I straightened my signature Union Jack tie for the night’s performance and stared at the stranger in the hotel mirror. I didn’t know who I was anymore. Sure, according to PlecMag, I was “British guitar legend, Nicholas Trent,” an independent shred-rock guitarist of some renown, sought after by major rock singers such as my fellow Englishman Billy Farmer. I was currently recording and touring with another British mate, Taylor Grande. I ran my fingers through my collar-length, brown . . . well, greying brown hair. My eyes had faded more to the colour of washed out denim, no longer the aquamarine of my youth, although they still were fringed with thick lashes. I lifted my cheeks with both hands in a mock facelift. When did I get so old?
I shook off the thought with a lopsided grin and a shrug, stood into my six foot frame, smoothed my shirt over the abs I’d worked so hard to achieve—continued working hard to maintain—and pulled on the sport jacket I’d chosen for the night. I nearly always dressed this way for a show—loafers, jeans, dress shirt, tie, and coat. Sometimes I wore a suit. It was my “look.” During particularly long or hot shows, I’d lose the coat and loosen the tie, but I started each performance this way.
Having finished a photo shoot that afternoon, it’s how I was dressed when I met her. Caitlin Flynn. I smiled into the mirror at the thought of her, my teeth gleaming white back at me.
Was I in love? I didn’t know what it felt like. I’d been involved in a misbegotten marriage when I was very young, but once it was over, my guitar, my career, my music had been my life. I’d been careful to avoid a complication like “love.” I was no stranger to sweet, meaningless sex, but this was different, there was no doubt.
A knock on the door brought me back to the present.
“Nicholas, you ready?”
I opened the door to the band’s keyboard player, Reuben Gaines, a large black man whose fingers, though the size of sausages, were magic when they made music.
“Yeah. Let me get my bag.”
I glanced at Reuben as we walked to the lift and couldn’t help but grin.
“Pumped for the show?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“Ever been here before?”
“Where are we?” he asked.
“Cleveland? Cleveland, I think.”
“I’m surprised at you, Nicholas. You always know where we are.”
We stepped onto the lift where our singer, Taylor Grande, our young bass player, Evan Marks, and our drummer, Kippy Palmer waited.
“Nicholas isn’t sure where we are,” Reuben announced to the others.
“I think our Nicholas is in love,” Taylor said with a grin.
I grinned as well, and studied my shoes.
* * *
We’d met, Caitlin and I, in New York City. I’d become accustomed to dining early in the hotel restaurant on non-gig nights. It was a good chance to wind down, read the newspaper or a book, and generally relax with a glass of wine before I retired for the night with my guitar to write music. New York on my own no longer held promise of adventure for me.
It was common to share the dining room with certain types of people at the early hour. Elderly people—well, more elderly than I—families with tired, cranky children, and always businessmen in suits, rudely talking on their mobile phones.
This particular evening, I glanced up from my newspaper and noticed a woman about my age. Her mousy brown hair was lightly streaked with grey and she wore no makeup. She gave the impression of someone trying to make the best of a bad situation. She looked around the room, sighed, and took a table by the window facing me. My newspaper served as a shield but something about her encouraged me to watch her surreptitiously.
She got settled and waited for her server by reading the wine list and checking out the few people already seated. At one point, our eyes met and I saw the flash of instant recognition that becomes second nature to one of certain celebrity. She quickly returned her eyes to the wine list, but her smile not only lit up her face, it made me grin as well.
Her server arrived and presently brought her an entire bottle of wine, which made me think she would indeed be dining with another person. She laughed at an exchange with the server. The sound was bright and clear. I was curious about her, but waited to see who her companion might be.
A single meal was served. She was dining alone. I continued to catch her smile at me throughout the course of the meal.
My meal was finished and I had no reason to stay in the restaurant except for this woman. I folded my newspaper and tried to decide whether or not to approach her when she appeared at my table. “Excuse me,” she said softly. “Aren’t you Nicholas Trent?”
Removing my spectacles, I looked up at her and grinned. “Yes.”
“I’m a big fan of yours,” she said. “I just wanted to tell you.”
I nodded an acknowledgement.
Nervous, she played with the strap of her handbag. Her nails were short though not bitten. They were neither shaped, nor polished.
“I love your music. It’s very . . . healing. It’s gotten me through some difficult times.”
Well. That made my day, didn’t it?
“Thank you.” I nodded. “Would you like an autograph?”
“I really . . . um,” she stammered. “I really don’t mean to bother you.”
My smile widened. I wished all my fans were as well-mannered. I reached for a linen napkin and her eyes widened. “Management hates when I do this, but I pay them a handsome serviette stipend, so they put up with me. Would you join me?”
The look on her face was so cute, I laughed. “No. Really. Please.” I gestured toward the chair opposite mine.
She looked back at her table before she turned again to me. “Will you help me finish a bottle of wine? It’s way more than I’m used to having.”
“Certainly,” I said, while holding the chair for her to be seated.
“Thank you,” she said.
I was afraid she was a bit star-struck. I’d seen it before.
“It’s my pleasure.”
The waiter distributed the wine between the two glasses and left us alone. I swirled the wine, sniffed, and sipped. “This is very good. You have excellent taste.” I lifted my glass in a toast. “Cheers.”
“Cheers.” She touched her glass to mine. “Happy birthday to me.”
“Today’s your birthday?”
“Yeah.” She cut her eyes up at me demurely. “This is the best present ever. You’ve improved the whole day, in fact.”
“Well, happy birthday. Now, you know my name, but I don’t know yours, and I still haven’t autographed this linen.” I returned my specs to my face.
“I’m Caitlin Flynn,” she said. “Cait.”
I pulled a Sharpie out of my pocket and looked at her, about to ask how to spell it, when she beat me to it. “Most people go ahead and spell it wrong.”
When I’d finished the autograph, I handed it to her and said, “So you’re in Manhattan on your own? Where are you from?”
“I’m up from South Carolina. Have you ever been there?”
“Hmm . . . let’s see.” I studied the wine as it swirled around the glass.
“I’ll be disappointed to find out you’ve been there and I missed seeing you in concert,” she said.
“I’ve been to Charlotte.”
Cait shook her head. “Charlotte’s in North Carolina. We have Charleston.”
“Ah, yes. Charleston. No, I don’t believe I’ve ever been there, but I could be wrong. A few decades remain fuzzy.”
Cait laughed. “I know what you mean.”
We sipped our wine knowing we shared a few cultural things in common.
“Do you live in the city?” Cait asked.
“No-o-o. No,” I said. “I’m working with Taylor Grande on a new record and we’re playing the odd gig here and there, testing out the new material on live audiences. We’ll be based in Manhattan a few weeks longer laying down the tracks. Are you here for your job?”
Cait’s smile faltered, returned briefly, and faltered once more. Studying her wine, she said, “No, I’m here trying to settle my late-husband’s estate.”
“Oh, I’m sorry for your loss. How long has it been? If you don’t mind me asking.”
She swallowed thickly as tears rose to her eyes. “It’s okay. It’s been sixteen months. I . . . I miss him. My Jesse.”
I reached across the table and laid my hand lightly on hers which caused her to look up quickly in surprise, but she didn’t take it back. “How long were you together?”
“Just shy of thirty years.”
“It was a good marriage,” I said, as I removed my hand from hers.
Cait wiped her eyes and returned the smile, but paused further before answering.
“We had our ups and downs like any marriage, but it was . . . good. We made each other laugh. It’s so important. Are you married?” She glanced quickly at my left hand.
“Not now. I was. Once. A very long time ago. We were young, I was a musician on the road. It didn’t last.”
“Do you have children?”
I thought of Oliver, but answered, “No. How about you?”
“No. We wanted kids but it just never happened. We put our energies into rescued dogs instead. Kids are fun, but it’s good to be able to send them home.”
I joined her in a laugh.
“So, what have you seen of the city while you’ve been here?”
“Not much. The cab ride to the lawyer’s office and back, and this hotel. I’m not very adventurous on my own, I’m afraid. I bet you know New York inside-out.”
“I know enough of it to enjoy myself yet stay out of trouble,” I said with a chuckle. “Look, it’s still early. Would you like to go out? To a club or perhaps a museum?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I really don’t want to impose.”
“How about this,” I offered. “How about we go for a walk and just look around? There’s plenty to see within a few blocks of here.”
“Really? You wouldn’t mind?”
“Honestly, my plans for this evening were very similar to yours. Eat dinner and return to my room. I’ll work out music on the guitar for a couple of hours and go to sleep. My hard-partying days are well behind me.” I chuckled. “Well, mostly.”
Cait shrugged one shoulder, her bright smile back and directed at me. “Okay.”
* * *
“Mr. Trent. Ma’am,” the doorman said as he aided our exit.
The sidewalk was busy at this hour. I stepped into the crowd without realising Caitlin wasn’t with me. When I looked back, there she stood, feet planted, eyes wide, and scanning the scene around her like a lighthouse beacon. I quickly returned to her.
“Caitlin, are you all right?”
She unfroze and captured my eyes with hers. “It’s overwhelming.”
“It can be.” I pulled her back into the hotel doorway, giving a discreet shake of the head to Larry, who stayed where he was. “Let’s stand here for a moment to get our bearings. We can venture further if you like, or we can go back inside and share another bottle of wine.”
My demeanour must’ve been reassuring. She regained her breath and laughed, but held firmly to my coat sleeve. I found I rather liked the contact. It made me feel protective of her somehow.
Several landmarks could be seen from the doorway and I diverted her with stories of my escapades in the city. As she laughed, she relaxed.
“Sorry,” she said. “Sometimes I have a problem in big crowds.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. It happens, right? Do you think you’re ready to go a little further?”
With a deep, cleansing breath, she said, “I think so.”
We walked up a few blocks, crossed the street, and came back to the restaurant and lounge across from the hotel.
“How about another glass of wine?”
We turned and the door to the lounge opened as if automatic.
“Mr. Trent,” the doorman greeted. “Ma’am,” he said to Caitlin as he touched the brim of his hat.
The lounge was dark with thick carpeting. Fabric-covered, padded walls provided soundproofing for the plush private seating. In the audible foreground conversationally soft jazz was accented by a dim, steady bass thump feeding through from the floor above.
The maitre’d studied the evening’s reservations as we approached, but smiled when he saw us and came around from behind his podium.
“Mr. Trent. So good to see you, sir.” He bowed slightly to Caitlin. “Madame.”
I greeted him and said, “We’d like a table down here.”
“Certainly.” He smiled at Cait. “Welcome to the Velvet Room.” To me he said, “Will you be joining us for dinner?”
“Just drinks this evening.”
“This way, please.”
Cait leaned in close. “This is beautiful.”
I smiled and placed her hand in the crook of my elbow. Again, I believe I surprised her with the gesture, but she smiled at me and I knew it was all right. “It’s one of my favourite places.”
We were seated at a banquette with tall backs making us seem far removed from anyone else, though we’d passed several similar booths of people.
Handing us each a menu, the maitre’d said, “I’ll send your attendant right over.” He bowed slightly again. “If I can be of any further assistance, please let me know.”
I ordered a bottle of domestic merlot and, once it was served, I touched my glass to Cait’s.
“To new friends.”
“New friends,” she said, returning the toast. “I’m grinning like a tourist.”
"You are a tourist.”
“Well . . .” she said. “Unintentionally so. It’s just amazing. We don’t have buildings like this in Charleston.”
“Everything’s much lower to the ground. We don’t have skyscrapers. Most of the buildings are very historic. The modern hospitals and the church steeples are the tallest structures around. The old buildings were built, or rebuilt, after the earthquake in 1886. They’ve been maintained and restored as times demanded, but nothing like this.”
“Sounds like some of the historic villages and towns in England.”
“I’ve always wanted to see the British Isles.”
“You’d like it there, I think.”
We talked about England as we finished our wine. She seemed to relax even more.
“Feel a little more confident then?” I asked. “Maybe tomorrow night we could see the Empire State Building.”
Even in the dim light, I could see her blush. “Oh, I couldn’t ask you . . . I mean, I couldn’t impose any more. You’ve already been so nice.”
“It’s not an imposition. I invited you.” I laughed. “Are you having fun tonight?’
“Yes,” she said. “Very much.”
“I am, too. Won’t you join me tomorrow night?”
She dipped her head before she looked back up. “Sure. Why not?”