It took Cheryl six days after the ACM’s before she would talk to me, and I didn’t even know why. She was roaring pissed, completely ignoring me whenever we were in the same room. She finally cornered me after one of my concerts, not able to hold it in any longer. Ara wasn’t there, she’d been home for a week and wasn’t supposed to come back out for another three, but I pressed on Jared, pushing him to let us start working on our next video sooner than later.
Jared was skeptical, he didn’t want to start another one so quickly; he also was in the middle of trying to make up his mind between the two songs I’d given him. One was a love song, that I had been saving for a more intimate moment, the other was more of a feel good, outdoor country, dance number, that I was leaning towards.
I honestly really didn’t care which one he choose, all I wanted was another excuse for Ara to come back. I hardly had a chance to spend any time with her after our ACM win, the media was all over me and the other winners that night, there was no peace the next few days after that, I just bounced from press conference to appearances all day long.
I finally found out, that’s what Cheryl was mad about.
“You think Ara’s going to like Arizona?” I bent down backstage a bit on a high from my concert; the audience was still clapping and cheering in the background. I started trying to kick off my boot, it had been bothering me through the entire last set, “I think those beautiful sunsets and desert scenery would make a perfect backdrop for a video, don’t you?” I didn’t fucking realize Cheryl just been biding her time for me to bring up Ara’s name so she could bite my head off.
“I think Ara could care less what Arizona looks like, and if I were her, I wouldn’t even want to look at you anymore, much less come here with you.”
My head shot up in surprise at Cheryl’s harsh words, forgetting about my boot and throbbing foot, what the hell was she talking about? “What? What do you mean?”
Cheryl stared at me for several seconds before sighing and looking up to the ceiling, “You didn’t even see it did you? At the ACM’s, or the next day, or even after that. You couldn’t tell?”
“See what?” Now I was getting a little bit pissed off, “Couldn’t tell what? Just fucking say it already.”
“Fine.” Cheryl huffed, her hands automatically going to her waist, “You acted like a total asshole at the ACM’s. There. Better?”
Now I was pissed, my boot and foot forgotten, I stood straight up, my anger mixed with confusion, her words stung, “No it’s not better. I don’t know what you’re talking about? Can you try not to be so cryptic?”
I shouldn’t have said that to Cheryl because she just went off, this little fireball erupting from her body as she shot back, “You’re an idiot. That’s what you are. You went to the ACM’s with the one woman who’s completely changed your life, for the better, I might add. The one woman who single handedly won that award for you with her video, and you didn’t even say one word to her after you won. You let Layla walk all over her, and walk all over you, and you didn’t even try to stop it. You totally let her down, I’m so disappointed.”
Now I didn’t understand everything that Cheryl was spewing at the moment but I certainly heard the word disappointment, it made me worry, made me start to backtrack in my mind to try and figure out where, in that night, I went wrong.
“You didn’t see the look on Ara’s face when you won? See how happy and proud she was? Because it sure didn’t look like you cared about her at all when you let everyone whirl you away after the show, including Layla, without so much as a thank you. You let Layla drape herself all over you, let her make Ara feel like dirt. You should’ve heard the stuff she was saying right before you performed on stage, better yet, you should’ve known she was going to do something like that the second you were out of earshot.”
The mention of Layla hurting Ara immediately put me on high alert. “What do you mean Cheryl? What happened? What did Layla say?”
“It doesn’t matter now what she said. She was going on and on about how great your married life was, and how awesome you were in bed. Just a bunch of lies really. But Ara, she couldn’t do anything, say anything, she just had to sit there and take it. And you just compounded it when you ran off to the winner’s lounge afterwards letting Layla go with you, Layla, not Ara. You’re just as bad as Layla, Jackson,” Cheryl’s eyes held so much frustration, and sadness. “Don’t you remember what it felt like Jackson? To be ignored, pushed aside? How could you do that to her?”
That’s when I felt the floor slipping from underneath me, Cheryl’s words hit me like a thousand bricks, threw reality right in my face.
No matter how I tried to cushion it, no matter what either of us agreed to, I forced Ara into this situation, from day one, I literally gave her no other choice. I was too caught up in making Ara mine that I never gave her feelings one thought. Never bothered to find out if she was okay with our so-called arrangement. It crushed me, sent my heart spinning in despair. I’d done everything wrong.
“I…I…I didn’t see it…I’m sorry Cheryl…I didn’t see it…” I could hardly form the words. I was getting what I wanted, but taking the easy way out, at the expense of the woman I truly loved.
“It’s time to let Layla go, Jackson, before she’s the one who ruins you. Before she drives Ara away.” Cheryl watched my struggle with sad eyes, shaking her head at me.
“You’re right Cheryl.” my mind was suddenly very clear, and I started heading back towards my bus, anxious to get Jared on the phone. “Thank you Cheryl, thank you for telling me what I should have been able to see all along.”
“Go get her Jackson. Go bring her back. Ara’s so crazy about you; you know that? She might even be in love with you, I think.” Cheryl’s words made me slow down, and half turn back to her.
“You think so?” I was afraid to look at Cheryl for fear she was just teasing me.
“I really do.” Her voice was somber, and when I met her eyes I could see that she meant every word.
“Are you sure ya want to start filming another one so quickly? Shine is still in the top thirty, we won video of the year, we don’t have to rush anymore.” Jared was hesitating, still trying to put me off, but this time I wasn’t taking no for an answer.
“Look, we can do either Remind Me or Backroad Picnic, I sent you the outline for both already. One or the other is gonna happen in Arizona.”
I guess Jared could hear rigidity in my tone because he let out this sigh of defeat on the other end of the line, but he conceded.
“Fine, Son. I’ll go over the outlines one more time and fly out to Phoenix. When does Sweet Pea land?”
“I don’t have a date yet, but if I can get my way she’ll be here on Monday.” I mentally started calculating how fast I could pull everything off, the flight, accommodations, but especially my apology, and confession.
“Monday it is. I’ll be there Tuesday morning.” There were a few shuffling noises in the background before Jared spoke again, this time his voice was much lighter, a happier tone, “Sweet Pea is good for ya Son, I never seen you so forward. I like it, suits ya better.”
“Thanks Jared, I agree.” I half chuckled at his words, I was glad he never quit on me, even back when my videos used to suck.
“Do right by her.” Was all he said before hanging up.
I spent the next few days doing a lot of soul searching in the back of my bus. I hadn’t been much of a man lately, to busy trying to keep everything a secret; I thought I was protecting her, but in reality, I hurt Ara in the process. It was time for me to man up. Tell her how I really felt, tell her I was ready to give up everything for her, that none of it mattered if I didn’t have her, and ask her if she felt the same. It was time to face the demons, time to find out if she would be willing to leave her husband.
I played out the scenarios over and over in my head, how she would tell me she would leave him, that I meant more to her than he did.
It was hard to imagine it turning out any other way, because then I would remember the way she responded to my touch, the way her back would arch, the deep moans escaping her throat as I thrust into her, the soft gasps falling from her lips whenever I kissed her breasts. She had to feel the same way about me, for her to respond like that, didn’t she?
He wanted me to go back two weeks earlier than planned, and at first I didn’t think that was going to be possible.
The minute I got home Clint cornered me with a list of a million things he wanted us to do together. I’m not kidding when he started ticking off several day trips and a few overnighters not less than ten minutes after I put my carry-on bag down.
I just gave him a weak smile and agreed to everything. I didn’t have the strength or energy to argue with him.
Besides, I wasn’t feeling so great about myself lately. It was such a heavy burden, carrying this secret around, it made me feel ugly and worthless inside, and I actually believed I could spend the next few weeks pretending Jackson Stone didn’t exist.
It was almost laughable.
Trying to believe he didn’t exist.
I couldn’t even go five minutes without something reminding me of Jackson.
And it was embarrassing trying to pretend with Clint. My movements were robotic and I was nothing short of awkward in Clint’s arms at night. I was a fool to believe that I could be with two men at the same time, that I could love one and just pretend to love the other. My heart made it impossible, it already knew who it loved.
But my mind who controlled my heart at the moment.
And it was a bitter pill to swallow.
Because no matter which way I looked at it, I knew what Jackson felt for me wasn’t love. It was merely physical attraction, something to fill his time, lust with affection thrown in. He would do everything to keep his career intact, that was the most important thing to him.
And I couldn’t even blame him, or be angry with him about it. He made it very clear the morning after we first had sex what he wanted out of me, and then he just reaffirmed those choices at the ACM’s. This is exactly how he wanted things to be, and I agreed to them, thought I could control my heart with my mind, and now it was just sinking me into insanity.
But fate kept testing me, and in the middle of our so-called getaway, Clint got a call from his company. They needed him to haul an emergency load to Nevada; the guy who was scheduled for it was out sick. Clint actually tried to get out of it, arguing with his boss over the phone, asking him if they could get someone else.
When he didn’t have any luck with that, he turned to me, trying to convince me to go with him, we could make it an adventure, he said. But I had no interest in spending hours and hours cooped up with him in a semi truck on the lonely freeways.
I could tell he was a little bit angry with me when he didn’t get his way, he took me back home mostly in silence and kissed me on the cheek goodbye when he left.
He exploded on the phone when I called him two days later telling him I had to go to Phoenix.
“What the hell Ara, you’re leaving again? You just got home a couple of weeks ago. I only have another day and half, two days tops left of this haul. I should be home Monday evening, we could finish out the week together. Tell him you can’t go.”
I just gripped the phone silently, my eyes tightly closed. I already knew what I was going to do. I already knew I was going to leave. I was just letting him know.
“I can’t do that, you know that, it’s in the contract. I have to go.” My voice wavered, and I tried to swallow, but my mouth was dry.
“You don’t have to do anything.” Clint mumbled gruffly, I could hear him slamming his hand down on a table or desk, something hard, “It’s just a contract, he doesn’t own you.”
And when I didn’t agree with him, he hung up on me without saying goodbye.
But Jackson was like a drug. I kept right on going back, just like I knew I would.
Before I could even process it, my plane was touching down in Phoenix, and the beautiful, bright blue skies greeting me as I landed.
The service car took me to the hotel, it looked like a vacation resort with huge palm trees surrounding it. It had a great big outdoor pool with glistening blue water and lounge chairs resting all along the edges.
I didn’t linger there long and made my way up the elevator, to the top floor.
“Hey Beautiful! I’m so glad you made it, didn’t know if you’d be able to come back so soon.” Jackson’s arms felt heavenly around me after I walked into the room, and I just sunk into him, breathing in that earthy, virile scent.
“I didn’t realize we’d be doing another video so soon.” I closed my eyes as I felt his lips brush across my forehead, “Or that Arizona was so pretty. I always imagined it to be this vacant, dusty place, hot and deserted.”
Jackson chuckled at my words and brought me closer to him, “There’s beauty wherever you are.” his voice got a little husky, it sent shivers down my spine
He held onto me quietly for a few seconds before taking my hand and leading me to dining room. There was a small glass table right in the center. It was decorated with this over sized candle blazing brightly in the middle, and intimate place settings for two.
“What’s this?” I turned to him, delighted and surprised.
“I thought you might be hungry, it’s nothing fancy, just a couple of steaks…some greens…an apple pie…” His voice was light and free…and he had that sweet little boy smile running across his face, I was almost curious to know what he had up his sleeve.
“It looks pretty fancy to me.” I grinned back at him, “and it smells delicious. Is there a special occasion that I don’t know about?” I half teased.
“The special occasion is that you’re right here with me, Beautiful, that’s more than enough reason.” When he kissed me it felt different, the usual urgent hunger wasn’t there, just this soft, sweet affection, warmth, caring. I could feel it all the way to my toes, and it threw me, I wanted to forget all the food waiting for me, and just fall into his arms. Start pretending that he felt the same way about me, as I did about him.
He didn’t let me go right away either, he lingered there with me, his hands moving across my back, holding me close to him. Just when I thought he couldn’t be any sweeter, he pulled back and whispered in my ear, “I have somethin’ for you Beautiful.”
I could feel his warm breath caressing my ear, and I looked up into his eyes, “You do?” I whispered back, more in wonder than anything else.
“Sure do, it’s right over here, come see.” He grabbed my hand again and led me past the table, right over to this small end table near the sitting chairs.
I could see it before he said anything else, and I couldn’t believe that’s what he might be giving me.
He noticed my eyes growing bigger as we got closer and he smiled at me, “I didn’t get any time to share it with you when they gave it me, but honestly, it’s not really mine, I’m not the reason it’s sitting there, you are.”
A half gasp escaped my lips and I turned to him in pure disbelief, “No, it’s yours, you wanted it so badly.” I was at loss for words.
He just shook his head and gave me a kiss on my nose, and I could almost hear him whisper, “I want you more…”
The trophy wasn’t the only thing I had for Ara.
Nestled at the bottom of my pocket was something else.
A glittering admission.
A sparkling promise.
I wasn’t sure when I was going to give her that one, but I knew I wanted to do here in Arizona. Put it all out there before she left again.
But right now she was all wide-eyed and gorgeous, looking up at me in half disbelief. Her hands stroked the sleek metal gently, and she lifted it carefully, reading the small letters engraved on the base before setting it back down.
The look on her face was filling my heart, and I almost got down on one knee, begged for her forgiveness for not doing this sooner, almost.
Instead I whisked her back to table, made her sit down and eat. Engaged her in funny stories of some of the youngsters I met at my last concert. She laughed and laughed, her eyes all bright and full of life. It just reaffirmed my decision, opened up my eyes to what I really wanted out of life.
As the night went on, we moved over to the large sectional sofa gracing the living room. It was made with this soft navy suede material that felt like velvet underneath your fingers. I picked this room because of that sofa, when I first saw it I could actually see it happening right there, see me kneeling in front of her. I could see her eyes light up, her laugh and her answer, yeah, I could see it there.
She sat herself down, her hands in her lap, and looked up at me expectantly, “So what kind of video are we doing this time?”
She looked so happy sitting there, this sweet smile on her face as she watched me. I really didn’t want to talk anymore, the urge to have this woman back in my arms was already consuming me.
“It’s up to Jared of course, but I’m leaning towards this fast little number you’ll probably like. The song has a lot of fiddle and twang, talks about the back roads, it’ll probably be an outdoor BBQ party type of setting…”
“Oh! That sounds fun.” She bounced around in her seat and it made me chuckle to see her so excited about it. I knew right then that I would never let this woman go, knew I would spend forever if I had to, trying to make her happy.
“I’ll get to spin you around in the back of a pick up truck, you ever danced on a truck, Beautiful?”
She giggled a little bit then and shook her head at me, “No, never have, are you going to dance with me? Or just watch?”
“I plan to do a lot more than just watching.” I teased with a raised eyebrow, feeling my crotch tighten just thinking about it.
She giggled again and hopped right up from the sofa, her hair swinging over one shoulder as she did that. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you dance before.” She held out her hand to me, and it surprised me, but made me proud at the same time, proud that she was comfortable enough with me to be herself, and that’s all I really wanted.
I placed my hand in hers and simply pulled her into my arms, wrapping myself around her, feeling her warmth, enjoying her beauty. She fit perfectly there, and for a few seconds we danced.
I couldn’t fight it anymore. Holding her there was just sending nothing but desire through my veins, so I pulled my head just a little bit back and leaned down into her, trying to show her through my kiss how my heart felt, hoping she could sense it.
I loved the way she responded. Her mouth was always so perfect, just full of sweet rich warmth, her hands sliding over my shoulders, those tiny little sighs escaping her throat. All of those things just made that ache in me throb harder, and I could feel my grip tighten around her.
Our kisses got more demanding, and I just kept her hand in mine, leading her away from the sofa and over to our bedroom.
It always felt heavenly making love to Ara. From the minute we touched it seemed like every kiss, every stroke, was unique, felt brand new. Her body molded to mine in such a way that I could never get enough of it, and the way she fit around me, the way her heat mixed with that sweet wet warmth. I could feel my body want to explode inside her. I was always amazed that I could last as long as I did. She pulled me in with each gasp and moan, with every arch of her back, with every whisper of my name that would fill my heart like a million unspoken promises.
I already knew I would never be able to keep my promise of not making her choose. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep sharing her, keep living like this. I needed to have her all to myself. I needed to let go of everything that was holding me back from her, keeping me from her.
And I was willing to do it now, because it was eating me alive, and tearing me apart.
I didn’t know what I would do if I ever lost her, how I would keep on living, because she was everything.
I was always wrapped in warmth whenever I was curled up in Jackson’s arms. He had the most extraordinary talent of making me feel like I was made just for him.
Every touch of his hands, the way his fingertips would trace along my breasts, down my ribcage, the way his body felt inside of me. My emotions would rise and soar, my heart would tumble and ache.
I just wanted him.
All of him.
And what I found out along the way, was that I hated hiding, and I hated myself more, because for as long as I lived, as long as Jackson wanted to keep me with him, I would continue living like this, keeping this secret, not asking for anything more.
It was a heavy burden to bear.
But it was the only way I could survive.
I think I was still dreaming when I heard the banging on the door.
My mind was still somewhere in my fantasy, the world in which Jackson was solely mine, and we lived in that big house together in Nashville with our two sons.
Cheryl wasn’t in my dream, but I could hear her voice, overexcited and eager as usual.
“Jackson! Can you open the door please! Dammit! Where is my keycard?”
Now she just sounded angry, and the visions of that spiral staircase and sweet little boy faces hazily faded away from my mind.
Jackson was already sitting straight up in bed when I opened my eyes; I wasn’t even sure where I was at first. I’m pretty sure I turned my head towards Jackson, but he was already getting out of bed, pulling on his pants.
I blinked a few more times, still disoriented with my surroundings before pushing back a few of the covers and sitting up. I couldn’t find my nightgown anywhere so I just grabbed Jackson's t-shirt from the foot of the bed and pulled it over my head. Cheryl didn’t need to see more than she had to.
I knew something was bizarrely wrong just by looking at Cheryl and Jackson’s eyes when they came back into the room. Both of them were speaking in low tones, Cheryl looking a bit frantic, and Jackson looking highly agitated.
The first thing that came to my mind was Layla.
I bet she was here again.
She would probably haunt me for the rest of my life. I was sure of it.
I pushed back that familiar twinge of jealousy, that insane wish that Jackson would come up to me and tell me that he was done with her, that he didn’t want her anymore.
Cheryl’s voice rose higher, I wasn’t quite focusing on it yet. Jackson’s movements were stiff and choppy. He was heading for his small, black carry on case, this little frown on his face. He pulled open the zipper and began shuffling through the contents inside.
“I can always call down and ask for another one.” Cheryl moved around the small dresser and made her way over to Jackson, she peered down into the carry on.
I wondered what they were looking for.
She finally glanced up at me; the look in her eyes sent a chill down my spine and it made me really afraid when she tore her eyes away quickly and said to Jackson, “Let me tell her…”
I was just about to hop off the bed and demand to know what was going on, but Cheryl’s first words stopped me cold.
“Ara, we don’t have much time. We need to move you out of Jackson’s room, and into your own. I just got word, from Rick, your husband is here.”
You might as well have thrown cold water in my face. I was literally stunned. I’m sure my mouth was open, and inside my head I know I was screaming, but there was nothing but silence hanging over us, thick and uncomfortable.
“Whaaa? Who? Clint?” That’s all I could stutter.
Reality, cold and hard, hit me with full force and I leaped from my spot on the bed in a frenzied state.
“His truck just rolled into Arizona a little while ago. He’ll be here on site in less than an hour. We need to move you to the next room. Jackson, did you find the keycard?” Cheryl’s voice seemed calm and professional but the look in her eyes matched my state of mind.
The room was spinning and in my panic I was scrambling for my clothes, my bag, anything that might give Jackson and me away.
Clint being here could ruin everything. It could break the promise I made to Jackson about not letting anyone know about us. If Clint found out, it would destroy Jackson’s career, and I would do everything I could to make sure that never happened.
I kept moving around the room, my rattled mind barking out silent orders to move quickly.
I cast a few small glances at both Jackson and Cheryl. Both were engrossed in their own tasks. Jackson was still moving things around in his bag, and Cheryl tapping silently on her phone.
Jackson was handling this way better than I thought. He kept his eyes on his bag until he found the small blue card, which he placed firmly in Cheryl’s hand.
When his eyes finally met mine, the first few seconds I thought I saw pain there, grief, but it quickly vanished with his next words.
“Cheryl knows exactly what to do. You follow her, she’ll tell you everything. Don’t worry, it’ll be, okay.” My ears were playing tricks on me because I thought I heard his voice break, but Cheryl wasn’t giving me anytime to answer him. She shoved her phone in her pocket and grabbed my arm, pulling me away, motioning me to keep up with her.
I just felt lost.
Lost and alone.
And desperately afraid…
It crossed my mind once or twice.
That he might try to do something like this.
Once he suspected.
I mean I did it myself at one point.
Fly out to New York, spy on Layla.
I still remember how it felt, that sinking feeling that you know your right, but somehow still, hoping you’re wrong.
I kept waiting for Cheryl to call me with the news that he finally made his appearance. Thought about what I would say to him. How I would act when I came face to face with him for the first time.
But the minutes ticked by and nothing.
And that tiny bit of sympathy I might have felt this morning quickly vanished.
In fact, by noontime, when Cheryl called me for the fifteenth time that day to tell me that he was on the grounds but still not showing his face, it began to burn, deep and torturous.
Anger me to no end.
What did he expect to see?
What did he want to see?
And despite how awful it was going to seem, if this man was going to such great lengths to catch us off guard, well I would give him something to see. I was going to make fucking sure he would always remember this day for the rest of his life…
“I changed my mind. I want to do Remind Me.”
Jared could tell I was fucking serious, even on the phone, because he didn’t argue with me at all.
I was starting to feel like a man possessed. I was a man possessed, and getting more and more pissed off as every minute passed.
I was angry that Ara’s husband decided to make an unseen appearance.
I was angry that I didn’t have a chance to tell Ara anything I wanted to tell her.
Ara’s panic and worry just added to my frustration. It was obvious by her actions this morning that she was going to do everything in her power to make sure her husband didn’t find out about us.
That’s probably what was killing me the most. The panicky look on her face when Cheryl announced her husband was here, the frenzied look of her eyes at being caught.
That was also the reason why I wanted to do this song, now.
It was going to make everything else Ara had done before seem minuscule, but if he wanted to know what I was doing with his wife, what she was here for, well I was going to show him.
“Jackson, that’s crazy, not to mention cruel. We can’t start Remind Me today.” Cheryl’s hurried; apprehensive words over the phone didn’t even faze me. I was already making quick strides across the carpeted hallways of the hotel towards the back lobby near the conference rooms. The hotel had blocked off the entire west end of their conference rooms and outdoor garden area just for me. Jared should have everything set up within the next hour.
“What’s cruel about it? It’s just a song.” I didn’t even try to change my tone, try to sound convincing, we both knew what I was doing.
“Look, it’s confirmed he’s here, he’s probably already watching the crew set up. Why don’t we do Backroad Picnic, he won’t suspect a thing if we do that one. I can have the crew switch sets in fifteen minutes if I have to.” Cheryl was going to try and do everything in her power to change my mind, but I was too far gone to have any of that.
“No. I’m not changing it. Is Ara ready?” I actually hated how hard my voice sounded, how short and ill tempered it was.
“She’s almost ready.” Cheryl hesitated, “The henna tattoo, the one you requested, it’s getting put on her now.”
“I’ll be in the first conference room. Let me know when she’s out in the garden area.” I didn’t let Cheryl finish, I couldn’t bear to hear her tone anymore, the fear and anxiety that was in it, it would make me change my mind.
My gut was telling me whatever happened today might turn our worlds upside down, I just hoped Ara was ready for that.
“Is this necessary?” My voice was already shaking, it matched my hands, and every other part of my body.
Cheryl just kept talking to me in this mild, low-key voice, which did not make me feel any better, “It’s a henna tattoo, it’s for the video, it will eventually wash off.
“What does it look like?” I couldn’t see it from where I stood. The young girl who was applying it sat on a chair behind me.
“It’s his initials,” Cheryl’s voice wavered just a little bit, “You know, the same design he has on all his guitars, the J S, well it’s the same thing...uhhh…”
I frowned at Cheryl, “What do I need this for? And who is going to see it?” I was suddenly afraid that the placement of this tattoo meant I was going to be wearing some very revealing clothing.
“It’s actually just for the camera to zoom in on.” Cheryl half shrugged, tearing her eyes away from mine quickly. “It’s a closed set anyways, that means it’s just us, with one camera, and Jared. Don’t worry.”
But I did worry. I couldn’t suppress this terrible suspicion that everything was going to go so wrong today. “You said Clint’s here already, right?”
Cheryl only nodded at me, still not looking me in the eyes.
“Why haven’t you brought him over? Where are you guys keeping him?” I kept thinking if I could just see Clint first, before anyone else, before Jackson did, I could make sure everything, everyone stayed calm.
“We’re not keeping him anywhere.” Cheryl finally looked at me in alarm, “Ara, he’s here, but he’s not making himself seen. Our guys know where his exact location is, and their keeping an eye on him, but, it’s obvious he doesn’t want you to know where he is, yet.”
“You mean he’s hiding?” I could feel the floor give out from under me, if he was hiding, then he really was suspecting something.
“Does he know Ara? About you and Jackson?” Cheryl’s voice broke through my thoughts, her worried eyes showed a little less panic when I shook my head at her.
“He doesn’t know. I haven’t said anything to him.”
“Well then, we can’t do anything that will give you guys away. Today you’re going to have to really act, and it’s going to be hard, because Jackson, he’s…” her voice trailed off once again.
“He’s what?” The tattoo lady was done so I spun around to face Cheryl full on, my eyes questioning hers, she just brought up her hands in defeat.
“He’s got this insane idea for the video he wants to do today, and I’m pretty sure you’re not going to like it.”
Cheryl was one hundred percent right. I didn’t like it, at all. But I especially didn’t like walking out into that garden area, not knowing where Clint might be hiding, and seeing this beautiful white canopy bed draped with white lace all around it, sitting right there in the open for all to see.
It made my throat tighten up just thinking what it might be for.
I could hardly hold myself up as Cheryl and I walked right past that bed over to this big wooden platform. There was a makeshift dressing room in the corner that was really just a small curtain hanging down from some cords hooked up to the walls.
“Okay, here we go.” Cheryl smiled brightly at me, giving me a small nod. She was already in the act, looking like everything was normal.
I could feel the warm sun and smell all the pretty flowers and plants that were around us, but it didn’t ease my nerves or cease my still shaking hands.
“Smile Ara,” Alice spoke in a hushed whisper as we moved near the dressing room, and I forced my face to smile, hoping it looked genuine.
“Just so you know, he can see us, but not close up, and I’m sure he can’t hear us very well, just try and relax.” she kept whispering, her face still wearing that perfect smile.
I took a deep breath; I could do this. I had to do this. It just had to work.
The first few nerve-wracking moments were spent with me surrounded by some hair and make up people. They were quickly ushered out as soon as they were done. I saw Jared walking by; he was talking to the cameraman, his hands in the air.
Jackson was nowhere in sight.
“How are ya Sweet Pea?” Finally, Jared made his way over, giving Cheryl a quick hug, and me an affectionate smile.
“Hi Jared.” My voice shook just a little, “I’m doing good.”
“That’s good to hear.” Jared nodded, reaching out and patting my arm, “we’re just going to shoot a couple of random scenes here. It shouldn’t be too hard or take more than a few hours.”
I gave him a quick smile and followed him back across the platform. I spent the next thirty minutes getting briefed on the video, my heart sinking with every minute as I heard Jared’s directions.
“So that’s what the bed is for, we’ll do that one last. Let’s bring Son out now. It’s a closed set so you don’t have to worry about anyone Sweet Pea. I don’t want anything to make you uncomfortable. Just try to image that it’s just you and Son out here alone, no one else.”
The cameraman began focusing on me, adjusting some of his settings as he waited on Jared who was already calling for Jackson.
My heartbeat quickened, out of the corner of my eye I could see Jackson making his way out of the back doors of the hotel, walking with these long purposeful strides, his head down. His hat covered his face, so I couldn’t read his expression, but just the way he was walking was making me uneasy.
He didn’t come up to me, instead went straight to Jared, talking to him in a low tone, not even casting a glance in my direction. Jared listened to him intently and then immediately headed over to the cameraman, giving him some sort of directions in a rapid tone.
Cheryl moved away from one end of the platform with Jackson’s guitar in hand and gave it to him, chatting in this cheery voice that I knew had to be fake. I was beginning to feel ill at ease when they both walked up to me, Jackson focusing his attention on Cheryl the entire way.
“Ara, Mr. Stone is here. He’s ready to start.” Cheryl just kept looking at me, her eyes encouraging me to play along.
It was hard, looking up into Jackson's face, knowing Clint was watching.
Jackson finally tilted his head towards me, his eyes locking to mine. I could feel my heart start beating hard under his gaze. I tried to read him, read the look in his eyes, looking for some hint of warmth, figure out what he was feeling, but it was too hard.
“Miss Ara, pleasure to see you again. Thank you for coming out here on such short notice.” Jackson extended his hand; his voice was professional and emotionless.
It took me a second, to recover from his tone, but I somehow found my wits and my hand shot out to shake his.
His palm was warm, smooth, and so familiar. It made me ache inside, all this pretending. It would never end, for as long we continued to make these choices, it would never end.
Jackson was a good actor, a fabulous actor, in fact. He did everything Jared instructed him to do without a hint of discomfort, or hesitation. But his eyes guarded every emotion well. He was able to sit with me on this little stone bench and sing, making it look like he did this everyday. The words he was saying were full of ache and longing, and his voice was rich and full, but there was a distance between us. Something hung there, quiet and haunting, an invisible shield that kept our real emotions in check.
Jared hated it.
He made Jackson sing again and again, shaking his head in dismay and puzzlement, “Something’s off Son, I can’t put my finger on it, run it again. Sweet Pea, I can see your smile, but I can’t feel it.”
Over and over we did this, and each time it just made Jared more and more unsatisfied.
“It’s almost like you two aren’t meant to be together.”
Jared was talking about the video, that was obvious to my ears, but his words made something snap inside Jackson, his hands clenched and a sound like a low growl escaped his throat.
“One more, let me do it one more time.” Jackson’s voice was neutral but it was also incredibly firm, a demand, not a request.
“Okay Son, try it again.” Jared was already lost in his unhappiness; he just shrugged his shoulders at us, muttering under his breath that he knew it was to early to release another video.
This time Jackson shifted his body; he turned slightly towards me and reached out with his right hand to softly touch my arm.
“I’m right here Beautiful, it’s still me.”
I was the only one who could hear his words, hear the anguish in his voice as he whispered to me.
It sent waves of emotion coursing through me, and this time when I listened to him sing, I felt it.
Right down to my core.
It tore my guard down, and I was probably showing too much on my face, but I swore I was seeing the same emotions flash across his.
This time Jared was pleased. “Now there’s the Sweet Pea and Son I remember.”
He moved us from one scene to the next as the hours passed; each different setting bringing us closer and closer together, until finally, Jared motioned that is was time for the bed scene.
The sun, which had been a bright yellow in the afternoon, was now a hazy orange as it began to set, casting a soft glow all around us.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Jackson here, but my emotions were running rampant by this point. Every feather light touch I felt from him, every whisper of his breath in my ear, it was sending my heart in a turmoil of want, for those split seconds I forgot who was watching us, forgot what was around us, drowning in that familiar ache to connect with Jackson, it overbore everything else.
His eyes were dark when he walked over to the bed. It started off innocently enough. I was sitting on top of the thin white sheet, one of the pillows half covering my bare legs. I wasn’t wearing anything provocative at all, in fact, my costume consisted of these simple white cotton panties, no bra, and a tee shirt that pulled across my breasts a little bit, but nothing too bad.
Jackson stood at the foot of the bed watching me. He looked all cowboy with those tight jeans and that leather cuff on his wrist. All I had to do first, was crawl across the bed towards him. Jared wanted me to look suggestive, inviting.
I could actually feel myself trying to attract him to me. Wanting to see that familiar look on his face again, that look he always gave me right before he kissed me.
That’s where all the acting really stopped between us. I could feel it, the shift in our bodies, the change in the atmosphere.
I wouldn’t tear my eyes away from his as I crawled right up to him, my mouth slightly open, my head tilted upwards. When I reached him I slid my hands right up his chest, rising up on my knees, letting my hair fall over my shoulders and down my arms. I know he could see it in me, the want, feel all the heat that was being created between us.
It just got deeper and deeper each time we redid that scene. Jared wouldn’t let Jackson touch me, or even move from his spot. He just had to stand there and let me drape myself all over him.
And I was trying my damnest to remind him of everything that we had between us, and hoping he would never want to let any of it go.
Somewhere, in the middle of it all, I lost the anger, forgot what I was there for, what I was trying to prove, and just let that intense thirst for her take all control. It didn’t matter who was there, or who was watching, I couldn’t just pretend to be her man, I was her man, and I wanted her to know that.
And by the time Jared placed her on that bed, looking so innocent and sexy with her hair all tousled and pouty full lips, it took all my control not to let my hunger for her give us away.
Once we got over that awkwardness, once we reestablished the connection between us, it was easy for Jared, because no matter what he did with us, you could feel the charge between us, the ache mixed with that incredible craving we had for one another.
So that bed was just the compilation of all those feelings. Everything we were bottling up.
When I was finally able to join her in that bed, I almost couldn’t wait. I had to go behind this damn curtain to change, and then come out in this ridiculous robe. It wasn’t for the video it was just for show.
Ara didn’t need to change; she stayed there, waiting for me.
Jared was being a gentleman, he made sure he and the cameraman were always past the foot of the bed, a respectful distance away from Ara, making sure she stayed as comfortable as possible. He didn’t know about Ara’s husband, and I hadn’t told him. Didn’t really want him to know, he would’ve probably refused to do this today if I’d told him.
When we started filming again I was already lying down on my back. I’d taken my shirt off back in the changing room, and my jeans, but left my boxers on. You couldn’t see them anyways, this white sheet was covering me, it was covering Ara too, at first.
“Okay, final scene and we’ll call it a night. Sweet Pea, when you sit upright make sure you toss you hair behind you, I want the camera to catch your full back and it will look better with all that pretty hair hanging down it.”
Ara peeked over her shoulder, nodding at Jared that she understood. This moment was what I’d been waiting for. It would be the last image on the video, and the last image that surely was going to burn into the memory of her husband’s mind forever.
The camera began to roll. She was lying next to me, both of us half underneath the white sheet. Her job was to start kissing me, pull herself up to straddle me, not breaking our kiss, and then sit upright, all while not letting that sheet ride down, it had to stay near our hiplines, couldn’t show too much, we weren’t doing an x-rated video, those I would keep to myself.
Her kisses were soft and sweet. Her tongue slid gently into my mouth, her lips moving over me. It gave me an instant hard on that I’m sure she noticed once she straddled me.
She had to do that three times to my delight. Twice the sheet lent up somewhere near our knees, and one time her hair got all tangled up in our faces, making Jared interrupt and reshoot.
But the fourth time she got it right, and I felt it everywhere, got lost in it.
I could feel her body half roll and slide over mine. The heat between her legs only made me harder as our bodies touched. Her breasts pressed into my chest through her tee shirt, and her hand gently stroked my chin before she spread both her palms out and pushed herself upward, lifting her eyes towards the sky as she swung her hair over so that it would tumble down her back.
Jared never had to tell me what to do next. I already knew.
My hands went straight to her waist, my fingers moving softly over the skin under her tee shirt. Her shirt was already riding up on her, the ends rolling over themselves, and I knew her tattoo already had to be peeking out from that spot above her hipline, near her lower back.
So without any more hesitation, I hooked my fingers underneath the fabric of her shirt, raised my upper body from the bed a little bit, and pulled that shirt slowly over her head.
She raised her arms for me, and once that shirt was off of her, that perfect pink skin, and those glorious breasts were set free. I raised my hands to meet her wrists and with achingly slow movements I let my hands slide down her body. Down past her arms and elbows, down the skin near her shoulders and under her arms, making my way to her ribcage.
She wouldn’t look away. Just kept staring down at me as I touched her. From behind where Jared and the cameraman stood, all you could see was her bare back, the tattoo, a hint of those white panties, and the front of my fingers sliding down her body.
But from the front, from my view, I could see her eyes, her open mouth, her chest rising and falling from her breathing.
I could see that small gasp escaping her lips as I let my thumbs slide over her nipples. See her suck in her breath as my fingers grazed along her skin until my hands rested on her waist once again. See her eyes widen as I raised my hips in just the slightest motion so she could feel my erection underneath her.
And I loved that look in her eyes, because at that moment, she was mine.
We had to stay in that position until Jared told us we could stop. It took Cheryl only seconds before she was at Ara’s side helping her into this pretty satin robe. Jared tossed me mine from the foot of the bed, already going on and on about how great everything was going to look once he put it all together, he promised me it was going to be tasteful and romantic, but I was only half listening, trying to shake the desire still coursing through me, and the flutter of worry about what was going to happen next.
Cheryl stuck to me like glue.
She even went inside the dressing room with me when I was changing back into my clothes.
I was still trying to recover from Jackson’s touch, from everything I could see in his eyes, everything he was promising to do to me once we were alone again. I nervously tossed on my sweater, started to pull my hair up into a ponytail when Cheryl’s words stopped me cold.
“You’re husband is in the lobby. He just approached the desk clerk there and is asking for you.”
My hands flew out of my hair in apprehension, and I turned to Cheryl, “He's not hiding anymore? Is that all he said? Do you know, if he saw, everything?”
“Oh, he saw everything alright, but just from the back, like everyone else. I didn’t tell you I knew where he was, I was afraid you would look that way, look for him there, and I had the crew angle the bed so he would only see the back. You two kept it clean right?”
I couldn’t answer that, without giving it away, so I just gave her a quick nod and pushed back the curtain, anxious to get out of there.
“I guess I should go to the lobby?” My voice was all squeaky and high, the shaking in my hands had returned.
Cheryl just gave me this knowing look before giving out this little sigh, “Yeah, the lobby. Want me to go with you?”
“No. No. I can do this. You go, you go find Jackson. Make sure he’s okay.”
“I’m pretty sure he is feeling damn more than okay right this minute. In fact I’m more worried that your husband is going to try to murder him with his bare hands than anything else.” Cheryl began following me down the carpeted hallway, half glancing over her shoulder, “If Jackson listened to me, which I’m not sure he has, cause he never does, he should be with Jared in the audio room for editing, and then straight to his room for the night. We shouldn’t see him at all anymore, that’ll keep him safe. Don’t tell your husband Jackson’s staying in the room next to yours okay? For everyone’s sake.”
“I won’t. I promise. Now let me take care of this. Tell Jackson I’ll make sure Clint goes back home soon.” I tried to sound confident but inside I was already a nervous wreck. I could see Clint’s form leaning against the clerk’s desk as he waited for me, and I could tell, even though I was still too far away to see his expression, that he was pissed.
“Clint, honey, what are you doing here? Is everything okay? You okay?” I was using every ounce of self-control I had to keep my voice genuine and my movement fluid.
“Ara! Finally found you! You look great Babe. We’re you working? I hope I didn’t interrupt you. I’m fine, decided to make a pit stop during my run.” Clint’s voice was way too loud, way too overeager.
“I just…finished…uhh working. I didn’t know your run went through Phoenix.”
“It didn’t really. I can only stay overnight, but I thought that was better than nothing, thought it would be cool if I could see how the great Jackson Stone made his videos.” His words were clearly sarcastic but you couldn’t tell that by hearing him, I just knew.
“Well we’re done for the day. But we can go back to my room, order room service, watch a movie or something?” I waved my hand at him, urging him to follow me towards the elevator, the sooner I could get him out of sight, the better, but he just shook his head.
“We can watch a movie later. I saw this neat little restaurant on the other end of the hotel, let’s go have dinner there.”
“Are you sure?” I tried not to frown, “A restaurant? You don’t want to just veg out on the couch?”
“I’m sure. I’m tired of being cooped up. Come one, let’s go.” he grabbed my hand and started walking.
That was the longest walk across the hotel I ever took. I kept throwing these small glances around me wondering if Jackson was near any of the corridors or halls, hoping Cheryl was keeping him busy so that he wouldn’t run into us.
The restaurant staff was super nice to us. They knew who I was, and gave us this perfect little table near the windows. Clint kept up with that same eager voice and spent most of our dinner doing all the talking. He asked about the video, making no mention that he was there for the whole thing. I told him a little bit here and there and his reaction was always the same, interest and surprise.
After the first hour had passed I was able to breathe easier. The restaurant only had a few scatters of people sitting down here and there, and I was sure Cheryl had a firm hold on Jackson by now, so I let my guard down, took a few bites of my food, asked Clint a few meaningless questions.
Clint was in the middle of suggesting we order dessert when we both heard the commotion.
It was coming from behind me. It wasn’t bad commotion, more like excited chattering and the scrambling of star struck staff and diners alike.
It made me freeze in fear though.
I could only look up into Clint’s face when I heard it, and I could see it in his eyes, the immediate change from casually cool to extreme…hard…hatred.
“Just let it be Jackson, leave them alone.” I don’t know why Cheryl even bothered to try to talk to me. Once I heard where Ara and her husband were having dinner at the hotel restaurant, wild horses couldn’t have kept me away.
Ignoring Cheryl, I found Jared in the audio room. He was still in a good mood, completely happy with everything he’d captured on film.
“How about a little dinner Jared? There’s a restaurant here in the hotel. You hungry?” I tried to keep it as simple as possible, but Jared still looked up at me in surprise.
“Restaurant? With people?” Jared knew about my thing for privacy, he knew I always avoided random places where I could possibly get mobbed with fans, “Did you close down the restaurant? Is the crew eating there too?”
“No, no…nothing like that. Just you and me. This place is pretty quiet anyhow. I figured we’d be okay.” I shrugged at him with detached interest, trying to make it look like I didn’t care either way.
“Well okay Son, if it looks too crowded we don’t have to stay.” Jared pulled himself away from his computer and glanced over at Cheryl. “You coming, Sweet Thing?”
Cheryl couldn’t help but give out a wry chuckle, “There’s no way I’m walking into that restaurant with him,” she narrowed her eyes at me, “but if he wants to get killed tonight, then that’s fine by me.” and with that she turned sharply and walked out of the room.
Jared slowly turned his head back to me, eyebrows raised, “So, there is a crowd there then?”
“I think she’s just tired.” I lied, adjusting my hat so that I wouldn’t have to look him in the eyes.
Yeah I was nervous. I walked right into that restaurant wearing every trademark item I owned. You’d be able to spot Jackson Stone in an instant. It was impossible to miss my grey hat and button down shirt. The brass buckle on my belt shone brightly, and my boots were a dead giveaway.
The staff at the restaurant immediately broke into excited chatter the second I stepped foot inside. I half ignored the hostess; let Jared do the talking while I scanned the room as far back as I could.
He was already staring at me, not even blinking.
Ara was facing away from me; I could only see the back of her head, all that beautiful brown hair falling down her back. She didn’t turn around, didn’t look to see what the commotion was all about, what was making everyone in the restaurant gasp and squeal.
“This darlin’ young lady here says she’ll put us in the private room in the back, Son. We can eat in peace there.” Jared gave the young girl a wink and she giggled excitedly, holding onto her menus tightly.
“No thank you Ma’am,” I still couldn’t tear my eyes away from them, “I think we’ll sit over by the windows, I don’t want to miss this beautiful Phoenix scenery.”
Jared was still kind of open mouthed as we were led straight through the restaurant, in plain view of everyone eating there, he didn’t even noticed when we walked passed Ara and her husband, he kept up the same pace behind the hostess, but I noticed, and I stopped.
“Miss Ara!” I paused right at their table, giving Ara just a small glance before focusing my entire attention on her husband, “It’s a delight to see you two here. Enjoying dinner together?” I directed my question to him; half hoping he would lunge at me, it would all be out in the open if he did.
Instead he rose from his chair and thrust out his hand, “Honor to meet the man who’s made my wife famous.”
His voice was incredibly steady and his grip on my hand was tight and challenging.
I didn’t back down, I held on just as tight, and through that handshake I could tell, we both already knew.
“Working with your wife is my pleasure. She is a bright charming woman.” I finally turned to look at her. She was looking up at me with nothing but fear in her eyes, just pure unaltered fear, it preyed upon me, “I’m lucky to have found her.”
“She talks about you and your family all the time,” His voice broke my gaze from Ara’s face and brought it back to his. “How is your wife? Your children?”
“They’re all fine.” I almost hesitated, briefly wondering if she told him anything about my marriage, or my boys. Ara was now looking down at her plate, her hands pressing deeply on either side of it, it was just throwing me for a loop, and I nearly stumbled through my next words, “Well I’ll let you two enjoy your meal. Will you be staying in Phoenix with your wife? I can arrange for a car if you two would like to go out tonight, if you don’t know your way around.”
“No need for that, thank you. I’m scheduled to head out in the morning, so tonight I think we’ll just, stay in.” He was looking at me when he said that, but then he tilted his head, his gaze never leaving my face, and his hand, it reached out and touched some the hair that was hanging over Ara’s shoulder, letting it fall through his fingers, his eyes knowingly waiting for me to say something.
I could see the red, it was everywhere, but mostly in my head. Searing red hot flames, clouding my judgment and control. “Well…enjoy y’alls evening…” that was all I could spit out before brushing past him, making my way to Jared who looked up at me with alarmed eyes.
“What in holy hell is wrong Son? You look like you’ve done seen a ghost. Do you need to get out of here?”
But I couldn’t leave. Instead I sat there and tortured myself, tried not to let Jared see it in my eyes. I had a perfect view of them from where we sat. He spent the next half hour laughing and talking with her nonstop. He would reach out and touch her hand often, causing a slow burn in the pit of my stomach.
And she sat there, like any perfect wife would do, her face breaking into small laughs as he talked. They shared a dessert before they left, and even though I told the waiter I would take care of their meal, he threw several bills down on the table before taking her hand and leading her out the door.
I spent the entire night leaning against that wall that connected our rooms, knowing he was in there, and knowing what he was doing to her.
I could feel it, all the way over here, through those walls. It pierced my brain, poked fun at my heart. My brain played bitter tricks on me, making me sense every time he touched her, every move he made across her skin. My ears pretended to hear her gasps and moans, her begging for more, and my fucking head just tortured me, letting me see everything, her underneath him, his mouth traveling over her body, every connection that he made, every move.
It festered in me with a vehemence, threw me in a bitter rage. It was the first time I felt out of control, felt like I was losing my mind.
I just slid down the wall, my head in my hands and waited, waited for it to be all over.
I thought I was going to pass out when Jackson stopped at our table. Thought Clint was going to jump out of his seat and start throwing punches.
But neither of those things happened.
Instead, Jackson was cordial and polite as always. Shaking Clint’s hand, asking him if he was staying long, offering us a car. All with that sweet southern accent, still wearing that beautiful cowboy hat and those gorgeous whiskered jeans.
Clint’s smugness annoyed me though. I could practically hear all the sarcasm in his voice, all that false sweetness when he touched my hair. I wanted to pull away so bad, jump up and scream at him to leave me alone.
But every time I would glance at Jackson, see those beautiful green eyes, I would remember my promise to him. The secret I swore I would keep. So I stayed quiet, played my role flawlessly.
I never told Clint that Jackson was staying in the room next to ours, but it was almost as if he already knew.
Because the second we stepped foot inside he pulled me towards the bedroom. He literally took seconds trying to get my clothes off, bringing his head down and kissing me with more force than necessary.
My stomach turned at his touch but I fought against it. He pushed his tongue inside my mouth roughly, the complete opposite from Jackson’s soft, affectionate kisses. His fingers traced along my skin in the exact same path Jackson’s had done during the video, making the bile rise in my throat.
He was harsh, commanding, and inconsiderate, moving me across the bed, not asking if I was ready, not giving me the time I needed. He rolled over me, his head lowered into my neck, biting and sucking, his hands pining my hands above me as he did that.
I didn’t even have the chance to ask him to stop, to slow down. I felt his body push into me in one vigorous thrust. I made me gasp out loud, mostly in pain. I just willed my mind to escape, to take me somewhere that wasn’t here, to make me forget.
Clint moved and grunted and thrust for what seemed like hours, his hands holding me tightly down as if I were fighting him. I wasn’t, at least not physically, but inside I was, crying out in pain, feeling used and dirty, hating everything that was happening to me, hating him.
When he was finally done he just kissed me on my cheek almost bruising my skin, and rolled over. He pulled the covers up to his shoulders and fell into a fast sleep. I lay there perfectly still, afraid to move, almost afraid to breathe. When I was sure he out for the night I slipped out of that bed, throwing on my robe, tightly tying it around my waist and headed for the bathroom. I just made it to the toilet when the heaves started.
Huge, choking, heaves that shook my entire body, heaves that lasted for at least an hour, but when they subsided the sobs began, tearing my heart apart, making me a crying mess, and I was completely spent when I saw the sun breaking its way across the sky.
I crawled back into that bed, trying to curl up in the smallest ball possible, not letting my body touch Clint’s.
I pretended to be asleep when I felt him stir. He rose quietly from his side and I could hear him getting dressed, moving his things around. I felt his shadow standing over me before he left. He must have just stood there for several minutes before I felt the brief brush of his lips near my ear, and just the softest of whisper, “I’m sorry.” Then he was gone.
Cheryl called me by six am to tell me his truck was moving again, heading for the outskirts of Phoenix. I was sitting on the floor, my back still pressed up against that wall. I had been waiting for this call all night.
I probably should have waited longer, just to be sure he was really gone, that he wasn’t going to turn around and come back, but I didn’t have the patience.
I just picked myself up, grabbed the extra keycard I had for Ara’s room and walked out of my door to the door next to it.
I could see the signs right away.
The mess of her clothes strewn around the floor, her shoes lying erratically by the door of the bedroom.
She wasn’t in there though. I could see her, huddled up with a blanket on the exact same sofa I had in my room. The exact same sofa I had pictured us at. She was sleeping, but her face wasn’t relaxed at all, a small frown furrowed her brows and these little groans were escaping her throat.
Her tangled hair seemed to be crawling up the sofa behind her and her neck held these small pink bruises, bruises that I knew came from her husband’s mouth.
That sight just broke me down.
Because it was me who did this her.
Not her husband.
It was me.
I found myself walking quietly over to her, not wanting to disturb her or scare her in any way. I just sat down softly by her feet, the soft cushions sinking under my weight. She moved slightly but didn’t wake up. One of her bare feet pressed up against my thigh and I gently picked it up, placing it carefully on my lap, covering her back up with her blanket.
Out of habit I rested my hand on her leg, still fighting the turmoil that raged inside me of the mess I created out of her life. I was destroying her.
I could feel my head heavy, my eyes felt like lead, but one last thought entered my mind before they drifted close.
Cheryl had been wrong, it wasn’t time to let Layla go, it was time to let Ara go.