Through the side door and down the hall to the dressing room. As much as Pearl treated Darzsa like Chéri ’s best-kept secret, she’d never let him enter through the front door for work. He was dressed like one of those men who’d pay top dollar for a front-row seat tonight, so she had no reason to complain. He’d painstakingly picked one of his best suits, and he wasn’t going to let it go to waste.
After some convincing, flattery, and a bit of whining, Darzsa sat in the corner of the dressing room, rolling his eyes at every utterance he heard. They babbled on about the private parties they crashed and the souvenirs they caught at the parades, and one thing Darzsa wanted to hear about the least.
“Have you been to her yet? One of our maid’s other clients went to her, and she was able to talk to her son. He died over there in the war.”
“I’m saving up to see her so she can tell me when I’ll fall in love.”
All the girls sighed, and Darzsa covered his mouth to lighten the nauseating sensation from this dreadful conversation.
“Something wrong?” Ruthie asked, green eyes glowering at Darzsa through the mirror. “If our talk is bothering you, don’t hesitate to leave.”
“Ruthie…” Barb warned, smoothing down her hair. She was one of the first to learn the hard way not to cross Darzsa when he was in a mood or otherwise.
“What? We’re all in here having a good time, and we have to be sympathetic because he’s throwing an ing-bing in the corner?” Ruthie took her concentration from lining her lids to smooth down the front of her dress. “Did that man you’ve been ogling dump you already? Maybe you can ask the spirits why you have such rotten luck with men.”
Darzsa stood, causing the two girls closest to him to flinch, overdrawing the cupid’s bows on their lips. It’s not that Darzsa was intimidating. No, it was that a few words from him could bring the most thick-skinned soul to their knees. Whether or not she could take it was of no consequence to him.
The bitch had it coming.
Behind Ruthie he stood, a head taller over her with no sign of malice on his face. In fact, he wore a toothy grin that matched Ruthie’s. She thought she had him beat—cat had his tongue. But one thing Ruthie failed to learn about Darzsa was that he was never to be outdone, and he was always going to have the last word.
“Big of you to suggest such a thing,” Darzsa quipped. “Speaking of big, why don’t you consult some of these spirits and ask them if they know who the father is?” Moseying toward the door, he looked over his shoulder, sending Ruthie a wink. “Don’t pop a button out there.”
The stifled giggles and audible gasps made for the beginning of a good night at work, more melodious than the band starting to play.
Luck was on Darzsa’s side yet since he didn’t have to work the door. Tending tables and fetching drinks were more his speed. Flashing a dazzling smile here, batting his eyes there. The cramped room was filled with people huddled around tables and lining the bar. The weekend before Mardi Gras brought in fresh tips and a little trouble. The fuzz all but gave up regulating, but a few liked to make an example out of some dives. Tight lips and vigilance kept places like this thriving.
That same vigilance was what led hungry eyes to the end of the counter. Darzsa noticed Josiah when he arrived but cleared the last few tables before he could give him a proper greeting.
“Do you usually come out this late?” Darzsa leaned next to the occupied stool. “It’s nearly one a.m. Most have moved on or found their l' associé for the night.”
Behind that mask of brazen charm was a giddy bundle of nerves, frayed and exposed that could flare without warning. The afternoon’s indiscretion didn’t deter Josiah from coming back for more, nor Darzsa from wanting him. He’d be damned if Josiah slipped through his fingers, loose screws and all.
“I prefer a late start.” Josiah downed the last of his drink and slid the glass to the bartender.
“And your schedule allowed you to come by for...what exactly?” That electric current sizzled under Darzsa’s skin, waiting to spark.
The fast track to bygones was short-lived when Ruthie appeared behind Josiah, gleaning over his shoulder in Darzsa’s face.
“Be a doll and handle that table for me. I’m sure my swollen ankles would thank you for it.” She hung her arm around Josiah for support and to infuriate Darzsa. “That shouldn’t be too much trouble. They smell like money, so—”
“I believe I’m a paying customer, much like them,” Josiah interjected. “Or is my money not worth the same as theirs?” He nodded to the table in question. Three rowdy men sat, heckling the other girls passing.
“O-oh, no. I didn’t say…”
Josiah shrugged Ruthie’s arm off his shoulder. “Looks to me like they’ve got their hands full already. If it’s compensation you’re concerned about, I assure you that Darzsa won’t go without. Now, if you’ll excuse us.”
Ruthie’s cheeks blazed, matching her hair color, face going from embarrassment to unbridled rage. Josiah’s hand was out, cordially awaiting her dismissal. She pushed past Darzsa, who was halfway in hot pursuit, until a hand on his wrist froze him in place.
“She bother you often?”
“It’s nothing I can’t handle.” These girls around here weren’t the warmest when he started working here and hasty to let him know he wouldn’t be one of them. Not that he wanted to anyway. They’re just heels and a dress. If he was the cat’s meow in it, then so be it.
Josiah loosened his grip but didn’t move his hand. No reply or rebuttal, only a steely expression, and a slight nod.
Darzsa turned his palm up, guiding his fingers across firm, hardworking hands. “Would you like to get out of here?”
“Aren’t you still working?”
“They’ve got it covered. And aren’t I guaranteed compensation?”
It wasn’t often that someone defended him. Darzsa was far from a damsel in distress, but the ease in which Jo handled Ruthie called for a reward.
Seeing that Josiah still wasn’t on board with his plan of action, Darzsa tried another approach. “Only to talk, that is. No harm in that, is there?”
Josiah regarded him cautiously like he was in the den, and Darzsa was on the prowl. There was enough curiosity in Josiah’s eyes that revealed he didn’t seek deliverance. “I’ll wait for you by the door.”