Last song of the night. Thank god.
One hand cupped the back of the microphone. It wasn't turned on - it never was; she needed no amplification for the small club, having been trained to reach the back of a cavernous cathedral. But it was a focus. That was all she needed. With a small nod to Ciar, the opening notes began to filter through the haze of chatter.
"There's a saying old," she began, "says that love is blind...still we're often told, 'seek and ye shall find,' so I'm going to seek a certain lad I've had in mind..."
Her eyes scanned the club, trying to find a familiar face, and she felt tiny muscles in her neck relax as she made sure that Aidan wasn't there. That helped a little with the hoarseness that she could feel but not hear. If she didn't get some rest soon she was going to ruin her voice or get ill, and that was dangerous.
"Looking everywhere, haven't found him yet, he's the big affair I cannot forget...only man I ever think of with regret..."
Oh, did she ever regret it. Back when she'd first started singing at McCloy and Foster's bar, the younger McCloy and his associate McCormack had been constant but vague presences. She knew full well who they were and what they were capable of, and was determined to stay out of their way and out of their business and stay safe.
And then she'd begun to notice the looks from McCloy. Appraising - and appreciative. He started to talk to her more; if he was hanging around and talking with McCormack during her rehearsals, he'd greet her when she finished. He would send a drink to her dressing room after performances with his compliments. Always charming. But never sincere.
At that point, she hadn't really realised just how dangerous he was, and she was a little less experienced in the ways of the world, and she had no problems standing up to McCloy. And he seemed to like that she wouldn't simply agree with everything he said like some fawning toadie. She had spunk, he'd told her. Moxie. He liked it.
But not that much, apparently.
"I'd like to add his initial to my monogram - where is the shepherd for this little lost lamb?"
At the back of the club she could see a familiar hat tilted in just the right way and her heart sank. She'd hoped to have a night without him there, and to head to her flat on the third floor of the building without having to endure his gropes - or worse, and to go straight to sleep and nurse her tired throat. But that chance was lost, and she put herself more wholly into the song, trying to concentrate on something other than McCloy before she would be forced to enjoy the pleasure of his company for the rest of the night.
"There's a somebody I'm longin' to see, I hope that he turns out to be someone who'll watch over me..."
At first, it had been flattering. He would sit towards the front during her performances, and he didn't talk when she was singing. She asked him about this after a set, sipping water, and he smirked and told her he didn't mix business with pleasure.
And abruptly she thought of the time they'd been out dancing somewhere else, and he'd pulled her close in a way that had been out of keeping with the song, and she tried to pull away. He'd bent his head in a way that would have looked to any casual observer like he was brushing his lips against her ear and murmuring sweet nothings, and told her quite calmly to keep dancing because he could see two of Foster's thugs and they wouldn't shoot her to get to him. And so she danced up against him, marveling at how clever he was and how nice he smelled, but at the same time how utterly ruthless he was in his self-preservation.
That was what had sealed the deal, really. She hadn't been so foolish as to forget who he was or what he was capable of doing. But when you're a sweet-faced songbird, and the gangster who owns your gilded cage of a nightclub wants you to sing a different tune for him, you settle your wings and start doing what he wants.
It would have been foolish to do otherwise. It would have been foolish to resist the changes she saw in him after the first time they'd kissed, how he'd tell her not to wear certain dresses or to be available at certain times.
Didn't mean she didn't regret it.
"I'm a little lamb who's lost in the wood, I know I could, always be good to one who'll watch over me..."
There was a brief crash, and her eyes flicked to the right. A young woman had dropped her glass on the floor, and Eirlys kept singing as she tried to place the girl. Funny that she should think of her as such; the dark-haired young woman appeared about Eirlys's age. But then she saw the hand that closed about the girl's wrist, and recognised that it was McCormack and his little missionary that had been led astray from her path of righteousness. And it was ugly, even though they made a pretty pair; Eirlys saw some of the church-girl she'd been in Miss Williams, but didn't think the missionary would be as fortunate. For her it had been the slow descent of a staircase into a dark room, but for Miss Williams it was a headlong fall. And the bottom would not be pretty, no matter how McCormack chose to get her there.
"Although he may not be the man some girls think of as handsome, to my heart he carries the key..."
She closed her eyes momentarily, thinking of the other girls. The ones he smiled at, as charming as he had been with her. Veronique, and how once when she herself had been tired and snapped at him to go to his whore if that was all he wanted, he had calmly put on his hat and gone out the door. And Foster, whom she'd never met, but by all reports was the one who had turned Aidan irrevocably into what he was now.
And unbidden, the few good moments rose up behind her eyes. At first she'd thought she had been fooling herself, but as time went by it seemed - well. She would hardly say the way he acted towards her was love. But he would show occasional tenderness. He no longer raised his hand to her - he had never, ever actually hit her, perhaps remembering just how much was revealed by the harsh lights of the stage, but he had used to threaten her. Now he would just seethe. Moxie. Right.
And occasionally she would look up from whatever she was doing and see him just looking at her, with a small light in his eyes that spoke not of lust or greed or malevolence, but simple admiration. In the end, that was the one thing that kept her with him - not the fear, not the self-protection, but that one small glimmer that made her think of the possibility that he loved her. Foolish to think that he could, but sometimes it was all that kept her smiling.
Another nod to Ciar and she sang the last verse, then stepped back from the microphone, humming a little above the music as he played the bridge. Aidan was standing at the bar, watching her, and he watched her with that same little look, like the music and the smoke and her pale skin against the velvet dress had bewitched him into not owning her, but loving her, just for a moment. But the bridge was ending, and she collected herself, putting all her mixed-up thoughts into the plaintive, soulful ending.
"Won't you tell him please to put on some speed, follow my lead, oh, how I need someone to watch over me..."
The piano's final notes drifted away, and the soft sussuration of applause drowned out her thoughts. With an odd little half-bow of acknowledgement, she stepped away from the microphone, off one stage and onto another.