A/N: As always, I gratefully thank all those who have hit that follow/favorite button. And a special shoutout to these lawvely peeps for their reviews of the past couple chapters:
Footstepsinutopia, BookReader88, MaddieD96, IndigoBlueButterfly1, ACleverPenName, renegade01, HJL, MileyRowling, FictionObssessed, Guest, Chie Wisdom's Daughter, foxfaceish, Mlrox, ididshank, dragon14, leavesfallingup, MigiLove2143, Irish Unicorn, Infinite Sky, Guest, mylittleprincess, and The Bob.
I normally send personal replies to each and every one of your reviews . . . but my private messaging is acting a bit wonky again, so I hope an honorable mention shall suffice for now. :)
Chapter 17: To Unrequited Love and Siblinghood
I carelessly swirled the champagne inside my wineglass, staring dismally at the rest of the gang seated around the circular, ornate table.
Music pulsated loudly from the many speakers scattered throughout the reception hall. People were dancing without thought, without worry, without a single care in the world. And yet, here we all were – walloping in our misery like six morose bums at a funeral.
Erick glared at his empty glass, bloodshot eyes filled with both longing and disappointment. Annoyed, he shot up from his seat and grumbled, "Gonna get another bottle."
Bobby mumbled a quick word of assent; his gaze then fell upon my full glass. "May I?" he mouthed.
I shrugged indifferently, sliding it over to him. "Bottoms up, dude." He seized my drink gratefully, draining it in two large gulps. Benny had passed out ages ago. His golden shawl was entangled in his hair – his seemingly lifeless body slumped over in his chair.
A shrill voice then erupted at my side, awakening me from my dazed and lethargic trance. "Oh, that's it!" Frankie shouted. "I can't take this anymore. This party is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It's the Grammys for Chrissakes. Lapse into depression for all I care. I, on the other hand, intend on actually enjoying myself tonight. And I implore you all to do the same, 'cause we ain't gettin' any younger, fellas. We ought to be celebrating."
And with that final hurrah, he, too, got up from his seat and ambled towards the dance floor.
Joey spoke up next, toying with the two trophies before him.
"Frankie's right," he said. "We have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. We can't always win; we can't allow these awards to define who we are."
Bobby swept his hair from his eyes, taking hold of Frankie's abandoned beverage.
"I'll drink to that," he slurred. "But listen, man. I don't give a monkey's ass that you only won two of the eight categories you were nominated for. All of us could care less about that. It's the fact that you lost out to this ruddy, prepubescent Richie bastard that's driving us all to self-destruction. What kind of sixteen-year-old kid wins all six Grammys he was nominated for? The record labels are going to go in a frenzy over that boy. My hand to the Heavens, brother, there's gotta be some crazy witchcraft shit going on here."
I stared at the opposite end of the room, watching the swarm of people gathered about Richie. Cradled tightly to his chest were the abundance of awards he had won. He turned then, and met my eye – giving me a wink.
I crossed my arms over my stomach, struggling to fight back the vile churning at the back of my throat.
I don't like holding grudges. I don't like making enemies.
If a person irks me, I simply try to distance myself from that individual. However, when matters concerned this Richie dweeb – I chose to pursue a rather different approach.
But minus the killing, of course. I'm not that determined.
"Joey," I said quietly, "I think I'm just going to step outside for a bit. Clear my head."
He immediately stood up, helping me to my feet. "I'll go with you."
I shook my head with a tiny smile, nodding towards Benny and Bobby. "Nah, I think it's best you keep an eye on these two delinquents. A drunken duo like them could bring the world to a fiery end."
"Hm. You've got a worthy point there."
Feeling rather courageous, I stole a direct glance at his face. Lord, and what I saw was like a blow to the chest. Sheer disappointment. Dissatisfaction. Frustration. He was upset with himself, and he was trying so hard – so incredibly hard to hide it. To suppress it all. I wanted to cry for him.
"Joey, please. Don't do this to yourself," I whispered pleadingly. "Those trophies, they're just pretty heaps of molded metal. You'll always have your music; you'll always have your voice. And no one – absolutely no one can take that away from you. Don't beat yourself up over this. That kid has nothing on you."
He stepped forward, our foreheads nearly touching. He smiled sadly, his eyes sweeping over my face – his gaze eventually fixating on a point just above my chin.
"I already have something more precious than all the pretty heaps of molded metal in the world put together," he replied knowingly. His hand traversed down the length of my arm, gently grasping my hand. "Promise me a dance when you get back?"
"A . . . a w-what?" I stammered.
"A dance," he repeated with a broadening grin. "You know. That thing people do when a song plays and-"
"All right! Thanks for the Oxford definition, Einstein. You've got yourself a reserved dance."
I then ambled away, hearing him shout just before the blaring music drained him out. "I'll be patiently awaiting, m'lady!"
Oh, shush. I can smell all of your thoughts fuming from here. The man just wants one dance. And it certainly won't be a pleasant experience to waltz with a gal who has two left feet. He'll likely never ask for a second one, that's for sure.
And I know what else you're all thinking. Holy crap, Jen! Get on up on a damned table! Shout to the world that Richie's a pervert. A molester. A two-faced, deceptive, lying cheat. Sully his good boy reputation, and the chalice of glory shall be passed onto Joey.
I wish it were that simple.
It would be my word against his. I already had the Benny incident on my record, need I not remind you. And how would it look if Joey Jenson's personal assistant suddenly decided to wage a war against the same guy who had crushed her employer in the Grammys?
But what about those bizarre mute dudes in the white leotards? you may ask.
Firstly, I hadn't a single clue as to their current whereabouts. They never made an appearance during tonight's ceremony, so Heaven knows who they are. Maybe Los Angeles has got some nasty human trafficking system going on. I wouldn't be surprised.
Secondly, they had never witnessed the incident on a firsthand account anyhow. It would, ultimately, still be my testimony against Hollywood's newest sweetheart.
We were all trapped. And the walls were closing in.
"Whoa, this is one heck of a wild fiesta. You're quite the party animal, Frankie."
I ambled out onto the rooftop, which overlooked the entirety of Los Angeles. Frankie was standing alone beside the railing, a glass held in one hand – his suit jacket in the other. He turned to me with a tiny grin, rolling his eyes in mock annoyance.
"Eh, shuttup, Jen. I just had to say something to get out of there. I couldn't take that dramatic hellhole any longer."
I took my place beside him – my arms dangling over the railing, head thrown back to admire the clear night sky.
"I hear you, brotha. Another minute inside, and I would've thrown up. Hey, what's that you got there?"
I gestured curiously towards his drink.
He shot me an irksome glare. "Shirley Temple. Stupid bartenders didn't believe me when I told 'em I turned twenty-one just a few weeks ago. Idiots."
"Maybe if you stand on a chair, they will," I mused.
"Hardy har har. Very funny, Jen."
Gracious, I love this guy. He was like a second brother to me.
I threw my arms around him, giving him a tight squeeze. "Sorry, buddy! Oh, c'mon, don't gimme that look. I'm just poking some fun at ya."
He patted my arm amiably, failing to suppress a laugh. "Yeah, yeah. A'ight, my turn to poke some fun at you."
My nose immediately scrunched up as I expected the worse. "Fine. Lay it on me."
He grinned, jabbing my side with his elbow playfully. "So. Is Joey a good kisser?"
I immediately felt my face redden. "Oh, what?! Frankie, th-that's just cruel! I think someone spiked your drink, dude."
Accusingly, he wagged one finger at me, replying, "Don't avoid the question, Jen. Is he or ain't he? Aye or nay?"
Sighing, I slowly stated in a clear and firm voice, "He's neither. I wouldn't know, you bozo. Joey and I are close, but not like that. We're like immature siblings."
"Siblings, huh? Like fun you are. Well, if that's the case, then I sense some incest occurring in the near future." He tipped the glass to his lips, draining it of its contents.
I playfully shoved him away. "Frank-ie! Eugh. Don't you dare go all Bobby on me. If nothing's ever happened between us all these months, nothing ever will. And I'm perfectly fine with that. Joey means a lot to me, and I don't want things to get screwed over."
He stared at me with a sad smile.
Man, why was everybody shooting me sad smiles today?
"Jen, you're such a saint. Gosh, are you honestly that oblivious?"
"You tell me."
On the street below, the reporters continued to scurry about like frantic ants. How I wished I could squash them all.
"Joey's been staring at you the whole day. Please don't tell me you haven't noticed."
"So?" I quickly retorted. "Is it not normal for people to look at each other? And plus, this is like, what? The first time I've ever worn a dress in front of him? He's probably so shocked that his nervous system has been having orgasms all day long."
He snorted, dramatically throwing his arms up in defeat. "Oh, that's it. I surrender, woman! Just don't come runnin' to me when he finally confesses his irrevocable love for you."
I flicked him in the face. "And don't come screechin' to my room when Lila does the same."
He shot me yet another glare.
"Don't go down that path, sister," he warned. "We hardly even speak to each other when she comes over to visit you."
"That doesn't mean anything. My instincts are never wrong; I sense something occurring in the near future," I joked amiably.
His facial expression softened. He clicked his glass against the railing with a slow, steady rhythm.
"If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, I think I'm perfectly fine with that too," he whispered.
I leaned against the railing and shut my eyes. "You really do like her, don't you?"
"Yeah," he muttered. "And I absolutely hate it. It's like I have no control over myself. No restraint. It's just this inextinguishable longing I feel, y'know? No matter what I say to myself, no matter how I act – I just can't . . . help myself. I mean, what the hell am I supposed to do? Just go up to the girl and tell her 'I love you'?"
My eyes flew open.
"Yes," I said firmly. "Yes. I mean, why not? Why shouldn't you?"
In that moment, something inside of me snapped. A fuse blew. A firecracker sparked.
"As you said earlier, none of us are getting any younger. So why sit around, and just wait for opportunities to strike? We have to instigate them. We have to start 'em, Frankie."
The smile on his face grew. He mulled over my words. "Sometimes we just gotta shout it all out," he stated in a vibrant tone.
"Yes!" I cried happily. I was growing more excited by the second. "We just have to scream it aloud."
"No! Even better - bellow it from the top of our lungs. Let the whole goddam west coast know. Sound our barbaric yawps over the rooftops of the world!"
Grinning, I kicked my heels off and ran to the opposite side of the roof – my fingers hitching up the hem of my skirt as I flew. Jeebus. I don't know what the heck got into me. Maybe it was the chill lingering in the evening air. The music blaring from the floor below. Teenage hormones. Who the flub knew? It felt as if a marvelous weight had been lifted off my chest. I could move. I could breathe.
I was euphoric.
I practically threw myself onto the railing, grasping the rusty iron metal tightly.
My chest heaved.
My lungs filled with oxygen.
My fingers grew slack as I proclaimed these words loudly into the open air:
"I love you, Joey Peter Jenson! I love you, ya ruddy fool! I love you."
The last statement was but a whisper. Though a triumphant smile was plastered on my face, I could feel tears brimming in my eyes. They flowed freely, staining the ground below.
Alas, the Berlin Wall I had constructed within me had finally been torn down and blown to mere smithereens.
I heard Frankie approach, his shoes clicking on the asphalt. He wrapped me in a hug as I half-cried – half-laughed – into his shoulder.
"Just siblings, huh?" he asked softly.
I shook my head, muttering, "Oh, be quiet, you twat. Women and their emotions. Gosh, now I know how Ronnie must have felt when our goldfish, Moomoo, died. I came barging into his room every night and cried for an entire week."
He rubbed my back soothingly, chuckling. "I'm afraid this situation is slightly more complex than Moomoo's passing. And Lord, Jen, though you're practically half a foot taller than me, you'll always have my shoulder to lean on. Don't forget it, sister."
I nodded, mussing his hair good-naturedly. "Thanks, Frankie."
He withdrew from the consoling embrace, gesturing towards the stairway leading to the rooftop's entrance. "I'll get you something to drink. Whaddya want?"
I sighed longingly. "A couple bottles of Russian Vodka would be lovely."
He cocked his eyebrows with a slight smirk.
"And a Shirley Temple sounds just as great," I mumbled in resignation.
"Now, that, I can do," he said. Knuckling me on the shoulder, Frankie asked curiously, "What'll we toast to?"
I thought for a brief moment.
"Unrequited love and siblinghood."
He broke into a satisfied smile, gave me a thumbs-up, and tucked his hands into his pockets before disappearing through the doorway.
Basking in the silence of the rooftop, I recalled the words I had shouted but a few moments ago.
Well, yeesh, you guys must all be blistering happy, eh?
I know. I had admitted it at long last. It only took approximately seventeen chapters for me to do so.
Now that I think of it, you all must have a lot of patience to have been able to read this far. Sheesh. I would've called quits in the preface.
And did I not inwardly vow to myself in Chapter 4 that I would never fall under his spell?
Feeling dizzy, I shut my eyes again and pressed my forehead against the iron railing. It felt cool against my skin. I sucked in a sharp breath.
Now that the burst of energy I experienced earlier had expired, I felt reason begin to kick in.
My mind raced.
How in the world was I supposed to work for Joey if I was madly in love with the man?
You continue behaving as you have for the past few months. Nothing has changed. This silly feeling you have for him will dissipate with time. He'll continue to throw playful jokes at you, and you, Jeanette, will continue to reply with those witty and sarcastic comebacks of yours. Nothing has changed. And nothing will.
I forced a laugh. My plan sounded mightily unconvincing, but it'd have to suffice.
The sound of the stairwell door swinging open jolted me from my thoughts.
"That was quick. Did the bartenders believe you this time?"
". . . Hello, sweet pea."
My eyes widened as I clenched the railing tightly.
Oh, you've got to be kidding me. As if the entire rest of this chapter didn't have enough drama already.