"Back again?" the girl at the door couldn't have been more than sixteen, seventeen; yet she was wearing clothes that tried to display more skin and curves than she possessed.
"Uh huh, can't stay away," Willow mumbled as she paid the cover charge and stepped in through the velvet curtains. It was dark but she could navigate this place blindfolded by now. Walk fifteen feet to the bar, nod an acknowledgement at a muscular, dark-skinned figure in a revealing silver outfit, watch her slide off her bar stool and take the offered seat.
"How's it going, Willow? The usual?" the hostess asked. It was a friendly question, not laden with the suggestive undertones usually reserved for clients.
"Yeah, thanks Kendra." Willow's eyes were scanning the packed floor already, and she scarcely noticed Kendra's wave at the bartender. A short while later, a heavy tumbler was placed inches from her hand. She picked it up automatically, not noticing the ice clinking slightly in the amber liquid as she swirled it around before taking a sip.
"I haven't seen her today, Willow. Mr Wilkins is in town," Kendra offered helpfully.
Willow's shoulders slumped visibly although she said nothing. She swept the room one last time and finally admitted that her target was not to be seen that night. Or any night. She blinked in surprise at the almost empty tumbler in her hand, condensation making trails down the outside of the glass and spilling onto her fingers. She had no memory of the drink, and felt none of the buzz that 40% alcohol was supposed to bring.
"Why don't I introduce you to another girl? There are plenty others who are younger and not well, semi-retired." Willow turned sharply at Kendra's measured Caribbean drawl, having forgotten also that the hostess was next to her. Kendra wasn't the type to be easily rattled, but she was taken aback at Willow's intense yet eerily hollow gaze.
It was a few moments before Willow replied. "Was she good? I mean, when she was -" To Kendra, it was as if Willow was still trying to convince herself that Tiesha - Tara - was someone else.
"She was, is still, one of the best. Mr Wilkins marked her as special, you know."
"Special? Special how?" Willow drained the last of her whisky and stared penetratively at the remaining ice cubes in the glass.
Kendra immediately waved to the bartender for a refill. "She's his favorite. Faith is his right hand, but Tara is the one he trusts. She has access to all sorts of stuff that is off-limits to us, including he himself," she explained.
"You mean, they?" It was too dark for Kendra to see Willow's anguished expression, but it wasn't hard to hear the dread in the question.
"Look, I've said too much already. You seem to be a nice person, Willow. Don't get involved in our ilk, it never ends well." Kendra passed the fresh glass to Willow and watched as the redhead took a practiced swill that consumed half the burning liquid. And she doesn't even feel it. She knew her words fell on empty ears, she'd seen it too many times, these types of infatuation. If the attractive young banker wanted to throw away her life for physical pleasures, there was nothing she could do about it.
Willow fidgeted and surreptitiously caught the eye of the waiter, who hurried over with a tray of wine and crudities. She dispensed with the food and snatched the glass of cheap merlot which she drained perfunctorily. She hated company functions. She especially hated being paraded about as a case study.
Patrick waved her over impatiently. "Come on, the Q&A is starting soon." He addressed the small posse of his staff gathered around him like a football coach prepping his team before one of those Bowls named after a flower. Or a drill sergeant pumping up his troops. "Don't forget, you are the crème de la crème. Show these overly eager young recruits how difficult it is to get inside our compound. If by chance we accidentally let one of them slip through, they need to understand we're gonna strip them of everything they know and they'd better leave that snotty MBA attitude behind."
"Sounds like a plan," one of her more flamboyant colleagues said. She could almost feel them rubbing their hands in glee, at the prospect of fresh meat to mislead and torment. MBA students were notorious for the size of their inflated egos, but she remembered being one herself, not so long ago, and of being utterly confused for those first weeks. What her professors had told her in college was so quickly debunked by the people who were actually working in the field as they tried their best to teach her the realities of the world of real finance.
She listened but didn't take part in the discussions between the bankers and the students. Until the inevitable segment when her own academic and professional career was put up on a powerpoint slide for all to gawp at. Triple Major, MBA, every imaginable prize and scholarship under the sun. All before the age of 22. The Annual Willow Rosenberg Circus Animal Display, as she called it privately. Outwardly she was the picture of enthusiasm, explaining the amount of hard work and slog that went into being a successful trader, but she could still see the stars in the students eyes.
"How long does it take to be promoted to VP?" one student asked anxiously.
"There are structured programs that will take you from Analyst through to Associate, then it's up to your performance. I'm sure HR will explain the class year concept in more detail," she explained.
"But you only get the huge bonuses when you become a VP. I want to know where to put my efforts into getting promoted," the student persisted.
A house full of expensive toys is still an empty house.
The Q&A session lasted longer than she wanted and it was a relief when it finally ended. Patrick wasn't going to let them off so easily, and a trip to the nightclubs was proposed. She swallowed the excuse that was at the tip of her tongue as she caught his 'don't try me' expression. She was his star employee, but knew there was only so much slack he would give her.
Adding to her consternation someone suggested Fur. Tara's club. As she exited the taxi she hid behind her more boisterous colleagues to avoid being recognized by the door staff. It then occurred to her that they would say nothing unless she did - the club pride itself on being absolutely exclusive and therefore the staff would be discreet.
It was Anything Goes night. She hadn't forgotten, she saw the schedule pinned up backstage and had memorized it after one glance. As her colleagues hooted in raucous anticipation, she ordered several whiskies and drank them in quick succession, hoping that her senses would be dulled before the show started. According to her observations and conversation with various staff of the club, Tara was retired and didn't participated in shows anymore.
Unless it was a particularly special occasion.
She had been feeling a chill down her spine all day and the hairs at the back of her neck stood up when the emcee announced that yes, tonight was a Very Special Occasion and the patrons would be treated to a night they would never forget.
Tara watched Willow from behind the cover of the heavy stage curtains. She knew that her former friend had been coming to the club every night for the three weeks since their disastrous lunch date. She also knew that Willow wasn't there for the company of the hostesses, since all she did was watch and wait. And drink. Far too readily Tara recognized Willow's drinking behavior. The diffidence and the dulled senses gave her away as someone treading a thin line between social drinking and closet alcoholism.
She knew she was a coward, to hide from Willow, because she knew that she was the reason behind Willow's visits. Kendra told her that she had struck up a conversation with the redhead on several occasions, and the normally stoic dark girl had gone as far as saying that Tara should deal with whatever demons that were raging between them before it got out of hand.
Truth was, seeing Willow again stirred up too many emotions that Tara had worked so hard to bury. She had convinced herself that those memories were just that, forgotten memories from a closed chapter of her life. Growing up in Aunt Marie's home, meeting Willow, studying together were images from an idyllic childhood of another person, not her. The night of prom, their closeness, and the brief kiss ... these were sensations from a past that had to be put away.
All around her the company was getting ready for the performance. There was an undeniable sexual energy in the air tonight. Once every so often they would hold an evening show that was deliberately provocative, when the performers were free, no... encouraged, to drive the audience to a frenzy. These events were not publicized, but those who needed to know would get to know. And for those who didn't know beforehand it was an out of the world surprise. It was good for their reputation.
Tara knew she should be getting herself focused. It was the first time she had gone on stage for a long time, but she had been edgy for a few weeks and she wanted to lose herself for one night. She no longer had to take part in any of the front of house activities, but that was one place where she could relax and forget about who she had become.
She had not counted on Willow being there. In theory Willow was one costumer among the sea of faces outside. Everyone wants a piece of me, everyone will ogle me like I'm some prized pig. She's no different. So why was there such an incredible tightness in her chest when she spied, no... she felt, Willow walk into the club? Her fist clenched so tightly that her fingernails were cutting into the skin of her palm. She felt sickly stirrings in the pit of her stomach. Fear. Doubt. Apprehension. Willow was sitting very still at the edge of the couch, seemingly in her own hellish world. The sadness in those eyes bore into her, like no other person had done. She shuddered at her own weakness, and tried in vain to push back the tinge of desire that threatened to burst through her well constructed internal defenses.
The house lights dimmed and the music started.
"Are you ready, Tara?" The stage manager's eye was on her.
Internally she was in turmoil, yet outwardly she was calm as a rock. She put on her game face and took a deep cleansing breath.
"Let's go," she said.
Willow couldn't remember the show, only abstract colors and feelings. She was sure it was sizzling and sensual, but everything faded into oblivion as soon as the spotlight came on and it was Tara's smile, Tara's voice ... Tara everywhere. The way the spotlights caressed her, picking out the glittering beads on her costume that made her seem to sparkle and float electrified Willow. She didn't realize how tensed she was, her every muscle was wound up and ready to spring in Tara's presence.
She gripped the handrests of her chair as Tara glided from the stage toward her. Two hours had passed from the moment the music and the lights snapped on and illuminated a solitary Tara on stage. One solo song was followed by the rest of the production, which quickly faded into Willow's subconscious. She only had eyes for Tara. And now as the climax approached, Tara held her gaze steadily and it was as if there was no noise, no crowds, no distractions around them.
Tara stood directly in front of Willow's seat, silent while the chorus sang around her. Willow's neighbor tried to grab Tara, who neatly sidestepped the man's lunge. It was clear that her attention was on Willow only.
The crescendo of music matched the build-up of intensity between them. The final notes exploded like fireworks around them.
There was complete silence before the audience erupted with applause.
"How much is your bar fine, beautiful?" Willow's neighbor was nothing if not persistent.
Tara's eyes never left Willow's. "You can't afford me, sir," she said evenly.
"And Willow can? I'll give you more in every way," he challenged.
Tara's mouth flickered briefly in a dismissive smile as she made clear she was addressing Willow.