that’s not what I meant.” She pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration. “Besides all that, I meant. Oh, never mind. You obviously don’t care.”
He exhaled slowly, fingers digging into the plush sofa. “I do care. Tell me what’s got you so upset.”
“Layla’s wedding to the candy man is promising to be the event of the year. More importantly, they’re not inviting just anyone, so an invitation to the wedding carries a certain cachet.”
“Maybe you should stop calling Jace the ‘candy man’ before the wedding. It’s not like he’s Willy Wonka.”
“His father’s the same as, making a fortune off people who can’t say no to chocolate.” She snatched a cigarette from the box on the table and used the crystal lighter to light it. She apparently missed the irony, considering she couldn’t say no to a drink. “You’re missing the point.” She exhaled a fine plume of smoke. “She’s not inviting your father and me.”
His face burned and tingled, a familiar feeling. He detested all the turmoil in his family. Up until a year ago, everyone had at least pretended to get along. He wanted to blame Layla, but he couldn’t really. His parents had tried to have her committed to steal away her inheritance.
Layla had every right not to invite them. Regardless, this wasn’t how his family worked. There had always been an undercurrent of acrimony between Layla and Momma. And Dominic had always detested their father. Hell, Anthony couldn’t stand the man himself. But that didn’t mean they could all simply stop talking to one another, stop trying to be a family.
He shifted on the couch, putting his hands out in front of him. “I’m not sure how much I can do, but I’ll try to talk some sense into Layla.”
“Oh, darling. That’s all I can ask of you.” She offered him her most generous smile, then headed back to the bar to mix another drink. His parents, brother, and sister were like spokes on a wheel. He would be the center, the only thing connecting them all. If he didn’t pull them all in tighter, the family would fall apart.
This whole ordeal wasn’t only about his mother being humiliated. They’d been brought up that nothing was more important than appearances. He’d tried all his life to shake the idea, had even rebelled with a wild, rock-and-roll girlfriend in high school, but now he understood the importance of propriety.
He’d beat up more than a few fellas in high school who’d talked about what a kook his sister was. And he’d threatened a few more this last year when they brought up Dom trying to buy their father out of the Lucky Star Casino.
But people would talk, no helping it, if his parents weren’t present at his sister’s wedding.