A few weeks went by and life seemed to be back on track, they hadn’t heard again from Jess and the restraining order had been granted. Allison and Nicole believed their lives had gone back to normal and continued planning the wedding as much as Allison’s tight schedule allowed them.
The singer was back on the road. Her most recent album was a success and she was having a hard time balancing her label’s desire to have her on a world tour and her own wish to stay home. They compromised on a small American tour, which allowed her to go back to New York every couple of weeks, until after their honeymoon. Then, Allison would go to a few selected countries with her new concert. It wasn’t ideal, but she knew how important touring was for her career.
With Allison gone for so long at a time, Nicole was left to deal with most of the decisions regarding their wedding herself. On top of that, her job at the magazine was becoming more demanding by the day. She wasn’t the new kid on the playground anymore and her boss was giving her stories that were more important and high profile. She loved planning their wedding and knowing she had her boss’s trust, but it meant she hardly ever had a second to herself.
Nicole sighed and leaned back on her chair when she heard the alarm on her phone go off. She had forgotten to eat lunch three times in the past week and when she mentioned it to Allison, her fiancée made sure to put an alarm on Nicole’s phone to remind her. She was also supposed to text Allison when she was going to get something – the singer just wasn’t aware that that something was usually just a hot dog from the vendor across the street.
The weather was getting colder in New York, forcing Nicole to pull the lapels on her coat tighter around her body. She still had her hands up when she felt someone grabbing her left arm. Nicole turned around with wide eyes, her heart hammering in her chest.
“Simone? What the hell are you doing here?”
“I need to talk to you, Nicole.”
“I don’t have anything to talk to you.” She seemed to realize Simone still had a hold of her arm and yanked it free. “And I really expect you to not show up at my work anymore.”
“Believe me, Nicole. I wouldn’t be here if this wasn’t important. Talking to the woman that got me fired is really not my idea of a fun afternoon.”
“You did that to yourself. I just opened Allison’s eyes.”
Simone closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She wasn’t there about what had happened. She was there about what could happen.
“That’s not what I want to talk to you about.”
“We have nothing to talk about.”
“Yes, we do.” Something about Simone’s voice kept Nicole rooted in her spot. “It’s about Jess.”
A cold chill went down Nicole’s spine when she heard that name. Ever since the restraining order had been granted, there seemed to be a silent agreement in her house that neither she nor Allison would speak that name out loud. Almost as if by not pronouncing it, they would ensure that nothing happened. But standing in the middle of that busy, New Yorker sidewalk, observing the sharp edges of something behind Simone’s eyes, Nicole knew that something had changed.
For the first time since Allison traveled back from London, Nicole was afraid.
“Very well. I’m listening.”
“Not here, Nicole. Can we go somewhere more private?”
Nicole had planned to grab a quick something to eat and go back to work, but whatever was happening that had made Simone show up at her work trumped any plans she might have had.
They walked in silence to a small deli Nicole knew. It was late enough that the place wouldn’t be packed with people and they would have some privacy for their conversation. Even if she wasn’t normally recognized on the street, Nicole didn’t feel comfortable discussing that matter in a place anyone could hear her.
“Just spit it out, Simone.” Nicole said after they had placed their orders. Allison’s face when she saw her thrashed room in San Francisco was still too fresh in her mind for her to have a nice chat with the woman that had caused it. “What did you want to talk to me about?”
“Look, I know you probably won’t believe me, but I still care about Allison. I love her like a little sister.”
“You have a strange way to demonstrate your love. I haven’t forgotten what you did to her hotel room. Have you?”
“I know I messed up, Nicole. But, can you please put that aside for a moment? Please? What brought me here is much more important than that.”
“You’d better start talking, then.”
The man behind the counter shouted Nicole’s name and she got up to get their order. She placed it on the table and waited as Simone took a sip from her juice.
“I went to see Jess, yesterday. Ever since Allison filed for the restraining order, she hasn’t left the house, she hasn’t answered the phone. I was worried.” She raised her eyes to meet Nicole’s, but it was clear that the journalist didn’t care about how the other woman was doing. “Well, when I got to her place, I got scared. She wasn’t making any sense. The only thing she would talk about was Allison and it was like she believed they were still together. There were pictures of Allison covering every surface in her apartment and I noticed you had been cut from some.”
The piece of sandwich Nicole had bitten seemed to swell inside her mouth and she needed to take a long sip from her water to be able to swallow down the tasteless piece that felt like styrofoam on her tongue. The color had drained from her face and her hand fell heavily on the table.
“I called her parents to see if they could come and stay with her, but I don’t think they will. I don’t even think they believed me.” Simone rubbed her face with both hands. “Look, I’m not sure if she is gonna do something or not, but the person I saw wasn’t the Jess I knew. I just thought you should know.”
After countless seconds processing the gravity of what she had just heard and its possible implications, Nicole shook her head and seemed to remember that Simone was sitting in front of her.
“Thank you, Simone. I really appreciate you telling me all this.”
“You don’t have to thank me. Just, do me a favor?”
“Take good care of Allison. She’s very special.”
“I know that.”
Nicole tried settling back into her work routine, but it was useless trying to focus on anything that wasn’t Allison and Jess and the bomb Simone had just dropped on her head. Many times she picked her phone from her desk to call Allison and tell her what she had learned, but every time she placed it back by her keyboard without calling the number she knew by heart. She knew that wasn’t a conversation that should happen over the phone. Besides, there was a little voice in the back of her head telling her that Allison wouldn’t worry as much.
But Allison hadn’t seen the look in Simone’s eyes. There was real fear in them and Nicole wasn’t willing to gamble their safety on the possibility that Jess wouldn’t do anything.
After staring at the same paragraph for over an hour, Nicole decided to tell her boss she wasn’t feeling well and that she would be working from home for the rest of the day. She hoped after a shower and a glass of wine she would be able to focus long enough to finish her work.
On the cab drive, Simone’s words kept swirling inside Nicole’s mind. On the surface, there wasn’t really anything wrong with what she had been told. There were no laws against putting someone’s pictures on your apartment and Jess was allowed to think and believe whatever she wanted. But there was an underlying threat there. Jess had already tried getting too close to them. She was possessive and manipulative and seemed to be quickly escalating. Nicole knew that was a recipe for disaster if she had ever seen one.
The first thing out of place Allison noticed was the living room lights. They were on and it was much too early for Nicole to be home yet. In fact, the singer had been thinking about surprising her fiancée with a home-cooked meal when she got home that night. It had been a stressful week for the two of them and Allison knew Nicole had a tendency of not eating properly when she was tense.
The second thing she noticed was that Nicole wasn’t in the living room.
The third thing she saw – and what really worried her – was the wine bottle on the kitchen island. Through the glass, it was possible to see that it was less than half full. And even if it wasn’t impossible that the journalist had gotten home early, Allison knew something must have happened to make her drink in the middle of the day.
“Nic? Honey?” Allison shouted as she moved through the room. “Where are you?”
There were no answers echoing in the air and Allison’s worry increased tenfold. She inspected every room on the first floor, even checking behind doors and under furniture with no sign of Nicole. Allison was about to take the stairs when she thought she heard something on the balcony. It was Nicole’s favorite place in the house and if something had upset her, it was where she would seek refuge.
Allison felt her heart sink inside her body when she looked through the glass doors. Nicole was sitting on the large couch they had, hugging her knees to her chest, an empty glass of wine lay forgotten on the coffee table in front of her. From where she was standing, Allison couldn’t see her face, but she knew Nicole well enough to be able to read her body language. The reporter only held herself like that when she was feeling lost and sad and alone.
The noise from the sliding doors startled Nicole. She looked over her shoulder and found Allison looking at her with a tenderness that brought a fresh wave of tears to her eyes. It was all too much and she wasn’t sure if she was prepared to deal with reality.
Allison’s body moved without a conscious thought and after four steps she was sitting beside Nicole, one of her arms around her fiancée’s shoulder. She pulled Nicole tight to her chest and let her body speak the words that had melted inside her throat. They all seemed so small and meaningless when she could see the face she loved so much painted in anguish.
With Allison kissing love into her hair and within her embrace, Nicole allowed the tears she had withheld all day to overflow. Her eyes burned and her body shook and her breathing came in hiccups and sobs. It was cathartic and painful and necessary at the same time.
As for Allison, all she knew how to do was be there. She leaned her body back against the couch’s arm and took Nicole with her, tucking her head underneath her chin. Her shirt already had a wet patch and her jeans were uncomfortably pulled too tight, but she wouldn’t dare move from the position she had found, not when Nicole seemed to relax and let go against her frame.
At some point, Allison started humming an old lullaby in Nicole’s ear. It was something her mother used to sing to her when she couldn’t sleep at night. She sang it, over and over again, until the puffs of air she felt against her neck were even and until the chest pressed to hers didn’t rattle with every inhale.
“Simone came to talk to me today.” Nicole’s voice startled Allison. She thought her fiancée had fallen asleep and it took her a few seconds to comprehend what she had said. When she did, a scowl took over her face.
“What? How dare she?” Allison was actively trying not to scream when they were lying so close. “What did she want?”
“She wanted to talk.” A pause. A sigh. “About Jess.”
Nicole felt Allison’s arms tighten around her body. She knew the singer was trying to keep her temper in check, but she needed to tell Allison what she had learned that afternoon.
“What about Jess? Don’t tell me she asked us to drop the restraining order?”
There was an edge to her voice that Nicole had never heard before. It went deeper than her sarcasm and her sassiness. It sounded like gravel and stones and broken things. Nicole raised her body and forced herself to look into Allison’s eyes as their conversation continued.
“It’s not about that.” A wave of fear slithered up Allison’s spine. She had only once heard that tone in Nicole’s voice and that was just before they broke up. “In fact, she came to warn us.”
“Warn us about what?”
“Apparently she went to see Jess this week and she believes you two are still dating. Simone said there are pictures of you all over her place.”
The dismissiveness in Allison’s voice enraged Nicole like nothing before. The matter at hand had nothing to do with her, not directly, and yet, she seemed to be the only one to be giving it any importance.
“Allison, did you hear what I just said?” Nicole had gotten up by that point, too worked up to be sitting in Allison’s arms. “Your ex-girlfriend, who has tried to do things against us, against whom you had to file a restraining order, has gone completely crazy! She believes you’re still together.”
“And what do you want me to do, Nic?” She reached out and took one of Nicole’s hands in hers. “I can’t change her thoughts. And if she doesn’t violate the court order, there’s nothing we can do.”
Nicole dropped her body back on the couch, heavy and deflated. “I know. Beth said the same thing when I called her before you got home.”
“There you go, honey. All we can do is go on with our lives and hope for the best.”
“Well, legally speaking, there’s nothing we can do.” She turned around on the couch to face Allison. “But there’s something else we can.”
“Where are you getting at, Nic?”
“I think we should increase our security.” She spoke the entire sentence as one single word. “The apartment’s, yours. I don’t wanna give that woman any chances.”
“Come on, Nic. We’ve had this conversation.” It was Allison’s turn to stand and pace and speak with her hands. “You know how I feel about security and bodyguards. I don’t like having them around. I just tolerate them when absolutely necessary.”
“I know you feel like they take away your freedom but isn’t your safety more important?” When it took Allison more than a couple of seconds to answer, Nicole chuckled. “You’re not that small-town girl nobody knows anymore, Al.”
“Doesn’t mean I have to change.”
“And I’m not asking you to. I’m asking you to protect yourself against a madwoman who is prowling around us. Can’t you do that? For me?”
The plea in Nicole’s voice shook Allison’s conviction, but it wasn’t enough to change her opinion altogether. She didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of having huge men following her everywhere she went. Besides, when her first album was released, she had promised herself that she wouldn’t change who she was. And getting bodyguards looked a lot like that to her.
“Look, Nicole, I agree that a relationship is about compromising, but I can’t be the only one to do that when it comes to this subject. I’ve already agreed to the restraining order, I can’t agree to up my security.” She took a seat on the coffee table and stared Nicole in the eyes. “We already live in one of the most secure buildings in the city, our apartment alone has probably more alarms than a bank, my cars are all bullet proof and I always have security when I’m doing something work related. What else do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know, Al. But I’m really scared.”