There was nothing special about the nightclub, not even the fact that it catered to lesbians. A certain sheen of ambience—jazz playing soft and low, the notes mingling in a whispered counterpoint to murmured conversations—that, while pleasant, seemed duplicated from every second-rate dyke bar she’d ever set foot in, from every paperback noir that she’d ever picked up in Barnes and Noble. Predictably, a rendition of “Bye, Bye Blackbird” coursed through the room from tiny black speakers.

And predictably, she loved it.

But no, there was nothing special about the nightclub. Except for its darkly handsome owner—who moved, sylphlike, through the smoke and the din, who apparently knew everyone, and who now sat reluctantly at her side because it was bad form to reject an offer of a drink, even if you owned the damned place, even if it was just club soda with a half-moon lime writhing through the bubbles like debris.

As far as Alexandra Cabot was concerned, this woman was the only draw to this unremarkable hole-in-the-wall.

Ice tainted her single malt whiskey—thanks to the idiot bartender—but she no longer cared. She glanced at the club owner again, who seemed wryly, self-consciously amused at the attentions of a brash American. Nikki.
Upon introducing herself she had shaken hands firmly with Alex, as if opening negotiations, and Alex had noticed her strong forearms. Another perfect detail to be added, along with the glossy hair, the bangs scattered across her brow with careless perfection, the silky black shirt alternately clinging and flowing over what had to be a torso worthy of entrancing legions of artists, an archaic torso inspiring this generation’s Rilke (if indeed we are capable of producing that kind of talent anymore, Alex thought derisively). And the final detail, almost too painful to look at yet too compelling to ignore: those black eyes—smoldering, intense, and now shooting laser beams of sheer disgust at the barkeep.

“You break that bottle of Glenfiddich, you twat, it comes out of your paycheck.”

And that voice? It was single malt sex. One more beautiful, angry threat and Alex would publicly declare her love.

The bartender gave Nikki a snarl that looked as if it had been copied after twenty or so viewings of Sid and Nancy.

This only amused Nikki. “Sod off,” she said to the girl, who ducked behind the bar with the malevolent speed of Punch in a puppet show and proceeded to rattle even more bottles.

Alex tried to refocus Nikki’s attention. “So you don’t really drink?”

Nikki’s hand absentmindedly raked through short black hair. The gesture—painfully, achingly familiar—made Alex lose her normally confident footing.

No one here can love or understand me

“Not while working.”

All the hard luck stories they all hand me

“That’s completely understandable. And very responsible, I might add.”

Nikki laughed. “You make me sound perfectly dull.”

“I doubt you’re anything but.”

The conversation tipped into flirtation. Nikki rubbed the back of her neck.

“You don’t work here every single night, do you?” Alex knew she didn’t, if only because she had been in the club every night since the very first night she saw Nikki. She thought of it as preparing her case. Others, of course, would be less charitable. What are the penalties for stalking in the United Kingdom, and what in point constitutes harassment?

“No, thank God. I used to love it—you know, being here, or just being out and about every night.”

“But sometimes it’s nice to be alone in a quiet place. With a good drink,” Alex supplied. “And good company.” She slid her hand over Nikki’s, her thumb rested on the knotted, delicate inside of Nikki’s wrist—the fluttering pulse under the intricate canopy of skin, tendon, veins. “Perhaps sometime we could have a real drink together. Somewhere else.”

She felt as if everyone in the room were looking at them—in particular, the blonde woman who had stepped behind the bar and was suddenly feigning interest in a bottle of Chablis. Alex had pegged the blonde as an ex—her interactions with Nikki always appeared tinged with wary affection, the emotion the very epitome of a grandly squandered opportunity. It was a state that Alex knew and loathed very well.

Gently, Nikki extricated her hand from its loose entanglement with Alex’s.

“You have that deer-in-headlights look,” Alex said softly. “I know what that means.”

“That I have a girlfriend? Yes.”

Later, much later, Alex attributed the sheer nerve of what she was about to do to the power of good scotch. “Not surprising. I have no doubt she’s just as beautiful. Tell you what—“ She reached out and sampled the silky placket of Nikki’s shirt, caressing an imaginary wrinkle into submission. Her cool eyes met Nikki’s, her voice lowered.
“—bring her along.”

Nikki’s full lips parted in sensual shock. She burst into ribald laughter. “It’s been a long time since I’ve received that
kind of proposition.”

“I’m very generous.” Actually, she wasn’t. But if it took claiming the shell to take the pearl, she would do it.

Nikki remained smiling—perhaps hopeful that now the offer was out in the open, it would dissipate, like smoke, into the night. “Ah. I’m afraid my partner isn’t, sorry.”

“But you are?” Alex countered. If they were in court, this would be the moment when the heady aroma of defeat emanated from the defense attorney’s pores.

“No. If things were different—you’re very—“ Nikki shook her head. “You know, I’ve barely known you ten minutes, and I already feel I’m in the deep end of the bloody ocean.”

Alex looked at her. “You are.”

The song took a languid turn into improv but half-remembered lyrics came back to her with the sadistic persistence of a tidal wave: Where somebody waits for me / Sugar's sweet, so is she.
Someone, somewhere, was waiting for this woman. Was someone, somewhere, waiting for her?

In Manhattan, a job was waiting for her. That was it.

It’s too hard,
Olivia had said—a year ago, on a bitter-cold February night, when everything was different. That anything had changed for the better during that time seemed impossible to believe.

She decided she couldn’t bring about any unhappy disruptions to the life of the nameless woman who waited for Nikki. Or to Nikki herself. “Your girlfriend is very lucky.” Alex slid too quickly from the barstool, felt the scotch singing through her veins. Chivalrous Nikki placed a steadying hand upon her arm that lingered too long and in turn Alex permitted herself the liberty of touching Nikki’s waist, of threading a finger through a belt loop.

“No. I’m the lucky one.” Unsure of how much to share with a lascivious stranger, Nikki smiled with a charming vulnerability. “We’ve been through a lot of shit together. It was like—“

“Like being in a war?” Avoiding the inevitable, Alex speculated.

“Except on opposite sides, in this case.” Her hand dropped from Alex’s arm. “But it means that you don’t ever let it go, at least not easily. Yeah?”

Alex found it charming, this Britishism—a singularly happy affirmation roughly translated as you get it? You understand me?

She understood. So she kissed Nikki on the cheek, as if she had done it a thousand times before, if only in perpetual dim fantasies harbored in a lonely hotel room. “Bye bye, blackbird,” she whispered, and walked out of the nightclub.