Episode Three - Love, Chicago

Episode Three - Love, Chicago

Sasha & Jack

“Miss Brennan, I apologize for the delay.”  The doctor was an older man with thinning grey hair. He met Sasha and Jack in a small room behind the reception desk of the hospital’s emergency room.

Sasha felt her stomach turn. A year ago, she and Trent had been in a similar room when they were told their parents died.

The doctor shook Sasha’s hand and nodded at Jack, who made no attempt to cross the room from his spot against the wall. With his hands in his pockets, Jack looked like he was bracing himself for a physical impact. His shoulder was pushed against the light blue wallpaper that covered the far wall; it’s muted pattern of dotted gray and white lines crisscrossed in long vertical rows.

“Is Trent okay?  What happened?”  Sasha asked.

“I’m not going to lie to you, he’s in bad shape, Miss Brennan. A drunk driver ran the curb where your brother was standing. We’re still assessing things. He has a punctured lung so we have him on a ventilator until we can repair it. He’s going to need a lot of work.”

“What happened to the guy that hit him?” Jack’s voice was gruff.

“He just died a few moments ago from his injuries.” The doctor frowned. “At some point, the police will want to speak with your brother but for now, he’s under sedation.”

“Can I see him?” Sasha’s brow furrowed.

“I wouldn’t recommend it. Like I said, there’s a lot of work to be done on him, Miss Brennan, and frankly, you wouldn’t want to see how he looks right now. He’s completely out, he won’t even know you’re there.”

“Please, doctor,”  Sasha pleaded. “I need to see him.”

The doctor looked at his watch. “Okay, give us an hour to clean him up and then you can see him. But Miss Brennan, I’d advise going home after that. There’s not much you can do here and he’s going to need all the help he can get once he starts recovering.”

Sasha nodded and the doctor directed them toward the door to the waiting room.

A television nearby broadcasted a football game that didn’t even register for Sasha. She and Jack sat side by side in a long row of connected chairs against the wall, as they waited to be called back to the ER. They hadn’t said a word to each other since they arrived at the hospital but sat together like family. Jack had his leg crossed and pulled at the ripped seam on the cuff of his jeans. Across the room, a baby cried in the arms of a Hispanic woman speaking Spanish to the man next to her. Three young Hispanic men who Sasha assumed were family, congregated around another television, watching a different game.

An hour passed but it felt like three. Sasha saw the nurse approaching them and she put her hand on Jack’s arm.

“Miss Brennan, you can both follow me, please.”

The woman led them through the large wooden doors to the busy emergency area. Empty gurneys lined the hall leading to the main desk where doctors and nurses congregated at screens, diagnosing their patients. Individual exam rooms bordered the desk, each with large, block numbers over their doors.

The nurse stopped at room number six and motioned to them.

Sasha instantly wondered if they had the wrong room. As she neared the bed, her hand went up to her mouth to stifle a gasp.

Trent was practically unrecognizable.

Sasha looked at the foot of the bed where blood and dirt soaked jeans were squished into a plastic bag. If it hadn’t been for the remnants of Trent’s favorite shirt, she would’ve insisted the young man in the bed was not her brother.

Wires snaked from under the white blankets covering his body and a tube was inserted into his mouth, the tape covering his lips. The rest of his face was covered with dried blood. Trent’s hair, which was relatively short and brown, was wet and matted.

Jack stood behind her so closely, Sasha could feel his chest brushing her shoulder blades. Jack tugged at her arm and turned her toward him, embracing her as she collapsed into his arms.

Tears filled Sasha’s eyes and despite being in the arms of a stranger, she found an odd comfort there. Very few people could say they’d ever seen Sasha emit such raw emotion, let alone rely or lean on anyone, but Jack’s arms wrapped around her and she succumbed to her despair over Trent’s condition.

When Sasha pulled away from Jack, she leaned in and whispered to Trent, promising everything would be okay.

The nurse appeared again.

“Miss Brennan, we’re going to start setting some of his broken bones. I’ll have someone call you with an update later. It might be better to just come back tomorrow when your brother is in his own room.”

Sasha stared at Trent’s face then slowly started to nod.

Jack led her to his SUV in the parking lot but didn’t start the engine right away. They both sat for a long time as Jack stared into the dashboard. Sasha reached into her purse and pulled out a small travel packet of tissues and wiped her eyes.

Jack slapped his hands on the steering wheel. “Shit!”  His shout startled Sasha and she jumped.

Jack balled his hands into fists and pushed them into his eyes.

Sasha looked over at him. When he pulled his hands away from his face, she saw his eyes were rimmed with red. She wondered why Trent had never mentioned Jack or that he had gotten close to anyone at work. The man next to her was obviously just as shattered as she was by the incident.

Jack cleared his throat and turned the key. He drove back to her building silently, pulling into a spot. He forced the gear shift into park with more force than necessary and scowled out the window. The street was quiet and the sun was starting to set over the row of buildings to the West.

“Say you’ll come up for a drink.” Sasha bit her lip.

“I’m afraid it would be several drinks.”  His rough voice was low.

“Fair enough.” Sasha nodded. When Jack didn’t move right away, she tugged on his arm. “Come on, I have all that food and it’ll be less pathetic if we get drunk together.” Sasha got out and Jack pushed his door open.

“One condition.”  Jack said. “You let me help make dinner.”

***

Devyn & Todd

Don’t think, don’t let him get a word in, just quit.

Devyn pulled into the lot of the office building where Windy City Scandalous rented 5,200 square feet of space and got out of her car. She had rehearsed her speech to Todd over and over all night and decided today she was going to take back her career and stop getting sneered at by the rest of the photography world.

After reading online what her pictures had done to the movie stars she’d busted making out on the movie set - cheating, she reminded herself - and seeing the pictures of the crying children caught in the slipstream of two very public divorces, Dev decided she was done ruining people’s lives. Even if they deserved it. She was tired of chasing down the scandals.

Riding the elevator up to the tenth floor, she felt the knot in her stomach tighten. She knew the end of her employment may also lead to the end of her relationship with Todd. She knew that staying attached to the man that ran the very thing that sensationalized the undoing of people’s lives, is probably just as bad as working for him.

Goodbye job, goodbye Todd. It’s been…

The elevator doors opened and Dev took a moment to survey the unusual activity before her.

The office was buzzing with people shouting and cheering from the bullpen area also known as the pit. The open section was centered in the rows of cubes that filled the floor.

Todd stood on a chair and was raising a beer over the heads of his forty-two employees, when he glanced in her direction. His eyes lit up and he shouted something incoherent, waving her over.

Dev’s coworkers cheered and patted her on the back as she made her way to the pit.

Her brows furrowed as she approached Todd and he jumped off the chair to meet her.

“What’s going on?” Dev glanced at the boxes of pizza and cases of beer stacked on the low tables where staff meetings were normally held.

Todd pushed the beer into her hand and pulled her bag from her shoulder. He looked toward the crowd. “Should I tell her?”

Dev looked at her coworkers, confused. Most of them laughed and nodded, but she noticed a few, her five paparazzi counterparts, were not as enthusiastic.

Todd put his hand up to silence the room. The grin on his face was ominous and Dev watched as his expression turned serious.

“You were chosen, Dev.”

Dev narrowed her eyes at him.

Todd rolled his eyes. “The Sherri Cassidy thing. They want you to shoot and film for the reality show and WCS is going to be a partner to the show.”

The crowd rumbled again, cans clinked and there was some applause.

Dev knew exactly what “the Sherri Cassidy thing” was and feigned a smile.

“See everyone, I told you she’d be shocked,” Todd stated. The room erupted in laughter. All except for the five other photographers, Dev noticed.

“Wow, Todd, I…don’t know what to say. Maybe we should go talk about this,” she lowered her voice, “in your office?”

“Always working, this one.” Todd pulled her into an embrace and kissed the top of her head.

Dev stopped breathing for a moment. He just showed her affection, in public, in front of the staff.

WTF?

They left the staff to congregate around the booze and pizza. Luckily, the walls of Todd’s office were solid, because as soon as the door shut behind them, Todd clicked the lock and pushed her against the back of the door, his lips devouring hers.

Dev struggled under his weight, pushing at his chest, her lips tearing away from his.

Todd disregarded Dev’s look of irritation and cupped her face with his hands.

“Todd, stop.” She pushed his hands away and slipped past him to pace the office.

“Dev, you know what this means, right?” His tone was calm.

“I quit.” Dev spun around to face him.

Todd didn’t even blanch. He slowly shook his head and walked over to her.

Dev’s chest heaved as her mind worked to find all the excuses she had lined up.

“Devyn, come on. Don’t be that way. You just had the world handed to you on a silver platter and you know it.”

Todd wasn’t lying.

“The Sherri Cassidy thing” as Todd put it, was a project Windy City Scandalous was pitching for weeks. Sherri Cassidy was fresh off a reality show called the Real Models of Chicagoland, a show that followed a group of twenty-something models around much like the premise of the hugely popular Real World. The girls lived in a house together in Logan Square, where they spent most of their time bickering and hooking up with random guys at clubs. Again, very Real World. Sherri Cassidy was the most popular of the models and possibly the most naturally pretty. She was also the most outspoken, just short of being called a bitch, and had the most experience in the modeling field. As a result, Sherri was getting her own show called, ironically, Model Citizen.

Todd had been bidding for a partnership with the show’s producers, offering coverage on WCS’s website, introductions to WCS’s sponsors, and full access to Todd’s top photographer. Working on the project would mean even more exposure for Dev. The part worried her was that Todd had obviously played favorites and thanks to his actions in front of the team, the other photographers probably already figured out she was sleeping with Todd.

“Why wouldn’t you give this to Rich or Charlie? They’re way more experienced than I am.” Dev crossed her arms in front of her.

“It makes sense to have you do it, babe. Cassidy isn’t going to want some old dude hanging around like a creep. You two can build a relationship and she’ll trust you more than she would those guys.” Todd cocked his head back and reached out for her.

Dev turned to look out the window. “Those guys already resent me out there.”

“Screw them.” Todd wrapped his arms around her, pulling her back against his chest. “You do this and in six months you’ll be able to write your own career path.” His head dropped down, kissing the side of her neck. “Not that I’d want you to leave me and go somewhere else.” His breath warmed the skin under her ear and his hand slid down to the zipper of her dress pants.

“Todd, not here.” She pulled away and faced him. “What’s wrong with you? You never want to be physical at the office. You always say you don’t want anyone to know, and I’ve always agreed.”

Todd closed the gap between them, backing her into the credenza.

Dev glanced over her shoulder out the window facing another high rise. The sun was reflecting off all of the buildings as if they were disco balls. There was no chance anyone could see inside the office, but she still put her hands up as Todd approached.

“Come on, babe, let’s celebrate.” His lips went to her neck again and Dev felt herself surrender slightly. “And maybe I’m done hiding our relationship. Maybe I want to take you right here on the desk.”

Dev pulled back and Todd’s gaze met hers.

Todd’s shoulders dropped and he released her.

“Fine,” he scowled at her. “Why did you say you quit?”

“Because,” Dev said as she pulled on the tails of her dress shirt, straightening out the wrinkles, “I’m tired of ruining people’s lives.”

“Well, this is the perfect opportunity for you to get away from all that. You won’t have to chase down the stories anymore, you’ll be exclusively working with their team. And me, of course.” Todd sighed. “Look, let’s go out for dinner and celebrate. We can talk about everything.”

Out? Dev considered the possibilities.

“We can even talk about us,” Todd promised.

***

Ashleigh & Ryder

Most of the crowd filed out of the concert hall after Ryder’s band left the stage.  Around one hundred people, all wearing VIP patches similar to the one Ash had adhered to the denim covering her thigh, convened on the main floor waiting for instructions from the House of Blues staff.

Ashleigh stayed by the bar, not wanting to get in the way of the meet and greet. She knew most of these fans paid extra to meet their idol. She’d have her moment with Ryder when the time was right.

When Ryder appeared in the doorway to the backstage area, flanked by a security guard and a man with a clipboard, the crowd on the main floor tittered with excitement. Ash could see Ryder had attempted to clean up. His hair was wet and combed back and he had a towel around his neck he was using to wipe his face. As he approached the steps leading to the main floor, the crowd parted, allowing Ryder to walk to a hi-boy table that was set up for signing autographs. As he neared the table, Ryder glanced in Ashleigh’s direction.  He smiled and excused himself as he changed direction and headed toward Ashleigh.

Ash straightened, her mouth forming the word “hello”, but the sound never made it out.

Ryder pulled her into his arms, his lips landing on hers.

This was not the kind of kiss you give an old friend you hadn’t seen in almost a decade. This was a kiss you gave a lover when you reunited with them after a long day at the office and you only had one thing on your mind. It was full of familiarity and passion and it lasted longer than Ashleigh expected. She fought between melting in his arms and pulling away like she’d been startled by an electric shock.

It was a tough sell, but when Ryder broke from her, Ash tried to look like she wasn’t completely flustered by his kiss.

Ryder’s hands went to her cheeks, cupping her face, before be pulled her against him in a tight embrace.  He released her almost as quickly.

“Sorry, I probably smell like I ran a marathon. Let me get through this thing and we’ll catch up after, okay?” Ryder’s voice was rough. He squeezed her arms and let go, heading back to the table where the first of many excited fans waited.

Ashleigh tugged on her leather jacket, noticing the groups of people, mostly women, were staring at her. She turned and sat on a barstool while she waited.

After an hour, Ryder returned to the dressing room, grabbed his personal items and he and Ash hopped into the limo to go to his hotel so he could freshen up. The ride there was filled with quick changing topics as they both tried to speak at the same time. They laughed all the way up the elevator at their ability to slip right back into old habits.

Ashleigh made herself comfortable in the sitting room adjacent to the bedroom suite, looking at a photo album Ryder had brought for her. The pictures encapsulated the entire tour - different cities, different clubs, lots of fans. She noticed over the chronological progression Ryder looked like he lost weight. She assumed living on the road the last couple years had done that.

Ryder entered the sitting room freshly showered and dressed in a pale blue shirt that matched his eyes. Under the recessed lighting, Ashleigh could see the lines around Ryder’s eyes were deeper and there was a tiredness behind them, but he still looked the same.

“How’s my girl?” Ryder sat down on the sofa next to her, his arm casually going around her shoulders.

“These are great pictures, Ry. What an awesome memento of the tour.” Ashleigh flipped to a page showing a mountain range with Ryder and his bandmates posing together.

“Listen, the guys are meeting at Harry Carey’s down the block for some food. Are you hungry?” He was off the sofa and crossing the room before she answered. “Or if you want, I can order room service.” He looked around for the binder holding the menu.

“Whatever you want, it’s your decision.” Ash set the photo album on the table in front of her.

“I really want to just hang out but I’m really hungry, and it’s the last night of the tour…”

Ashleigh stood. “Come on, let’s go meet them. We have all the time in the world.”

Ryder blanched. “You’re right. We don’t have to stay long.” He directed her toward the door.

Ashleigh laced her arm in his as they walked the two blocks to the restaurant.

The five members of Ryder’s band had reserved the private room at Harry Carey’s restaurant, and along with their wives and significant others, filled a long table for twenty. Ryder and Ashleigh took the two seats at the end of the table as Ryder introduced her.

“This is the infamous Ashleigh? We’ve heard so much about you.” Jim, the drummer, threw his arm around his wife, Kayla, who sat next to him. “Our girls love your books.”

Ashleigh blushed, more so for the comment that Ryder talked about her. “Thank you, I appreciate that. I just came from a book signing before the show and the audience was mostly young girls.”

“Aw, I wish we had known.” Kayla’s shoulders slouched.

“I’d be happy to get them copies of the new books and sign them.” Ash smiled.

Jim and Kayla traded looks. “They’d be thrilled.” Kayla said.

As the waitress took drink orders, Ashleigh felt Ryder’s arm slide around the back of her chair, his fingers brushing over her shoulder. She could feel his gaze on her. Ash smiled as she felt her cheeks warm.

“I’m so glad you’re here, doll.” Ryder leaned in and said in a low voice.

Ashleigh looked up at his face. Again, noticing a tired look in his eyes. She reached over and squeezed his thigh under the table.

For almost two hours, Ashleigh observed the dynamic of Ryder and his bandmates. They all had stories to share from the road, from crazy fans to broken down buses to long stretches of shows without a break. She noticed how quiet Ryder kept during the whole meal and as they sat back enjoying an after dinner cocktail, his arm went around her again, this time pulling her close.

“Would it be okay if we leave? I’m beat.” Ryder said in a low voice.

Ashleigh nodded. She pulled a business card from her purse and gave it to Kayla as they said their goodbyes.

“Email me with your address and I’ll be sure to send signed copies to your girls.”

Kayla thanked her with an emphatic hug.

Outside the restaurant, the breeze had gotten brisk. Ashleigh tugged at her jacket and leaned into Ryder’s arm.

“Remember that time we went to the beach at night and it was this cold?” Ryder mused.

Ashleigh thought a moment. “And you jumped into the lake? Of course I remember. You talked me into joining you and we both ended up with bronchitis for a week.” She laughed at the memory. Her smile faded slightly as she also remembered that was one of the times he kissed her senior year of high school.

Ashleigh couldn’t help but wonder, as they rode the elevator up to his hotel room, if he’d brought that up on purpose.

“Would it be weird if I asked you to stay tonight?” Ryder ran his finger over the edge of the room keycard in his hand.

“Why would it be weird?” Ashleigh felt heat rise in her cheeks for the second time that night as she wondered what he meant by “stay.” The last time she stayed overnight with him, she’d lost her virginity.

“Look, Ash, the last time we saw each other…” Ryder took a step back, leaning against the elevator wall. “I was a real asshole.”

Ashleigh felt a weight settle in her chest. That was a memory she’d much rather forget.