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NOW

Chapter 1

Jake

I glance down at my Tag Heuer watch just to make sure the second hand is still moving. These meetings are long, tedious, and a waste of my time. As chief financial officer of The Hotel, a newer casino on the Las Vegas Strip, my job is to oversee every account, secure funding for every project, and sign my name on the dotted line to make sure hundreds of employees are paid on time, every time.

Sitting in a meeting about the changes the beverage managers want to make regarding how they contact the extra board cocktail servers for a shift is not really my thing. Will the change improve customer service without increasing costs? Then do it.

I glance up at Dave, the director of the food and beverage department, as he collects his notes and steps down from the podium to make room for Aaron from marketing. As soon as Aaron opens his mouth, my already frayed nerves rip to the seam. He’s animated and excited over minutia like an annoying cheerleader from high school still cheering when the team is losing by fifty points. No one is that happy at nine in the morning. Correction, only Aaron Martinez is that happy at nine in the morning. Maybe he wakes up seeing butterflies and rainbows.

I fight the urge to roll my eyes as I glance at my watch again. This is going to be a long meeting. We’re not even halfway done and I already know I’m not making it through the whole thing. Connor Rappaport, my business partner and the CEO, requires all members of the executive team to attend quarterly meetings on the casino’s goals and progress, but here’s the thing: It’s hard to fire the money man. Finding money, spending money and, more importantly, making money for this casino is what I do. It’s what my father did and the same thing his father did before him. The Johnson men are shrewd in business with a reputation for finding water when the well has run dry.

When Connor first approached me about opening an independent casino, I thought he was joking. Individuals almost never open casinos anymore. Contrary to its reputation, Las Vegas is no longer the Mafia’s washing machine for dirty money or the hardcore gambler’s playground. Vegas reinvented itself as a luxurious destination for playboy millionaires and socialites. Thank you, Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton. Their type of celebrity helped kick off a new era, a changing of the guard if you will. Connor was poised to take the reins. He just needed a little help and that’s where I came in. 

The first thing that any start-up needs is money. The capital needed to start a casino is astronomical. Even the most daring venture capitalists are leery about investing in a business that comes with the high degree of risk associated with gaming. That’s why most of the casinos on the Strip are publicly owned and traded. It’s easy to convince many investors to give a small amount versus getting a smaller number of investors to give large sums of money.

Connor personally invested fifty percent of our capital. Getting the other fifty took six months, give or take, and I worked my ass off for it. I tapped every connection my family had and some we didn’t. Many of the investments came as a personal favor to my father and others came with strings loose enough to give us room to hang ourselves because a favor owed to you by the Johnsons in this town is better than money in the bank.

Second, we had to reinvent the wheel. Consumers are no longer interested in Steve Wynn’s Vegas. His world of themed casinos that depend on gimmicks to get people in the door are a trend of the past. They want the opulence of the Waldorf combined with the nostalgia of slot machines and poker rooms. They want great food and the chance to be very important in an environment where anyone willing to spend money is important. Now people come to Vegas for the experience. A chance to say they walked on the same street where they filmed The Hangover or they threw dice at the table where Bugsy Siegel lost his bankroll. They want to sit in the showroom that hosted acts like the Rat Pack and Elvis and a chance to play on the golf course where notorious mobsters out smarted the FBI.

When we finally made our move, we vowed to do it different. Do it with fresh eyes and on our terms, which is the main reason we decided to name our casino The Hotel. The name doesn’t promise a tropical paradise or a trip to another country, but in a market saturated by the biggest, the flashiest and the gaudiest, it was our way to stand out, and it worked.

It’s been a crazy ride, but if I could do it all over again, I’m not sure I would. There was a brief time four years ago when I thought I could walk away. Turn my back on everything. Seventy plus years of familial obligation and the weight of becoming a pillar to a community already made my knees buckle under its weight. But I fucked up my chance, let her slip through my fingers, and the trappings of the life I’d wanted so badly to escape are now the only things I have left.

I check my watch again. Ten minutes later, Aaron is still going. It feels more like twenty. They have five more minutes then I’m out. If Connor has a problem, he can come find me. Truth be told, he has no more interest in this banal meeting than I do, so we’ll see if he comes looking.

Aaron is at the podium. His slight frame a wisp of color behind the heavy wood. The room erupts in applause, and I realize I’ve blocked out everything he was saying. He waits for the clapping to die down before he continues, too pleased with himself.

“As many of you know this is a huge deal for The Hotel. Landing an artist of this caliber for a residency finally puts us in a position to compete with some of the larger corporate hotels on the Strip.”

I’ve seen the list of local bands under consideration for the residency, but there was definitely no one of caliber and nothing to applaud over.

“Sin City is the local band, and according to most critics and fans, they’re the architects of the “Las Vegas Sound.” All four members are native to Las Vegas, but Sinclair James and Adam Beckham have to be two of the brightest stars this valley has ever produced. We’ll be holding a press conference Friday immediately followed by a reception.”

 

Sin City? As in Sinclair James’s band. I lean forward in my seat now, intently focused on Aaron. There is no way in hell I missed a memo about Sin City. I’d just met with Connor a couple of days ago to finalize the budget for the upcoming residency, and he hadn’t said a word. If the CEO didn’t know, they must have just confirmed.

Sin City is coming back to Vegas. Sinclair James will be back in Vegas, at my casino.

I dated Sin forever ago, long before Connor moved back to the States and we started The Hotel, way before I chose to conform and assume my father’s role. Hell, for most of our relationship, the band was a lounge act and one of many reasons my parents found her unsuitable.

It’s been years. Four years… since I’ve seen or spoken to Sin. The last time I had any real connection happened a couple of months after we broke up. A video of her singing at a studio in London went viral on YouTube. She was breathtaking in her pain, and I took comfort in the fact she was just as miserable as I was. That I still made her feel something.

When I finally got past the visuals long enough to listen to the song, I was sick. Disgusted with what I’d done and how I’d broken us. That goddamn song was awful. All my missteps, all the regret, all the heartbreak laid bare for public consumption. I must’ve heard her sing “Exquisitely Broken” every day for months, and that was before the official video came out. One that featured a man who looked exactly like me caught in a twisted web of his own making, just like I had. I remember it like it was yesterday. Sitting on the sofa watching my TV doppelganger act out the worst day of my life. I just kept thinking, This isn’t a game, it’s my life. Even though the listening public didn’t know TV guy was supposed to be me I felt exposed. Flayed open in the worse possible way.

The single went platinum, and so did the EP that followed. I watched her star rise higher than I ever imagined it could, but the higher she rose, the farther she moved away from me. There wasn’t only time and space between us anymore. There was media and fans. There was persona and security. There was a completely different life I wasn’t privy to and that reality sucked.

Through the years, I’ve followed her career. Year one post Sin, I turned into a low-key stalker. She avoided the valley, which meant I had to find her. I coincidentally end up at signings. I created dummy social media accounts to follow Sin City’s posts without alerting Sin or the band to my presence. I listened incessantly to local radio channels. I would show up at concerts and try unsuccessfully to get backstage. I read all her interviews and watched every TV appearance. When she started modeling for high-end designers, I bought fashion magazines just to feel a little closer to her. That was a low point, but it was all I had so I took it.

It was around that time that the articles started to shift. The interviews didn’t focus on Sin’s heartbreak anymore or the asshole, me, who broke it. They focused on her current love life. Not a day went by I didn’t see a headline linking her with tortured artsy types, from actors to pro athletes, and then I saw the picture of her with the ultimate, tortured, artsy type Adam, her so-called best friend and the lead guitarist for Sin City. The picture was taken backstage at a concert. From the look of the image, they had no idea a camera was present. His forehead rested against hers. He had a hand on either side of her face, and that connection that I’d always felt between them was palpable from the pages of a magazine.

Now I get to see her again. Sin City will be working for my hotel, and I’m pretty sure Sin has no idea I work here. It’s like the universe is finally throwing me a bone. Years of curiosity will be satisfied. I want to know if there are vestiges of the girl I once loved. The girl that craved passion and creativity. The one that exuded a social magnitude that drew me in from the first encounter.

“We’re requesting that all senior management be present for the press release and reception that will immediately follow. Before the media arrives, we’ll have a less formal meet and greet where you all will get an introduction to the artists. After meeting with them multiple times, I guarantee you all will be just as excited as we are to have them with us for the next year. Are there any questions?” Aaron looks around the room expectantly.

The meeting lasted another forty-five minutes after that bombshell. I was supposed to be gone forty minutes ago, but here I am, sitting at the conference table and watching my colleagues file out when Aaron places a hand on my shoulder.

“We came in almost fifty grand under budget, man.” He moves my shoulder back and forth in his excitement.

“That’s… uh… really great. So, you said Sin City will be here an entire year, huh?”

He puffs his chest with a sense of accomplishment.

 

“Technically it will be two weekends a month, a total of forty-eight days spread over fifty-two weeks. Since they’re local, we won’t have to put the band up in the hotel, well at least most of the band. That’s one of the ways we were able to come in under budget. Ms. James will be on property, but everyone else will be staying in personal homes.”

Aaron, being in entertainment, understands hotel profits a little better than most. He gets that gains do not negate or impact the budget allotted for a project because the revenue earned is not immediately available. We track everything down to the cost of replacement light bulbs needed to light the stage. Eating the cost of a hotel room that we could otherwise book is a loss. Sure, it balances in the end but in the meantime, it ties up funds allocated for other functions. This is definitely a W for his department.

“I’d heard that the lead singer and the guitarist are a couple?”

I try to slip that question in without sounding too invested in the answer. My life is distinctly divided into pre-Sin breakup, and post-Sin breakup. If you weren’t in my life before the breakup, and no one at The Hotel was, there would be no indication that I’d ever known Sin. I don’t go around telling all who will listen that I once upon a time dated a pop singer who at the time wasn’t famous. I’ve known Connor since grade school and with him going to undergrad on the East Coast and grad school in England, I don’t think he’s put the pieces together. When our relationship ended, Sin exited stage left. She didn’t pass go or collect two hundred dollars. It was the damnedest trick, like magic. Now you see me, now you don’t. She became a ghost, only existing in fractured memories and phantom touches.

In the years since she’s been gone, I’ve done my best to relegate her presence to the times when I’m alone where I can recall the exact texture of her skin and the husky timbre of her voice. This time was mine, this alone time, she was mine. I could reminisce what we had was unique and maybe once in a lifetime.

So yeah, I asked a question. The one thing I probably shouldn’t. The one thing I have wanted to know for years. Are Sin and Adam a couple? While we were together did they… did she ever… If they are a couple one room would suffice, and one bed, and one shower. My pulse kicks up thinking about the two of them taking full advantage of all the amenities in our hotel rooms. Together.

But on the slim chance I’m wrong, that hundreds of publications are wrong, I wait for Aaron’s answer. Sin was always so adamant they were friends. God, if they’re not together… I can’t even let that thought percolate. I’m not saying I’d do anything stupid, but I’m not saying I wouldn’t either. There is no telling what fool thing I’d do if given another shot. It would sting to get confirmation that she went from me to Adam. Okay, that’s bullshit. I don’t need a definitive answer for it to sting, but it still doesn’t change the fact I want one.

I stand up, collecting the few papers I have on the table, trying to feign disinterest like we’re discussing the weather, but every molecule in my body is zeroed in on his answer.

“I don’t think so.” A slight frown creases the skin between his eyebrows. “The couple of times I met with them, they seemed more like siblings, and they wanted to take the residency because their base guitarist is expecting his first baby. They all just seem like a close-knit family.”

A firework of emotion burst through my body and the papers I’d been gathering into a neat pile with deep focus fall from my flustered grasp as his words sink in. Fuck yeah! Those words are exactly what I needed to hear. 

I’m not a cup-half-full kind of guy. I don’t pray regularly or hope for the impossible, but this whole situation seems like something bigger than me at work. What is the likelihood of Sin and I being in the same stratosphere let alone the same hotel for a year? I’m a finance guy who sits behind a desk, and she’s a rock star who travels the world. For the first time in a long time, I let the idea of reconnecting with her take root.

Aaron pats me on the shoulder as he makes his way toward the door. When the door shuts behind him, I’m the only person left in the room.

“Thank you,” I whisper to whatever’s out there that brought Sinclair James back into my life.

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