“So, have you decided on what you’re going to wear yet?”
“Jake, you do remember that this is a meeting with a potential interviewee, not a date, right?”
The two friends were standing in front of the building. The photographer had gone to have a smoke and Nicole decided to go with him. She didn’t smoke, but she could use with some fresh air and a few minutes away from her computer screen. Besides, she couldn’t take any more of these curious looks Jake had been sending her way every five minutes.
She only told him the abridged version of the events since the previous night, but it was enough to make him smile and cheer as if she was watching the final episode of his favorite TV show and the main characters had just decided to finally be together. Despite Nicole’s reluctance about the whole interview thing, she couldn’t deny that she had been missing this kind of excitement in her life, these jitters in her stomach whenever she mentioned someone.
She loved Lauren. She just didn’t feel that anymore. She wondered if she had ever felt.
“I know it’s not a date, but she happens to be your ex-almost-maybe-something. It wouldn’t hurt to show her what she’s been missing. Who knows, maybe you can have a little revival.”
“There will be no revivals, Jake. What I and Allison had is in the past. Besides, I’m with Lauren now and I can be perfectly professional when it comes to Allison.”
“Yeah, I saw that yesterday, in the conference room.” The man had a smirk around his cigarette. “Was that impression of a stuttering tomato just a rehearsal for Halloween?”
Nicole tried to come back with a witty response, but her mind was drawing a blank. The truth was that she had to agree with him. Allison still had the ability to unbalance her, even after so long. It had been easy to hide it so far because no one – apart from her parents and a few long-lost friends – knew about their relationship. But now, Jake and Dianna were aware that something had happened and she knew they would be looking even harder.
She dropped the super-hero act and asked an honest question.
“Am I that obvious?”
“I don’t know about the rest of those people but to me? Crystal clear.”
“To you and Dianna.”
“What do you mean? Did the heart of ice say something?”
“Heart of ice? Did you come up with that?”
“Nah. I’ve just been hearing some coffee room chatter. But, let’s stay in topic here, huh? What did she say?”
“Earlier, when I went in there to talk about my meeting with Allison, she asked how I managed to arrange a meeting directly with her.” Nicole took a deep breath and leaned against the stone wall behind her. “I was forced to tell her that I knew Allison a long time ago. And she obviously asked me if it would jeopardize my work.”
“And you answered that…”
“I had everything under control.”
“Now, that’s what I like to hear. Lying through your teeth without even flinching.”
Ally’s performance was in its last songs and still no sign of Nicole. The singer was starting to believe that, maybe, the other woman wouldn’t show up and that that whole magazine cover story was nothing but that, a story. The notion didn’t fit with the memories she still had of Nicole, but if there was one thing Ally knew was that people can change a lot in ten years.
The second to last song was in the final chorus when Ally raised her eyes and was met with Nicole walking into the room. She almost went out of key for a few notes as the journalist kept strutting towards an empty chair in the back of the room. She was wearing a tight, black dress, high-heeled boots, and a red leather jacket. The outfit wasn’t exactly flashy, but Ally could still remember what those pieces of fabric were hiding and that was enough to send her brain into overdrive. Seeing that, it was hard for her to believe that Nicole’s intentions were purely professional.
From the stage, she gave Nicole a crooked smile and turned her back to the audience to talk about something with her band.
“Before we start with our last song, I’d like to thank everybody’s presence tonight.” Hazel eyes ran the audience, noticing all of their smiles, until they stopped in brown ones that were glued to her. “And to finish this concert, I’m going to sing something I haven’t sung in a while. I hope you all like it. Goodnight.”
The first notes on the piano traveled up Nicole’s spine like an electric wave. She would recognize that song anywhere in the world. It was the same one Allison was singing at that bar the night they met. How many times had she told the singer that that song was her favorite out of everything she sung? After that, every night when they talked on the phone, Allison would sing her a few verses before saying their goodnights. It was the one song that meant the most to the both of them and now she chose exactly that to finish her performance – even though she never officially recorded it. Nicole was having a hard time understanding what that meant.
She tried not to show on her face how much the song had disturbed her as she waited patiently for Allison to talk to all of her fans. It would be impossible to approach her before that and she took the time to observe the singer in her element. She still remembered Allison telling her how those were her favorite moments, connecting with people, talking about music, being reminded of why she loves singing so much. As far as Nicole could see, all of those feelings were still alive and kicking.
“Did you like that last song?” Allison asked when she finally reached Nicole. “Especially for you.”
“You know I love it. I just didn’t understand why you chose that as your final song of the night.”
“There you are, darling. Brilliant performance, as usual.”
A woman Nicole had never seen before approached them and snaked one of her arms around Allison’s waist. She looked like she could be in her early forties, but the thick make-up layer didn’t let the journalist be sure. She was dressed in full business attire and not a single lock of her short, black hair was out of place. A woman done to perfection and, yet, it wasn’t that that bothered Nicole about her. It was the possessive arm around Allison’s body, it was the familiarity of her words, the easiness of their proximity.
“Thank you, Simone.” Allison smiled to the new-comer, oblivious to the way Nicole’s eyes had hardened. “I’d like you to meet Nicole Black, an old friend of mine.”
“Oh, of course. The reporter you mentioned earlier.”
“Exactly. And Nicole, this is Simone Marino, my PR genius.”
“It’s very nice to meet you, Simone.” Nicole stretched her hand and waited for Simone to shake it. “I was hoping we could talk for a bit. Discuss the interview.”
“Yeah, sure. In fact, Ally here has already told me all about it and I happen to believe it could be an interesting opportunity. I actually like your magazine.” Nicole tried smiling at her, but it came out more as a wince. “There’s only one problem, though.”
“We won’t stay for very long and Ally already has a lot of previous appointments. I’m not sure we’d be able to fit you in.”
Nicole couldn’t even finish her sentence. She had never expected to not be able to interview Allison because the singer didn’t have the time. She had imagined scenarios in which she didn’t want to see her or refused to give her the interview, but never that she just wouldn’t have the time.
“I think I may have the solution.” The mischievous glimmer in Allison’s eyes should have raised every red flag in Nicole’s mind, but she wanted to see where that was going. “You can become like my shadow for the next four days.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you can stay at the same hotel as me and you can come with me to my appointments. We’ll be able to talk in between those and you’ll get a feel of my routine. It’s a win-win. What do you guys think?”
“Are you sure, Ally?”
“I trust Nic.” Allison turned to fully face her ex-girlfriend. “So, what do you say, Nic? Are you in?”
She had not seen that one coming. She had been hoping to sit with Allison for a few hours in a dressing room, after one of her performances, talk about a few topics, interview her band and fans and that would be all. Allison would be out of her life. Again. For good, this time. She wasn’t ready for four days of following Allison around.
But before she could think about the better way to handle things, she heard herself saying “I’m in”.
Two words, four letters, and Nicole had no idea what she was getting herself into. Allison shot her another crooked smile and Nicole could feel her throat tighten around her breath. She had no idea how she would survive the next few days. Better yet, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to survive them. No matter what, she knew she would need reinforcements in her madness.
“But I’ll need my photographer with me. There’s no cover without pictures, right?”
“Of course, but he won’t need to be with you all the time, right?” There was something behind Simone’s voice that Nicole couldn’t decipher.
“No. But if our intention is to show more about Allison’s life off stage, we’re gonna need some behind the scenes images.” Nicole held Simone’s eyes for a moment longer than what was necessary. Allison seems oblivious to the tension between them. “Maybe, if you could give me an overview of Allison’s schedule for the next days, I can arrange with Jake when and where to meet us.”
“Simone, you can send Nicole my whole schedule for the week. I know she won’t leak anything.”
The order was followed by a wink at her that left Nicole uneasy. She wanted to leave that place as soon as possible, take a very cold shower, fall asleep and only wake up a month later. She felt like she had been in a roller coaster ride ever since Dianna chose her to do this story and she wasn’t sure how she would get to the end of the week.
“Of course, Ally. As you wish.”
“Well, Allison, thank you for agreeing with this interview. Simone, it was a pleasure meeting you. Where should we meet tomorrow?”
“Where do you think you’re going, Nic? Our interview starts right now!”
The view from the balcony was breathtaking. The city lights reflected on the San Francisco Bay like long strings of gold floating in the water. The salty air cleared Nicole’s thoughts after a silent ride to Allison’s hotel. She leaned back on the comfortable chair and waited for the singer to get changed so they could start with the first part of their interview.
Normally, Nicole wouldn’t go into an interview without her notes and the questions she had thought about during her research. But she felt like she knew Allison enough to forgo those. Besides, she wanted to start with the easier questions before getting into the ones she knew the other woman would have a harder time answering.
“I hope you still like red.”
Nicole twisted her neck to find Allison entering the balcony. She had two wine glasses in one hand and a bottle in the other. Her dark hair was piled up on the top of her head, she had changed into shorts and a t-shirt and a drop of water was hanging on to the beauty mark she had on her left cheek.
At that moment, Nicole was reminded of the girl she fell in love with all those years ago. Her juvenile charm, her enthusiasm, her easy laugh, her passion. It all came back the moment Allison smiled at her that one smile that was capable of breaking down every one of Nicole’s walls down.
“I do. Thank you.”
Allison poured them both some wine and extended Nicole one of the glasses. They stayed like that for a moment, enjoying the drink, the silence, the view, the company. It felt a little like they were back in Allison’s tiny apartment, a decade ago, when they could go hours without speaking a word and, yet, having some of the best time together.
“So, Ms. Journalist, what is your first question?”
“What made you want to become a singer?”
“What made me want to become a singer?”
The way Allison spoke turned Nicole’s question into another, almost as if the singer had been expecting something much different. Despite the confusion painted on her features, she thought back to her first day on the choir of the local church and how much she had loved using her voice to express her emotions. She thought about the first time she took the stage alone and how big she smiled when everyone at her school cheered after she was done.
The following questions were similar. Nicole asked about Allison’s family’s first reaction to her career, her favorite artists, her least favorite part about being a recording artist. She didn’t ask any thought provoking questions. Everything was easy and uncompromised. It was like she was trying to get a feel of the woman in front of her.
“And what are your musical influences?”
“Oh, come on, Nic!” Allison had reached her limit with these inane questions. “What’s up with these?”
“What do you mean?”
“My influences? My favorite artists? Why are you asking me what you already know, Nic?”
“Because I don’t know.” Nicole placed her empty wine glass on the coffee table between them and sat back. “I don’t know Ally Strong. I knew Allison Peters. I knew Al. But I don’t know Ally Strong.”
“They’re the same person, Nicole.”
“I’m not so sure about that.” She took a deep sigh. “But, if you want me to ask a question I don’t know the answer to, I have one. Why did you change your name? Why be known as Ally Strong?”
“A lot of people do it.”
“I’m not interested in a lot of people, Al. I want to know why you did it.”
It was Allison’s time to sit back and think. That was a decision she had taken so many years ago that it took her a moment or two to remember what she had thought when she made it.
“I wanted a powerful stage name, something that was closer to my public persona, you know? I brainstormed with my manager and we came up with Ally Strong together.”
“And is Allison still somewhere inside of you?”
“Yeah.” Allison smiled softly at her ex-girlfriend, slow like a blooming flower. “I feel like I use Ally to protect Allison. But Allison is still here. She never left.”
By the time Nicole made it back to her place, the clock was way past three in the morning. She couldn’t understand how Allison had so much energy. They had met that morning for coffee and, in the middle of the night, she didn’t seem to be half as tired as Nicole.
As she parked her car, she noticed that Lauren’s car was parked up ahead and she decided that it would be best if she entered the apartment without much noise. Despite Lauren being a heavy sleeper, she didn’t want for her to wake up in the middle of the night. Particularly because that would mean having to explain to her that she would become a shadow to an incredibly sexy and famous singer, who happened to be her ex, for the next few days. She couldn’t see that conversation ending well.
She opened the door carefully and removed her boots and jacket by the door. She never lit up any of the lights on her way to the bedroom, praying she wouldn’t trip on anything lying on the floor. She reached the room in silence and was starting to open her dress when the lamp went on.
“Where the hell have you been this late?”