Nicole was having a hard time believing she would have to interview Allison. Or Ally Strong, as most of the world knew her. Had this been any other singer, then Nicole would be absolutely fine. She had interviewed other famous people before – even more famous than Ally – but this was different. This was personal and the journalist didn’t like it.
She shook her head and took a sit in front of her computer. She would just handle this interview as she would handle any other; professionally. She would research her subject, she would schedule an appointment, she would prepare her questions and she would write the best story she knew how. And then she would forget all about it. Simple and clean.
Maybe not so simple. Before her machine could finish starting for the day, Nicole’s mind was already running away from her, drawing up scenarios and possibilities she was trying hard not to think about. It was like her brain was trying to foresee what would happen when she met the pop star for the first time, what one would say, what the other would answer, how different they would be from…
An incoming email startled Nicole and pulled her from her own thoughts. For the first time in her life, she was actually glad to receive some useless message about something she would never buy. It was just what she needed to focus back on the tasks that needed to be completed. And the first one of them was sending Dianna the article on the Congressman. After witnessing how cold those eyes could be, Nicole didn’t want that stare to be aimed at her.
The next task was the hardest one. She knew she needed to start researching Ally’s life, no matter how much she didn’t want to do this interview. Many people in that same room would kill for that opportunity and it wasn’t like Nicole had a valid reason to give her boss as to why she didn’t want to sit down and talk to the hottest singer of the decade. Not one she was willing to give her, at least.
The morning flew by with Nicole immersed in music reviews, awards nominations, relationship scandals and everything remotely related to Ally. One information pulled the other and when Nicole took notice, Jake was already standing by her desk, questions floating behind his eyes and his bag strap perched on his shoulder.
“Ready to go?” He asked even though it was easy to see that Nicole hadn’t even thought of lunch yet.
“Can I just take a look at this one video?”
“Come on, Nic. It’s late, I’m hungry and you probably haven’t eaten anything yet.”
“It’s just one video.”
“And you’re just trying to stall.”
“God, I’m not gonna get rid of you, am I?” Nicole leaned back in her chair and let out a huge sigh. She interlocked her fingers behind her neck and looked up at her best friend.
“No. So you better shut this thing down, grab your purse and come with me.”
“What are you? My warden or something?”
“I’m your best friend, but there’s not much of a difference.”
The small restaurant they chose wasn’t crowded, so it wasn’t hard to find a table that gave them some privacy. If Nicole was really about to tell Jake why she had reacted that way to Ally’s name, she didn’t need any other ears tuned into their conversation.
Across the table, Jake looked at her with curiosity and it was unnerving. She was used to giving people that look, not receiving it. And the more he stared at her like she was a puzzle he was trying to solve, the more Nicole wanted to dig a hole in the ground and stay there for the next few months.
The waiter brought their menus over and Nicole seized the opportunity to buy herself some time. She read the options as if she hadn’t memorized them already. That was their favorite restaurant close to work and she always ordered the same thing anyway. But reading about sandwiches and desserts was easier than facing Jake at the moment.
“You gonna stall for how much longer?”
“Why are you so curious, Jake?”
“Because I know you, Nic. And I know it takes a lot to leave you this unsettled. So, whatever happened between you and this woman, I know it must have been important. I just wanna make sure you’re fine, that’s all.”
“Well, I am fine. Now, can we please drop the subject?”
“Nicole Black, you, my friend, are a terrible liar. Now, quit stalling and tell me what’s going on.”
There was noise all around them, but Nicole couldn’t hear a single thing. She was lost inside her head, debating whether to tell him everything or not. On the one hand, she wanted to tell Jake. She wanted him to know this part of her life, she wanted an unbiased opinion. On the other hand, she was almost dreading his reaction.
“I met Allison about ten years ago.” Nicole started with a soft voice as if to not disturb her memories.
“You mean, Ally?”
“She went by Allison back then.” The answer as accompanied by a barely there smile. “I was in New York for a competition and we decided to go out to celebrate.”
“So this was before--”
“Yeah.” Nicole didn’t let him finish the question. She already knew what it was and she didn’t want to think about it. Not when she was already talking about Allison. “We went to this bar someone on the team had heard about. It wasn’t anything out of the extraordinary, but they barely checked our IDs when we got there, so it was good enough for us.
“We were loud.” She chuckled at a particular memory. “About a dozen happy, tipsy girls away from home. Can you imagine?”
“Oh, honey, I don’t need to imagine. I remember.” They smiled together and Nicole felt more confident in her decision to tell him everything. She was already starting to feel better. “And then? What happened?”
“And then I heard her.” It was impossible not to hear the wishful quality to Nicole’s tone. “I don’t know if she had been singing the whole time or if she had just started, but from the moment I took notice of her voice for the first time, I couldn’t not pay attention to it. To her.
“I moved away from my friends a bit and that’s when I saw her. She was mesmerizing, even back then. She was standing on this small, rickety stage and it was like she was glowing. It’s hard to explain, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
“And she noticed me too. From that moment on, it felt like I was in a private concert. She was just so good and it was like she was singing just for me. Soon, she announced she would be taking a small break. I was sad. I didn’t want to stop listening to her voice and I didn’t want to go back to my teammates, but I couldn’t stay in the middle of the bar, staring at an empty stage.
“She stopped me before I could take more than a couple of steps.”
“Oh, my God! Really? And what did she do? Did she kiss you?”
“What? No!” Nicole sounded almost offended. “We just talked and she bought me a beer. Then it was time for her to get back on stage and she asked if I could wait until she was finished. And I did.
“We stayed in touch and then tried dating long distance for a few months, but that didn’t work out and we went our separate ways. And that’s how I know her.”
“So, what you’re basically telling is me that my best friend is Ally Strong’s past lover?”
And there went Jake being his normal self again. This was one of the reasons Nicole didn’t feel like telling him this story in the first place. She knew he would focus more on the part where she dated someone who became famous a while later, rather than focusing on the part where she has to try and interview this person in just a few days.
“No,” she answers firmly. “I dated Allison Peters, not Ally Strong. They’re like two different people for me.”
When the waiter returned to their table with their orders, Nicole had never been more grateful to see a plate of food in front of her. The pause would give her enough time to collect herself and her thoughts. She hadn’t stopped to think about her relationship with the other woman in a very long time. But, despite the decade that separated them, it still hurt to think about how things had ended for them.
“Can I ask you something?” Jake’s voice seemed more subdued when he talked again. Maybe he would be able to hold a serious conversation for five minutes, Nicole thought. “Why did you never tell me that story? I mean, I know you’re a private person, but I know all about your exes.”
“Because I want to protect Allison, I think. She has enough people wanting to know everything about her life without me adding fuel to the flames.”
“I get that, but…it’s me, Nic. I’m interested in you, not the gossip. Contrary to popular belief.”
“I know. I just wanted to keep that part of my life all to myself, I guess.” Nicole’s eyes drifted past Jake and into the distance. “Sometimes, it doesn’t even seem real, what we had. And I think I wanted to keep it like that, you know?”
“Of course I do, honey. Now, can I ask why you two broke things off?”
That’s the question Nicole had been dreading since she agreed to tell him the story of their relationship. Even ten years later, the wound still hurt. She could still remember the words and the pain and the look on Allison’s face before they ended things. It made her promise to herself that she would never hurt anyone like that. Ever.
“We were young and stupid and naïve. The distance didn’t help, but it was mostly our own fault.”
“That’s it? That’s all you’re giving me?”
“Yes, Jake. That’s all I’m saying. I believe some things should remain private. You know that.”
“Yeah, I know. That means you’re not gonna answer me if I ask if she is a good lay?”
The paper napkin Nicole had in her hand flew into Jake’s face and that was all the answer he got out of her.
The rest of lunch was filled with Jake’s voice, telling Nicole all about the gossip he had heard about their new boss. But the journalist remained mostly silent. She was still collecting herself after thinking and talking about Allison. That was the one thing about her past she hadn’t reconciled with yet and she very deliberately tried not thinking about her. Which was a difficult thing, when she could see her brilliant smile on magazine covers and hear her voice on the radio on her way to work.
“Can I ask you one last thing about Ally?” Nicole had felt Jake’s stare on her skin ever since they left the restaurant and she was just waiting for him to say something.
“Do you still have feelings for her?”
She balked in the middle of the sidewalk. “What? No! Of course not. You know I’m with Lauren.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“Jake…” Nicole’s voice carried a plea and a warning.
“I’m sorry for asking. I’m just trying to understand why this assignment shook you up so much.”
“Wouldn’t you act the same if you were supposed to talk to your ex, whom you haven’t seen in ten years, and have to remain professional?”