My only job? To convince her what we had was as real as the diamond I intended to place on her finger.
The battle was someone else’s. I was merely a soldier, recruited by a wealthy stranger who made it unapologetically clear that my future—and everything I’ve ever worked—for depended on the successful completion of this mission.
I was prepared for war.
But I wasn’t prepared for Love Aldridge …
“You know she’s way too good for you, right?” Lo says, rocking Ellie on her hip as she stands in my kitchen.
“Like … way.” She laughs through her nose, studying my outfit. “It’s weird seeing you like this.”
Lo rolls her eyes. “You know. No ripped jeans or vintage Ramones t-shirts. Hair actually combed for once.”
I know I look like a schmuck with my pressed slacks and cashmere sweater and shiny Italian loafers and hair parted on the side and slicked with brill cream, but this is all part of Hunter’s master plan.
“If you want to hook Love, you have to use the right bait,” he’d said, comparing his ex-wife to a fucking fish.
“God, this place is amazing,” Lo says, carrying Ellie from the kitchen to the living room, where she hones in on the kind of view we only ever dreamed of.
“Sure beats our fourth floor walk-up.”
She smirks. “Yeah. Just a little.”
“I Venmo’d you the rent money this morning,” I said. “Next six months are covered. There’s some extra for food and Piper’s meds.”
Lo turns to me, her smart-ass expression fading. She’s tough as rocks, but I swear I see a hint of tears brimming in her eyes. She doesn’t have to say a word. I know what this means to her. After her deadbeat ex was hauled off to prison a couple years back for running drugs (unbeknownst to all of us), she found herself a twenty-three-year-old single mother with a toddler and a newborn, no job, and no way to feed them.
At the time, I’d been out of the Army for a few years, had just finished my plumbing apprenticeship, and landed a decent job at Premier Plumb and Supply in Brooklyn. As soon as Lo finally admitted to me that she was struggling and about to become evicted, I found a hole-in-the-wall two-bedroom above a pizza shop and moved them in, vowing to help her get on her feet.
Now, during the day, Lo stays home with the girls. At night she waits tables at some exclusive restaurant on 67th Street, heading into the city shortly after the girls go down for the night. Tips are decent and the hours are shit, but she doesn’t complain because this has always been temporary.
The plan was for her to start nursing school at Touro, and she was going to start this summer. But I lost my job a few months back due to cutbacks, and one of us had to make sure the rent was still being paid.
“You sure you want to do this?” Lo asks, biting her lower lip as Ellie runs her chubby fingers through her hair.
Piper is seated in the cognac chair across from the TV, messing with a remote that I’m pretty sure belongs to the fireplace.
“What choice do I have?” I’d spent the last three months applying for jobs, but all the ones I could find had shitty pay, zero benefits, or shady reputations. I booked every music gig I could find, playing at any bar that would so much as take me for an hour or two at night, but it didn’t make up for the lost wages, and most of it went toward Piper’s meds anyway.
“We could always move,” she says.
“It costs money to move, Lo. And we don’t have that right now.” My tone is short and I don’t mean to come at her that way, but I don’t need to be reminded that what I’m doing is nothing less than heartless. “As soon as this is over, we can look into moving somewhere cheap and safe. With good people and even better schools. All this stress, this bullshit? It’s about to end.”
Taking a seat at a kitchen bar stool, I slump my elbow on the counter and exhale.
“She seems really nice,” Lo says. “Sweet.”
“And she just went through a divorce,” she adds. “She’s probably already heartbroken. And you’re just going to come in and—”
Fuck. “I know.”
Lo doesn’t manage our finances. She doesn’t see that we’re one rough month away from being out on the street, one unexpected bill away from Piper not having her EpiPen or inhaler when she needs it.
A million dollars and a record deal.
That’s what this deal is worth to Hunter LeGrand, that’s what he laid on the table. And before I had a chance to so much as think it over, he was elaborating on the fact that he’s “well connected” and he can “make shit happen” and he has no qualms about “blacklisting people like you” should they deserve it. He also felt the need to remind me that singer-songwriters like me were on every street corner in Manhattan, that I could always make a living busking in the subways or singing covers on YouTube if this deal didn’t pan out because he’d personally see to it that my name would never be in lights.
“The girls are probably hungry,” I say to Lo, checking my watch. “Let’s grab something.”
My sister moves Ellie to her other hip, her eyes snapping to the floor. “It’s okay. We should get going so we can catch the five.”
“I thought I was taking you guys out for lunch … made us reservations at Serendipity III.”
“I’m sorry, Jude. After seeing her … it just doesn’t feel right spending your blood money on frozen hot chocolate.”
My sister can be so fucking dramatic sometimes.
“It’s not blood money, Lo,” I say, half-chuckling. “No one’s getting offed.”
“You know what I mean.” She speaks quickly and her gaze moves to mine. “Come on, Pipes. Let’s go.”
Piper places the fireplace remote on the table where she found it and slides off the leather chair, dashing across the living room toward her mother, her dark pigtails bouncing.
A second later, the three of them head to the door, only before they leave, Lo turns to me. “The place is great and all, Jude, but don’t get too comfortable in case this whole thing blows up in your face. Because it will. And when it does, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
They leave before I have a chance to respond, and I’m left with my kid sister’s words echoing in my head, resonating off the deepest fragments of my conscience and all the parts of me that wish I never walked into Blue Stream Records that random Tuesday in May, flash drive demo in hand, and crossed paths with the CEO himself in the elevator lobby.
I should’ve known when Hunter said, “I don’t normally take unsolicited demos, but you seem like exactly the kind of act I’m looking for right now,” that he wasn’t talking about music.
Not at all.