What Hurts The Most
I expected to be nervous, figured she would find a way to make me feel inferior, what I didn’t expect was that insane jealousy that took over my soul the minute Layla stepped out of her car.
That was the hardest part of all.
Oklahoma had come and went in a blink of an eye, and after Jackson’s boys left back to New York, there were two concert events and three appearances that kept Jackson’s and my days filled.
We didn’t talk about babies anymore, but it silently hung over us, a harsh reminder of everything we would never have.
We spent every night wrapped up in each others arms and somehow that still didn’t seem like enough, my heart wanted more.
Cheryl kept me busy in Oklahoma. We spent hours pouring over catalogs trying to find the perfect dress for the ACM’s. I was pretty nervous about it, I was going to be face to face with Layla again, and I knew I had to find some courage, actually, not just some courage, a lot of courage, because this time, every move we made was going to be caught on camera.
If I thought I was nervous facing Layla back then, I was more nervous now that we were here, with the ACM’s just hours away.
Cheryl was the only one who never got tired, not once during the entire two weeks with all the whirlwind of the ACM’s around us did she stop to take a breath, just watching her tired me out.
She spent that last two days hustling us all around making sure we had everything we needed for the ACM’s. She didn’t leave anything out, not all the wardrobe changes we would need, or the different press interviews that kept us bouncing all over town, or the photo comps, we shuffled back and forth from one place to another more than once, and sometimes it was hard to keep up with what came and went.
Since our days were completely filled from sun up to sun down, the only time I got to spend with him were the evenings was back at our hotel.
Those were the best part of our time together. I never tired of feeling Jackson’s kisses trailing down my neck, or his hands sliding over my body, and every time he entered me, it felt like the first time, explosive, hot, and emotional.
Even then, our time together constantly flew right by.
At the last minute, the day of the ACM’s, Cheryl decided that both she and I would get ready in my hotel room. She brought a ton of makeup, wardrobe, and hairstylist people with her so the living area was filled with all sorts of equipment, make up kits, styling tools, rolling racks.
It irritated Jackson at first, he watched everyone with apprehensive eyes, sidestepping around all the different crates and boxes, until finally, Cheryl ushered him out, telling him that Dustin and Brett were getting ready in the adjoining room.
So as I stood there, half surrounded by make up artists, Cheryl chatted a mile a minute next to me, even though I couldn’t see her.
“I wanted you to wear black, but since someone whined and complained about how she already had a black dress I decided I’m going to put you in pink, glittering, sequined, pink, you are totally going to blow her away.”
I wasn’t allowed to move just yet, the make up artist wanted me frozen as she applied spray on foundation, I knew Cheryl was talking about Layla, and I wasn’t sure about the color pink. Pink had never been one of my favorites to wear, but I was trusting Cheryl.
“Layla thinks she going to look like a vixen, that’s what she’s going for, glamour. But what she doesn’t know, is that you are going to walk in there looking so dainty and demure next to her, so fresh and radiant, the black, it’s just going to age her.” Cheryl stood on her tiptoes, trying to peek at me through the wall of people. I could see tiny glimpses of her eyes as she bobbed her head over the woman standing in front of me.
“Jackson’s going to have to hold his own.” her face vanished from my view once more and the make up artist began to work on my eyes, “He has to sit between the both of you during the show.” she gave out a small chuckle.
It wasn’t funny to me, that’s what I was actually dreading. Both of us, on either side of Jackson, knowing that he was forced to make sure it looked like him and Layla were in the perfect marriage.
“But I’m not too worried, he can handle Layla, he has been handling Layla.”
I could hear a bit of pride in her voice, but I had no idea what she meant, and I didn’t really have time to dwell on it either, because once the make up artist was done, it was the hairstylist’s turn, and she was waiting right behind her with her curling iron in hand and a bottle of styling spray in the other.
“I only want it half up.” Cheryl began giving instructions to the young girl who began wrapping my hair around the barrel of the iron, she listened intently as Cheryl spoke, “and wavy, not curly, did you bring the ribbon?”
I just kept standing there, my mind drifting over to Jackson, trying to peek at adjoining door without moving my head, wondering how he was doing in the next room. He only had Dustin and Brett in there with him, he didn’t need anyone to help him get ready.
It was another twenty minutes before I was able to move, and yet another ten before Cheryl was content with how the ribbon looked in my hair. I couldn’t even see the ribbon, apparently it was dangling down the back of my hair in this sweet little bow.
I did like the dress, not the color so much, but the dress itself. It was a darker shade of pink, but not hot pink, strapless with these glittering sequins along the bust area. It cinched at the waist with a satin sash, before it fell, floor length in several layers of soft, sheer, chiffon fabric. It cascaded down around my legs, and you could catch tiny flashes of the rhinestones on my heels as I walked.
I twirled all around per Cheryl’s instruction, she wanted to make sure the dress fit perfectly, and that there were no snags or flaws in the fabric, or that it wouldn’t get stuck in my heels. As I twirled, I noticed someone had opened the adjoining door, I didn’t see who, but the room the door opened into looked pretty empty, the guys must still been in the bedrooms changing.
Cheryl stopped me, moving around behind me and adjusting the tiny hook holding the sash in place, then she instructed me again, “Turn around one more time Ara, I think this is just perfect, you look stunning.”
Her words made me smile and I swung out my arms once more, turning all the way around, loving the way the dress felt as it danced around my legs.
Just as I was turning the second time, I saw him, it made my heart jump, he was passing by the doorway, his hat already resting on his head, pulling his black leather jacket on over his shoulders as he walked. The color and movement of my dress must have caught his eye because he froze, his head turning in my direction. I was already smiling so my smile just got bigger as our eyes met.
His mouth flew open, but nothing came out. He seemed to take in this big breath and his right hand flew up to his heart. He just stared at me, shaking his head, his eyes full of affection and admiration, a tiny smile playing at his lips. It made me giggle, and I could feel my hair bounce around my shoulders as I laughed.
He finally chuckled back with me, giving me a small wink and a thumbs up. It was just those small gestures that finally gave me the confidence that I needed. It didn’t matter what Layla looked like tonight, I would be able to do this.
I didn’t realize that Cheryl invited the entire freaking town into my hotel room. It did not make me happy. This was not what I had in mind when I imagined Ara and I getting ready together.
Cheryl stormed the room at the last minute, ushering me and the guys to the adjoining room, telling us it would take way too much time if she took Ara downtown to get ready.
I didn’t argue much with her, I already knew it was a losing battle, and I could see how nervous Ara was about facing Layla tonight. I figured she could use a little pampering, so I excused myself to the other room and let the ladies take over to work their magic.
The guys were excited our night, and so was I, it was the first time in a long time that I really wanted to win. So I took my time, made sure my shave was smooth, and tried to tame some of my crazy hat hair.
The guys and I were done within an hour, but you could still hear the ladies going full force in the next room. We sat around; talked about our performance we were going to play tonight, watched some TV.
The movie didn’t interest me much, so I worked on my next song, scribbling down a few lines here and there in my notebook. This song wasn’t attached to an album yet, in fact, I wasn’t sure if I would ever release this one. It was pretty personal, and I probably shouldn’t share it, or even write it, but the song, the words, it really hit me hard.
It was in Oklahoma, right after I blurted out those words to Ara about giving her a baby and the realization that if anyone were going to give her a baby, it would be her husband, not me. So the melody, and several lyrics started flowing through my head, mostly coming from my heart, and I couldn’t shake it.
Instead I gave into it, started writing it down, little by little. I knew it was good, I knew it would capture everyone’s interest, they would all fall in love with it, but it told too much, showed what was in my heart without holding anything back, I didn’t know if I was ready for that.
I wrote it all down anyways, to get it out of my mind so it would stop torturing me. It flowed so easy that I was almost done when one of Cheryl’s helpers tapped on the adjoining door.
“The ladies are almost done, your car will be here within the next thirty minutes.” the older lady smiled at us leaving the door opened behind her.
I peeked briefly past the door but it didn’t look like anyone was almost done. I couldn’t even see Ara; she was still surrounded by a throng of other women all serious and focused on her. I figured we at least had another hour or so, but Dustin was already yanking on his boots, and Brett was straightening his belt buckle in anticipation of leaving, so I walked over to the table and grabbed my hat, placing it on my head, reaching for my jacket, trying to pull it on in a hurry. We were all moving around the room at the same time, and it was just a coincidence that I passed that doorway again.
This time I stopped.
Because there she was, twirling round and round, her hands sprayed out around her, her hair flying across her back and shoulders. She was sparkling, radiant, and just a perfection of beauty.
She was wearing the most beautiful dress in this radiant pink color. That color made everything about her a million times more gorgeous. She looked regal, her cheeks had just a hint of blush to them with this shimmering powder that made her skin glow. Her lips were glossy but sheer, and the only real feature that stood out above the rest, was her eyes, I’d never seen her eyes so big and beautiful before with this smudged, soldering, sexy look to them. They seemed to look into my soul, suggesting things that shouldn’t be suggested.
I was already willing to give in, but she kept spinning around until I saw her backside, it was the complete opposite of that soldering, sexy, look, and all you could see was sweet innocence, shining, wavy hair held up by this dainty little ribbon, it flowed down along the waves of hair, the little ends of her bow shimmering brightly. That tiny pop of color in her hair, it sent a pang right through me, it was more provocative than anything I’d ever seen her wear before. It actually made me hard, made me wish we didn’t have to go anywhere that night.
I just shook my head, my hand frozen over my thundering heart, completely entangled by her presence and beauty.
And when she met my eyes, she could probably see it in me, her smile got bigger when she saw me watching her, and she giggled. It made me chuckle, mostly because I got caught staring at her, not caring who saw the emotions running all over my face.
I don’t know why this woman was so worried about Layla, because this woman standing in front of me captured my heart in so many more ways, made my mind spin in so many more directions, made my life so full, something I only imagined.
No one would ever be able to compare.
Certainly not Layla.
It was difficult walking into the arena for the ACM’s. Every fiber of my being wanted to be protecting Ara, standing by her side, making sure she was being treated right. Instead I stood on the red carpet with Layla, who looked pleased as a Cheshire cat, hanging onto my arm and smiling broadly for the cameras.
Ara stood with Brett, who promised me he would watch her like a hawk and not let anyone near her tonight. Dustin was the one who looked nervous, he kept glancing between Layla and Ara with worried eyes, but so far it didn’t seem like he needed to. Neither Layla nor Ara acknowledged each other, Ara busied herself chatting with Cheryl, and Layla was either hanging onto my arm or joking with the press. It nearly left me nauseated, and I wondered why I ever been attracted to her in the first place.
Inside the arena we were all escorted to our assigned seats. Fate was testing me tonight because I had Layla on one end and Ara on the other. My body automatically shifted and leaned towards Ara’s side, wanting to be closer to her, and I had to force myself over and over to sit up right, and keep my back straight. We were in the first row so every camera in the place continuously scanned across our faces, leaving me just a touch uneasy.
It was going to be a long night.
Jackson rode with me in SUV for half the way. We had to stop and meet Layla’s car where Jackson would then switch over so that he would arrive at the arena with her.
That’s when the jealously started.
I hated watching Jackson slide out of his seat, giving me that regretful look goodbye. I hated his quick kiss to my forehead before he opened that door.
But I especially hated the silhouette of the woman I could see sitting behind that tinted glass.
And the feeling only grew as the night went on.
At the arena, when we first exited the cars, I wouldn’t look at her. I kept my eyes on Cheryl and gave Brett a grateful smile when he offered me his arm as we exited the car. Cheryl was doing a good job of keeping her and Dustin in between Jackson, Layla, and I. It made it easier not to see Layla’s perfectly manicured hands all over those arms that were wrapped around me only hours ago. I just kept telling myself that he didn’t really care about her, but I admit, it was hard, every time he smiled at her, even if it was fake, or hold her hand, my heart would just ache.
She was so loud and flashy. She stopped and smiled for every camera she came across, laughing and joking with the journalists and cameramen alike. She knew most of them by name, so we could only take three or four steps at a time before stopping again and listening to Layla engage in yet another overenthusiastic conversation.
The only bright spot that was helping me get across the entire red carpet was remembering the look in her eyes when she saw me for the first time.
I noticed her first, and yes, she was stunning in this designer black dress that seemed molded to her body. Her dress was short, tight, and had a slit up to here, complete opposite from mine.
But Cheryl was right.
Because I felt like a princess, soft and precious, standing next to her in my beautiful flowing gown, and she just looked hard, rough, and coarse, like someone ready to go to a rock concert. She could see that too, because her eyes shot up and down me so fast and her body froze for just a half a second before she pulled herself together and put on that act that she does so well.
That’s when the hanging, and the loud laughing, and the high-pitched talking began.
So I just kept standing straight and tall, smiling politely at the cameras and making small talk with Brett. I didn’t know what Jackson told Brett and Dustin about us but I could see how they moved around me, Brett engaging me small talk, Dustin cracking a few corny jokes to keep me smiling.
I pretended it didn’t bother me one bit when Layla slid one hand up Jackson’s chest as they posed for another picture, or when Jackson tilted his head down, his nose almost touching her cheek, but inside I could feel my stomach twisting in the worst way, my throat closing up.
It didn’t get any easier when we sat down. I was sitting next to Jackson knowing Layla was on the other side of him. He kept turning his head to me like he wanted to say something, and I would turn to him with a smile in my eyes, eager to know what he was thinking about, but every time he turned, Layla would jump all over him, directing him away with some inane question or pointing out other movie stars who were here in the audience.
I figured out quickly that Layla wasn’t going to let Jackson talk to me at all, so I tried to avoid all temptation, keeping my hands together in my lap, not letting my body touch the armrests at all. It was harder than it looked, because Jackson’s strong hands were right there, right there next to me. I could see his long slim fingers stretched out over the armrest, they were calling to me, reminding me of all the things they were capable of.
Once the show started it was easier to distract myself. I was actually mesmerized by all the amazing acts performing their songs out on that stage, and all the screaming fans just added to the excitement.
Jackson looked entertained as well, brightening up and smiling when his friends graced the stage, singing along with them, cheering for them when they won.
Jackson lost the first two categories he was nominated in. He didn’t look the least bit unhappy that he lost, clapping loudly for Blake Shelton and Carrie Underwood as they walked away with their trophies.
But I was getting nervous. I wanted Jackson to win in every category he was nominated in, he deserved to win, and it would just crush me if he lost out on video of the year, I knew how much he wanted that one.
He was scheduled to perform before the video of the year winner was announced, so as the minutes flew by I cold feel the butterflies in full force, going crazy in my stomach. When he stood up with Dustin and Brett to head backstage to get ready I wanted to jump up and hug him tight, tell him how much he meant to me, that I would still be crazy about him, even if he didn’t win.
He rose, giving Layla a half-hearted smile and turned away from her, nodding his head at Brett. I looked up into his face from my seat, hoping he wasn’t nervous, his face looked smooth and at ease, and he smiled and winked at me before walking away with the guys.
So that the show would continually look like there were no empty seats to the viewers who were watching at home, three ladies were escorted to the vacant chairs. Layla immediately struck up a conversation with the young woman sitting between us.
I wasn’t listening at first, I was too occupied with my nervousness and staring at the stage to see when Jackson was going to step out there, but of course Layla’s voice couldn’t be avoided.
“My husband is going to play next.” Her voice was loud enough so that I could hear every word.
The girl sitting next to her looked delighted that Layla was talking to her and she smiled excitedly at Layla with her raised eyebrows, “He is? Your husband is Jackson Stone right?”
“Yes he is, he’s so excited about tonight. He’s really passionate about what he does, he’s so good at it. I’m very proud of him.”
I wanted to roll my eyes but kept my vision straight ahead, trying to keep my expression emotionless, pretending I couldn’t hear a thing.
“You’re really lucky. He’s so cute and so devoted to you, all those songs he sings about you, you can tell just by looking at him, how much he loves you.” The girl was just bubbling over with enthusiasm.
“Well let’s just say I know how to keep my man happy.” Layla said this louder than ever, and I could feel my throat tightening at her words, “He’s completely devoted to me and to our sons, he’s really skilled at that guitar, and a few other places too, if you know what I mean.”
Both women laughed, and it took everything in my power not to jump up from my seat in anger.
Instead I just clenched my teeth, trying to breath, wishing the awards show would hurry up and let Jackson play.
“Is he going to sing Broken?” The girl turned to Layla once again.
“Yes, I believe he is, he wrote that song for me, you know.”
“I’m not surprised, why didn’t you come out on the video with him?”
“Oh darling,” Layla’s laugh rang harshly in my ears, “I’m an actress, a real actress, not just some silly girl off the streets. I do films that get nominated for Oscars. I don’t do videos.”
This time I couldn’t help it, didn’t even think twice about it, my head whipped around in her direction and I just stared at her, trying not to glare.
And she was waiting for me, because she just started back, her eyes challenging me to make a scene.
But it was at that second that they announced Jackson’s name and the curtain that been covering the stage was now being lifted high into the air. I turned away from Layla, my mind still fuming from her words, and focused my attention on Jackson, hoping I’d make it through the night.
I could sense Ara was nervous, both her hands were clenched tightly in her lap, and by the time I lost out on my second nomination some of the color in her cheeks had faded.
I wish she knew that it didn’t matter; I didn’t want to hear all the cheering and screaming for me, I wanted to hear it for us.
I wanted her to know that I wasn’t the only one who saw her as special, that every fan in this room thought she was special too, and winning video of the year would be because of her. I wanted to tell her that, but Layla wouldn’t leave me alone for a single fucking second.
She went on and on about who was here in the audience that she knew, and look there was her co-star from one of her movies, and did you hear that Nicole Kidman actually expressed interest in doing a movie with her?
I was actually kind of relieved when I had to leave my seat to go get ready to play. I did feel guilty leaving Ara behind, she would have to fend off Layla by herself, but I wasn’t too worried, Ara had been handling herself like a pro these last few hours, and that made me a very happy man.
As soon as the curtain rose from the stage the guys and I started up the music right away.
I did it on purpose.
Have the entire video playing in the background on this big 'ol screen, just like I did at my concerts.
I went back and forth on this idea several times wondering if it would cause a ripple in the audience, for they knew Layla would be sitting right there watching it.
I could already see one of the cameras facing the audience, or more so, facing Layla.
I’m sure they focused on Ara too, but my beautiful bright girl didn’t even seem to notice, her face was completely aglow with a small excited smile, her eyes wide with awe and wonder, she was watching me, and I could feel my heart smile inside.
Layla, on the other hand, sat straight up in her chair. She had a smile on her face too, her trademark, movie star smile. Her eyes were wide but she was forcing that part. I could see her looking up to the stage but she wasn’t looking at me, she was trying to pretend to look at me but I could tell her eyes kept drifting back up higher to the video.
In fact, the entire audience seemed captivated by the flickering’s of the big screen as I sang. I knew everyone seen this video before, but just like at my concerts, watching the video on that huge screen behind me created some sort of magic, hypnotized everyone, making it hard to tear your eyes away.
And Layla couldn’t tear her eyes away either.
I could see when it started to make her uncomfortable. Nothing about her body language gave her away, but I knew her, I could see it in her eyes.
They weren’t so wide open anymore, and the smile she had on her face was just frozen there.
When I finished, the entire room was up on their feet cheering for me. It felt real good to see how everyone enjoyed it, I’m pretty sure I was grinning like a peacock, and I waved my hand in front of me and took a little bow so that they could all see that the star of the video was sitting right there.
The cheering got louder as the camera focused on Ara and her face graced the screen, she was blushing, her eyes shining as she half chuckled at everyone’s reaction.
The cameras panned back and forth over her and Layla as the cheering continued. I was hoping they would just focus on Ara since she was the one everyone was going crazy about, but right as the curtain began descending I saw it.
The camera left Ara’s face and turned to Layla who promptly used those last ten seconds to blow me a kiss with both hands and point to me before pointing to herself, motioning to everyone who was watching, especially the camera man, that the man she was pointing at belonged to her.
I could tell Jackson loved the reaction he received from the audience, his grin was genuine and he bowed, waving his hand towards me, letting everyone know I was sitting right there.
Of course Layla wouldn’t allow the spotlight to linger on me a second more than it had to, because she flashed the cameraman a great big smile, capturing his attention, and once she knew he was focused on her, she raised both hands and blew a kiss up to Jackson and pointed at him, she looked back at the camera mouthing ”That man is mine" before pointing to herself.
It was at that second I could see why Cheryl hated her so, the bile rose in my throat, I really wanted to wrap my fingers around that backstabbing little neck and shake hard.
But they were announcing the video of the year; it forced me to stay in control. Jackson and the guys remained backstage. The audience settled back down into their seats, my hands were literally shaking; I wanted him to win so badly.
I could hardly hear the names being announced since my ears were ringing with anticipation. I clasped my hands together tighter in my lap, sending out a little prayer that Jackson would win this.
It felt like forever waiting for that envelope to open, but I tell you, once I heard the first syllables of Jackson’s name being announced as the winner I just felt so much relief and excitement for him.
I jumped right up from my seat, my joy making me forget my surroundings as I clapped and hollered for him. I could see one of the cameras pointing in my direction but I didn’t care, didn’t care what I looked like, because he was crossing the stage looking so elated, pumping his fist in the air. It made my heart full when I heard him thank everyone, his voice choking up. He thanked Jared and Cheryl, and the guys, he thanked everyone on his crew.
And then he thanked me.
“And I can’t thank her enough, the one woman who brought the video alive and put up with more than she should have to, Miss Arabella James.”
All the clapping and cheering were no match for what I could see in his eyes as he said that, I just kept clapping for him, hoping he could feel it, how much I loved him.
Because it was at that moment when I realized it.
That I was in love with him.
And with all my heart…
But I never got the chance to tell him. In fact, I didn’t even get to say one word to him for the rest of that night.
He got swept away with all the other winners the second the show was over. He had to pose for a million pictures with the guys and with Layla.
There was no room for me.
I stood to the side, watching behind a throng of people while Layla hung on his arm smiling brightly once again for the cameras, and then later I stayed behind in one of the dressing rooms as all the winners were mingling in some sort of lounge, I could see it being displayed on the small screens that hung on the walls.
It was just another blaring reminder that I would never be the woman standing at his side. I would never be able to share how I felt about him with anyone.
I wouldn’t even be able to share it with Jackson.
And that’s what hurt the most…