He knew he shouldn't be here. It was wrong. But that girl-No, Woman…. She looked so much like Louise.
He just had to know if it was her.
Not one part of him wanted to be in this sleazy building, with these men who were jerking off in the audience… But he had to know if it was her.
And if it was, he had to know how his Rosie-No, not his. Not anymore-was. Was she okay? Did she miss him? Was she sorry? Had she found someone new?
Did she still love him? Would she be willing to try again?
True, he had told her he wanted a wife and that all the vows in the world couldn't make her one. But he still loved her, still thought about her. He missed her, damn it. Almost three years and he still missed her so damn much.
He stared at his feet, clasping his hands on his knees as he avoided looking at anyone who might recognize him as well as the scantily-clad chorus girls on stage.
"Minsky's World Famous Burlesque takes great pride-and pleasure- in presenting the Queen of the Strip Tease, the incomparable Miss Gypsy. Rose. Lee!" a brash man announced over the speakers.
"I'm beginning to like this!" a feminine voice purred.
His eyes widened and he couldn't keep from looking up.
He knew that voice… And how like her mother she sounded when she spoke like that.
She smiled coquettishly, running her hands up and down her sides before removing an arm-length, white glove from her hand using her teeth. "My mother-who got me into this business- always told me," she was pulling her skirt up, exposing long legs that, again, reminded him of her mother. "'Make them beg for mooooooooooooore,'" she nodded, still smiling, "'and theeeeeeeeeen… Don't give it to them!'"
She dropped her skirt, shielding her body from the hungry men in the audience, and Herbie breathed a sigh of relief.
"But I'm not my mother! So if ya beg for more… I'll give it to you," she winked, making her way to the side of the stage and shielding her body from sight even as she unzipped her dress and held it for the men to see. "… Beg."
Men hooted and hollered, pleading that she return. And when she extended one creamy leg back onstage, he couldn't stop himself.
The creamy leg paused for a mere five seconds before she continued sashaying onto the stage, clad only in a g-string.
He couldn't look. Not at this girl that had been his daughter for so many years. He pushed himself up, holding back bile until he could reach the men's room.
He was stopped, though, by two large guards. "You the guy who yelled 'Louise'?" one asked, his voice deep and gruff.
Still trying to hold his gut reaction in check, he managed a nod.
"Miss Lee wants to speak to you in her dressing room," the second said, ushering him back to the wings.
Once alone in her room, he fled for the bathroom, emptying the contents of his stomach before he returned back to the main area of her dressing room. He sat down, staring around the room.
There was no doubt that Rose was still in the picture. The room practically screamed her presence. It was so like the many hotel rooms she'd attempted to decorate all those years.
What could Louise possibly want from him? Was she mad? Mad that he'd left her and her mother? Mad that he'd come back? Mad that he'd yelled her name?
"Louise!" Rose sang happily, a small dog in one arm as she threw the door open. She was carrying the cow head from their past act as well, moving directly to a wall and hanging the cow on a post. "I've got the cow cleaned! And Chowsie here has learned a new trick, haven't you, baby?" she was cooing happily to the dog as she adjusted the cow head so that it hung straight. She clearly had sensed another person in the room and obviously assumed it was Louise. "Go 'head, baby, show Louise what you learned!"
Chowsie-who, by all standards, shouldn't still be alive, let alone learning new tricks- seemed not to recognize him and growled as she moved closer to Rose.
"Oh, baby, it's just Louise. Take your makeup off, Louise. She doesn't recognize you as Gypsy," she was absently petting the small dog as she continued fixing the cow head.
He swallowed his fear, standing and walking up behind her. He reached out to touch her arm, to tell her it wasn't Louise.
Chowsie growled viciously again, her teeth bared, before she lunged at him, fiercely protecting Rose. She toppled to the floor when Herbie drew his hand back with a growl of pain.
Rose instantly was on the floor beside the dog, wagging a finger at her as she scolded, "Bad Chowsie, bad dog! Bad! Very bad Chowsie!" She still hadn't caught sight of him. Chowsie continued growling, ignoring Rose's scolding. "Bad girl! We do not growl at Louise! And we never bite her! Bad Chowsie!" She shook her head, petting the small dog in her attempt to calm her. "I'm sorry, Louise. I don't know what's gotten into her. You'd think she's never seen you before."
Still holding his painfully throbbing hand, he squatted beside her. He leaned forward, pressing a tentative kiss to her lips when she turned toward him.
Her eyes shot open and she let out a muffled squeak of surprise before she tumbled backward and onto her rear. "Wh-? What are- You can't- Wh-" Chowsie climbed onto Rose's lap, still growling at Herbie. "Chowsie, sic 'im!"
Chowsie lunged, barking and growling as she stood between the pair. Rose scrambled to her feet, shocked, before she scooped up the yapping dog and backed warily away. Herbie tentatively did the same, afraid of the way she was glaring daggers at him and the way Chowsie seemed determined to free herself.
"Y-What are you doing here?" she demanded suspiciously. "What? We get a little money and you come crawling back? Well, you can crawl away, too. Do you hear me? I want you out of here before she gets here."
"Don't you dare call me that," she hissed, her eyes narrowing dangerously. "We don't owe you anything, Herbie. And you hurt my poor baby Louise way too much to be showing your sorry face here."
"J-Just Louise?" he asked tentatively.
"Well, you didn't hurt me. I told you before that I'm used to people walking out. It didn't hurt me when June left. Why would it hurt me that some man left?" Rose retorted. "So, yeah. Just Louise."
It was probably the worst lie she'd ever told, not nearly as convincing as she tried to make it and the tears welling in her eyes only proved it.
"No," she breathed, shaking her head. "Get out."
Herbie, for perhaps the second time ever in their relationship, dismissed what she'd said, taking a step closer. He watched as she hugged the dog tighter to her breasts, her plump lips set in a hard line as she held back tears by sheer will. "Rose, my Rose…. My Rosie," he whispered, now close enough so that he could run the fingers of his uninjured hand through her auburn curls-they were as soft as he remembered them- before gently cupping her cheek.
For maybe the first time in her life, she was at a loss. Her emotions betrayed her, forcing her to move into his touch and lean her cheek more heavily against his hand as a single tear escaped her chocolate eyes.
He leaned down, gently covering her full lips with his own in a soft kiss. He was surprised when she reacted favorably, parting her lips and kissing him back just as softly as she all but melted against him.
Chowsie yapped loudly, growling and lunging for Herbie again. She only managed to sink her teeth into his jacket, but it was enough to snap Rose out of the past and remind her. She shoved him angrily away before wiping at her eyes with her free hand, her breathing slightly labored.
"What do you want?" she whispered, still hugging Chowsie tightly as she scrunched against the wall. "Money? We-We don't have much, but I-I-" she reached in her bra for her money clip, pulling three tens out and shoving them into his hand. "I can spare a little. Just- Leave. You have to go."
Clinging to her pride, she rushed past him and into the bathroom, determined not to let him see her cry. She locked the door behind herself, sinking to the floor and releasing Chowsie from her grip. She was trembling from her effort to keep her tears at bay and, when she allowed herself a shuddering breath, they began flowing down her cheeks. She buried her face in her hands, muffling her tears.
Chowsie, confused, climbed onto Rose's lap and nudged her owner's hands with her cold, wet nose, whimpering softly.
"Rose? Rosie!" Herbie was yelling, knocking on the door. "Honey?"
"I take it you saw Mother," Louise drawled, entering her dressing room. She couldn't keep from rolling her eyes. Leave it to Mother, she thought bitterly.
Herbie spun on his heel. "Louise!"
Her lips spread in a smile and she quickly moved forward to pull him into an embrace. She buried her face in his suit jacket, breathing in the long-forgotten scent of the only father figure she'd known. "We've missed you," she whispered.
"'We'?" he asked, holding her at arms' length. "You can't mean Rose. That's not the way she tells it."
"Mother lies," she mouthed, knowing Rose was doubtlessly listening at the door. "Have a seat, Herbie!" She quickly ushered him to her vanity, perching on it to let him have the chair. "You saw Mother? I was hoping to talk to her before she saw you. How did it go?"
Herbie lifted his fist, opening it to reveal the- now crumpled- three ten dollar bills Rose had shoved into his hand. "I- ?"
"You hurt her real bad," she whispered, chancing a peak at the bathroom door. "I still hear her talk about it to the dogs sometimes when she thinks I can't hear. She really misses you. She loves you, you know."
"I love her, too," he answered sadly. "I always have."
"Then why'd you leave?" Louise asked, looking very much like the girl he remembered.
"I couldn't stand what she pushed you to do. I-I just couldn't."
"But, Herbie, this is the best thing that's ever happened to me! I am Gypsy Rose Lee! And I love her!" she stood up, her arms spread wide as she spun proudly. "I'm not meek little Louise anymore. I'm not the rear end of the cow. I'm not June's older sister-" she could almost feel her mother's flinch at the use of her sister's name. "Don't you see? This is the best thing Mother ever did for me!"
"She never should have pushed you to do this, though. It should have been your choice. Not hers. She didn't just take your innocence, she gave it away," he growled in anger, the conversation bringing up all those memories he'd tried to bury.
"She was just doing what she thought was right, Herbie. You know we came first with her, even if she didn't realize what she was doing was wrong. She thought it was right. You know if she hadn't, she never would have done it," Louise whispered sadly, defending her mother.
"I know, Louise… I know," he nodded, whispering back.
In the bathroom, Rose was stubbornly trying to hear what the two were saying, hiccoughing back tears. Louise knew her too well and had obviously moved further away and dropped her voice to a whisper. "Damn it," she whispered, moving onto her hands and knees and peering under the door crack.
From what she could see, Louise had just stood up and Herbie was still seated by the vanity. She mentally calculated the odds of being able to skirt past them both and escape. They didn't seem to be in her favor. She sighed, falling back against the door in a seated position as she wiped her nose with the back of her hand.
"But," she reasoned aloud, "this doesn't give the impression of being over him. No. Rose, you gotta walk out there with your head held high like nothing happened. You gotta… Find a good reason to excuse yourself." Her eyes fell on Chowsie and she managed a small smile.
"How's Mama's little trouper? Does she have to go tinkle-tinkle?" she cooed, standing up and walking to the sink to splash cold water on her cheeks. "Okay, baby, time to go tinkles!" She scooped the small dog up in both her arms before taking a deep breath and pulling open the door.
Both faces turned toward her, surprised.
"Mama?" Louise breathed. "Mama, are you okay?"
"Of course I am, Louise," she forced a tight smile.
"Rose? Rosie, I'm so sorry, honey," Herbie stood up, taking a small step towards her, his arms outstretched.
"Better not," she warned, holding up one hand. "Chowsie the Third, here, doesn't seem to have taken a liking to you, Herbie. We wouldn't want to provoke her again."
He paused, his arms falling to his sides, "Right."
"I-I actually have to take her out," Rose stuttered, surprised at the sudden pain in her heart. It was hurting her to see him in pain. And it shocked the hell out of her. "So, if you'll excuse me… It-It was good seeing you again, Herbie."
She made it to the hallway before hot tears were stinging her eyes again, leaving angry tracks down her cheeks. She buried her face in Chowsie's thick fur, shaking her head.
"Wait one second," Louise mumbled, rushing into the hallway and leaving Herbie alone in her dressing room again.
"Mama!" she called, running to catch up.
"What?" Rose snapped, turning on her heels.
"Mama, give him a chance. He's sorry. He misses you. He loves you… And I know you love him."
Her features were set in stone and she refused to let her emotions betray her again, "You don't know anything, Louise. Now, if you'll excuse me, Chowsie has to go tinkles."
Louise shook her head, scoffing, "Oh, stop it, Mother. Chowsie has to do nothing of the sort."
"Then I'll take her," she interrupted, pulling the small dog from her mother's grasp. "Go talk to Herbie. Cause if you don't, I will. And if I do, I'm inviting him for dinner. At the house. Every single day until you talk. To. Him."
Rose bit back a growl, her eyes narrowing dangerously but she let Louise take Chowsie. "June never would have made me do this."
"Well, mama, let me remind you: I'm not June. Now go."
"I make no promises." She turned and marched back to Louise's dressing room, her arms crossed in front of her chest.
"Rose?" he whispered, staring as she stormed into the room, slamming the door behind her.
"Let's get one thing straight: Louise, bless my poor baby's heart, is the only reason I'm in here. I'm doing this for her. Now, that being said: what do you want? Why'd you come back after all this time?" Her hands were on her hips, her lips pursed in irritation.
"Money?" she demanded, interrupting. "Cause I'm not giving you any more than what I gave you. Louise might, but she's always been soft. Besides, you were the one who didn't want her to do any of this, so why should you get any of the prof-"
Herbie quickly closed the space between them, wrapping his arms around her small waist and tugging her close as he kissed her. He knew by now that, sometimes, there was just no talking to her.
She squeaked in surprise before her arms were around his neck as she parted her lips. She threaded her fingers through his salt-and-pepper hair, pulling his mouth hard against her own as she poured all the anger and pain she was feeling into the kiss.
And, God, he tasted the same. It had never been a taste she could place but, God, did she miss it. She didn't remember him using this much teeth, but she knew that it was probably her doing. She was, after all, the one who'd pushed the urgent, demanding tone into their kiss. It had been gentle and sweet when he'd started it.
One of his hands had left her waist, running slowly up her back before tangling in her unruly curls. In turn, one of her arms had left his hair and skirted below his arm to press against his mid-back and pull him closer.
She never wanted to let him go. Not ever. She wanted him to stay right here in her arms and never leave her again.
He broke the kiss to take a mouthful of air and she was gasping desperately against him, burying her face against his neck to hide the hot tears that were splashing against his skin.
"So, forgive and forget, Rosie?" he whispered, still holding her tightly.
She snorted before wiping her nose with the back of her hand. She looked up at him, "Pft. You wish. When have I ever done either of those?"
He smiled back, a warm smile that conveyed all those unspoken emotions between them. He knew she'd never forgive or forget. He knew that every time he left her sight, she'd be wondering if he was gonna come back to her.
But if he could just get her to trust him-just a little-, it would be just as good as forgiveness.
She looked back at his shirt, breaking their eye contact. Nervously, she fiddled with his lapels, straightening them and them smoothing them as she stared at them. "Louise missed you," she told him, still staring at his lapels.
He knew this was just her way of trying to be strong, to pretend that she hadn't missed him, hadn't cared. "I missed her, too" he told her, a small smile playing at his mouth.
She straightened his bowtie, still not looking up at him. "I missed you," Rose whispered, her voice almost inaudible.
"Wh-?" He almost thought he'd misheard her. Then she looked back up at him, tears shining in her chocolate eyes again.
"I-I said I missed you, Herbie," she whispered again.
"Oh, my beautiful Rose… I missed you too, honey. So much," he answered, leaning down and covering her lips with his in a soft kiss.