I’m not sure what time it was when I opened my eyes; the room was deathly silent, just a little bit of light falling between the cracks of the blinds that were still drawn shut. I lifted my head slowly, trying to gather my surroundings. My eyelids still felt heavy with sleep, and my mind was full of fog. For a second I wondered if Clint had really been there, or if last night had been some kind of wild nightmare.
There was warmth by my feet, I could feel it seeping through my toes and up near my ankle. I tilted my head still a bit confused, but the warmth spread throughout my entire body as my eyes rested on Jackson’s form. He was sleeping, his head back against the sofa, his long strong legs spread out next to me. His hand was resting on my lower leg, and I could hear the shaky rhythm of his breathing.
I pushed back my blanket in attempt to sit up, still trying to shake the fog, still lost in the turmoil of yesterday’s events. Once upright I could see Jackson’s face better, and even though his eyes were closed, just by watching him sleep, I knew, my nightmare had been real.
He was still wearing the same clothes from the night before. His soft button down shirt had creases and wrinkles all over it; the cuffs of his sleeves were unbuttoned and rolled up on his arms.
But it was the sight of his face, pale and unshaven, the sadness in his features. His hair was in disarray, the ragged breaths coming from his chest, startled me, and his jaw was so tightly clenched, the sight of him was heartbreaking. Every few seconds he would frown and a soft moan would come from somewhere deep in his throat.
It hurt so bad to see him that way. I moved my sore body over and scooted up next to him, sliding my hand across his waist and resting my head on his chest. I would’ve done anything if I could take back those last twenty-four hours, anything.
I closed my eyes again and listened to his heartbeat. Despite his raggedy breathing, his heartbeat was strong and steady, echoing in my ear like a rushing river, comforting, soothing.
It lulled me back to sleep, and I knew as long as we stayed this way together, nothing could hurt us.
The jerking of his body is what woke me up the second time. He wasn’t awake yet but I could feel his arms and legs grow stiff underneath me, and his hear his heartbeat racing, it rang through my ears, making me wide awake in an instant.
I pulled back in alarm and looked up at him. He jerked again rapidly, his body moving up sharply from the sofa. My arms immediately tightened at his waist trying to soothe him.
He gave out a small moan, and slowly his head began to turn from side to side.
I sat up straighter, bringing my knee up near his thigh in my haste to calm his body down. My face was directly across from his when he opened his eyes, and I could see it there, deep inside that beautiful green, they were completely scarred, filled with torment and suffering.
“Jackson?” I half whispered, wondering what kind of dream he was having, “Are you okay?”
He just stared at me, his eyes never leaving my face, studying my every expression, my every feature.
“Are you okay love?” I don’t know what possessed me to use the word love, to call him that, but in that moment, it was all I was feeling.
He blinked at my words, but his body stayed quietly still.
I started to move back from him, lean back over to my side of the sofa, give him the space that he needed, but his hand shot out like fire around my waist, as if it had a mind of its own, and I heard the word...
“Stay.” he whispered, his voice was hoarse and shaky, but his grip was firm and strong. That look he was giving me, it just tore at me. I wanted to take away the pain…the ache I could see, and replace it, put in its place instead all the love and longing I was feeling.
I half nodded and leaned into him, sliding back over so that I was sitting on his lap facing him, my knees on either side of his legs. I placed my hands on his shoulders and lowered my face into his, letting my lips brush slowly down the bridge of his nose and across his cheeks before resting on his mouth.
He just moaned, and I could feel his hands slide around me as he crushed me to him. His mouth opened hungrily to mine and I gave into everything I was feeling, kissing him back deeply, sinking my fingers into his hair to hold him against me, wishing with all my heart that I didn’t have to share.
They wouldn’t stop.
The ones of Ara and her husband.
They fought and battled in my head, tossed and turned there, against my will, let me see everything from every possible angle, every view. I could see his eyes watching her, dark and cold. The way his hands slid over her breasts, leaving hot lingering trails down towards her belly button. His fingers playing near her entrance and then plunging into her, pumping them in this agonizing slow motion, making her gasp and pant. Those lips traveling over her ear and down her neck until he captured her in a kiss, over and over again.
It literally made my body ache, my heart thump with grief. I shook my head, trying to escape the images, but they wouldn’t leave me, not until I heard her voice.
“Are you okay love?”
Her words filled me, the softness of her tone, the whisper of her breath. It just snapped me back to reality, pulled me away from all that crazy hurt, and sent me right back to the sofa, the one place where I imagined so much good would happen, it never once crossed my mind that it would be the place where I experienced my worst.
Her eyes washed over my face, they were filled with such concern, so much distress, and she pulled back, the warmth of her body disappearing, leaving this cold, empty feeling in its place.
“Stay.” My throat was already tightening, and every emotion could be heard in it, at least to my ears.
She seemed to understand what I trying to say, of what I needed. Her body moved back over me, her hands sliding up to my shoulders. I could feel the warmth of her body return, the soft tickles of her hair against my cheek, and when her mouth finally touched mine, my heart exploded, and my craving for her tore a low groan from my throat.
I was lost, my body took over, had a mind of its own. My hands held her to me, resting on her waist, pulling her closer against me with each kiss. I could feel the softness of her robe under my fingertips, feel her mouth, warm and wet.
The velvety touch of her robe brushed up and down on my arms as she moved over me, and as silky soft as it felt…
I wanted to feel more.
I pulled at the ties, opening them up, pushing the material down over her shoulders so it fell past her back, landing in this wavy mound at our feet. My fingers traced along her cheek, up near her eyebrows and down towards her jaw. My eyes could see those small pink marks, almost purple now, dotting along her neck, it sent a lump to my throat, tearing a half sob that sounded more like a growl. I wanted her to forget him, forget her husband making love to her, what he felt like, the way he touched her.
I wanted her to remember me, to look into my eyes and see me.
And I also knew that this might be the last time I would hold her close, feel her skin next to mine, make love to her.
I sat up straighter on that sofa, adjusting us both so that we were sitting more upright. I kept leaving the softest, sweetest kisses I could along her face, moving down to her neck, letting my lips brush gently across her skin. I wanted to be the complete opposite of however I thought her husband was, going over every bruising mark on her body with just the lightest of touches, the lightest of kisses.
Her hands moved through my hair and down the front of my shirt. It only took her minutes before her fingers had my shirt tossed to the side and my belt buckle open. I lifted my hips, helping her pull down my jeans and boxers, until finally, there was nothing left between us.
My head lowered into her breasts, taking one into my mouth, marveling at the softness of it, my heart thumping at the small gasps that were escaping her lips. I tried to go so slow, giving every inch of her body the same unwavering attention, my hands gripping her waist, making her body rock back and forth over mine. I hadn’t entered her yet, she could feel me pressed against her entrance, but I was waiting.
“Ara…” I whispered up near the crook of her neck, her head was rolled back in pure bliss from the attention I been giving her breasts. When she heard me, her head snapped up, and then tilted down until her eyes met mine, her hands left my shoulders and slid down to my chest. She watched me with dark eyes, her beautiful features so full of desire. “Baby, look at me.” I guided her waist ever so slowly, moving her body so that she could feel me rubbing against the outside of her warm, wet skin one last time, “Keep looking at me.”
My voice was thick with emotion, gruff with longing. She didn’t have to answer me, her eyes never left mine. And finally, I could feel myself break through her gently, slowly. I kept my hands at her waist, lowering her over me just an inch at a time, watching her mouth open and those eyes grow wide, feeling the tightness of her body as it enveloped me.
It was the most sensual and stimulating feeling I ever felt, and when I was fully inside her, when she completely impaled herself on me, she started to move, rolling her hips, rising slightly on her knees, all while keeping our gaze.
And it felt like forever, she kept moving over me, making me grow harder with every stroke. I could hear her small moans, mixed with the groans she was tearing my throat, she was in complete control, she had my body, and my heart, in her hands. I was completely hers.
Looking back, I should have know there was something so final about the way Jackson made love to me on the sofa. Love, that’s what it felt like, making love, not just sex, but I should have seen the finality of it in his eyes, or the way his mouth and hands moved over my body, it was deliberate, decisive.
But I was too absorbed in my own feelings, in my desire to have him, that I didn’t notice it, or even think about it.
At least not until later.
Even though Clint no longer was there, his presence seemed to linger between us. There wasn’t one place in the hotel where Jackson and I could escape the demons in our minds, not the garden, not the restaurant, not the hotel room.
For some reason Jackson seemed to want to stay inside my room, didn’t want us to go back to his. I couldn’t figure out why, why he would want to stay here, knowing Clint spent the night, slept in that bed. It was almost as if he were trying to torture himself here in this room on purpose, he didn’t ask me if Clint and I slept together, but he didn’t have to, he could see it, sense it.
He was still beautiful and kind. He still pulled me close to him as we sat on the sofa and watched old western movies, still pampered me in every way, talking to me with that sweet accent, but still, everything about it, everything about him, it was so perfect, too perfect.
I just kept telling myself that we would make it through this, that the next location we were at together I would spend every waking moment trying to make up for this, tried to convince myself that as soon as we put a few weeks between us, everything would go back to normal.
So it took me by surprise when Jackson walked out with me to garden area on my last day there. He held my hand as we moved quietly along the path and eventually lent up over by that same stone bench that we sat on when we filmed his video. He didn’t say anything at first, seemed to be deep in thought, his hand dropped mine as we sat down, and I found myself looking up towards the tall hotel windows, past the big palm trees, all those balconies.
I wondered if that’s where Clint had been when he was spying on us?
Up on one of those balconies?
“The tour is going to take me out to Canada,” Jackson’s soft words broke through my thoughts, his voice was low, and I quickly lost interest in the balconies, and Clint, as I turned towards Jackson, “Jared doesn’t think we need to do another one any time soon.”
He spoke in broken words, not making sense, and I just kept staring at him, trying to push back that sudden choking feeling.
“I’m not gonna make you fly out there, to Canada I mean, so…” He tore his gaze away from me then. I could still see his eyes, he was just wearing his baseball cap so those green eyes couldn’t hide.
“Oh, Canada,” I kept my voice light, kept the tremor out of it, “I bet that’ll be fun. I didn’t know Canadians liked country music…” that’s when my voice trailed off, I couldn’t keep up the tone.
Jackson gave me a half smile, “There’s a few country folks out there.” his eyes met mine, but the usual light was gone.
“Well…you go have fun…I’ll be here…when you get back…” My words were coming out all shaky and torn. I already knew what was coming. I could feel it, already knew that my words were meaningless.
“Yeah well…Jared thinks…he thinks that…we don’t have to do this anymore…at least not for a long while…” He was looking down at his hands when he said that, but I could hear it, the sorrow and distress.
And for some godforsaken reason, instead of getting down on my knees and begging him to let me stay, to tell him that I was in love with him, that I didn’t want to leave, I just nodded and forced myself to keep my voice light, “Oh, of course. I understand.”
He turned his head to me then, didn’t say anything, just looked at me. I could see his skin tight along his jawline. I didn’t know what to make of that. Maybe he was feeling relief, that he wouldn’t have to deal with a bawling, pleading, crazy woman.
I blinked back a few tears and tried to sit up a little more, turning my head away from him a little bit. I didn’t want him to see me cry, “It’s been…nice.”
I wasn’t going to make this hard for him. I probably should have, but I put myself in this position. I put myself in this place, knowing all along that it would never work, never have the fairy tale ending, no matter how much I prayed for one.
He looked down at his hands again, still silent. He seemed to be breathing heavier, getting ready to say something else maybe, but by now I needed to get away, move myself out of his presence or else I would turn into a bawling, pleading mess.
“I’ll just have Cheryl...Cheryl, she can help me get to the airport.” I rose from my seat, still praying that my voice would hold up. I just needed to keep it together for five more minutes, just five more.
I took a few steps away, half hoping he would get up, follow me, try to stop me.
“I uhhh…” I had to turn around one more time, had to look back just once more, look one last time into those eyes.
And they were so green, looking back at me, piercing, beautiful green, reaching out, trying to pull me back in.
His mouth opened and I thought he was going to say something, but he didn’t, maybe he just wanted to be done.
“Thank you, Jackson,” I knew the tears were really going to fall then, so I quickly turned back around and walked away, “For everything.”
I’m sure Cheryl could see something was gravely wrong. She didn’t say anything to me though when I told her I needed to get to the airport. I didn’t let her ride with me there. I could barely keep it together long enough to slip inside the service car before the tears started.
And I couldn’t make them stop.
I spent most of the flight locked up in the plane’s tiny bathroom, hung my head down into my knees and sobbed, wondering how I ever wound up in this position in the first place.
When I arrived at my house I actually found myself praying that Clint wouldn’t be there, that he would be out on a run.
Instead I found Clint sitting at our dining room table, he looked like he had been sitting there for days, his eyes bloodshot red, a half empty beer bottle in his hand and several others strewn around the table. His face was cold and hard, and he looked up when I entered. I’m sure he could see it in my own eyes, I’m sure they were swollen and red too. I hoped he wouldn’t stop me from locking myself away in the bedroom or try to greet me with a hug. I couldn’t deal with him right now. I just wanted to be alone, but he gave out this harsh grunt and waved me over with one hand.
“I need to use the restroom.” I tried to brush past him, giving him the first excuse I could think of, but he half rose from his chair, twisting his body around to face me.
“How long have you been sleeping with Jackson Stone?” his words were bold and hard, they stopped me in my tracks. I turned slightly back to him, half in shock, half in fear.
“What?” That was the first thing out of my mouth, it was instant, sudden.
He didn’t move from his spot, he just tilted his head to side and waved his hand towards a free chair, he sat back down roughly, “When did it happen? How long has this been going on? And please don’t insult me anymore than I’ve already been insulted, and lie to me.”
I couldn’t fight anymore, didn’t have the will. I just sunk into the chair across from Clint, I could feel fresh tears well up in my eyes as I looked up into his face, “It happened in Nashville…it’s been…months…about six…months.”
He already knew, but I guess the shock of hearing me say it out loud made him take in this shuddering breath. “You’ve been sleeping with him for six months?”
I just nodded, clasping my hands together, trying to get ready for the explosion that I knew was coming. I didn’t tell him that it was over between Jackson and me, it might be physically over, but it would never be over in my heart.
Clint didn’t move for several seconds. He didn’t explode like I thought he would, his eyes stayed hard, but his voice broke, “Yeah…I thought so…”
I didn’t want to explain it to him, or have him blame it all on Jackson, I tried to use the simplest words possible. The fastest explanation,“It…wasn’t planned…but it was my fault…”
He didn’t look like he believed me, but he didn’t ask me any questions about it, “I…don’t want to know…” He shook his head, rising from his seat with a frown, he wouldn’t look at me anymore, “I’m just telling you that I have a run in the morning. I’ll be gone three days. I’m not staying here tonight, but when I get back, I don’t want you here.” His head finally lifted and the look in his eyes chilled me, “I’m getting a divorce.”
Those words stunned me, they shouldn’t have, but they did. Somewhere in the back of my mind I always knew this would happen if Clint found out. I knew he was much too proud to deal with this any other way. And deep down inside, I knew too, that this is what I wanted, why I didn’t try to lie, didn’t try to save what was already gone.
I sat at that table for hours after he left. Long after the sun set. I didn’t even bother to turn on the lights, just sat there in the still dark, and tried to figure my life out.
I deserved this to happen to me, it was my choices, my actions.
Now I would have to accept the consequences, however awful they seemed.
I was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I literally hated myself, was disgusted with the words coming out of my mouth.
And it left the heaviest feeling in my heart after it was done.
I took her out to that garden to let her go, and all while, this crazy hope kept wrapping itself around my brain that she would fight it, tell me that she didn’t want to stop being with me, that she would give everything up, her job, her life, her husband.
I knew it was just a wishful fantasy.
I wasn’t her life. I was never meant to be a part of her life. I could never give her what she really deserved, what she already had at home, a man who completed her, who loved her and didn’t have to hide it.
She didn’t protest. Didn’t beg me to stay with her, or tell me she would stay with me.
And her words just pierced through my heart when she accepted it so lightly, making me feel like a monster when I gave her the most flimsy excuse and watched her walk away from me. My heart was screaming inside, knowing I would never be the same again. I would never find anyone like her again.
I could hardly remember the weeks that followed, couldn’t tell night from day, up from down.
Cheryl would watch me with silent eyes. Dustin and Brett never left me alone when we were out in public. They could all see it in me, knew I wasn’t ready to share it with them, yet standing by me so I wouldn’t have to go through it alone.
I was actually glad I was out of the country, because there were nights when all I wanted to do was go to her, when I would physically have to stop myself from picking up the phone and telling my pilot to get the plane ready.
The week before I headed back to the states, Remind Me was released. It shot straight up to number one in what seemed like hours. I never bothered to view all the edits or final cuts that Jared sent me, and every time he called to ask my opinion on something, I would just lie and agree with whatever he suggested, so when I finally actually saw the video, all alone in my hotel room, being played endless times on CMT and GAC it just twisted the knife further into my heart.
That video was everything beautiful about her. It showed her smile, her laugh, the light in her eyes.
I searched her face every time I watched it, looking for something that would tell me how she felt about me, looking for that one reason, any reason, that might bring her back into my life.
I knew Cheryl wouldn’t be able to hold back forever and kept waiting for the day when she would break her silence and demand to know what happened between us, but I didn’t expect Brett to corner me on our flight back to the states, he slid into the empty seat next to mine, there was nowhere to hide from his disappointed eyes.
“It’s been a month. I think that’s been more than enough time for you let us know what happened, where’s Miss Ara? Why didn’t she go to Canada? Why isn’t she here?” Brett actually looked angry at me, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to just brush him off.
“We both decided to end it.” I kept looking down at my leather binder that I held in my hands. I was using that time on the flight home to finish the music to the song I’d written way back during the CMA’s. The final notes and melodies swarmed my head after Ara left, and I couldn’t deny them any longer.
"Why?” Brett kept his voice low enough not to cause a scene but firm enough so that I knew he meant business.
“It was just time.” I shrugged at him, not meeting his eyes, “Her husband was catching on, Layla was being difficult. Neither of us was particularly happy…” my voice trailed off, and when Brett didn’t say anything, I finally looked up at him.
“Not happy?” Brett half sighed when I looked at him, “We’ve known each other a long time Jack, you’re like a brother to me, you and Dustin. It’s killing us to see you this way. You say you weren’t happy, but honestly I think when you were with her that’s the only time I saw you happy, and I’m really sorry you let her go, without a fight. Why’d you let her go?”
“She didn’t want to stay Brett, she didn’t tell me she wanted to stay.” I finally pushed my binder off my lap, wishing I had a place to hide from all of this. Brett grabbed at the book before it fell to the ground, he kept it with him, holding it with both hands.
“Did you ask her to stay? Did you tell her, what she means to you?” His voice stayed steady but I could see it in his eyes, he was just another person I disappointed.
“No,” I shook my head, “But I promised her I would never do that, ask her to leave him, beg her to stay. I promised her Brett.” I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep talking about this without breaking down, so I just looked up into his eyes, pleading with him to stop, ”She ain’t mine…”
Back home I had to make a million appearances for Remind Me. It broke my heart a little more every time someone would ask me about my beautiful co-star, where I found her, and when we would work together again.
My tour crew thought they were doing something great when they decided to not only play Broken’s video in the background during my concerts, but Remind Me’s too.
The first time it came out, behind me on stage, when I could see over my shoulder the first few flickering’s of the sunlight bouncing off her hair, see her sitting on that stone bench, the very same one I watched her walk away from me, the ache, it got caught in my throat, broke me down so that I could hardly breathe.
And my voice that night, so emotional and raw, so broken and heavy, it captured the entire audience, silenced them in complete surprise and awe. It was so well received that my music studio cut a live version of that song, it replaced the original on the airwaves, on the radio, catapulted it to number one, where it stayed for eleven weeks.
And she never left my mind.
Not for one minute.
Instead of trying to hide from it. I just lived it, letting my broken heart take control whenever I sang, left it all out there each night on stage.
It’s the only thing that spent me enough to sleep at night, to face another day in the morning.
Jared asked me three times when I wanted to start on the next video. He told me that he was already feeling the pressure from my record label, they were enjoying my sudden music video success and they wanted to keep it rolling, not let any of the momentum get away. I flat out lied to first two times, telling Jared I wasn’t ready with the song, wasn’t finished, the third time I told him I hadn’t heard back from Ara.
But the truth was, I didn’t even have a song, didn’t have anything to offer him.
I was done, over, there would never be another video from Jackson Stone, that I was sure of.
The first time I heard the live version of Remind Me I nearly drove off the road. My drive to work was a little longer these days since my new apartment was several miles away from my old house. It took me weeks before I didn’t feel so out of place there, so lonely, and it took me months before I even turned on my radio during my drive to work.
The radio announcer’s voice was full of excitement as they talked about the live version of Jackson Stone’s new song that captured the hearts of country music. They went on to say how well his tour was doing, how he sold out in Canada completely and was now back in the states.
But that’s not what threw me.
I kept driving straight ahead, my eyes on the road, trying to swallow that sudden lump in my throat. I lost it all when that over enthusiastic voice filled my car with the exciting news that Jackson indeed had another video he was currently working on, one that would soon be released.
That’s when I nearly lost my grip on my steering wheel, had to blink several times to keep the tears from clouding my sight.
He was already working on something new. He had replaced me easily.
I thought it was hard enough to go through a divorce, especially a divorce in a small town. Everybody knew about it, didn’t matter where I went, people would stare, they all knew I was the girl whose marriage ended.
I did what Clint asked. Had all my stuff packed up and was gone by the time he came back from his run. I did it all by myself, didn’t ask anyone for help, went looking for a new place to stay.
It was pure luck that I found this sweet little apartment, a small place where I could hide away, try to recover from my wounds.
Clint didn’t bother me, never came looking for me. I got some divorce papers served to me weeks after I moved. I didn’t contest anything, and he didn’t ask for more than his half. He cited irreconcilable differences as the reason, and I was grateful that he didn’t want to drag us all through the mud like I thought he was.
It took some adjusting to, the being alone part. I had a hard time the first few months sitting in my apartment, the silence suffocating me. There was nothing to hide me from my thoughts, nothing to keep me from wanting Jackson.
The world around me still kept spinning, the sun kept rising and setting, but the loneliness never left. It encircled me, trapped me in time, kept my heart frozen in place.
So the day that I heard that radio announcer tell the whole world that Jackson was making a new video, a new video that obviously was going to have someone else star in it…
It dawned on me that he was moving on, and that it was time for me to do the same.
“What in sam hill is going on with Son? One minute he’s telling me on the phone that’s he’s not done with his song yet, that we can’t start another video, that Sweet Pea can’t get away, and now you three are telling me it’s all finished? The song? The music? Even the video?” Jared was standing there in disbelief, his eyes blinking wildly around him, “Where is Son anyhow?”
“He’s just been really busy Jared. He hasn’t had the time to tell you.” Cheryl just kept praying that this would work. Jared had to accept this, and it had to air. Jackson couldn’t find out, it was the entire reason why she brought Dustin and Brett here with her.
“Jack’s tour is so packed, there’s no more free time, he just thought we should do it this way.” Dustin wasn’t crazy about lying to Jared, or Jackson, he knew this would come back to bite him in the butt one day, but he’d been outnumbered by Cheryl and Brett. They cornered him. But when he heard it for the first time, and saw some of the pictures Cheryl showed him, deep down inside he knew it would turn out good, really really good.
“You can still edit it any way you see fit, there’s plenty of extra footage. The only thing we can’t change…uhhh, or do over is the singing, it has to stay exactly how it sounds here on the CD.” Brett thrust out his hand to Jared, placing the CD and the film footage in Jared’s outstretched arms. Brett knew the only reason Jared couldn’t change the singing was because they were only able to record it once, after Dustin rigged Jackson’s room in the back of the tour bus.
“So Son’s okay with this? And so it Sweet Pea?” Jared glanced down at the items in his hand and then back up to the three standing before him. It wasn’t settling well with him. “What’s the name of this here song anyhow?”
Brett shrugged his shoulders at Jared hoping he wouldn’t put it all together once he heard it, “Jackson and Ara are fine with it…it’s just something Jack threw together during a break from his tour…it’s called…uh…it’s called,” he glanced around to both Cheryl and Dustin in haste, they hadn’t talked about the name. He racked his brain for something to call it, something that would stand out, when Jackson’s own words rang through Brett’s head loud and clear, “It’s called…She Ain’t Mine…”