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If Jade Alexander had any guts, she would dump the mug of steaming hot coffee in the jerk's lap, then quit before her boss had a chance to fire her. Nobodyregular customer or notput a hand on her butt and got away with it. As a waitress, she was used to a degree of sexism, to men losing their manners around an attractive woman. Maybe it was the fantasy of a smiling woman serving them food and drinks with no complaints that made them lose all reason, but that still didn't make it right. There were limits to the abuse she would take, and Mr. Madden had just crossed the line.
Glaring at him, she opened her mouth to tell him what he could do with his hand. But the words didn't come. The truth was, Jade couldn't afford any guts, much less a roof over her head. She desperately needed this lousy job and the tips she made more than anything else right now. So what if the men who frequented The Red Piano were inconsiderate morons? She'd dealt with them for a year. She could deal with them for another.
No pain, no gain, as the saying went.
And she'd certainly had her share of pain. If you looked up the word in the dictionary, you'd find a stunned picture of Jade. This past year had been the worst of her life, such an emotional and physical struggle, that she'd more than once contemplated packing it in and moving back to New Orleans to live with her parents. But while she was lacking in guts, she certainly wasn't lacking in pride. There was no way she would ever admit to being a failure. She wasn't a victim, she was a survivor. It was all in how you looked at it.
Even if her jerk of an ex-husband had taken her to the cleaners.
"Huh, Jade? What do you think?"
Placing the mug of coffee on the table, she stepped away from him, casting a long look at his offending hand, hoping he'd gotten the picture. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"
"I asked," he began slowly, "if we could get together sometime. You know, outside of this restaurant. I love seeing you here, but it's not enough, know what I mean? Maybe we can get together for some drinks, a little dancing. Or something." He winked.
Jade could only imagine what he meant by or something. And she certainly wasn't interested. "Mr. Madden
"Please, call me Milton."
Reaching out, he took her hand. Jade lost her thought.
Originally she was going to be nice, let him down gently. Now she knew he'd get the picture only if she told it to him straight.
Pulling her hand from his, she said, "Mr. Madden, I am as interested in spending time with you as I am in dating a slug."
His widened eyes and slackened jaw said he was too stunned to speak, but Jade didn't care. She turned quickly, marching to the kitchen. If her manager got on her case, so be it. Milton Madden could find another woman to harass. She'd had enough.
Once in the kitchen, Jade leaned against a tiled wall and closed her eyes. The assorted smells of different foods washed over her, combining in a not-so-appetizing way that made her want to gag. God, she hated this job.
"Hey, hon. What's the matter?"
Opening her eyes, Jade saw Gerald's concerned face. Gerald was a fellow server, and one of the best things about working here. "Oh, Gerald. Thank God you're here. I need you to take a table for me."
She nodded. "It's Mister Touchy-Feely Milton Madden."
"Uh-oh. And I guess his hands went a-touchin' and afeelin' today."
"I don't know where that man learned his manners," Jade said, marveling at Milton's nerve. "I have to wonder if he has a mother."
"Well, don't you worry, hon. I'll take the table."
"Thanks, Gerald. I served him a cup of coffee, but I didn't ring it in yet."
"No problem," Gerald said with a wave of his hand. Winking, he added, "This should be fun."
Chuckling, he left the kitchen and went to the dining room. Jade smiled. Gerald would see to it that Milton got a taste of his own medicinethough Milton certainly wouldn't like it. Gerald was gay.
Relieved to have gotten over that hurdle, Jade grabbed a large tray, filled it with the hot plates of food for her customers, and returned to the dining room floor. The Red Piano was full this evening, and the collective sound of voices and music was so loud it was hard to think. Two days after Christmas, and New York City went on without missing a beat. Outside, people crowded the streets as if it weren't the holiday season. Manhattan truly was the city that never slept.
No doubt, some tourists had already arrived for the world's biggest partyNew Year's Eve in Times Square. Funny, Jade thought, that most New Yorkers she knew had never even been to the grand eventherself included. While she'd been born and bred in Louisiana, she'd been in Manhattan for twelve years and considered herself a New Yorker through and through. She'd even been able to lose her Southern accent.
She brought six plates of chicken teriyaki and rice to a table with six women, wondering as she said "Enjoy your meals" why they'd all ordered the same thing. People were definitely interesting; though Jade had already known that. Working in a restaurant confirmed that fact every day. And it was amazing the things she witnessed, like engagements, heated family arguments, two people who were so obviously having a secret affair that they may as well have had a neon sign above their heads that said CHEATERS.
When Jade turned from the party of six, she saw the hostess seating yet another couple in her section. She groaned. It was only a little after 7 p.m., and she was already so exhausted she didn't know how she'd make it through the rest of the evening. Having taken a few days off and visited her family in New Orleans, it was harder than she'd expected to get back into the groove of working at this restaurant.
Especially when she was aware that in four days, it would be a new year. A new millennium. And she was far short of reaching her New Year's goal.
Fourteen months ago, the year 2000 had seemed like a realistic goal to reopen her salon. She'd been down but not out when she'd lost her successful business, and was convinced that a year or so's hard work would earn her enough money to lease a new shop. She'd even dreamed of christening her salon with a New Year's celebration, then open for business two days later. Yeah, Jade had had a lot of dreams, but the truth was, she was approaching the New Year with barely enough money to survive, let alone enough to start another business.
On days like this, she hated her ex-husband. She'd been raised a Christian and believed in forgiveness, but every time she thought about Nelson's betrayal, forgiveness was just too hard to manage. She'd trusted Nelson Crumm, had believed in him, and he'd failed her. He'd more than failed her. He'd taken away the life she'd worked so hard for. Once she had been the successful owner of Dreamstyles, a hair salon in midtown Manhattan for women of color. Her salon had catered to several different types, from students to artists to professionals, and she was proud of the success she'd achieved. It wasn't uncommon for businesswomen to stop in her salon over lunch for a cut, a wash, or even a color if they had a two-hour break. She opened early and closed late, allowing for people who needed to come in at different hours to get different jobs done. Sometimes she would be at her salon until close to midnight, finishing a weave or braids or whatever time-consuming job needed to be done to have her clients looking their best. She didn't mind, however, because she loved her job.
And while she'd initially feared the long hours she put in at the salon would affect her marriage negatively, Nelson hadn't seemed to mind her hours, mostly because he worked as an in-houseVice President of Finance for an advertising firm as well as a freelance accountant. In other words, he worked crazy hours as well. He was nothing if not dedicated to his career, as Jade was to hers, and she thought he'd make the perfect business partner as well as the perfect marriage partner.
Jade had never been more stunned than when she'd learned Nelson had been stealing money from her salon. Having met him when she'd already owned her salon and when he'd already worked ten years for a Manhattan advertising firm, she had easily trusted him with her salon's books once they were engaged. However, five years into the marriage, she'd discovered the painful truth that Nelson led a double life. He loved to gamble, and when he'd run out of his own money to throw away on stupid illusions of striking it rich, he'd stolen hers.
Jade had thought everything was fine until her checks started bouncing. Unable to fathom what was going on, she'd confronted her bank manager, who had told her that her account had been depleted. Stunned, Jade had confronted her husband. Nelson angrily denied any knowledge of a problem, saying the bank must have made a mistake. But three weeks later, after a lot of tension and no answers, he packed his bags and left. His note said that he was leaving her for someone who trusted him. At first Jade had been so devastated with the knowledge that she'd pushed Nelson away, until the bank records showed the whopping amount of money he'd withdrawn. Then she'd gotten angry, but a lot of good that did. In the end, with no assets, Jade was forced to sell the salon, and even the money from the sale was used to pay her overwhelming debts. She'd barely had two pennies to rub together after that.
Shaking her head, Jade forced the disturbing memories from her mind. She didn't want to think about the depth of her husband's betrayal. Thinking about it wouldn't change the facts. With a new year approaching, she had to concentrate on moving ahead and forgetting the past.
That thought in mind, she walked to the table that housed her new customers, forcing herself into "cheerful waitress" mode. The couple sat on the same side of the booth, their linked hands resting atop the table, the sides of their faces pressed together as they giggled at some private joke. Jade stopped midstride as she saw the loving couple, a pang of sadness gripping her. She didn't miss Nelson, but she did miss the memory of what they'd had in their early years.
But even the memory was false. Nelson had never been the man he'd claimed.
"Good evening," Jade said, forcing a smile on her lips as she moved forward to stand at the edge of the table.
The giggling couple looked up. "Good eve" the woman began, but abruptly stopped. Recognition flashed in her eyes as she looked at Jade. "Hey!" she exclaimed. "Jade?"
Jade's own eyes narrowed as she regarded the other woman. Her hair was longer than she remembered, but the pretty face and bright brown eyes were certainly the same. "Cassandra!"
"Jade!" The other woman jumped out of the booth and wrapped her in a bear hug. "Oh, my God! I can't believe it!"
"Neither can I." Jade pulled back and looked at her old friend, her brain still processing the fact that it was really her.
"I thought you were in Los Angeles."
Cassandra nodded. "I was, but I'm back. Hey, you've got to meet Kenny." She gestured to the attractive, well-dressed, dark-skinned man sitting in the booth. "Jade, meet Kenny. Kenny, meet Jade."
"How you doin'?" Kenny asked, shaking her hand.
"I'm good, thanks." To Cassandra she whispered, "Mmm. He's cute."
"I know. And we're engaged!" She flashed a big, sparkling diamond for Jade's inspection.
"My Lord," Jade said, taking Cassandra's hand in hers.
"Congratulations. I hope you're both very happy together."
"Thanks," Cassandra and Kenny said in unison. Cassandra returned to her seatactually, to Kenny's lap throwing an arm around his neck. Kenny placed an arm around her waist. They were a beautiful couple and definitely seemed happy together, Jade thought with a smile. But then the thought hit her, she couldn't help it. Was Kenny really who he said he was? Were his feelings for Cassandra sincere? Nelson had claimed to love her, and look what he'd done.
Kenny isn't Nelson, she told herself sternly. She didn't have a right to think the worst of him; she'd barely met him. Though thinking anything decent about members of the opposite sex was a real challenge these days.
"So, girl, what are you doing here?"
Jade paused. The last time she'd seen Cassandra was three years ago when she'd quit as her receptionist with plans to move to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. Though sorry to see her go, Jade had wished her well. That was two years before she'd lost the salon, so Cassandra didn't know what had happened.
I work here," Jade finally said. What had happened wasn't her faultshe'd trusted her husbandyet she was embarrassed by the drastic turn her life had taken. "Why?" Cassandra asked, clearly stunned. "Aren't you busy with the salon?"
"I wish I was." Jade sighed. "Cassandra, I lost Dreamstyles."
Jade nodded. "And it's a long story, so don't ask."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Me, too. I lost everything."
Cassandra's eyebrows bunched together. "What do you mean, everything?"
"Everything. The salon. My home." Her dreams. Her future.
"But you still have Nelson, right?You two are still together."
"Oh," Cassandra said, then made a face. "Let me guess. Don't ask."
"Now isn't a good time. Maybe later."
"God, that's gotta be rough." Cassandra glanced over a shoulder at Kenny, as if for assurance that their marriage would work. He nuzzled his nose against hers. She smiled, then turned back to Jade. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. I think it all worked out for the best."
"Still, it can't be easy."
"No. It's not." She changed the subject. "What can I get you two to drink?"
Kenny said, "We'd love a bottle of champagne."
He nodded, then smiled as he held Cassandra a little closer. He didn't need to say anything else. It was clear that for a guy like Kenny, love itself was a cause for celebration.
She'd never had that kind of love with Nelson, though she'd desperately craved it. In the beginning he'd been charming and romantic, but the honeymoon phase had quickly died. Nelson never held her at night unless he wanted to make love. She'd had to ask for good-bye kisses and for hugs. When she'd sat back and thought about it one day, she'd realized that she had to ask for even the smallest show of affection, so finally she'd stopped asking. She'd come to accept that Nelson just wasn't the sweep-you-off-your-feet romantic type.
Jade brought Cassandra and Kenny a bottle of champagne then gave them some privacy. It was nice to see Cassandra, who had years earlier gone through man after man, finally happy.
"Jade, can I see you for a minute?"
Jade turned from the computer terminal to see Pierre Lamont, the owner and manager of The Red Piano, standing behind her. His eyes held a hint of anger. "Sure," she finally replied.
"In my office, please."
Jade swallowed as she followed her manager through the kitchen doors and into the small office at the back of the kitchen. Pierre wasn't prone to calling staff into his office to congratulate them on jobs well done. Her stomach suddenly a ball of nerves, Jade couldn't help wonderful what she'd done wrong.
"Have a seat," Pierre said.
She didn't like his tone. Cautiously sitting on the edge of a well-worn chair, she asked, "What's this about?"
"I had a chat with Milton not too long ago, Jade. He was very upset."
"Oh," Jade said matter-of-factly, feeling a modicum of relief. "I don't know what he said to you, but I'm the one who should be upset, Pierre. Not him."
"He said he's heard better language coming from a trucker than what you subjected him to tonight."
"That's a lie!" Jade replied, indignant.
Pierre raised an eyebrow. "Then what did you say?"