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I couldn’t function.

At all.

Couldn’t eat.

Couldn’t sleep.

It took all my willpower to get out of bed in the morning, to brush my teeth, my hair.

It didn’t matter what I wore to work, didn’t matter who I talked to. I just wanted to curl up in a ball on my sofa and let the T.V. take my mind off the huge hole cutting into my heart.

My body physically hurt. Every movement, no matter how minimal, just sent waves of pain shooting through me.

And the worst thing.


I couldn’t even look him in the eyes anymore.

I half tip toed around him at home, hoping I looked normal but I know he noticed, I know everybody noticed.

He didn’t ask me about my demeanor, didn’t ask me how Vegas went or if I filmed another video. He never said the name Jackson Stone out loud, or where I got that sapphire necklace that hung around my neck. He just kept moving around me, going about his routine the same old way, watching me with silent eyes but never reaching out for me.

I was actually relieved he didn’t. I wouldn’t have been able to handle it. Probably would have burst into tears.

I felt weak for the first time in my life, and I hated it.

The first two weeks back at home I hung onto the phone Jackson gave me for dear life, hoping he or Cheryl would call, but the phone stayed silent, wreaking havoc on my already fragile heart.

I checked my email regularly, my eyes searching frantically for something from Cheryl, anything, hoping beyond hope I would hear from her, but it always stayed empty.

So little by little I came upon the realization that this was it. It was over, gone, despite what my heart cried out for every day, he was gone.

Still, as time passed, the days never got any better. I just went through the motions like some heartbroken zombie, not missing a beat in my old routine but not really caring about anything.

I should’ve been thankful that my heart hadn’t been more invested, that I hadn’t given Jackson more. I tried to reason with myself, whisper to myself that I should be considered lucky. But deep down inside, I knew.

I wished I had given him everything, every part of me, because now I was just a shell of my former self, with nothing to show for it.

By the time the third and fourth week rolled around, I no longer expected to hear from Cheryl, and most definitely not from Jackson. I avoided the country music channels on my television at all costs; it just hurt too much to see Jackson’s beautiful face singing on that screen. It was tough, not giving in to the burning curiosity of watching the new video, knowing it premiered without a phone call or acknowledgement from Jackson.

What I couldn’t avoid was the radio. Clint always had the radio on when he was home, he still loved listening to The Highway country music channel on our satellite radio, so I heard Shine being played over and over again, the DJ announcing that Jackson Stone was up for a surprising six ACM’s, including Video of the Year.

My heart soared when I heard that, and then dived when the memories of Jackson’s kiss, the feel of his hands, sent another pang of hurt swirling over me.

Finally, out of desperation, I threw myself into reorganizing every closet in the house. Throwing out huge garbage bags filled to the top with stuff Clint and I no longer used.

Clint helped me haul the bags out to the curb for pick up, commenting that I had done a good job, and for some reason his words just drowned me in guilt.

The next evening he brought home dinner from our favorite Chinese place as a surprise. Even though I didn’t have much of an appetite I tried my best to smile and thank him, sit across from him and pretend to eat. We chatted casually, and it was nice to see Clint smile again, even if everything on my end was forced.

It seemed like I was pretending a lot these days, and three nights later I was really put to the test when after we had gone to bed, the lights completely off, I felt Clint’s hand slide gently over my waist and down my thigh.

The shock of his hand made my eyes snap open and a knot form in my stomach. I knew I couldn’t turn down his advances, he was still my husband, and he still had needs.

He wasn’t rough or controlling, he’d never been that way, he was soft and kind, and to my overwhelming guilty relief, he was quick.

I tried to respond, to let my body feel, but it was impossible. Every time I closed my eyes, I could only see one man, so I nearly held my breath the entire time, hoping that one day I could be the wife Clint needed again.


I was so fucking pissed it wasn’t even funny.

Layla was lucky she made it out of Vegas alive, and it was all due to Cheryl stepping in every other second to make sure we both stayed in line.

When Cheryl told me she had sent Ara home all by herself without giving me a chance to say goodbye, on a commercial flight no less, I was ready to call everything off and hop on the next flight after her.

Once the radio festival and my concerts were over, Layla suddenly left just as quietly as she appeared, flying out sometime in the middle of the night without a moments notice.

“You can’t go after Ara, Jackson.” The exhaustion in Cheryl’s voice fell on deaf ears, nor did it wipe the frown off my face. I just wanted to get out of Vegas as fast as possible. Still, Cheryl moved in front of me, her hands on her hips, “This was a close enough call, and we need to get a little bit smarter if, if we’re going to keep this up. We are keeping it up, right?”

Her words jerked me to attention and I just stared at her, trying to see if she was talking about what I thought she was.

“I mean, nobody wants you to stop seeing Ara. Not Dustin, not Brett, not even me. We all see the difference in you, how happy you are, and you deserve that Jackson, you really do.” Cheryl glanced around her carefully before lowering her voice, “But it’s taboo, it’s against everything we’re supposed to stand for, everything you stand for, and it could ruin you.”

I felt like defeated, I knew it could ruin me.

While affairs and divorces weren’t rare in the country world, they were always very well hidden. Protected by the agents and record labels themselves.

The media almost never figures out who is sleeping with whom in the country music scene, but on the rare occasions they do come across a tasty morsel, it always ends up in disaster. LeAnn Rimes was one of the well-known victims of the media screwing her over, publishing her affair all over the world. While it happened years ago, she was still struggling today to clean up her image, and her musical career never fully recovered.

“Well what do you suggest I do Cheryl? Let Layla ruin my fucking life? It’s already fucked up; I’ve already given her everything. Should I let her take Ara away from me too?” I pressed my eyes closed trying to steady my nerves.

“No. No, we aren’t going to let Layla do that, that’s why we have to be smart. Look Jackson, there’s only one reason I can think of why Layla came to Vegas, and that was because she’s already guessing exactly why Ara is suddenly everywhere you are. She’s guessing Ara is more than just a video girl. She tried to catch you here, to gain the upper hand. We can’t ever let her have the upper hand. And there’s only one way to make sure that never happens.” Cheryl shook her head, her eyes deadly serious.

“One way?” I cocked my head to the side. Cheryl knew what she was talking about; it was obvious why Layla suddenly showed up in Vegas, with a photographer no less.

“I think first you need to hang low, at least for a little while. Keep Ara out of the limelight. And then you need to figure out if you’re ready to do this, because there won’t be any turning back.” Cheryl’s words sent a prickle of anticipation shoot down my back; there was finally, finally, someone who understood, who was on my side.

“And then there’s the hardest part," Cheryl took a breath, giving me a wary smile.

“What’s the hardest part?” I asked her, but I think I already knew what she was going to say, and to tell you the truth; I think I was going to agree with her.

“You have to make sure Ara wants this too, and if she does, you have to tell her the truth, about your life, about your marriage, about everything.” she shrugged.

It took all my willpower.

Not to call Ara.

To lie low.

I hated it. Ara consumed my every waking thought, my every dream. Her beautiful smile and bright eyes constantly swirled in my head. And the heat of her kiss, the way she wrapped her arms around me, it just played over and over in my brain, not giving me any rest.

I flew to the next venue, my mind a jumbled mess. Tried my damnedest to keep up the charade of a country music superstar having the time of his life. I made my required appearances for the release of the video Shine.

Those were the most difficult. Watching Ara on the big screen, dancing around me, sparkling like a diamond, reminding me of everything I wanted, everything I missed. Wishing she could be here to share this with me.

Cheryl didn’t let me call Ara when the video premiered. It was the complete opposite of how we shared Broken. Shine came out on a Monday morning and I watched it sitting solemnly in the back of my bus, all by myself, wondering if Ara was watching it somewhere all by herself.

It was another hit. I knew it would be. I knew everything Ara touched would sparkle and shine just like her. The news was buzzing that Jackson Stone finally found his niche in videos, finally conquered his one weakness.

If only they really knew.

Dustin and Brett were jumping out of their seats when the ACM nominations were announced. We were up for six, including Video of the Year, a category we’d never been nominated for, so they were pretty ramped up about it.

My gut told me Shine would follow that same direction, it was just that pure physical attraction that both Ara and I shared on film. I knew it reached the fans, sent the message of the song right through their hearts.

What I didn’t know was if Ara and I would ever make another video again. What Cheryl said to me back in Vegas was still taking up all my free thoughts. I would have to tell Ara the truth, about my life, about everything, and hope that she would still want to be a part of it. I was going to have to take that risk, all or nothing.

And each day that I crossed off my calendar just filled me with a sense of dread. For every day that we were apart, put more and more empty space between us, pushing her that much closer to her husband.

The thought did torture me, wondering how she spent her days, and agonizing how she spent her nights. If she thought of me at all, if she missed me, or worse, if she hated me. I would purposely throw myself into my music whenever the thought of her with her husband even remotely entered my mind. Just knowing that he had her whenever he wanted, was more than enough to send me over the edge, and I took it out on every single one of my guitars.

It never went away.

The suffocating longing, the stifling fear, they nearly consumed me in the weeks that passed. I was more than relieved when I found myself with a two-week reprieve from my tour. With nothing more to do than attend the nomination party back home in Nashville. Maybe being at home would do me some good, and when I finally walked through my front door looking around all this lonely space, it dawned on me exactly what I had to do here.


“How was your afternoon Babe?”

Clint was in a good mood. He shook off his work coat and came from behind me, giving me a brief hug, startling me from my daydream.

“It was fine.” I gave him a small smile and turned quickly back to the dishes in the sink, hoping my eyes hadn’t given me away who I had been daydreaming about, “I took a walk; it’s a beautiful day out there. I didn’t want to be cooped up in the house.”

“Sure is, the sun is out in full force. It’s going to make me regret this next long haul I have to leave on.” Clint grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl on the counter and reached for the mail with his free hand.

“You’re leaving?” I stopped mid scrub and turned to him with a small frown. The thought of being all alone in this house was making me panic.

I know Clint mistook my words, my tone, thinking that I didn’t want him to leave because I would miss him, “I gotta go for two weeks babe, maybe three. Making my way to sunny California this time.” He smiled at me, probably glad that he had gotten some kind of emotional reaction out of me.

“Three weeks.” I could feel the floor give under me, and I gripped the sink for balance. I wouldn’t be able to function by myself for the three weeks; with nothing to distract me from Jackson, my own mind would torture me until I’d go crazy with emotion.

Clint eyed me quickly, his hand slowly losing hold on the envelope he had been looking at. It floated back down onto the counter. “If it bothers you, you can come with me.” This time his words were guarded, his voice steady, trying to hide the hope that still somehow still could be heard.

My mind spun, once again torn with guilt, spending three weeks holed up in such close quarters with Clint didn’t appeal to me in any way, but I feared it would be no different than roaming aimlessly in my house, trying to avoid thinking of Jackson.

I tried to shake my head, giving Clint what I hoped, was a reassuring smile, “It’s okay, really. I’m suppose to meet up with Jolene on the weekend anyways, I promised her.”

“Yeah sure. Not a problem. I’m not leaving ’til tomorrow morning.” He cut me off, his tone flat, his hand already in the air. He turned his back to me before I could say anything else.

I didn’t feel relief at his words, just anxiety, dread. There would be nothing to stop those haunting thoughts of Jackson now, nothing to break up those brief periods of longing that still swallowed me during the day. It would be just my grief and me, with nothing in between.

The first few hours after Clint left the next morning were the worst ones. I tried to keep myself busy, cleaned and re-cleaned the kitchen, arranged all the pictures over the fireplace, dusted the cupboards. Nothing needed cleaning really; I had kept the house spotless in the last few weeks, more than I ever had.

Out of habit, I reached up and touched the necklace Jackson given me. I never took it off, didn’t have the heart to let it go yet, so it stayed hanging around my neck, a glistening reminder of the man I could never have.

As much as my heart and brain fought with each other, I already knew my heart would win. If Jackson ever wanted me back in his life again I wouldn’t be able to say no, it was just physically impossible. It would always be yes for him.

Just knowing that made me restless, even angry at myself. I should be stronger, but I wasn’t.

The short raps at my door shook me from my thoughts and I pushed back the ache, getting up to answer the door.

It was a Fed Ex guy, holding a box. He smiled and handed it to me, wishing me a good day before leaving. I thought it was for Clint at first, Uncle Garth sometimes sent paperwork and other documents Clint would need to sign for his hauls, but when I turned the box over I saw that it was addressed to me.

Even though the box was fairly large, when I opened it, there were only two papers inside, one larger than the other.

With a small frown I glanced down at the larger one. It looked like some sort of agenda or time frame, it had today’s date on the top, and the first indicated time started at five pm with the words Service Car next to it.

The world suddenly shifted underneath me as my eyes flew over the page, all I could see were words like Boarding and Flight popping out at me like red-hot firecrackers.

With trembling hands I reached for the smaller paper trying not to let that delirious bubble of hope to build inside me, but it burst forth when I saw that the second paper was a boarding pass for Jackson’s plane, to Nashville.

The next few hours passed in a flurry of activity. I showered and changed, finally showing some signs of life. My cheeks were flushed, my eyes bright once again. I was so excited and so scared at the same time. My heartbeat just kept getting faster and faster as every hour ticked by, and when the service car finally arrived, my entire body was shaking with anticipation.

“Ara!” Cheryl’s was grabbing me in a huge bear hug and I hugged her back fiercely. The airport was bustling with activity, people hurrying about their way, it felt so good to be alive all of a sudden.

“Cheryl! I missed you.”

“God, this has been the longest month ever! I’m so glad to see you. I didn’t know if you would come or not with such a short notice. I was keeping my fingers crossed the whole time.” Cheryl looked as beautiful as ever, her voice bubbly and excited.

“The ticket said Nashville. I figured it was important.” I gave her the first excuse I could think of, knowing she could probably see right through me.

“Come on, let’s get on the plane. It’s just going to be you and me. Jackson’s already home. Don’t be disappointed okay. There’s some stuff we need to talk about anyways.”

Her words sent sudden anxiety flowing through me and the thought that maybe Jackson had nothing to do with this crossed my mind. “Does...does he know? That I’m coming?” my steps had slowed down as we crossed over to board.

“Oh yeah, he knows." Cheryl half giggled, trying to reassure me, “He’s jumping out of his skin back home. I didn’t let him come. First I want to talk to you without him interrupting every two seconds. And second, there’s some stuff he has to do before the nomination party, so I have him pretty busy right now.”

“Nomination party?” I turned to Cheryl in question, “what’s that?”

“Oh, you’re gonna love it. It’s hosted at the Opry. No media, and no fans, just artists. We all sit around and talk and eat, and just be real. It’s in two days.”

“Two days?” My voice rose in alarm and Cheryl giggled again waving me to sit down next to her.

“Don’t panic, I have the perfect little number for you to wear. Jackson hasn’t seen it, I picked it out, and it’s perfect.” I could hear the excitement in her voice, it was contagious, and I knew I was smiling at her, “But before we get into all that I have to apologize to you Ara, for the ways things went in Vegas. I know it really hurt you; it hurt me to see you that way. I hated that I couldn’t do anything to change that. And I’m really sorry that I didn’t call you, while you were home. I was so busy with the video release and the media and everything; I just never could find the right time, but that's really no excuse.”

“It’s okay Cheryl, I understand…” I tried cut in, holding up my hand, she didn’t need to apologize to me.

“No Ara, it’s not okay, and it felt really wrong to keep you in the dark, to treat you like we did. You’re a part of our team and from now on you’re going to be involved in everything, I hope.”

My head tilted on it’s own at her words, trying to make sense of what she was telling me. I didn’t know how to answer her so I just accepted her apology and offered her my own in return.

She seemed to breath easier after that, chatting the rest of the way about the nomination party, our dresses, and the other videos that were also nominated for video of the year.

“Jackson’s not excited about Entertainer of the Year at all this year. He gets nominated every year, so he’s used to that nomination. But this is his first Video of the Year nomination; we’re all so pumped up about it. Dustin told me that if we win we have to send you anywhere you want to go, as a thank you, even if you want to go to the moon!”

Our laughter filled the plane, and I promised Cheryl that the moon was not one of the places I always dreamed of going.

When the plane touched down and we exited, another service car was waiting for us, well, more so, waiting for me.

“It’ll take you where you’re going to be staying. I need to head down to Jared’s studio for some paperwork that needs to be picked up. I’ll meet up with you later on, maybe in the morning or sometime later, so we can try on your dress, make sure it fits perfect, okay? Keep your phone handy.”

“Okay, thank you Cheryl.” I didn’t ask her the question that was already burning a hole through my pocket; I didn’t ask her if I would be seeing Jackson tonight, if he even knew where I would be staying.

I never been to Nashville before, and knowing I was here in the same town where Jackson lived made me scoot up near the window, trying to take in all the sights that I saw passing by as the car whizzed along. It was already late evening but the streets were still busy, people walking leisurely on the sidewalks. The service car drove past what looked like downtown, cute little restaurants and clubs all bursting at the seams with activity.

We still kept driving, soon, there were fewer lights, and then little by little, the buildings began to thin out. The car turned left through some neighborhoods, the houses were dark, people were probably already sleeping. Once we passed a large green park and what seemed to be a baseball field, we came upon what looked like the business section of Nashville perhaps, tall office buildings, large hotels. I started to guess that this is where I would be staying, in one of those hotels.

But the car never pulled into any of the hotels, the wheels moved over the pavement at a steady pace, at least another half hour or so. The roads narrowed and began to curve more. We went up and down some small hills and then larger ones. I no longer saw houses, or hotels, or really much of anything other than trees.

I was calm at first, but of course the dark road and spooky looking trees began to create scenarios in my suspicious mind where I was met with a murderous death at the hands of the service car driver.

It was short lived though, because not minutes after that crazy thought popped into my head, the car suddenly swung around another curve, and I could see that we were traveling up a long winding pathway or driveway of some sort. I nearly had my nose pressed up against the glass trying to see where the path led. New visions of a large grand hotel flew across my thoughts and I wondered if Jackson would be there to greet me.

I guess because my mind was so set on arriving at a hotel my eyes automatically expected to see it when the car finally came to a stop, just feet away from a large log cabin designed building.

The driver didn’t say anything to me, just walked around the car and opened my door. I slid out still looking up in awe at such majestic architecture in front of me. Cobblestone steps led up to these two extremely huge double wooden doors with brass handles, partially framed by gorgeous etched, stained glass windows. Light blazed brightly behind those windows, reflecting tiny colors all around it, and I was amazed that such a beautiful creation was out here hidden away from everything.

I turned to the driver, an older gentleman, thanking him for the drive and feeling a bit foolish that I had ever thought he might want to murder me. He just nodded and waved his hand towards the cobblestone steps.

That’s when those two wooden doors opened.

My world shifted once more when my eyes finally focused. There was no doorman standing there, or hotel clerk.

No, the only thing I saw were those whiskered jeans and brown rugged boots, that navy blue tee shirt that showed off muscular arms and tan skin, and when my eyes finally rested on the baseball cap and little boy grin, I suddenly knew exactly where I was.


I thought I was going to be nervous, expected my heart to be racing, but when I saw her step out of the car and look up at my house with those wide brown eyes all lit up like a million stars, my sapphire necklace that I given her still hanging around her neck, I knew then, that this was the right thing, the right way to do this.

She’d already taken a step before she froze, and I could tell by her expression exactly when she realized that she was standing in front of my house.

I think I skipped both cobblestone steps in my haste to make it to her before she had the chance to panic and flee. I waved to the driver, signaling he was dismissed, still moving quickly so that I was already standing next to her by the time she turned her head towards the already retreating driver.

I expected some resistance. Thought I would have to do some convincing and reassuring before she would come inside, but luck was smiling at me tonight.

“Welcome to Nashville. Beautiful night, isn’t it Miss Ara?” I cocked my head to the side smiling down at her, trying to keep my shaking hands stuffed into my jean pockets.

“Jackson…is this…a…house? Yours?” She stuttered a little bit, still too much in shock, but there was a smile, a small one.

“This is my house, please, come inside.” I reached for her small carry on bag and waved one hand up towards the house. I was being very careful not to touch her, not wanting to scare her away.

She gave me a bigger smile then, looking back up to my house and back to me, but it quickly disappeared with her next words, “Thank you. It looks beautiful. Is this where you, your family lives?”

“This is where I live.” I didn’t want to start all of my explaining out here, without having set one foot in the house yet, but I understood her hesitation, the thought that maybe Layla was inside just waiting to pounce. “Sometimes my son comes to visit me here, but mostly, he lives in New York, with his mother, with Layla.”

She eyed me quietly at first, her mouth opening as if she wanted to ask more questions, but then she blinked, and I guess she changed her mind.

“Please won’t you come inside? I have some sweet tea if you’re thirsty.” I wanted to reach out for her arm, to guide her up the steps and inside, but I knew we were starting all over from this point, I knew better than to touch her.

“Thank…thank you.” She was still trying to figure me out, figure it all out, but it didn’t stop me from breathing a great big sigh of relief when I finally got her inside the front door.

I placed her bag down in the foyer next to the wooden buffet that held a few pictures of my parents and of my son. Ara studied those quickly before tearing her eyes away, looking all around her, the wooden carved chandelier, the red bricks that framed off one side of the wall, twig branches that stood over six feet tall in bold ceramic vase near the corner, never focusing on any one thing for more than a few seconds.

“A lot of this stuff is hand made.” I offered, trying to keep up with curiosity I saw in her eyes, “By people who live here in town, some of it custom, one of a kind.”

“It’s…all so…wow.” She breathed, her cheeks flushed, her eyes wide with wonder. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful, so wonderful.”

I’m pretty sure I grinned at her. She was just too darn adorable when she was awestruck, and her words, while she didn’t say a whole lot, the way her mouth dropped open and that breathless tone, it was the reaction I always imagined I would see from the woman who would share my life with me, when I showed her our house.

“Would you like to see the living room? The sweet tea is in there.” I nodded at her, hoping I could get her to come further inside, hoping she would start trusting me again.

“Uh yes…of course…thank you.” Her voice sounded so entrancing, echoing across the room in the smallest whisper, filling in all that empty, lonely space in an instant.

I knew the wooden spiral staircase was going to be the first thing she would notice when we walked into the living room. I didn’t want her stunned speechless for hours tonight, didn’t want the shock value to wear her out, so I mentioned it before she could actually see it.

“There were two young fellows into wood carving when this house was being built, they were still in school, architect school, they needed a place to show off their creativity, and I liked their ideas, I liked them, so I hired ’em, two young kids, not the fancy New York architects that Cheryl suggested. They built me a staircase that leads up to all three levels of the house, and I think they did a damn good job too.”

“There are three levels…” but her words were cut off by her gasp, she finally saw it.

“I’ll brag about those two boys to anyone who’ll listen to me.” I chuckled, more at her reaction than anything else, “Well, they’re not boys anymore, they’re men now, and self made millionaires.”

She turned to me with this delighted look, shaking her head a little bit, “You are, you are just so nice.” She said with pride.

It shook me, sent my heart thundering and my chest swelling, I always felt it, when she said things like that to me, that she could see inside me, the real me.

“The world’s a lot happier when everyone is nice.” I grinned at her again, mentally holding myself back from moving too fast, this night was designed to be about talking, explaining, and honesty. Those things had to happen first.

She nodded at me, following me past the staircase and over to the stone fireplace. “These stones were taken from my parent’s house, in West Virginia. I had them placed around the fireplace, they reach all the way to the ceiling. When I was a boy I would spend an insane amount of time climbing over these stones across from the lake where I lived. There were hundreds of them. It was weird cause those were the only stones you could see for miles, all piled on top of one another. I would climb all the way to the top pretending I was a superhero or something like that.”

She giggled quietly and reached out to touch one of them, her fingers gliding over the smooth rock slowly. Her eyes had a faraway look to them as she did that, it caused a lump to form in my throat, that look in her eyes, as if she could already see my past.

“It’s absolutely stunning.” she breathed, “A fireplace made for a true superhero.” her eyes danced over mine in childlike fascination, making me a million times more satisfied that I brought her here.

I was breathing a little easier now. She looked genuinely happy to be here, didn’t look like she wanted to run away or hide. Since I was feeling more confident, I pulled her attention away from the fireplace and over to a single wooden guitar mounted up on the wall,all by itself.

“Is this yours?” She leaned forward, bringing her head very close the guitar as to inspect it.

“Yes it’s mine. It was my first one, my grandfather’s. This is the guitar he gave me for Christmas when I was eight years old.”

“This is the one?” She turned to me excitedly and then back to the guitar, “You told me about that, that your grandfather taught you how to play.”

“Yeah, he taught me how to play this very one. Tried to teach me Jingle Bells that very Christmas Eve.” I chuckled, half remembering how disappointed I felt opening that guitar and how much it also changed my life.

She studied it for a quiet minute longer and then turned to me seriously and said,

“I bet Christmas is amazing here.”

And I could tell she had been picturing all along what she thought this house must hold, a million sentimental memories memories, that in reality, had never even been created.

“There’s never been a Christmas here.” my heart was suddenly beating hard, more out of anxiety than anything else. I didn’t want her to imagine me sharing this house with anyone but her. I didn’t want her to picture Layla here. “Come on over and make yourself comfortable. Have some tea.” I moved quickly past the guitar and down to the leather couches, giving her no choice but to follow me.

“You’ve never had Christmas here? Christmas Eve?” I could hear her voice behind me all full of confusion and puzzlement.

“Never even a tree.” I shrugged, grabbing the pitcher of tea and pouring us each a glass.

“Oh…” she paused for a second and sat down with a small frown, trying to figure it out, she accepted the glass I offered her with a thankful smile, and kept quiet until her eyes lit up suddenly, “Oh I see, you must all go somewhere for Christmas then…maybe out of the country,some exotic place? With your family?” She nodded brightly at me, satisfied with her own answer.

“I spent the last two Christmas’s at my parent’s house in West Virginia.” I put my glass down without even drinking it, “It was just us three, my Mama, my Dad, and me. Layla and Colt had Christmas in New York with her family. I flew down to New York maybe two weeks after to give my son his gifts.”

I kept watching her eyes, seeing her head start to shake no all on its own, her glass suspended halfway to her mouth.

“So there’s never been a Christmas here.” I continued, wishing I could blurt this out a whole lot faster. “I always imagined what it would look like, to have a Christmas here, a big ten foot tall Douglas Fir tree right there in the corner, colored lights going across all those wooden beams on the ceiling, maybe some stockings hanging over the fireplace, Johnny Cash playing on the radio. But it’s never happened.”

“Why not? That doesn’t make any sense.” Ara’s voice was filled with frustration now, and stunned disbelief, tinted with a hint of anger, “She couldn’t get away? From her movies or something?”

“Layla could do whatever she wanted.” And I was finally letting it all out. “She didn’t want to come here for Christmas or any other holiday. She hates it here, hates this house, hates the country, the music, and I’m pretty sure she hates me too.”

The only thing you could hear after that was Ara’s gasp. It had been easier to say it than I thought. And once those words were out of my mouth, the weight that I had been carrying around with me all these years broke away as I sat in front of the only woman I would ever share this story with.

“She isn’t a bad person, when I met her, she was actually very nice. I’m sure she still is nice. My agent thought she would be a good match for me. She wasn’t the movie star she is now, just a small actress at the time, just like I was still a new up and coming musician. I think I only owned one guitar at the time, besides my grandfather’s.” I half chuckled; getting lost in the memory, trying to show Ara it didn’t hurt anymore. “There wasn’t a big romance, wasn’t love at first sight. We were set up on a blind date, we got along, we each needed a partner for our careers, thought we could make it work. And we did, for about a year.”

I finally took a sip of my tea, giving Ara the chance to process all this new information. She still hadn’t put her glass down, or even blinked, so I wanted to make sure she had the time she needed so she could make sense of this all. She stared at me in silence for several seconds, waiting for more. When I didn’t continue, she finally blinked rapidly, her breathing leveled out, and she set her glass down with a shaky hand.

I knew she would have a million questions, so once I saw that she regrouped, I kept up with my story.

“Right after our son Colt was born she was offered several large movie roles around the same time my own career took off. She was filming in different states and my tour kept growing and growing, new places, new venues. There were times we didn’t see or talk to each other for weeks, even months. Rick, my agent, found out first, that there was a man, living with her in New York. And while it should have been a crushing blow to me, it actually wasn’t, I half expected it, I mean there wasn’t anything left to our marriage, we weren’t even friends. I just pushed it off to the back of my mind, threw myself in my tour and my music. Went to visit my son whenever I had the chance. She’s never kept Colt away from me, not ever.”

Ara’s tea was forgotten. Her eyes were locked to mine, her entire being focused on my words. I knew my story was affecting her, I could see it in her breathing, how it would quicken and fall with small short breaths. She waited patiently, somehow knowing that she didn’t have to ask me anything, that I would tell her everything, willingly.

“We probably should have divorced then, maybe it wouldn’t have affected our careers as bad as we imagined it would, maybe we would have recovered and bounced back easier at the time, but both Rick and Cheryl were dead set against it. It would hurt me, they said, ruin me. And that's the truth. A divorce always hurts the artist, no matter what the reasons. Neither Rick nor Cheryl wanted to take that chance, not when I was finally breaking through on the big scene, the sellout arenas and stadiums. And to be completely honest, I didn’t want to take that chance either, nor did Layla. So we left it like that, like an unspoken agreement. Stopped talking to one another and let our agents do the talking for us. She comes here when her presence is required, when an event is media worthy, just like the radio festival. Rick usually arranges it, and a few times a year I’ll attend a couple of her film premiers, award shows, it used to be easy, I thought I had my life together, but one day I woke up and realized I didn’t, I was…”

Without even knowing it, I stopped talking; taking off my baseball cap in pure nervousness and fiddling with it before placing it back on my head again. This first part had been easy but now everything was going to get more difficult, because now I had to tell her, why that all changed, why it suddenly wasn’t good enough anymore, the entire reason why she was sitting here in my house.

My mouth was dry, even with the tea, and I tried to think of the best way to start my next sentence.

She made it easy for me…


“You were Broken.” That’s all I could think of, and the words escaped me before I could take them back.

Jackson didn’t look startled when I whispered that to him, he actually nodded at me, his eyes widening that I understood so quickly. I’m not sure if I was actually understanding everything but it just clicked at that moment, the lyrics to Broken and the story he was telling me now.

"Broken…yeah…yeah I was. I don’t think I even knew that, until then. You see Miss Ara; behind the singer, behind the so-called star, I’m still a simple country boy. I still want to ride my horses down those dirt roads out there, and fish in the lake that’s behind this house. I want to walk through that front door and have the woman of my dreams be glad to see me. I want to climb in my truck and go to the drive-in with her. And on those hot summer days, the ones where the heat is almost unbearable, I want us to cool off under the water hose and then pull her up onto my tractor and take us out to the middle of the cornfield for a picnic. I want all that first, and then I want to sing.”

Everything he was saying, I could see it, envision it in my mind, it was so close, so real, as if he were talking about me, about us. His eyes never left mine, his voice stayed true and steady. Even though I could hear the raw hurt in it, the vulnerability,he kept telling me his story.

“I knew I was pretty unhappy with the ways things were going but I still didn’t say anything. I realized it wasn’t just my career on the line but the careers and lives of a whole lot of people who all depended on me, people who I actually loved, so I just kept my mouth shut about it. And I might have stayed that way, except that Layla got pregnant again.”

That sent a shudder down my spine and I tried not to let my emotions show but he saw them anyways, my eyes must have given me away. He picked up one hand slowly, sort of in a stop fashion, nodding a little bit.

“Layla got pregnant again, but the thing was, that little baby, wasn’t mine.”

Everything in the room was spinning now. I couldn’t stop it. Jackson’s spoken words were soft but they were booming in my head, ringing through my ears. I literally had to close my eyes to keep from falling over, to keep from crying out. I’m sure he knew this revelation was going to shock me because he stopped, I could hear him shifting in his seat and the sound of ice clinking in his glass as he took another drink of his tea.

“Not yours?” I half whispered. Maybe his words should’ve made me happy, relieved that he didn’t father another child with Layla, but there was no room for that. All I could do was ache, ache for him and all the pain he had to have endured.

“I haven’t shared a bed with Layla since Colt was eight months old. I think she tried to keep her pregnancy a secret at first, but some tabloid managed to snap a picture of her, it was obvious looking at her stomach that something was up. I heard it from Rick when she was about four months along. She did call me to tell me eventually, but I heard it from Rick first. And since there was nothing juicy or shady to report, the media made it sound like a happy announcement, congratulating us both. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to think it over, I had to either come clean or accept it fast. Of course Rick convinced me to accept it. Telling me it wouldn’t change anything, just make the fans love us a whole lot more.”

I was suddenly glad I could grip the glass of ice tea in my hands. I held onto it so tightly my skin was nearly white. I couldn’t make out any of my emotions, shock, rage, and sadness. I wasn’t sure how much more I could handle. Jackson seemed to notice that, I saw brief glimpses of concern flash across his eyes as he spoke.

“Don’t get me wrong. No one was forcing me to do anything I didn’t want to do. I might not have been happy with my choices, but I thought I was doing what was best for my crew, and me, and maybe even what was best for Layla. I don’t push Finly away, he’s not my biological son, but I’ll be a part of his life as long as he lets me.”

Jackson slid his glass away from him and I could sense that this part of the conversation was over. I know my brain was buzzing with more questions than I could even comprehend, but I stayed silent, trying to calm my nerves, trying to give him space, or time, or whatever he needed. I think the biggest thing of all, that I wanted to know, was why he was telling all this to me? Why me?

“So what you saw in Vegas,” Jackson looked up at me, straightening up his shoulders, “was Layla reminding me in her own way, of our agreement.”

I didn’t know how to answer him, what to say, so I just nodded my head quietly, still trying to adjust.

“Everything I’m telling you now, still doesn’t make up for the way I treated you in Vegas. I’m sorry Miss Ara. You didn’t deserve what you went through in Vegas, not with Layla, and not with me.”

I knew he was talking about the kiss. The real kiss, not the half attempt in the pool, and it bothered me. Out of everything, I didn’t want him to apologize for that kiss, or regret that it ever happened. I watched his eyes carefully, trying to find the right words that would make him understand that I didn’t regret it, and neither should he.

“I didn’t understand a lot of what was happening around me in Vegas.” I tried to answer as honestly as I could, “but I know how I felt, and I don't regret any of it."

I didn’t know if I was making any sense, or if he understood what I was trying to say, but he smiled at me again, that little boy smile. It made me feel better, made me feel like everything would be okay.

“I haven’t been a good host, you have to forgive me.” He tilted his head to the side; his voice had changed, back to calm and friendly, teasing even, “I haven’t shown you the rest of the house, or asked if you’re hungry. You’re the first person I’ve ever brought here, besides reporters, so I’m a little bit rusty.”

It was my turn to smile. His words made me feel so special; he had such a unique way of doing that, making me feel special.

“You’re a perfect host. You shouldn’t worry.” I shook my head at him, not wanting him to feel guilty.

“Not perfect. Far from it. But if you let me, I’ll show you all sixteen rooms, and if you like them, I’ll let you sleep in any one of them of your choosing. Strictly platonic.” he held up both hands in a surrendering fashion.

I could see what he was trying to do, how he was trying to make up for everything, sort of like a clean slate.

Maybe, if we both tried, we could do this, be friends. Fight off the physical attraction. I gave him a nod and big smile. “Your house has sixteen rooms?” I said with astonishment.

He chuckled at me, rising from his seat, “Seven bedrooms…four bath…soundproof studio…theater…gourmet kitchen…formal dining room…living room…come on I’ll show you…and if you decide to stay, I’ll take you horseback riding in the morning.”

When I opened my eyes the next day I half expected to be back in my old bed, in my house, back in Terra. It must have been a dream, a glorious, glorious dream. But no, it was real, walking from room to room with Jackson, listening to all his little jokes and funny stories as he showed me around his house. Hearing the delight in his voice when I nearly squealed with glee at the sight of his master bathroom, the deep laughter that made his eyes crinkle when I tried on several of the oversize headphones he had in his sound studio, making me look like Minnie Mouse.

I picked the smallest, prettiest bedroom he had, to sleep in, and it wasn’t really small at all. The bedroom itself had to be the size of my entire kitchen and living room back home. It had it’s own bathroom with a whirlpool tub, and a shower that looked like it had a dozen different shower heads attached to it. The room itself was decorated in this beautiful burgundy reddish tone with sand white wood furniture and motorized retracting wooden blinds. Light colored pillows graced the queen-sized bed and similar smaller pillows rested on this long lounge chair underneath the big picture window.

We stayed up until sometime around four in the morning, him telling me stories about each room and me ogling over the beauty of everything. I never felt tired, noticed how quickly the hours were flying until both of us saw the time flashing on his Mac computer he had in the studio.

“I told you I was a bad host.” He said with much chagrin, “I’ve kept you up past midnight. I don’t know where my manners are.”

I just laughed out loud, trying to joke back, wanting to make him laugh just like he was making me. “I stay up past midnight lots of times, Christmas Eve…New Years eve…ummm…St. Patricks day…”

His laughter filled the room again and I laughed with him. It made my heart jump a little bit, and I could feel the pull towards him, but I tried to ignore that, tried to focus just on the happy feelings, not the emotional ones.

“St. Patrick’s Day, I bet that’s a wild one for you.” He teased, and then he got just a little bit more serious, “but I do feel badly that I’ve kept you up so late. Please, please feel free to stay here, I understand if you’re not comfortable with that, I can call for a car for you, or just drive you to a hotel myself.”

I didn’t want to leave. I felt safe here, and happy. I was really enjoying seeing him this way, in his own house.

“You said I could use any room in this house right, if I decide to stay?” He knew I was teasing right away, and what decision I already made. I let it show in my voice and my smile.

“Any room Miss Ara. You say it, and it’s yours.” he grinned back at me.

I contemplated picking Jackson's room, to be funny, but quickly decided that it might not come out as funny. Send the wrong message to him. Jackson’s room was located on the third level and it took up nearly the entire floor. There were no other bedrooms up there.

So I picked the pretty burgundy one.

Still, it was surreal to wake up to, and I rubbed my eyes more than once to make sure it was real.

My phone said it was almost eleven am and I wondered if I should shower and change or wander out in my pajamas to see what Jackson was up to. Vanity won out and I’m sure I took the fastest shower known to man, not even getting to play with all the shower heads and spray jets while I showered.

I remembered the mention of horses from the night before so I threw on my most comfortable jeans and one of the long sleeve plaid shirts that Cheryl picked out for me from our shopping trip with Miss London.

Hoping I looked appropriate, I made my way to the spiral staircase, marveling at it all over again as my hand slid along the wooden banister. At the bottom I could tell right away that the living room was empty, but the sounds of things rattling and sliding made me spin around and head in the opposite direction towards the kitchen.

Jackson’s kitchen was truly grand, and really well hidden. At first glance it didn’t look like the average kitchen at all. You didn’t see a refrigerator or a dishwasher, the only thing really giving it away was the huge, and I mean huge, stove that took up over one half of the entire far wall. You could see the double sink too, it was a creamy white color and made of ceramic or some type of stone, but it didn’t stand out as much as the stove did.

All the other appliances blended in, covered with the same woodwork that the cabinets were made of, so it looked really majestic, shining, gleaming redwood everywhere. A kitchen fit for a king.

Jackson was in there, looking perfectly content, standing at the center island, pouring two large glasses of orange juice. He looked up when he noticed me walking in.

“Good Morning Miss Ara, did you sleep well? Are you hungry? I hope you are because I made you breakfast.”

That sweet southern voice almost made me dizzy, made me want to just skip right over to him like a little girl.

“You made breakfast? For me?” My brain was scolding me, telling me to stop being so rude, to wish him a good morning and thank him for letting me sleep there, but I was too stunned when he moved away from the island and all I saw was something that looked like a feast back there, several plates with pancakes stacked up on them like small towers.

He was nodding at me, still all smiles, “Yes for you. You hungry?”

Then he pointed at the stools that were on the other end of the island, urging me to sit down. He placed a couple of plates of pancakes in front me, settling across from me on the other stool. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I really only ate toast or a bowl of cereal for breakfast.

“Did you make this?” Again my dumb brain and its rudeness emerged, maybe it was from having less than eight hours of sleep or something.

“Sure did Ma’am.” I think he was trying not to chuckle. I must have sounded ridiculous.

“You cook?” I really was dumb, wasn’t I?

“I cook…I fish…I hunt…and I sing…” this time he really chuckled, winking at me too.

That made me blush.

“I’m sorry, I guess I just, I don’t know.” My words were all jumbled up, I wanted to apologize for being rude, and thank him for being so kind, for being so nice, for being him

“Eat up, Miss Ara. Horseback riding is hard work and it builds an appetite. I don’t want you to lose your strength.” He handed me a fork and I stared at it warily, not wanting to hurt his feelings.

“Thank you Jackson, it looks delicious.” I glanced down at my plate, mentally trying to decide how I was going to eat all of those pancakes.

“They’re blueberry. The pancakes. My favorite.” Jackson grinned at me, seemingly pleased with himself.

He ate his food with much gusto, talking a little bit about how he knew how to cook other dishes as well, that his Mama taught him when he was a teenager, made sure he would always know how to take care of himself. I knew instantly that his mother had to be a remarkable person, because her son turned out remarkable as well.

To my surprise the pancakes were just heavenly, rich in flavor and practically melting in my mouth as I ate.

“These are amazing.” I said between bites. I already eaten three pancakes and was working on my fourth.

Jackson somehow managed to devour his stack in minutes so he was watching me with this blissful look on his face, and I forced myself to believe that it must be the food that was making him look this way.

“Thanks. I don’t think I’ve ever made these for anyone before except my Mama.” He crumpled his napkin, tossing it casually on top of his empty plate.

I swallowed down the last bite, once again trying to keep my heart in place at his words. Was he purposely trying to make this difficult for me?


I truly had to be living in a fantasy, my fantasy, because I had the woman of my dreams sleeping in my house at night, and walking into my kitchen in the morning. She looked like an angel sitting across from me, her hair still a little bit wet from her shower. I had keep fighting with myself not to reach out and touch her, pull her into my arms.

And the girl could eat. I was proud as a peacock when I saw her enjoying her food so much, food that I made, just for her. It was everything I dreamed about, happening right here, for real.

I was trying real hard to be a gentleman. Keep the teasing minimal, tried not to flirt with her. It wasn’t easy I tell you. I slipped up every now and then, winking at her, showing off a little bit. And she would blush, those cheeks turning that sweet pinkish color, all it did was fuel me, make me want to do it more.

I promised myself I wouldn’t touch her, wouldn’t cross the line with her. I figured if anything was meant to be, meant to happen, it would all on it’s own. I didn’t need to rush it, or force it. So I told myself to just relax, enjoy her presence, her smile, her existence, cause I never knew when it might all just disappear.

I took her out over to the left far end of my house, over to the land where I kept my horses. They were my pride and joy, all three of them.

“This here is Beauty. She’s mine.” I stroked Beauty’s mane as I showed her to Ara. Ara’s eyes were the widest I’d ever seen as she stood there in front of the stalls.

“So magnificent.” She breathed, once again full of awe, “I can see why you call her that.”

“She was my first horse. I’m biased when it comes to her.” I gave Ara a half grin and moved to next stall. “These two are Snowflake and Tank. They’re brother and sister. I got ’em both at the same time, just a few weeks ago.”

“They are so cute.” Ara clapped, stepping closer so she could see Tank, he was hanging further in the back, his black coat completely opposite of the white his sister had.

“Tank is shy…but Snowflake is a real spitfire, you’ll like her, I know.” I reached out and gave Snowflake a few strokes. The horse gave a half snort at my touch, her usual greeting.

“Oh.” Ara looked at me worriedly, “Does she bite?”

I chuckled, “No Ma’am, no biting allowed here. That’s her hello. Say hello to Snowflake, she’s sweet as a peach, even though she acts like she’s not.”

Ara glanced back at the white horse, stretching her arm out slowly, letting her fingertips touch right near Snowflake’s forehead. “Hello pretty horsey…hello Snowflake.”

Little did she know that Snowflake absolutely loved getting stroked along her forehead, so when the horse gave out this happy nicker sound and bobbed her head trying to get closer to Ara’s hand, Ara sucked in her breath and looked at me in pure delight at the horse’s reaction.

“She likes you.” I offered, “She’s saying hello back.”

“I think she is.” Ara’s smile wouldn’t leave her face. And she kept right on smiling when I took her out to the track and showed her how to direct Snowflake around using her rein.

I found out Ara was a serious learner. She listened intently when I talked to her about the right way to mount and how to tell a horse to walk and stop. When Ara was brave enough to actually ride on Snowflake, I pointed out the stirrup and reminded her to use her left foot, never letting go of Snowflake’s rein, and I walked with her until I felt sure she could do it on her own.

We spent all afternoon out there, and by the time the sun was beginning to set Ara and Snowflake had become fast friends.

I’d never seen Snowflake so happy. That darn horse took to Ara like water, she trotted all around the track tossing her white mane around like some kind of fashion model, nickering and bobbing her head whenever Ara stroked her. I was almost jealous.

I don’t think Ara wanted to leave Snowflake when I suggested we go back inside and wash up for dinner. I don’t think Snowflake wanted Ara to leave either, because that horse nudged me harder than she ever had when I tried to take her back to her stall.

That whole day left me with a sense of fulfillment I never experienced before, felt better than anything I’d done in my whole life. Better than receiving any award or selling out any concert. And it scared me too, cause every time I looked at her, every time I saw Ara smile or laugh, all I could think about was she was married. She was tied to someone else, and there was nothing I could do about it, no way to change it. It was a terrifying thought, and made it that much harder for me keep my hands off her; cause all I wanted to do, was hold onto her tight.

“This is the second best thing I know how to make.” I bragged, placing the dish of grilled, smoking, baby back ribs on the table.

“Oh wow,” Ara breathed in, half closing her eyes, “They smell delicious.”

And they probably were, except I didn’t taste a thing. I ate everything on my plate but spent the whole time getting lost in Ara’s stories, got to meet her as a child, picture how her life went, cause she told me about the time she lost her first tooth and cried when she found the tooth fairy would take it away, the carnival her parents always took her to where she won a giant stuffed monkey, when she got lost in the snow during one winter and her dad had the entire town out looking for her, her little league baseball team, and their championship win. I was mesmerized, imaging her in pigtails and tutu dresses.

Her stories got shorter when she talked about her teenage years, and when she finally reached the part where she met her husband, she skirted around a lot of the details, trying to reach the end quickly, but all that did was make me more curious.

“High school sweethearts?” I forced myself to keep a neutral voice. I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable because I needed to know about him. Wanted to know if he really made her happy.

“Yeah…sort of…” She’d eaten everything on her plate too, but still fiddled with her napkin, not looking at me.

“Kinda like a fairytale romance?” I kept pushing her along, wondering what he did that captured her heart, wondered if he was worthy.

“No, nothing like that. More like childhood friends. I’ve known him since I was five years old.” She gave me a brief glance and a half smile, her eyes were guarded, I could tell.

“Big wedding?” I kept my words short thinking the less I said, the less the emotion would show in them.

“Small. Tiny, actually. Maybe forty, fifty people.”

A quick vision of Ara in white wedding gown flashed across my mind. It made my heart skip a beat, and I waited a few seconds before talking again.

“No kids?” That thought had crossed my mind more than once. From the day I met Ara I could already picture sweet little baby faces of the children I would move heaven and earth for, if I could have them with her.

“No, we talked about that, said we should wait. Until I finished school, until he had a better job, more money…uhhh,” her voice trailed off and she took a sip of her water nervously, “I don’t think we will.” she finally looked me in the eyes when she said that, and I knew my fucking brain was reading way to much into that look.

“What do you guys do for fun?” What I really wanted to ask was Do you have more fun with him, than you do with me?

“I guess the usual stuff, when we were dating we’d hang out at the mall with our friends, or at the pool. After we got married, we stopped that, just stayed home, watched t.v.” she chuckled, but it was forced.

I stayed quiet then, it was starting to burn, in the pit of my stomach, I was picturing them, and it hurt.

She was staring down at her plate, her hair falling over one shoulder, tickling near her cheek when she tilted her head and looked back up at me, this serious look on her face, almost sad.

“You know, sometimes I think he wants to do more, with his life. Wants to see what else is out there in this great big world, but he can’t, cause he has me, and all the bills, and the house. He’s tied to it I guess.”

And that was enough. I couldn’t stand to hear anymore. Because if she was trying to say that she wasn’t enough for him, that he didn’t treasure her the way he should, I was gonna snap.

I diverted the conversation after that, offered to take her out to get ice cream. She accepted, and even though I shouldn’t have, I took her in my truck. My Ford F 450 that I never let anyone step foot in, not Dustin, not Brett, not Cheryl, but I let her. I couldn’t wait to see her slide across that leather bench and right up next to me.

We rode along the quiet streets, passing the trees and houses until we were right in the middle of downtown. The old fashioned ice cream parlor was the best place here to get one of those really big cones piled high with more ice cream than you could eat in a sitting.

Ara was bouncing like little girl when she saw all the different flavors, the huge sugar cones they used. She kept giggling when almost everyone in the parlor greeted me by name.

“Hey Jackson!”

“Hi Jackson!”

They waved and smiled, and I smiled back, but they left me alone, they always did. They’d gotten used to seeing me around doing normal things like buy ice cream. It amused her though, made me chuckle too.

So we got our cones and scooted on back to the truck. I drove out to this great big field where I knew the wildflowers grew. There were yellow ones out there right now, and they almost sparkled under the moonlight.

It was the most fun I had in a long…long time…


Cheryl showed up at Jackson’s house early the next morning. There was no breakfast this time, no time for anything. Cheryl was trying to rush me, get me out the door quick. We had a million things to do so we could be ready for the nomination party that night.

Jackson waved us bye at the front door, telling Cheryl not to overdo it, and he would see us later on.

I wanted to stay longer, with him in his house. It was like our own little escape, our own little world there, and I didn’t want anyone to penetrate it.

“So," Cheryl gave me a curious smile the second the driver pulled away from the house, “How are you doing? Everything going okay?”

“Yeah.” I felt like a giggling teenager, sharing secrets, “I’m actually pretty great.”

“Is everything out in the open? Is it all out?” Cheryl leaned closer to me, a great big smile spreading across her face.

“Ummm…I think so…” I looked at her, wrinkling my nose, “Are you talking about Layla?”

“Uh huh…did he tell you?” She nodded, half smirking at the mention of Layla’s name.

“That she lives with some guy, and has a baby by him.” I raised my eyebrows, questioning if that’s what she was talking about.

“Uh huh…and did he tell you the other stuff?” She smiled even bigger this time, like she knew this wonderful, juicy secret.

“He told me other stuff, but that was the most shocking.” I tilted my head to side, wondering what she was talking about.

“So did ya talk about uhhh…feelings and stuff?” Her voice was getting higher now, and she was practically bouncing in her seat.

“Well yeah, he said he was hurt and all.” I shrugged, wondering why she was so animated about this.

She gave out this little humph at my words and narrowed her eyes, “You guys didn’t, didn’t share other stuff, other feelings?”

Now I was getting frustrated, “What are you talking about Cheryl? What other stuff? He apologized for the way he treated me in Vegas, is that what you mean?”

She slumped back in her seat clearly disappointed at my words, waving her hand at me, “Never mind.”

“What? What are trying to say?” I pressed.

“It’s nothing. I thought he might have told you something else, nothing bad.” She bounced back up quickly pretending to smooth some imaginary wrinkle on her perfectly pressed pants.

I did hear her mutter under her breath; What is he freaking waiting for, before she changed the subject and started telling me more about the nomination party.

“Everyone should be really kicked back here. You don’t have to be perfect or super polite or anything like that. We all sit around and joke, make silly toasts, dance, don’t be scared okay?”

But I was nervous, scared. I was going to walk into a room full of country stars, lots of country stars. I actually felt sick to my stomach, but Cheryl was all giggly and bright, pushing the doors open with a great big smile on her face.

It was like walking into a dance club or something, completely carefree and noisy, and looking around me at what everyone was wearing. I was so glad I didn’t put up too much fuss when Cheryl showed me the dress she wanted me to wear.

“Cheryl, that dress doesn’t look appropriate.” I narrowed my eyes at her, placing my hands on my hips.

Cheryl was trying to pour me into this tiny sparkling silver dress, a dress that barely made it over my thighs and dipped so low in the back, I was sure you would be able to see my bare ass easily.

“Stop hyperventilating. I have something that goes on underneath.” Cheryl just rolled her eyes at me, pushing back some random clothing that was hanging on this rolling rack in our dressing room. She lifted out something that looked like lacy underwear to me.

“What’s that? Is that supposed to be a slip?” I was already shaking my head at her, vetoing her choice.

“Yes, it’s a slip, it might not look like much but I promise you that it will keep your girls held up high and your ass rocking.” She giggled at me, thrusting it out to me. “Try it on, come on, this is the only thing for you to wear, you have no choice.”

I just scowled at Cheryl knowing I wouldn’t stand a chance against her and grabbed both garments, hiding myself away behind the curtain to change.

I have to admit.

Cheryl knew her stuff.

The dress was amazing. Hell, the slip was amazing all by itself. It was a shimmery white color made of total lace and fit super snug. It molded to my body perfectly and gave this illusion of beautiful curves everywhere. When I slid the silver dress over it, I could already tell the combination was going to be stunning. The silver dress hung more loose along my body but the curves were still there, and even though the dress was cut out so low down my back, it tightened up over my bottom. It also attached easily to the lacy slip with these tiny little clasps that were well hidden. I didn’t feel naked; I wouldn’t have to worry about an x rated peep show either.

“Smoking hot.” Cheryl ginned at me, giving me a thumbs up when I emerged from behind the curtain. “This is gonna be fun to watch.”

“What is?” I was trying to balance against the wall while stepping into my heels, “Me falling on my face in these shoes?” I joked.

Cheryl just laughed at me and shook her head, “No, his face, his reaction. Oh this is gonna be fun alright.”

I’m sure she was talking about Jackson and I just wrinkled my nose at her, tried not to let her words excite me.

So here I stood seeing all these women, some of them stars, all wearing these gorgeous, glitzy, blingy, dresses, walking around holding glasses of champagne or other drinks in their hands. I looked around me gladder than anything that I was wearing this dress, it seemed like the more you sparkled, the more you got noticed.

And I got noticed.

Jackson’s serious expression filled my view not ten seconds after Cheryl and I walked in. He was looking down at me with nothing less than shock on his face. I even shot Cheryl a worried glance at his reaction, but all she did was burst out laughing, even clapping a little bit, half skipping away to look for Dustin, leaving me to my own defenses for the night.

“Miss Ara?”

Now I really was worried. Maybe Jackson didn’t even recognize me.

“It’s me Jackson.” I tried to give him my friendliest smile, picking up my hand a little bit.

"Holy…” and that’s all he said before stepping even closer to me, his arm shot out across my shoulders, but before he could touch me he jerked his hand away awkwardly, this choking noise coming from his throat, his hand flailing wildly behind me, he’d seen the back of my dress now.

It was almost comical. I wanted to laugh, but I was finally looking at him too, and he looked sharp, gorgeous, handsome, rugged and tough. He was wearing what looked like a tuxedo jacket with some satin stitching along the seams. His black jeans gave him this strong, virile look. I’d never seen him look this good, so while he was having some kind of panic attack over my dress, I was checking him out.

Not one second of that night went by where he left my side, he was practically breathing down my neck the entire time, his arm constantly bumping mine cause he was so close. He never held my hand or put his arm around me. I thought he was, I was so sure he would, but he didn’t.

I know inside I was disappointed about that, a little bit let down. I guess the dress didn’t do its job. At least not with Jackson.

I think it did manage to capture some other men’s interest because several different guys I didn’t know approached Jackson, made small talk with him and then immediately turned to me, giving me their full attention, asking me about the videos and who my agent was, if I was interested in doing other music videos besides Jacksons.

I never really answered them, got the chance to answer them because Jackson would always cut in then, going as far and putting his body between me and the guy, shielding me from their view and bluntly informing them that I was not available to do other videos that I exclusively his. Maybe I should’ve felt insulted but I was actually super proud, that Jackson was going around calling me his. If only it could be that way in our personal life too.

There was one guy who seemed particularly stubborn, tried to stare Jackson down when Jackson stepped in between us. I think he said his name was Brantley but with all the noise around me, I wasn’t sure. Jackson had to tell him twice to back off but this Brantley guy wouldn’t back down. I thought for a second they were actually going to come to blows but Jackson was above that. It was the only time I felt Jackson’s hand on my arm, and he led me away, walking us over to Dustin and Brett. Brantley didn’t follow us, and I was really glad. I chalked it up to maybe he already had too much to drink, from the looks of the way some of these people were acting, I knew quiet a few of them were well into a drunken stupor.

A few hours later, when the party was winding down and some of the stars already left, I excused myself to the ladies room, my bladder been complaining for some time now and I couldn’t hold it any longer. Jackson walked with me to the ladies room but before we reached the corner where the hall began another good guitar playing friend of his, Keith Urban, sidetracked him. They struck up a lively conversation while I smiled and nodded and tried not to dance in place until I finally touched Jackson’s arm gently, telling him I would be right back.

He looked at me and smiled, giving me a nod that he would be right there in a moment.

A few other ladies were in there but I locked myself away quickly without even looking at them.

I think I took maybe six, seven minutes max in there. Did my business, straightened out my dress, washed my hands. The bathroom was empty by the time I came out of the stall so I took my time.

I pushed open the door to leave, not really expecting to see Jackson standing there, surely he would still be talking to his friends, so when I nearly collided into a male figure standing there, it took me by surprise.

“Oh! I’m sorry. Excuse me.” I stepped back in alarm, almost falling into the door in my haste to get out of the way.

“It’s alright darlin’, no harm done.” his voice was slurred and slow but that didn’t bother me so much, no, what bothered me was the look in his eyes and the smirk on his lips as he watched me.

He took a heavy step towards me and I saw the beer bottle he was holding in his hand. He smirked again when he saw me back up further against the door.

“Don’t be afraid darlin’…don’t ya know who I am?”

I just gave him a half nod; my instincts were telling me not to trust him. “I think your name is Brantley.”

“That’s right darlin’” His accent was really thick and I wasn’t sure if it was due to the alcohol or not.

He moved closer to me again, I could already smell his breath as he talked. My hand was pressed up behind me, ready to escape back into the ladies room if I had to.

“I saw you in my buddy Jackson’s video, and damn girl, you’re super hot. Ya sure ya not interested in coming on over with me, my videos are way hotter, and I can promise ya a hell of a lotta side benefits.” Now he really was in my face, this close, and my stomach twisted in knots, half in fear, half in disgust.

I shook my head at him, pushing the door open behind me, taking a step back. I’d be safe in here, til Jackson came.

I didn’t move fast enough I guess. He reached out faster than I could get out of his way and latched onto my wrist with his free hand. He didn’t pull me to him like I thought he was going to, no, he was clever, he pushed on my arm, forcing the both of us back into the bathroom, shoving me up against the wall right next to the paper towel holder.

My mouth opened to scream but nothing came out except this breathless little yelp. I could feel his hands pinning me to the wall, he dropped his beer bottle, but I didn’t hear it hit the floor, I only felt these little shards of glass pellet my feet as they bounced and shattered into a million pieces.

“Now come on darlin’…don’t be like that, I’m a real good guy, promise.” his guffawing laugh sure didn’t make him sound like he was good guy, at all.

“Please…” I tried to bring up my hands, to fend him off, but he held my arms too tight, I couldn’t move them. “Let me go…”

He just laughed some more and pressed his body right up to me, bringing his face down, shoving one of his boots between my heels trying to force my legs apart with his knee.

I really started to panic now. He was way stronger than me and no matter which way I tried to turn my head, he was just as quick to follow with his own.

Terror and nausea hit me at the same time. I could taste the sickly sweetness of the alcohol as he forced his tongue inside my mouth. He let one of my wrists free but that didn’t mean I could fight him off, I tried to, hitting and pushing with all the force I had, but it didn’t even make him flinch.

My brain was screaming inside…this horrible ringing inside my ears, and it only escalated when I felt his free hand suddenly jerk and slide from my waist were it came to a stop right under my breast.

My arm flailed around his shoulder near his neck. I was trying to make it to his face, clawing at him with no avail.

The next few seconds felt like hours, my entire body was struggling in terror, I couldn’t even breathe.

His hand moved up roughly and his fingers closed around my breast like a vise. I was fighting so hard my knees started to buckle and the wrist he was still gripping started to burn.

He wouldn’t let me move, kept me pinned there for what seemed like an eternity. Still, I kept fighting him, trying to use my entire body to push him away, but it didn’t make one single difference.

I could feel my body start to shut down, it couldn’t defend itself, so it was just going to try and block it out, go numb. I think he felt that. I think he’d done this before, so he knew exactly what would happen, cause I felt him grin against my lips, and I was sure I was going to throw up.

I still don’t remember much about the next couple of hours. All I know is one second I was pressed tight to the wall, and the next I was sprawled out on the floor of the bathroom. I could hear the yelling, and the punches, and I saw all the blood.

“Get off of her! Get the fuck off of her!” Jackson had burst through the door with a crazed look in his eye. I remember feeling Brantley literally being yanked away from me with such force it caused me spill forward and tumble to the floor.

It was still terrifying seeing these men attack each other like some kind of beasts. Jackson threw Brantley up against the mirrors and they cracked instantly like something out of a horror film.

A couple of the stall doors fell crookedly on their hinges from the force of the bodies as they collided into them.

It didn’t stop until all the noise and commotion caused people to run over.

Everything was blurry after that. I saw lots of strong arms pulling the two men apart. Cheryl’s face came into my line of sight, she was on the floor with me, gasping and nearly crying, asking me over and over if I was okay. There was some more yelling, the bathroom was filled with people, complete chaos.

And then I saw him, he was on his knees, in front of me, right next to me. The second I looked into those devastated green eyes I lost it, sobbing uncontrollably.

"Ara! His voice held such an intense fear, “Are you okay baby? Did he hurt you? Please? Ara?”

His arms were around me, I could feel them shaking as he held me. I just sobbed against him, pressing my face into his chest, trying to erase the memory of those sickly hands all over me.

Cheryl was shouting, telling everyone to get out, telling Dustin to go get our car. Threatening that whoever the hell took Brantley better put him in hiding because she was sending Dustin and Brett to kick his ass…

Jackson’s arms were warm. My body finally began feeling again. He was holding me against his chest, moving back and forth in a cradling fashion, his arms wrapped around me as much as they could, not squeezing me to tight to hurt or cause fear, but just right to feel safe.

My tears finally stopped, and my ears began to focus on Jackson's breathing, it was all ragged and spotty, he just kept rocking me back and forth, these little whimpering sounds coming from his throat.

“Jackson, the car's here.” I could hear Cheryl, nervous and quiet in the background, a little bit of a scuffling sound, then silence again.

Jackson shifted, moving his legs, stroking my back as he did that. “Ara? You okay baby? You want to go home?” His voice was raw and soft; he took these little gasps when I finally lifted my face to him. “He hurt you.” his voice broke, he reached out and touched the corner of my mouth with his fingertips, his eyes held so much hurt but were so full of anger at the same time.

I didn’t know my lip was cut. I hadn’t felt it happen, but when Jackson touched me, I felt the burn. In fact I was beginning to feel the burning soreness everywhere in my body. I nodded my head at Jackson, letting him know that I wanted to go home. I wanted to get out as fast as I could.

He helped me up so carefully, supporting my body with his, putting both arms around me to keep me steady. My heels were gone. I didn’t know where they went, nor did I care, I just took a few wobbly steps, my hands gripping Jackson’s arms for support.

Cheryl was at the bathroom door holding it open for us; she noticed my bruised face and my bare feet, her eyes brimming with pain. “Jackson, she shouldn’t walk, I don’t think she…”

Jackson didn't let her finish, he just looked at Cheryl then at me, leaning down and scooping me up in one swift motion. He held me to him, whispering “It’s okay baby,” before moving down the hallway towards the back exits where the car was waiting.

At the house he placed me gently down on the sofa, covering me with this thick, fluffy blanket. He made me take some aspirin for the pain, hovering over me for a few minutes until he sat down next to me, finding my hand underneath the blanket and holding onto it.

I was still a bit out of it, still in shock. I just leaned my head back into the sofa and shut my eyes. The warmth of Jackson’s hand soothed me like a lullaby and I’m sure it was only minutes before I fell asleep.


I would have killed him.

That’s how mad I was, how much rage was flowing through me. The bastard was lucky Keith and a few other guys came into that bathroom and pulled me off of him when they did, cause I wouldn’t have stopped until he was dead.

I saw where he had his hands. I knew what he was about to do. Fury exploded everywhere inside of me, and it took four guys to pull me off of him.

The rage didn’t stop until I saw Ara. She was sprawled out on the cold floor, her arm covering up half her face as if she was shielding herself from her attacker still. The sight sent chills down my spine and I was by her side in an instant, the anger gone, replaced by intense heartbreak and distress. I just pulled her into my arms, cradling her, wishing I could erase whatever she just went through, cursing myself for leaving her alone. I should have never left her.

I could tell she was emotionally drained by the time I took her home. I couldn’t even get her up the stairs to her room and I was afraid to keep carrying her, afraid that it might be hurting her somehow.

So I placed her down on the sofa, trying to make her as comfortable as possible, whispering to her that she was okay now, she was going to be okay.

She didn’t hear me, she was still in shock. Her head looped back within minutes and she fell into a restless sleep.

I didn’t move from her side. Just held onto her hand and prayed to God that she would be okay, that if He just let her be okay, I would send her home, never make her come back, go through anything like that again.

I sat like that for five hours, wide awake, tormenting thoughts about where I saw those hands fondling her, the terror in her eyes, her arm swinging wildly against him but fruitless in stopping him. I could hear her gasping for breath, the scream getting caught in her throat. It haunted me, and I knew I would never forget that look in her eyes, ever.

The sun was already halfway up in the sky when Ara stirred. She let out this soft moan and her head shook slowly from side to side. Her eyes finally opened and she blinked a couple of times, looking disjointedly around her.

Then it hit. The memories I guess, cause she let out this terrified gasp and shot straight up in her seat, her eyes wild with fear.

“It’s okay baby, you’re okay. You’re safe now, you’re home.” I kept my voice low and soft, trying to soothe her, keep from scaring her. She just looked at me with this crazed look, her breathing rapid, and I kept on whispering to her, stroking her hand, making sure she kept hearing my voice.

Her eyes finally focused, they searched my face quickly and her mouth opened, “Jackson?” her voice was thick and raw and full of fear.

“Shhh…I’m here baby…it’s okay.” I whispered to her, moving my head closer, keeping my eyes locked to hers.

She seemed to calm down once she realized where she was, that she was no longer back at that awful place.

I didn’t want to leave her, so I just grabbed one of the small bottles of water I always kept stocked in what was supposed to be a liquor cabinet, from the corner of the room and moved back to her side.

She drank a few sips of water, the color finally returning to her face. It took her a few more minutes of taking deep breaths before I finally saw her looking more like herself. She leaned forward, looking at me, reaching out with her hand.

“Thank you,” she said in a shaky voice, “For finding me, for helping me. I don’t know what would’ve happened if you hadn’t found me.”

Well I did know what would’ve happened, and that was something that was going to haunt me for the rest of my life.

“I’m just glad you’re okay.” I told her, shaking my head.

“I was trying to get away, but I couldn’t, he was holding on so tight…I…”

“No baby, stop, please.” I didn’t want her to relive it. I didn’t want to relive it, the guilt would be too much for me to handle.

Instead I just made her sit back, try to rest some more. We could talk later. And she did, she was still so tired. She reached for me this time, grabbing onto my hand and holding on tight, when she fell asleep, my eyes felt so heavy that so did I, just for a couple of hours, right there on the sofa next to her, holding her hand.

When I opened my eyes again the hazy light filtering through the windows told me it was almost nighttime. Ara was still sleeping soundly, her breathing steady. I just watched her for a while, she was beautiful when she slept, her dark eyelashes standing out against the pink of her skin. I could hardly breath, just so full of attachment towards this woman, so full of the want to take care of her.

I figured she would be hungry when she woke, so I used this time to warm her up some soup. Nothing fancy or too heavy, and by the time I’d placed it on the tray along with a cup of hot tea and a napkin, she was stirring again.

She smiled at me gratefully, when I offered it to her, picking up her spoon, and pushing her blanket back.

She ate in silence and I didn’t mind, just seeing her doing something as normal as eating was filling me with relief. She would be okay. When she was done, she spent several minutes looking down, deep in thought, before raising her head back to me again. There was something different in her eyes now, I wasn’t sure it if was fear, or pain, strangely, it looked more like, a burning affection.

“Would you like some more?” I extended my hand to her and rose halfway in my seat, getting ready to head back to the kitchen if she asked for more.

“No, no thank you. It was good, I’m okay.” Her voice sounded strong, and her eyes were still looking at me that same way.

“Okay, I’m glad.” I reached for her tray instead, taking it off her lap and placing it over on the coffee table. That look was affecting me, but I was fighting it, telling myself this wasn’t the time or place.

“What I’d really like to do is change, out of this.” she looked down into her lap and then up at me.

“Of course, of course. Do you want help? Up the stairs I mean…” I fumbled over my words. I was just full of anxiety at the moment, trying to do everything just right, trying to be perfect.

“Yes please.” she rose on shaky legs and I supported her the best way I could, taking each step slowly, letting her lean on me if she needed to.

She seemed much stronger now, was able to take the steps easier than I thought. She still let me slide my arm around her, and held onto me the entire way.

We reached her door and I pushed it open for her, switching on the dimming light, flooding the room with a just a soft enough glow.

I stayed at the door and watched her take a few more steps on her own, she managed to do that with no problems, reaching the end of her bed where her bag lay.

“If you need anything, anything at all, please call me, I’ll be right outside your door.” I reached for the doorknob, intending to close the door, give her privacy to change when her voice suddenly broke across the room, steadfast and firm.

“Jackson?” she turned her head to the side to look back at me.

“Yes Ma’am?” I paused in mid-motion, my hand still resting on the doorknob.

“Can you…stay?” her voice didn’t waver, wasn’t shaking. No, I’m pretty sure that was just me.

“Pardon?” I know I heard her, I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“Stay…with me…please?” the pitch in her voice rose when she said the word please, it was that sudden and intimate change to her voice that sent a piercing jolt right through me.

My hand lost its strength on the doorknob, slipping quietly to my side. I know I had a confused look on my face, hesitated in saying anything, because the tone she was using, it was playing with my mind, wreaking havoc on my heart.

She turned all the way around to face me, still looking devastatingly gorgeous in that shimmery dress, and the look on her face, it tore at my emotions in the worst way

"Please…” she pleaded again. “I don’t want to be alone, not tonight.”

So with a thundering heart I somehow found the ability to walk towards her, to the woman I knew I was already in love with.

I stopped when I reached her, didn’t do anything, waited for her tell me what to do next, cause I honestly couldn’t think straight at the moment.

She looked up at me with those wide brown eyes, they were whispering to me, telling me I was right, she wanted this.

“Thank you.” She whispered, reaching out and placing her hand on my arm. That simple touch was enough to make my mind spin.

Her hand slid slowly down my arm until it met mine, and her soft fingers closed around my hand, bringing it up towards her, placing my hand gently at her waist. I just kept watching her, not taking my eyes off hers, let her lead, half wondering if this was real.

She did the same thing quietly with my other hand, her eyes never leaving their hold over mine, moving her hands off mine and carefully placing them on the top of my shirt, sliding them up my chest until they rested at my collar.

I know I was holding my breath. I know because I was starting to feel dizzy, dizzy with hunger, for more.

Her fingers played with the first button on my shirt, touching it gently, sliding over it a couple of times before she finally pulled it open. She grasped both ends of the collar of my shirt with each hand and drew me to her, tilting her chin up so that her face would meet mine.

That kiss exploded between us. The second my lips met hers everything in my body screamed out for more. I was sinking into her kiss, fighting so hard to stay gentle, my hands rested light at her waist, but they really wanted to pull her close to my body, to run up her bare back, feel her skin. But I didn’t, I stayed steady, focused on how silky smooth her mouth felt, careful not hurt her near her torn lip, feeling the warmth of her tongue mingling with mine.

Her kiss stayed that way at first, delicate, light, but still full of passion, still teasing me in the worst way.

When she pulled back her eyes still held that same look in them, she wasn’t wavering from it. She glanced once over to the bed and then back at me, and I knew what she was asking, what she was telling me.

I was positive of it when her hands moved up near her shoulders and she slowly slipped the straps of her dress down, unclasping these invisible clips like magic, and pushing her dress down until all that was left, was a glimmering pile of fabric at our feet.

Whatever she was wearing underneath that dress looked just as amazing on her. A shimmery, lacy little thing that hugged her in all the right places, it made my fingers flex in anticipation, my heart skip a little bit, I wanted to feel her so bad.

She took one tiny step, just a small one, towards me, reaching out again and taking my hand, carefully, gently. She brought my hand up, right up near her heart, near her breast, and I know she saw it in my eyes, besides the desire, the question in them, was she sure she wanted this?

I didn’t want to second guess, didn’t want her to second guess either, but before I could even ask her, she took my hand and put it right there, right above near her heart, covering half her breast. I could feel her warm skin beneath the lace, the softness mingling with lace, the permissions she was giving me, the look in her eyes.

It all hit me at the same time and I stopped holding back. I just gathered her up in my arms, lowered my lips to hers, and gently leaned us both back until we were lying down on the bed.

I could feel her hands moving up my shoulders, her bare leg bending so it nestled close to mine; she kept holding me tightly to her, kissing me like no other woman done before.

My hands made quick work of pulling off my shirt and shaking off my jeans. I couldn’t wait to feel her bare skin slide next to mine, feel her hands and fingers on me.

Those soft hands moving across my chest, down towards my waist, the only sound I made was that half gasp when her hand dipped underneath my boxers and wrapped around me.

I was a man possessed. I let my hands roam, touching and feeling every delicate part of her body, moving over her, my lips sliding down her neck while my fingers set her body free of that lace, pulling off the only that was left between me and her. She gasped and moaned in pleasure as I continued to explore every inch of her body with my mouth, kissing and nipping along the way, using my hands to keep her next to me, letting her feel how hard she was making me.

She was supple, soft, and so willing, responding with such emotion to my mouth and hands, it just roared inside me like a fire, like a never ending thirst, I couldn’t quench it.

I would never put her in harms way, put myself in harms way and she watched with silent eyes as I slid on the condom. When I finally rolled over, holding myself above her with my arms, leveling at her entrance, I paused, giving her one last chance to stop if she wanted to, and needing one last spoken or unspoken permission from her if I was to keep going.

Her eyes were dark with desire, her hair spilled out over the pillow. She shifted her body upwards, those pink lips parting as she did that. “Please Jackson.” she whispered softly, and that was all the permission I needed.

I moved slowly, keeping my eyes locked on hers as I entered her a little at a time. She was hot and wet and felt so good, pulling me in, letting me connect with her in the most intimate way, and when I was finally fully inside of her, I lowered myself closer, capturing her lips in a kiss, finding her hands and entwining my fingers with hers as I thrust into her over and over again.

The breaths coming from her rose and fell with each stroke, and I could feel every nerve tingling inside my own body. I wanted to make this last, wanted to take forever if I could, just keeping this steady pace, trying to control my breathing, telling myself to try to remember everything I was feeling at this moment because she might never be mine again.

But I couldn’t control it any longer when I saw it in her eyes. She was ready, on the edge, her hands were squeezing mine so hard, I knew.

And I wanted to meet her there. So I quickened my pace, gave into my feelings, she finally sucked in her breath and I could feel the tightening of her body around mine, it set me off and I spilled everything I had in that last thrust.

We stayed that way, breathing heavy, staring at each other for the longest time, feeling each others heartbeats. She didn’t move when I finally slid out of her, just placed her hand on my chest, looking up into my eyes. I wanted to stay connected to her, show her she was safe somehow, that this didn’t have to end, so I grabbed the covers and yanked them over us, wrapping my arm around her waist and pulling her to me so her body snuggled comfortably right next to mine.

She closed her eyes and smiled, this sweet, innocent, content smile…resting her cheek on my chest, her fingers spread out over my heart. I played with her hair, letting my fingers glide through it, pushing it away from her face.

I decided right then I wasn’t going to let her go. I was going to do everything in my power to keep her with me. I wouldn’t destroy her home life, force her to choose, no, that would be my punishment, the penance I would pay for making this choice, I would have to share her, no matter how much it hurt, no matter how much I would hate it.

And believe me.

I learned to hate it…really…really…soon…

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