Breakfast was a good opportunity to watch how Allison interacted with the people traveling with her. Nicole could remember a conversation, from when they were still dating, where Allison told her that if she ever made it big, she would not become one of those celebrities that treated everyone like they’re beneath them. She would make sure her team knew they were appreciated – for as long as they showed her respect back.
And as far as Nicole could see, Allison had remained true to what she promised. She knew everyone by name – and even knew their spouses and children names – and she made sure to greet them all when she joined them in the restaurant. For some, Allison had what sounded a lot like an inside joke. For a few others, she made little comments about the previous night’s concert. And for another group, she had questions about their personal lives. Nicole even heard her ask one of the guys if he had manned up already and proposed to his girlfriend.
He shook his head no with a deep blush coloring his face.
Nicole made her plate and took a seat at an empty table. Sometimes it was good to mingle with people and talk to them in situations that didn’t feel like interviews. But other times, she liked to sit back and observe. She liked to watch how people behaved and what that could tell her about them.
“Mind if I join you?”
Allison was standing in front of Nicole, her own plate in hands. The journalist smiled as an agreement and Allison placed two plates directly in front of Nicole and went back to the buffet line. Before the singer came back, Nicole took a peek at what the singer had chosen for her morning meal. On one of the plates, she had piled up eggs, bacon, hash browns and a few slices of bread. On the other, she had an assortment of fruits.
“Are you judging my breakfast?” Allison, a cup of coffee in one hand and a glass of orange juice in the other, asked as she got back to the table and noticed the way Nicole was analyzing her plates.
“Of course not.” Nicole answered in a faux sweet voice. “I was just wondering if you left anything for everybody else.”
“How very polite of you, Ms. Peters.”
Allison snorted. She kept her eyes locked on Nicole as she swallowed her bite of eggs and washed it down with a sip of the orange juice.
“Well, if you must know I have learned to have big breakfasts when I’m out touring or when I’m doing stuff like this. Sometimes, this will be my only decent meal of the day.”
“That can’t be healthy.”
“It isn’t, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay.” Allison took another sip from her juice and turned to look at a group of people, laughing at a table near theirs. When she turned back, Nicole was still staring at her. “What?”
“Nothing. It’s just… Sometimes you say something or you do something and I get a glimpse of the Allison I met, all those years ago. It’s good to see she’s still in there.”
After breakfast, Nicole went back to her room to get the cell phone she had left behind. When she got back downstairs, she decided to wait for Allison’s entourage (she loved thinking the word, since the singer herself hated it) by the cars. The place should be empty, they weren’t due to leave for another twenty minutes, and she thought she could use the time to try reaching Lauren one more time.
Only, she didn’t get the chance. Allison was already there, sitting in the back seat, her legs dangling from the open door. She was looking down at the phone she had in her hands, ear-buds in and bobbing her head up and down. The sight made Nicole smile. She felt like she had been thrown back in time, to when she would leave the bedroom in the morning to find Allison up-side-down on the couch, humming to some new artist she had just found.
Nicole put away the phone she had in her hand; she had no desire to call Lauren at that moment. She leaned her back on the vehicle and flicked Allison’s knee, making her presence known.
“So, you have found my hiding place.” Allison sat back up and leaned forward, looking up at Nicole from between her lashed.
“Do you do this often?”
“Have you seen how many people I travel with?” She snorted at her own question. “It can be hard to find a moment to be alone. Sometimes I just need it.”
“Yeah, I remember that.” Nicole turned to her side and faced the other woman. “Do you want me to go?”
“No. You can stay.”
To back her answer, Allison slid back on the seat and folded her legs beneath herself to give Nicole some room. Both women sat there for a moment, in silence, observing who was sitting in front of them. Every time they had the chance, they would do that. Watch and observe and analyze and learn. It wasn’t just Nicole interviewing Allison; it was the two of them, trying to get a sense of who the other was now.
“So, what are you listening to? Anything good?”
“No, actually. Just some wannabe rock star desecrating a classic. You know how I hate that.”
“Oh, I do. I remember you pacing the apartment and bitching about singing at the bar to uncultured people who had no idea what good music was. At three in the morning.”
“Yeah, well… things haven’t changed much in a decade.”
“Speaking about change,” Nicole turned more on her side and supported her head on her closed fist. “How’s your mom?”
“She’s great. I was actually spending some time with her before I came to San Francisco.”
“Have you finally convinced her to move to New York?”
“Not to New York, exactly. She lives in Jersey, now. So it’s a lot easier for us to see each other.”
Nicole took her time analyzing Allison’s features before she asked the next question that she had in her mind. From previous experiences, she knew the singer didn’t like the subject and it could put her on the defensive in an instant. But she had to ask.
“What about your dad?”
There was a moment in which Nicole thought Allison would tell her to leave her alone, to take another car and only continue the interview later that night. She could see the way the other woman clenched her jaw and closed her eyes. She breathed in deeply, something Nicole knew Allison did when she was trying to remain calm and was almost losing the battle.
“What about him?”
“I was just wondering if you have seen him.”
She could still remember how broken Allison sounded when she talked about her father. He said he didn’t have a lesbian daughter and started ignoring Allison for the next two years, until she finished high school and moved to New York. His position cost him not only his relationship with his daughter but his marriage. Allison’s mother, Cynthia, decided to divorce him when she realized he would never come around when it came to their child’s sexuality.
Allison blamed herself for a long time.
“I did. Once. About nine years ago.”
“And I wish it had never happened.”
The deep sadness etched in Allison’s voice silenced Nicole’s journalistic instinct to ask what had happened. She wanted to know – both professionally and personally – but she wasn’t willing to pry. She simply sat there, in silence, and if Allison wanted to tell her the story, she would be there to listen.
“I had just had my first big hit, when he contacted me.” Allison didn’t look at Nicole as she started speaking. Her eyes were focused on her fingers lying on her lap. “He said he wanted to see me again and I thought he had changed, you know? That he had missed me and wanted to be my dad again. I was so stupid.”
“It’s not stupid to want that, Al.”
“Yeah, well… we met a few days later at a restaurant. I was so happy. I was almost late to dinner because I couldn’t choose what to wear.” Nicole smiled at that and she could practically see Allison throwing her entire wardrobe on the bed, pacing the floor and muttering to herself. “And when I got there, do you know what the first thing he asked me was?”
“He asked me how much money I had made with my music and if I could help him get a new car.” Allison shook her head and looked up, her eyes troubled and lost. “He practically disowns me and the first thing he says to me in years is to ask for money.”
“What did you do?”
“I told him he would never see a dime from my money and left.”
“And you haven’t heard from him since?”
“I don’t even know if he’s alive.”
When you have nothing to say, say nothing. Nicole’s mother used to say this at least once a week when she was growing up, back in Iowa, and the notion became engraved in the journalist’s mind. It’s something she has always lived by and something that was particularly useful at that moment. She knew Allison. She knew the woman didn’t want her pity or sympathy. She wasn’t telling her that story to make Nicole feel sorry for her. She was sharing something that had happened; something Nicole would already know about had they been together all this time.
The only thing Nicole could possibly offer her was her silent support, her hand curled around Allison’s knee, her thumb rubbing circles into her skin.
Allison turned her body to the front sits, her eyes glued to her cell phone screen. She was feeling too vulnerable to face Nicole at that moment. She didn’t want to see the way dark eyes must have softened when they told her it wasn’t stupid or the little wrinkle between her eyebrows when she revealed her father’s first words after years of silence. No, Allison didn’t want to see any of that. Because, if she did, she didn’t think she would be able to keep herself together. And she still needed to be Ally Strong for the world.
“I won’t put this in my story if you don’t want me to.”
Those were the first words to be spoken in minutes and they got Allison to look up and face Nicole. The journalist had a soft look on her face, but Allison didn’t see sorrow or pity. She saw compassion, affection and something else she didn’t want to name. It scared her to even consider.
“No. Run it. He’s the one who shunned his own child, not me.”
By the time Simone, Mike, and their driver reached the car, Allison put on a brave face. She smiled like she had learned over the years being in the spotlight and talked to them about the interview she was supposed to give when they got to the radio station. Nicole noticed her voice was subdued and strained, but if anyone else heard that, they didn’t mention.
Despite most of her attention being focused on Allison and the way she laid her temple against the car window, Nicole could still feel Simone’s heavy gaze through the rear view window. She tried to ignore it as she talked to Mike, but at some point their eyes crossed and Nicole followed the other woman’s line of sight. She was staring at the way the journalist still had her hand around Allison’s knee. Nicole’s first instinct was to remove her hand – it was hardly professional of her to be touching Allison like that – but the singer held her in place.
The movement made Simone frown even harder.
Reaching the building, Nicole stayed back a little. She had asked an intern to record Allison’s interview that morning and she wanted to take the time to set some things with Jake. They still needed some images of the singer off-stage and something cover-worthy. She was about to dial her friend’s number when the device vibrated in her hand.
“Jake! I was just about to call you.”
“Oh, yeah? And do you have any interesting news to share with your best friend?”
“Yes.” Nicole waited in silence for a second, fully aware that Jake was hanging on to her every word. “And it’s called work.”
“You’re no fun at all.”
“And yet, you still love me.”
“True. But go on. What do you need from me?”
“Well, Allison has a free afternoon after this interview she’s about to give. We’ll probably talk in her hotel room and I think you could be there to make some images.”
“You’re thinking something posed or just registering her reactions?”
“More about her reactions. I want to capture who she is, instead of who she plays, you know?”
“Of course. Just text me when you leave the radio and I’ll meet you at the hotel.” Nicole was about to say goodbye and hang up the phone, when Jake continued. “Now that that’s out of the way, don’t you have any teeny tiny piece of news to tell me? Come on, Nic. I’m dying to know what’s been like to sleep next to her.”
She contemplated not answering. She contemplated telling him to mind his own business and hanging up. But she didn’t. She didn’t because, at the end of the day, she needed Jake’s help. As much as the friend was a pain in the ass most days, she knew he always had her best interest at heart. And he would never refuse to tell her hard truths.
“Well, let’s just say…” Nicole looked around to make sure she was alone. Even so, she still lowered her voice. “Last night, this next to her became quite literal.”
“Nicole Brown! Don’t tell me you--”
“No, Jake! No!” The idea of what Jake was thinking happening made Nicole blush. “We just slept. It was nothing much. I promise.” She sighed heavily. “But I’m starting to think it was a mistake.”
“What do you mean?”
“I still haven’t talked to Lauren, so, technically, I still have a girlfriend. Besides, this is work, Jake. It’s not some reunion with an ex that should end in bed.”
“That’s exactly what that is.” Jake spoke fast, before Nicole could list any more excuses. “A reunion with an ex-girlfriend that I believe should end in bed. Look, babe, I know you hold yourself to an impossible standard and try to be Miss Perfect all the time, but let me break something to you. That’s just not possible. So, just let go and enjoy. You two are having an opportunity not many people do.”
The worst part was that Jake was right. She still had her athlete’s mindset, which led her to try and be the most perfect version of herself. She was constantly pushing herself harder, further, even if it cost her something dear. Like now, she wouldn’t let herself want to understand what she was feeling for Allison because she had promised people nothing would happen. Because it wouldn’t be professional.
“Look, Nic, relax.” Jake started again when he noticed Nicole had turned silent on the other side. “You’re an amazing journalist and this story will turn out great, no matter what happens between you guys. Can I just ask you one more thing before I go?”
“Do you still have feelings for Ally?”
Nicole wished she had an answer at the tip of her tongue to give her friend, but she didn’t. Had Jake asked her that a week before, she would have answered him with a resounding ‘no’ in less than a second. But now, after spending time again with the woman she thought she would never see again, she was no longer sure where her feelings stood.
“I don’t know, Jake.” The defeat in her voice carried through the phone. “I’ll talk to you later, okay?”
After her conversation with Jake, Nicole started walking in the direction she had seen Allison disappear with her team. As much as she didn’t need to be there, it would be good to focus on something that wasn’t what was happening inside her head. She stopped near a closed door to look for gum in her purse, a nervous habit she picked up in college, and heard a familiar voice coming from the room behind her. It was Simone.
Nicole didn’t want to pay attention to the conversation. It was probably something private, if Simone was all this way far from the rest of the team, but when she heard her own name being said, Nicole couldn’t hold herself back. She walked as silently as possible and stood beside the door, listening in.
“I’ve already told you, Jess. This Nicole won’t be a problem for you.” The room fell into silence and Nicole frowned. “From what I can tell, to her this interview is nothing more than work. She’s just another one of those, trying to use Ally to build a career.” Nicole had to restrain herself from entering the room and slapping Simone across the face. “Don’t worry. I straightened things out with her, yesterday. I’m sure she won’t try anything.” The silence was longer this time and Nicole almost walked away, not wanting to be caught, when she heard Simone speak one more time. “Have I ever let you down? Ally is still yours.”
Nicole couldn’t listen to the rest of the conversation. What she had heard was already too wicked for her. She tried coming up with possible scenarios to fit Simone’s words in, but only one added up and it made her sick to her stomach. So, that entire scene from the night before was just to make sure the road stayed clear for someone else.
She decided not to go up to watch the interview. She needed some time alone to think about what to do with that information and let her anger simmer down before she put herself in the same room as Simone.
A long while later, after Nicole had gone through an entire pack of gums, the doors to the building opened up. First, came out the two security guards; then Mike, with his cell glued to his ear; and, lastly, came Allison and Simone, their arms looped together. The PR was saying something that made the singer laugh loudly. The wind carried the sound all the way to Nicole’s ears and it made all her efforts to calm down be for naught.
Right then and there, Nicole decided that she had to tell Allison what she had heard. Even if the singer didn’t believe her; even if it cost her the interview. Even if Allison never wanted to see her again, she owed that much to the story they had together.
Back at the hotel, everyone decided to have lunch in their own rooms. Allison started it, saying that she wanted to spend a few moments by herself, working on something that had been in her mind. After their conversations from that morning, Nicole wasn’t sure if she really had something she wanted to work on or if she just wanted the solitude for a few moments. Whatever it was, Nicole appreciated the time to sort out her own mind.
It had been an eventful day so far and it was far from over. By themselves, her conversation with Jake and the phone call she overheard would be enough to send her mind into a tailspin. But on the same day, Nicole didn’t know what to do with herself. She knew her feelings for Allison had been buried, but they had never completely died. And with the way she reacted so strongly after listening to what Simone had said, she was starting to think that maybe they could be coming back. Full force.
Nicole tried concentrating on her work, on the scribbled words on the notepad she took with her everywhere, but she was too distracted. After reading the same sentence four times, she decided to give up for the time being. Jake should be there soon and she would have something else to focus on.
The rhythmic knock on her door pulled Nicole from her thoughts. She looked at the clock on her bedside table and noticed twenty minutes had gone by since she shut down her computer and lay on the bed. She couldn’t remember the last time she had spent twenty minutes of her day with her eyes closed, trying not to think any of the thoughts that were swirling in her mind.
She opened the door for the photographer, but didn’t give him time to say anything.
“Come on. Allison’s waiting for us.”
“Jake.” Nicole sighed and stopped in the middle of the hallway. She turned around to face him with troubled eyes. “Please. I don’t wanna talk about it, right now. I just wanna do my job, okay? Please.”
Jake knew a lost fight when he saw one. He recognized Nicole’s clipped tone, her tense shoulders, her lips pulled into a thin line, her hurried steps. There was a lot on her mind and he knew she wouldn’t let him in until she was ready. Quickening his own steps, he fell into stride with her and took her left hand in his. She stopped in front of Allison’s door and looked at him, a small smile on her face.
The moment Allison opened the door, for one second Nicole forgot all about what was troubling her. She could barely breathe, standing in front of such beauty. She felt like the teenaged girl who first saw this woman in a small bar in New York. It was Allison’s voice that captured Nicole’s attention, but it was her eyes that kept her rooted, a captive.
But then, Jake pulled his hand from hers and Nicole came back crashing into reality.
“Allison, this is Jake, my photographer.”
“And best friend.” He piped in. As much as he wanted the two women to solve things, he was still protective of Nicole.
“And he’ll be taking some shots as we talk today. Is that okay?”
“Of course. I just don’t think I’m dressed for that. You told me to dress comfortably.”
Three pairs of eyes looked down Allison’s body, noticing her red t-shirt that was probably one size too big on her, her distressed jeans and her bare feet. Her long hair was pulled on top of her head in a messy bun and she didn’t have a hint of make-up on her face. It was how Nicole liked her best – simple and natural – but she wouldn’t say it out loud.
“I know I did. I don’t wanna capture Ally Strong today. I wanna show Allison to my readers.”
After that, Allison didn’t have much choice but to nod and lead journalist and photographer inside. Jake went to the side to get his equipment ready and the two women sat on a two-seat couch. As if they were pulled by magnets, Nicole and Allison couldn’t stay too far from each other. They turned their backs to the arms of the couch and sat facing each, almost perfect mirrors, with their legs tucked beneath their bodies and their elbows on the back of the sofa.
At first, Allison was feeling too exposed without the makeup and the clothes and the paraphernalia that usually came along with being Ally Strong. She had never given a big interview to show just Allison and it made her nervous, but she trusted Nicole. She knew the journalist wouldn’t paint her in a bad light, Allison just didn’t know if her true self would be interesting enough for Nicole’s readers.
Nicole noticed Allison’s nerves and started their conversation with two subjects she knew the singer loved talking about – her music and her fans. Soon, Allison had forgotten all about Jake’s presence and the clothes she was wearing. She was just sitting on a couch, looking into brown eyes that seemed to be able to see her soul and talking to the one person she had always found easy to talk to.
This part of the interview went on for about a couple hours. Nicole still had questions she wanted to ask, but there should be another three days to ask them; she could pace herself. Besides, she knew she would only get the answers to some of her questions if she were alone in the room with Allison. The singer’s walls had only grown in the time they spent apart.
“Jake, I’m wrapping up for today. Did you get everything you wanted?”
“I was hoping we could take some shots in the balcony, with the city behind Ally. What do you guys think?”
“Let’s do it.” Allison seemed more enthused by the idea of being photographed than she was hours ago. “What do you think, Nic? Am I okay like this or should I put on some make-up?”
“M-me?” Nicole blushed. And stuttered. And blushed harder because she stuttered. “I think you’re beautiful as it is. You don’t need anything else on your face.”
“Well, you heard the woman, Jake. Let’s do these photos.”
Jake shot Nicole an amused smile and followed Allison to the large balcony. The journalist stayed behind a little, observing Allison’s movements. She wanted to say it was for the story, but she was just watching for herself.
When Jake said he had what he needed, Nicole followed him to the door but didn’t leave with him. She needed to tell Allison what she had heard earlier in the day and she was afraid she might lose her courage if she waited any longer. She closed the door and walked towards Allison. The foreign steps made the singer turn around.
“You stayed? I thought you had work to do.”
“I do, but I need to talk to you.” The words left Nicole’s mouth in a rush, as if she didn’t want to give them the chance to be swallowed back.
“Did something happen, Nic? You look worried.”
“Al, why don’t you take a seat?”
“Look, Nic, if this is about the other night, I--”
“It’s not. It’s something else.”
“Out with it, then.” Allison took a seat on the couch, closer to Nicole than she had been during the interview. “You’re starting to worry me.”
For the first time in her life, Nicole couldn’t find the right words to say what she needed. She turned the possibilities in her mind, but none of them seemed to have a positive outcome. Maybe there wouldn’t be one to this situation. She took a deep breath and decided to start with what she felt more comfortable with: a question.
“Al, who’s Jess?”
“Jess? How do you know about her?”
“Just answer my question, please.” Nicole’s tone put a frown on Allison’s face.
“She’s an ex-girlfriend. Jessica.” She did not want to be discussing her recent love life with her ex-girlfriend, but there was something about Nicole’s demeanor that made Allison want to answer any questions she had. “We were together for only a short period of time. She was too clingy and possessive. You know I hate that. It must have happened about four or five years ago, but the press never got wind of it.”
“Is she the one who has been calling you without you answering?”
“When we met at that café and yesterday, at the CD signing. Both times, you received a phone call, rejected it and it seemed to put you in a bad mood.”
“Yeah, it was her. But, why are you asking me about her? How did you even find out about her? Did anyone tell you about us?”
“No.” Nicole held Allison’s gaze for the next part. “I accidentally overheard Simone talking to her today, on the phone.”
“It doesn’t really surprise me. Jess traveled with me for some time and she and Simone became good friends. Why did it get you so rattled?”
“Because they were talking something about me not being a problem to this Jess girl and you still being hers.”
Allison wanted to laugh. The idea that she could still be Jess’s was so ridiculous, particularly when she couldn’t stop thinking about another ex-girlfriend, but there was something in Nicole’s eyes that kept her mirth at bay. Something in that conversation had spooked the woman and Allison wanted to know what that was.
“Me? Hers? What are you talking about, Nic?”
“Look, Allison, I can’t guarantee anything with certainty, because I only heard one side of the conversation, but from what I could understand, Simone might be chasing away any woman that gets close to you so that Jess still has a shot with you.” She looked at her hands and added in a low, soft voice. “I think that’s what she tried to do to me, last night.”
“What do you mean?” The singer was visibly getting upset. “Please, tell me this from the beginning, Nicole.”
Before Nicole could start telling her what had happened the night before, Allison was already up and pacing the room. It was what she did when she had too much anxious energy and Nicole recognized that. She didn’t want to add fuel to that fire, but she felt like she couldn’t tell that story half-way. She had already started it, so she needed to go until the end.
“So, that’s why you were so agitated yesterday, when I showed up.” Allison said after Nicole gave her the short version of her conversation with Simone, the night before.
“Exactly. And today, after Jake called me, I heard her on the phone with this Jess. She was telling her not to worry, that she had already put me in my place and that I wouldn’t be a problem. And something about having never let Jess down.”
Nicole raised her eyes and noticed that Allison was frozen in the middle of the room. Her eyes were unfocused, but she could see the anger shining behind them. The journalist knew how aggressive the other woman could get when she felt cornered or betrayed, and she feared that she had done more harm than good by telling her something that she couldn’t prove.
“I’m sorry, Al.” She said after getting up and placing one hand on the other woman’s shoulder. “I think I shouldn’t have said those things. I have no way to be sure.”
The words seemed to break Allison out of a daze. She blinked her eyes a few times and covered the hand on her shoulder with one of hers. Looking deep into the dark, brown eyes that gazed her with such care, she thanked her lucky stars for putting Nicole back in her life.
“You have nothing to be sorry for, Nic. You did the right thing by telling me. Somehow, you’re still protecting me, huh?” The softness in her voice didn’t match the rage that she could feel building inside her. “And you may not be sure of what you just told me, but I am.”
“What do you mean, Allison?”
“We’ll talk later.” She took a step back and away from Nicole’s reach. “I have to take care of something, now.”
It was useless. The singer was already in the hallway, marching down to the room occupied by Simone. There was nothing anyone could do. Allison’s wrath had been released.