Chapter One

The city was hot and murky in the twilight hour. Friday night rush hour was in full swing. From the street rose a chorus of car horns, screeching tires, and the occasional screamed expletive.

Perched on a fire-escape three stories above ground, Alexis Baylor watched as human aggression was acted out with several ton automobiles. A cigarette dangled from her fingers, which drooped listlessly over the edge of the rickety contraption that seemed more likely to cause death than allow escape.

In the room behind her, the television was blaring, some animated sitcom that no one was watching. Comic, tinny voices floated through the open window, playing against the sinister tone of the street.

With a snort of self-derision at her dreary thoughts, Alexis flicked her cigarette into the air and watched it sail downward. She hoped it didn't land on someone's head.

She hoped it burned someone's eye out.

As she wiggled through the window, she willfully smeared herself with good humor. Her roommate, Inez—a leggy, caramel skinned beauty who was working toward her law degree at the local university—looked up from the textbook in her lap.

"I don't know how you can study with that racket," Alexis said lightly, picking up the television remote from the coffee table and turning the volume down.

Inez shrugged, smiling. "It helps me concentrate." She closed the heavy textbook and dropped it onto the couch beside her. "You going out tonight?"

"Sure am," she replied, forcing her face to grin. "That's my job: club hopper."

"How many bands are on the review list?"

"Only three tonight that I have to pay attention to, then there's a homecoming party happening at Joe's Grocery for Not Irish." At Inez's blank look, she elaborated, "Remember when we went to dinner downtown a couple months ago, and ran into my friend Irish and her boyfriend, Vertice?"

Remembrance dawned on Inez's face, as well as a slow flush. "Oh, yes," she replied.

Alexis smiled slightly at her roommate's awe. "Well, Irish's band has been on tour since then. They just got home a few days ago."

"Sounds fun," she replied, but there was a melancholy to her words that Alexis understood. All too well did she know what loneliness felt like.

She dropped onto the arm of the couch, poking the shy girl playfully on the shoulder. "Why don't you come with me tonight?" she asked. At Inez's look of horror, she quickly continued, "It will be fun, I promise. One night without studying isn't going to kill you. In fact," she said, warming further to the subject, "I think it would be great for you to meet some of my friends, get a taste of life beyond law school. The seedy underground is just what you need!"

"I don't know," Inez said uncertainly, dark eyes darting to her and away.

There were volumes of content in her roommate's brief glance. It was not a look unique to the moment, but was one Alexis received numerous times each day of her life: from strangers in the street, from sales people, cab drivers, her neighbors, and even the half-blind doorman downstairs.

She took great pains to assume her chosen role in society, to ensure at all costs that no one looked beneath to the woman within. Her weapon of defense was a lifestyle blatantly deviant from the norm, and her armor was the image in her mirror. From her long, white-blond hair, curled in a style reminiscent of Jean Harlow, to the perfectly applied makeup, smoky eyeshadow and blood-red lips.

Tonight she wore a snug, off-the-shoulder black dress, with tight capped sleeves and a low V neckline and back; the thick, satiny fabric held her hips, narrowing before its end just below her knees. Her legs were encased in sheer stockings; the shoes on her feet were very high-heels, the kind most women sighed at in store windows and never dreamed of actually wearing.

Every accessory was planned and executed to perfection, especially the colorful tattoos on her shoulder-blades and those on her chest, teasing the eye at the edges of the dress' neckline. The images on the backs of her calves were visible as shadows beneath her stockings. The floating world inspired mural decorating the undersides of her forearms curled upwards in a delicate, vine-like design over her wrists.

Her prudish older sister said she belonged in the circus; her nieces and nephew thought she was the coolest person in the world. Her mother was, as usual, blissfully unconcerned, and what her father thought, she would never know.

"Inez, please," she said, and felt her smile falter. She examined her perfectly red nails, and so didn't see Inez's expression become thoughtful, speculative. "I would love some company tonight," she finished softly.

"All right."

"Really?" she asked, looking up. The brightness of her smile had lost none of its effectiveness, its pervasive joy making Inez blush.

"Sure," she murmured, picking at a tear in her jeans. "As long as you don't abandon me."

Alexis slipped off the arm of the couch, dropping beside her roommate to squeeze her shoulders. "Of course I won't," she exclaimed. "We're going to have such a good time. Trust me, I won't let you down."

An hour later, as the girls were sitting in a taxicab on the way to the first club of the night, Inez finally gathered courage enough to ask, "Where's Phillip tonight?"

Alexis had been expecting the question, and so was prepared. Smiling brightly, she said, "Gone like the wind, my dear." She turned her face toward the open window. "God it's hot tonight, isn't it?"

With her small, stylish steno pad filled with notes, some praiseful, some not, Alexis gratefully led Inez from the doors of the seedy club. Feeling like her smiling face was plaster and a good, solid tap on the nose would shatter it to pieces, she nevertheless managed to keep Inez laughing at various sordid tales as they walked the three blocks to Joe's Grocery.

At the sight of the line outside the sagging face of the city's most beloved venue, Alexis leaned her head toward Inez and murmured, "There are perks to knowing famous people, and this is one of them."

The bouncers guarding the tattered velvet rope smiled warmly when they saw her.

"Marilyn, where have you been all my life?" asked Ben, a massive man with a bald head and enough piercings to build a bridge.

Squeezing Inez' hand reassuringly, Alexis stepped up to the rope and threw open her arms. "Ben, you big, dumb animal, give me some love!"

Ben growled appreciatively as he lifted her five-foot four inch body clear of the rope, setting her down on the other side. Swatting playfully at his roaming hands, she asked, "Is Irish here yet?"

He nodded, giving her hip a final squeeze before lowering the rope for Inez. "The band's backstage." His eyes blatantly perused Inez's tall, model-esque physique, clothed becomingly in slim black pants and thin-strapped tank.

Alexis reached up, smacking him lightly on the side of the head. "Quit it," she growled. "She wants nothing to do with the likes of you."

Inez laughed nervously, edging away from the three-hundred pound bouncer.

"Don't I know it," Ben mourned, shaking his head. He pushed open the door, waving them through. Alexis gave him a peck on the cheek before quickly drawing Inez into the club. She thought she was in the clear, and sighed in relief just as Ben's voice echoed through the foyer. "Marilyn, hold up a second!"

"Why does he call you Marilyn?" Inez asked as they turned.

Alexis gestured weakly to her hair. "Blond," she said, and steeled herself, smiling so hard she felt the muscles in her jaw clench. "Yeah, what's up?"

Ben handed her a folded piece of paper. "Almost forgot, I was supposed to give this to you." Then he was gone, the door swinging closed behind him.

For several moments Alexis merely stared at the paper, smile still fixed on her lips.

"What is it?" inquired Inez.

She unfolded the page, read the single line scrawled in a familiar script, and abruptly felt something within her crack. Inez, seeing her expression, took the paper from her nerveless fingers. She read the note then looked up, frowning.

"Is this from Phillip?"

She nodded. "I forgot his band was opening for Not Irish."

"It sounds like he really wants to see you," Inez said gently. "If you want to go backstage without me, I'm sure I'll be fine."

"No," she whispered. "I don't want to see him."

Inez touched her arm lightly. "Jesus, girl, what happened?"

Party-kids began filtering into the club, talking excitedly and heading for the bar. The sudden noise snapped Alexis out of her trance. Unable to summon a smile for the first time in a long while, she looked into Inez's concerned face and said, "Do you mind if I get drunk?"

Inez hesitated, then: "You sure you want to go that route?"

She managed a weak smile. "Jack Daniels doesn't cheat on me."

"Oh, God, I'm so sorry," Inez murmured. "When did you find out?"

"Yesterday," she said tonelessly. "I stopped by his place before work to bring him breakfast. Needless to say, his bedmate was surprised to see me, and was even more furious than I was. Apparently they've been together for a year. We'd only been dating five months, so…"

"Shit," she whispered, shaking her head. "What an asshole."

Alexis shrugged. "In some fashion or another, this is what happens when I date musicians. For some reason, though, I keep thinking I'll find the diamond in the rough."

"Have you told anyone, your friends?"

Alexis glanced at the shadowed stage, thinking of her best friend, Irish, and her endearing inability to keep anything to herself. She loved the girl, admired her heart-on-the-sleeve personality, but had learned over time that secrets weren't best kept with Irish.

"Not a soul," she replied. "That's another downside of being in this scene. One person knows, then suddenly a whole slew of people I don't know are expressing their sympathy. Besides, I've a few guy friends who are a little light on temper-control."

"Maybe what Phillip needs is a good ass-kicking," Inez said hotly.

Alexis looked at her mild-mannered roommate and felt genuine laughter bubble in her throat. "You're a sweetheart," she said, squeezing her hand. "Thanks for coming out with me tonight. I know this isn't exactly your thing."

She shrugged. "I'm open to new experiences. I have to say I'm looking forward to seeing Not Irish live." She looked around the steadily filling club. "They certainly know how to bring in an audience."

Alexis gazed around at the crowd. "That they do."

"We don't have to stay," Inez murmured. "I'm sure Irish will understand."

Gathering her courage around her like a shawl, Alexis shook her head and grinned. "Irish would never forgive me for missing their homecoming show. Besides, I have a date with Jack. He's smooth and dark, and oh so sexy."

Inez, despite the lingering concern in her eyes, took the cue with grace, smiling. "There's quite a line in front of the bar."

Alexis waggled a finger at her. "Lines don't apply to me."

With determined steps, she walked though the crowd, gaze unwavering on one of the harried bartenders. "Excuse me, fellas," she purred, squeezing between two mohawked men. Elbows on the bar, she leaned forward and smiled at the bartender. It took him a few moments to look up from her cleavage.

"Christ, Alexis, now I feel dirty, like I just saw my sister naked."

She chuckled at the slim black man. "Come now, George," she crooned. "Don't dash all my hopes."

He grinned, reaching for the bottle of Jack Daniels. "Frilly or straight?" he asked.

"Straight up, my boy, and a beer for my friend."

George looked over her shoulder, spying Inez. He whistled softly. "Where'd you find her?" he asked.

"Roommate and no, you can't have her number," she replied sweetly. He grumbled good-humoredly about bossy women as he set the drinks on the bar. "What do I owe you?"

"A kiss."

"Sure thing, toots," she said, stepping on the rail beneath the bar and planting her lips loudly on his offered cheek.

"Don't tell Phillip," he warned as she picked up the drinks.

With the promise of oblivion in her hand, she winked over her shoulder. "Not a chance."

Four drinks later, Alexis was feeling every inch a liberated, newly single woman. She dragged Inez around the club while the opening band played, introducing her to at least fifty people and talking so loud and fast she didn't hear the sound of Phillip's drumming.

She was the maestro of her own personal party, and Inez was her willful cohort. Strangely, after a few beers, the normally reserved lawyer-to-be became a virtual butterfly of social prowess. Together the women commanded the attentions of at least twenty drooling men, dodging hands and phone numbers with equal ease.

By virtue of willpower alone, not once through the entire set did Alexis look at the band. Even if she had, she wouldn't have seen the two people standing offstage, watching from the shadows as she sauntered toward the bar for another cocktail.

"Well, looks like Alexis and Phillip are over," said Irish Delaney.

The man who stood beside her grunted, eyes on Alexis's blond curls as they reflected the pulsing stage-lights.

"Phillip is a shithead, anyway," Irish continued idly. "A friend of a friend told me they heard that Alexis walked in on him with some chick. Apparently he and this mysterious female just had their one year anniversary."

That got his attention, Irish thought, smiling privately as her companion slanted angry green eyes at the drummer onstage.

"That's fucked up, isn't it?" she questioned. "Alexis, the sweetest, greatest girl in the world made to feel like she was just a woman on the side. Wouldn't it be nice to see her with someone who treated her right?"

The green eyes, still angry, turned on her. "Get off my back, Ri," he snarled.

She widened her eyes, batting them innocently. "What did I say?"

Jeff Turner stared at the transparent expression on his friend's face, then shook his head, turning back toward the club. He found Alexis almost immediately, and watched with ill-concealed longing as she lifted her head and laughed.