You Don't Know Her Like I Do
I don’t know why, but Dustin and Brett looked more nervous than usual before watching me walk out on the set of Jay Leno. Normally I would’ve asked point blank what was wrong, but right now I was in no mood to care.
I was supposed to have the night off and I was pissed that Cheryl dragged me here for this appearance at the last minute. She was adamant that I needed to attend even though I argued with her the entire way there.
“Come on Jackson, it's Jay Leno. He’s really funny, you guys have the same sense of humor, he always makes you laugh.” Cheryl thrust her hand out, trying to offer me a bottle of water. We were sitting in the back of the limousine she booked for tonight. That was another thing that threw me off, we never went anywhere in a limo unless it was awards night.
When I refused the water, Dustin leaned forward in his seat and reached for it readily, this was odd because Dustin always preferred a cold beer over water anytime.
“What is this appearance for anyways?” I slouched down in the soft leather, trying to adjust my belt buckle that was digging into my skin. “We’re not debuting anything. I don’t even have a new single in the works.”
“Uh, yeah well,” Cheryl half mumbled her words making me turn my head towards her, “But Jay called, you don’t turn down Jay when he calls.”
All of it should have raised red flags, but I’d been living in a fog these last few months, not caring or feeling anything unless I was singing on stage, my stage. That was the only time I felt alive, felt like Ara was with me. I’d gotten used to having that beautiful face gracing the big screen behind me during my concerts. At first, it used to torture me, fill my heart with unbearable stabbing pain. Now, it’s what kept me alive, the only way I could see her, feel her around me, and it was all that I lived for, my concerts, and being on my stage.
Unless I was out there singing, I wanted no part in anything else. I refused the guest appearance to play with Tim McGraw when he filmed his summer special, and when we happened to be in New York, I politely declined Mick Jagger’s invitation to play my guitar at Madison Square Garden with the Rolling Stones, much to Dustin’s outrage. I thought Dustin and Brett would never talk to me again after that.
When Cheryl announced I had an appearance on Jay Leno’s show, with no warning, and less than two hours to get ready, yeah, I was pissed, but my will to fight was gone, so while I was not happy about it, and fussed the entire way, I let Cheryl dress me up and got in the limo with about as much joy as attending a funeral.
I’d been on Jay’s show before so everything was familiar to me, the green room, backstage crew.
The audience’s cheers sounded nice as I walked out on the set. I even managed a smile and small wave as I made my way over to Jay’s desk.
“Hottest man in country music, Jackson Stone, ladies and gentlemen.” Jay shook my hand and offered me a seat.
“Great to see you again.” I settled in my chair, getting comfortable. I always enjoyed chatting with Jay, Cheryl was right; we had the same sense of humor.
“I hear your tour’s on fire my man, sold out Los Angeles in fifteen minutes. I didn’t have a chance to get tickets, got me in trouble with the wife!” The crowd chuckled at Jay’s words and his friendly tone put me at ease right away.
“How many times have I told you Sir. You just need to call me up, or better yet, you and Mavis should come over for dinner sometime.” I tipped my hat at him with a wink.
“If I did that, I wouldn’t be able to get Mavis to leave.” Jay joked, getting the audience to giggle again. “In fact she’s bouncing off the walls; along with all the other women in here I’m sure, to see your new video.”
“My what?” I turned my head sharply in his direction, positive I heard wrong.
“Don’t start getting modest on me now cowboy, you’ve been keeping thousands of women swooning with those videos, we’re honored you’re letting us premiere your latest one.”
I just stared at him dumbfounded. What the fuck was he talking about? He kept grinning at me; going on about screaming women and video premieres, apparently he must have mixed me up with another guest he was expecting tonight.
“Uh…I’m sorry,” His words were making the room spin; I just shook my head at him, “My what?”
Jay thought I was still joking with him; he just laughed out loud and waved his hand in the air dismissing my confusion, turning his attention to his audience, his voice full of merriment, “He must have fallen off his horse ladies and gentlemen, pay no mind to his pathetic attempts to divert us from what we all want to see.”
I could hear the whirring of this big white screen being lowered down over by the far end of the stage, the lights dimming a little bit, and it seemed like every head in the audience turned away from Jay and me, and over across the stage all at the same time. I kept blinking, trying to shake the surprise from my face. I didn’t know what this was all about but my heart was racing all the same, it felt surreal.
“I have to tell you Jackson,” Jay’s words sounded so far away, but they jerked me to attention, “I had a little peek of this one earlier in the day when I got to work, this is the best one yet. And your co-star, I don’t where you found her but she makes sweet and innocent the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen.”
It was hard to imagine now that there ever was a time when my life held so much excitement. Most of my days consisted of getting up, going to work, then going home. I rarely talked to anyone anymore, rarely went out. Sometimes I had to force myself to go to the grocery store to stock up on more food when my cupboards got bare.
Today was no different. Once I walked through the door after work, I tossed on my favorite faded sweat pants and oversized tee. I plopped myself down on my sofa, my big flannel blanket in one hand and a few magazines in the other. I flipped through them absentmindedly, looking at the pictures and reading a few articles about the lives of famous celebrities. I used to scoff at the stories back in the day, the ones claiming such and such actor was cheating on his wife or girlfriend. I always suspected they were just rumors, vicious made up stories so the magazine would sell.
Now I knew better.
It was already dark outside when I finally got up. I never bothered to make dinner anymore, a bowl of cereal or soup usually was dinner for me nowadays. I poured myself a bowl of cereal. I’d lost fifteen pounds since that fateful day in Arizona. I know it looked terrible on me, you could see the hollow on my cheeks and my arms and legs were stick thin.
But I didn’t care, didn’t care about much anymore, not even myself.
I grabbed the remote off the sofa cushion next to me and began scrolling through the channels, nothing captured my interest, but I kept pressing that channel button anyways, knowing I needed to leave it on something that would take my mind away, or else it would drift, dangerously wander back to him.
And the hurt would start all over again.
That was the one thing I wouldn’t let my mind do, think of him, because if I did, the feelings and memories would swallow me whole, crush and destroy me more than I already was.
The colors all blurred and blended together as I pushed my finger down harder on the remote making all the channels fly past crazily, it matched the chaos I created in my mind. I tried to shake it, make myself calm down.
All I really wanted to do now was curl myself into a ball on the sofa and close my eyes, but I wasn’t sleepy and I knew the memories would flood me then. I stared stubbornly at the remote, telling myself that the next channel it landed on, I would leave it there, no matter what was playing.
The lively music of the Tonight Show filled my small living room and Jay Leno’s smiling face graced my screen. I felt instant relief, knowing his funny jokes and witty conversation would spare me at least an hour from the prison in my mind.
His opening monologue actually made me chuckle, and by the time the first commercial aired I had a smile on my face and was actually eating.
“My next guest has nineteen number one’s, five CMA’s and the fastest sell out tour this summer, please welcome the hottest man in country music, Jackson Stone, ladies and gentlemen.”
And there he was, smiling and waving as he moved across the stage. It all happened so fast I didn’t have time to react. My hands froze, holding my bowl in midair. I could feel my heart start racing, my breathing more rapid. Yet I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen.
He still looked beautiful, breathtakingly beautiful, shaking Jays hand, making a few funny jokes in that adorable southern accent. He settled comfortably in his chair, crossing his legs and adjusting his hat at the same time.
I just sat there, mesmerized all over again, finding it hard to believe that I knew this gorgeous man so intimately and just the same, he was a stranger.
My hands started shaking then, and I put my bowl down by my feet. My stomach was already doing these crazy flip flops, and when Edward smiled at the camera again, my heart jumped.
My ears finally began paying attention to their conversation, and once I realized why Jackson was there, on that show, my world tilted once again. He was there to show his new video, the video I wasn’t in.
“We’re honored you’re letting us premier it.” Jay was chuckling because Jackson truly looked bewildered, glancing around him, those green eyes shaded with confusion.
Despite my heavy breathing and spinning head, I focused harder on him, or tried to, all I could see was Jackson lean forward in his chair, his eyes blinking rapidly as he turned to Jay. I could hear his voice; it was choppy and full of anxiety. “I’m sorry, my what?” he asked, but Jay didn’t answer him, the television was already fading out, the image of Jackson and Jay turning a hazy grey until the screen finally went white.
I could feel the cereal coming back up my throat; I was so full of anxiety and dread. I was going to see who he picked to replace me, who the new girl would be.
I wasn’t breathing, my hand went straight up to cover my mouth. I should’ve been running for the bathroom then, but my heart wouldn’t let me move. My eyes were glued to the screen as I waited, waited to see her.
It started out with Jackson sitting on a wooden crate, his guitar in hand. I could tell, from the background, that he was where we filmed our first video, Broken. My heart lurched again from the familiarity of it all, throbbing with hurt that he was using this, a place that we shared together, to premiere a video with another girl in it.
There was no music, nothing, he was just looking down at his guitar, studying his hands quietly, until finally he played a few random chords, they were light and beautiful, made you want to hear more. But he stopped abruptly, looking up sharply, not so much at the camera, but at someone past the camera, almost as if he didn’t even know the camera was there, as if he didn’t know he was being filmed.
His expression changed, those serious green eyes suddenly lit up and his face broke into a brilliant smile. The camera moved, leaving that beautiful face. It slowly panned across some colorful flowers, a grass field, making everyone watching it wonder what Jackson was smiling about.
And then you could see, what made him smile, what was making those eyes twinkle with affection.
It was me.
I was sitting in the middle of the grass. My head was down, my hair falling over my shoulders as my fingers grazed across the tiny green strands.
The shock of seeing myself there made me suck in my breath, the need for the bathroom forgotten. I could feel the half sob, half choking noise escape my throat, and I could only sit there in disbelief. I just kept staring at the screen, feeling as though my heart would burst out of my body as I watched.
The music started then, somewhere far off in the background. My ears half expected to hear Broken. I mean that’s where we were, when we filmed Broken.
But a new melody danced through the room. It was light, acoustic, just the guitar and Jackson’s hauntingly, beautiful voice. It filled my entire soul, it was so full of emotion, deep and drawn out, you could hear a longing tremor in his accent with every word he sang.
The camera didn’t show him singing, it kept flashing these random images, like a slide show, keeping me completely glued to the screen.
Jackson’s voice rose and fell, he filled the room with the most beautiful music I had ever heard.
I could feel my breathing start to get choppy, kept watching those pictures flash across my television.
I don’t know how they did all this, how they got it on film, everything I was seeing wasn’t taken from our videos, wasn’t anything that we rehearsed, it was just these ordinary moments that happened when we thought no one was watching.
It tore a gasp and sob from deep inside me, because that video showed everything. I saw how he would turn and look at me every few seconds whenever my hair and makeup were being done, saw the look in his eyes when he reached for my hand for the first time on the Shine video set, saw him singing to me at his concert in Vegas.
I swore every time I saw those green eyes, they weren’t lying, they were filled with joy, and happiness.
Each picture told a story, and listening to the lyrics, it was a story of a man in love, in love with a woman who wasn’t his, who would never be his.
When I saw the last frame, the last picture, that’s when I couldn’t hold the tears inside anymore.
Because we were both sitting on a swinging bench, you could see him; half slouched down, his face turned up to me, his eyes bright and his hand pointing at the clouds in the sky. But it was the look on my face, it showed me what I knew all along, I wasn’t looking up at the sky, or laughing, or even grinning, I was looking down at him with just a hint of a smile, my hands resting in my lap.
It was the look in my eyes. It didn’t matter that you couldn’t tell what we were saying to each other, you didn’t have to hear it because you could see it, you could feel it, clear as day. My eyes spoke volumes, they were wide and round, full of pride and love, and they were completely focused on him.
Nothing else around me mattered.
Nothing else, except him.
I watched through a blur of tears the screen change again, going back to Jay and Jackson. Jay was trying to talk, but the audience was just going nuts, screaming and cheering. The camera kept going back and forth from the excited crowd, to Jay’s chuckling face, to Jackson’s.
Instead of looking pleased, proud of the reaction his video just received, he looked stunned, completely stunned.
He wasn’t even looking at Jay, just staring blindly across the set, his body frozen, his eyes full of grief.
Without even realizing it, I was leaning forward, tilting my head in wonder.
His expression completely matched mine, it was almost as if he’d just watched this for the first time, just like me.
That’s how much time passed from when the video ended and Jay cut to commercial. They first thirty were filled with screams and cheers from his audience. They loved it, it captured them, made them feel something.
I just sat there in shock.
Complete utter shock.
I don’t know who had been filming every free second of me and Ara off set. I don’t know how they managed to capture every feeling, every emotion, the chemistry that just sparkled between us.
And the song.
I only sang it in completion in my room at the back of my tour bus, and only a few times.
I had no idea I sounded like that when I sang it. You could literally feel the despair in it, the intense longing it held.
My heart was aching, and it traveled like fire, consuming me faster than I could recover.
Jay could tell something was off. He let the audience continue to cheer, clapping along with them, casting a worried glance in my direction.
When the noise finally died down he chatted nonstop, mostly to the camera and audience about the video and how they could download the song on Itunes. He finally cut to commercial, and when the green camera light turned red, he leaned closer to me, his hand reaching out and patting my arm.
“You okay buddy?”
I just gave him a blank stare in return, my heart was pounding too hard to let me reply, and the grief, it began to overwhelm me.
“You look a little pale, let’s get you out of here okay buddy? Hang on.” Jay rose from his chair and made it look like he was just walking me off the set, his hand hovering under my bent elbow; he was really genuinely concerned and made sure one of his backstage crew walked the rest of the way with me to the green room.
They all looked guilty.
Every single one of them.
Cheryl, Dustin, Brett.
And as soon as I saw their expressions I very quickly figured it out.
“How did you do it? How’d you get the song?” My voice didn’t hold anger. I was still swirling in emotion from watching that video, from feeling everything all over again.
Cheryl stepped towards me, her guilty look quickly changing to concern, but it was Brett who spoke first.
“We kinda stumbled upon it. I saw the lyrics for it in your book, you dropped it on the plane and I kept it.”
Dustin nodded, rising from his seat, “I accidentally heard you sing it, it was the middle of night. I couldn’t sleep, you were singing all by yourself, on the bus.”
“The song is really beautiful Jackson, too beautiful not to share it," Cheryl finally found her voice, her eyes flashed with consideration, and she chose her words carefully, “with her.”
All the grief and pent up emotions just exploded from me then. Did they really think I didn’t want to share anything with her? Fuck. I wanted to share my life with her.
“She’s probably not even watching this.” I couldn’t bear to let hope in, “And if she were, I’m sure she doesn’t give a damn about it, or me.”
Cheryl’s eyes grew wide at my words, “How can you say that? Couldn’t you see her? Didn’t you see her face on that screen? How she looks at you.” her voice trailed off in frustration.
“Yeah I could see it, the whole fucking world could see it, but what your sneaky little cameras didn’t see was the look in her eyes when I let her go. I failed her, just like everyone else in my fucking life, I failed her.” And I really believed it. There was no way she would ever look at me again, the way she did in those videos. I let her down.
Cheryl let out this little humph sound at my words, she spun around looking at Brett and Dustin in exasperation before turning to me, “I’ve never been able to figure out why men are so dense. What’s it going to take Jackson, for you to realize what you need to do. It’s obvious to everyone in this room. To everyone who just watched that video. If you say you failed her, it’s only because you failed yourself!” She threw up her hands in defeat, turning away from me, “You’ve got two weeks to figure out what you’re going to say her when you see her face to face. The label is designing a cover for this single and they want her on it. I’ve already sent her the agenda and the tickets.”
I didn’t know how I was going to handle it. My entire being was on the edge, anticipating seeing her again, but I was dreading it at the same time. She must hate me, she had to hate me. I discarded her like a used toy, never bothered to check on her, see if she was okay.
At first I thought she would turn Cheryl down, refuse to fly out. I kept waiting for Cheryl to announce that the cover would be made without Ara on it, but Cheryl stayed quiet, not mentioning Ara’s name in front of me at all.
She Ain’t Mine. That fucking single haunted me. Everything about it tortured me. It hit number one in days and tauntingly held its place there. The song played a million times a day on the radio, and the video tried to match that number equally on television. I cursed Dustin and Brett in my head constantly for naming it that. I blamed the name for not being grammatically correct, a lot of country singles had names grammatically incorrect, I never done it before.
Honestly, I hated the reality of it, that despite the bad grammar, the name was a perfect match, and the fact that so many people were listening to my raw feelings and watching them on screen. I hated that I couldn’t hide from it, couldn’t deny it from myself anymore. It was everything I ever held inside of me spread out for all to see, shoved all my failures right in my face.
“She sees the video differently.” Brett been sitting quietly across from me on our bus, he hadn’t said much after that Tonight Show taping, but right now he looked like he could see the struggle raging inside my head.
My eyes shot up to his, “Who does?” But I already knew what he was talking about.
“You know who.” Brett never beat around the bush, “Miss Ara. She sees the video differently than you do, I’m sure of it.”
“What makes you so sure?” I tried to keep the eagerness out of my voice, but I desperately wanted to know what she might be thinking, even if it wasn’t really from her.
“Because just like every video she’s ever made with you, she sees life as this wonderful, delicate thing, and she sees you as a man who is capable of changing the world.”
I just scoffed at his words, turning my head to look out the window. We were almost in Wisconsin, I was scheduled to perform for their annual Country Thunder event they held every year. This is where Ara was supposed to be as well, where we were going to shoot the cover for the single.
“Dustin and I can’t forgive ourselves,” Brett leaned forward in his seat, and my head snapped back towards him at his words, “We’ve always known Layla was a mistake. We should have tried to stop you from marrying her.”
He was serious, but I was tired, tired of going round this same old thing. “I wasn’t a little kid. I was a grown man who made a decision.” I shrugged my shoulders at him, dismissing his words.
“You made a decision without all the facts. I should have told you. I told Dustin, but I never told you.”
“Told me what?” Now he had my full attention, “What did you tell Dustin?”
Brett hesitated for a just a second, his eyes briefly losing hold on mine, before looking right at me, “A few months after you started dating Layla, I don’t know, it was right after you got engaged, we were still on tour, opening for Rascal Flatts, I think you invited her out there that night to watch or something, she was there. We were supposed to go on in less than thirty minutes, and you were out talking to the audio guy, your earpiece wasn’t working right, she came in to our room. I was the only one in there. She was being nice at first, telling me how much she liked our music, how much fun she was having.”
He paused then, and I could already feel it, already knew what was coming.
Brett gave out a little sigh and shook his head, “She tried to kiss me, throw herself on my lap, told me she much rather be with me than you, invited me back to her hotel room when the concert was over. I blew her off Jackson, told her no. She just laughed at me, said I shouldn’t be so loyal to you, and that it didn’t matter what she did, you were going to marry her anyways.
I didn’t say anything, tried not to let anymore hurt in, just stared at Brett, my expression emotionless.
“I wanted to tell you. I told Dustin that same night. We both tried to corner you but she wouldn’t leave you alone. I should have just blurted it out, right in front of her. I didn’t though, because every time I saw you smiling at her, I thought that you were finally really happy, and I thought about everything you gave up in high school for us, how hard it was for you to find someone. It wasn’t until we met Miss Ara that I realized how wrong I was.”
I couldn’t even answer him. All that came out of my throat was this soft choking sound. Brett leaned forward in his chair, his eyes more serious than I ever seen them.
“You’ve never loved Layla, whatever it was that you two had, that wasn’t love. But Miss Ara, you could see it instantly, almost from the day you met her, the way you act, alive and unafraid. We all see it in you. But what I think you don’t realize, because of everything that has been in the way since the beginning, is that she looks at you the exact same way. Husband or no husband, I know she loves you, but she won’t ever let you know, because first you took away her choice to tell you, and then, you just let her go.”
Brett eyed me sadly one last time before getting up and heading for the front of the bus, we were rolling into town now, it wouldn’t be long before we pulled into the hotel.
“I’m aware this might be the last time we see her, Cheryl had to pull quite a few strings to get this cover off the ground. There won’t be anyone here to get in your way, and there will probably never be another reason for her to come back.”
He didn’t come right out and say it, but I knew what he meant. I stayed in the bus that night for a long time, alone in the parking lot. Just sat there by the window and looked out into all that darkness, all that black emptiness. Trying to make sense of Brett’s words, trying to make sense of my life.
Neither seemed easy to do.
Sometime later, when there were no more cars going in and out of the parking lot, and the lamps outside the building had dimmed, I finally got down from my bus. Cheryl hadn’t informed me of anything yet; my best guess was that Ara would be arriving in the morning. I decided a good night’s sleep and a hot shower would help me face her easier.
I let myself in through the back entrance. It was the employee entrance, and since it was after hours the hallways were dark. No one would see me. I made my way past the laundry machines and a couple of broken vending machines, still trying to put my thoughts into place.
I knew the elevators were on the other side of the desk clerk, but she probably wouldn’t notice me, I could hear her voice, she was completely occupied; a late arriving guest was keeping her busy.
I pulled my ball cap down low on forehead and started to make my way across behind the desk clerk.
I didn’t even step outside the darkness. I could hear it. I could hear her, she was talking with the desk clerk, no, arguing more like it. Her voice rose and then rose some more, she sounded determined, almost angry. But that voice, it still did it to me, turn me inside out, put my heart on my sleeve.
I started to listen to her. The desk clerk was going on and on about me, the band, the videos. Telling her that she doubted my character, wondered if I was truly genuine.
I could hear the frustration in Ara’s voice, the finality of it, she had enough, and it rose to even a higher pitch.
That’s when I could hear her defend me. Her voice was strong and challenging. It kept me frozen in place, despite everything I’d done to her, she was still protecting my name, protecting me.
I gripped the wall dizzily, half believing that my ears were playing tricks on me, thinking that if I peeked around that wall she wouldn’t even be standing there.
My body jerked out of its frozen state, moving out of the darkness, past the wall that was hiding me so well.
She looked up then, as if she knew all along I was standing there. I could feel the shock making my bones stiffen, feel my eyes grow wide as they met hers.
I couldn’t move. I wanted to move, wanted to reach out and touch her to see if she was really there, say something to her to make her smile, because right now she wasn’t smiling.
I didn’t even have a chance to blink. She moved past me so fast, nothing from her expression showed that she saw me. I almost wondered if she did.
The only thing I could hear after that was the small ring of the elevator doors opening, and then silence.
Right up until two hours before the flight was to take off; I had my mind set on not going.
I didn’t tell anyone, not that there was anyone to tell. The polite thing would be to call Cheryl and kindly decline the invitation and ticket to Wisconsin. There was nothing in the envelope besides some kind of agenda for some photo shoot and a plane ticket.
It was cold and formal. No hint of Jackson, no warmth at all.
There wasn’t even an explanation of song or video to She Ain’t Mine, but of course I didn't expect one.
I honestly didn’t think I could ever come face to face with Jackson Stone ever again. My heart simply couldn’t take that kind of torment any longer.
So I tucked the envelope away at the bottom of my kitchen drawer, underneath all the hand towels and tried to forget about it.
Still, as every day passed, I could feel it calling to me, playing with my emotions, causing these torturous dreams to fall over me at night. Dreams where Jackson was always smiling and holding me close, where his kisses trailed over the most sensitive areas of my body, down my neck, inside my thighs. His hands were always warm and gentle, caressing my cheek, closing over my breasts.
I wouldn’t let him use me that way again. Use my heart that way again.
I tried to avoid that drawer in my kitchen the day of the flight but it was unavoidable, testing me at every turn, urging me to pack a bag and head for the airport. The flight didn’t leave for hours yet, I still had the entire morning and most of the afternoon to fight the temptation. It prompted me to tie on my running shoes and grab my house key; maybe going for a long walk would do me some good.
And it did for the first twenty minutes. I made my way down to the local park, there was a track next to it, and it was always filled with children and adults enjoying the sunshine and getting in some daily exercise.
I didn’t run the track, merely walked it, keeping a steady pace as I watched some children play on the nearby playground equipment. My eyes traveled from one child to the next, each of them happy, each of them with a bright future ahead. I could feel myself blinking back the tears. A bright future ahead.
That would never be me.
I tore my eyes away as quickly as I could, trying to breathe at the same time. Tried not to let everything overwhelm me. I was stronger now. I knew that.
Still, nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.
In the midst of trying to pull myself together I nearly stumbled over a couple jogging towards me. I struggled to focus on them and apologize for the near collision, taking a few short breaths to regain my breathing.
“Excuse me.” The woman and I spoke to each other at the same time, moving politely away from each other as we passed. It was the man’s voice that made us all stop.
I recognized Clint’s voice instantly. It jolted me from my thoughts and stopped me cold in my tracks. I looked up into Clint’s face. He was breathing heavily from jogging, looking down at me, a slight frown on his face.
“Oh! Clint. Hi.” I was at loss for words; the shock of being face to face with Clint threw me.
“I didn’t know you came out here.” His features softened but his voice stayed steady. I could only nod and finally glance at his running partner.
“I don’t usually.” I quickly looked back into Clint’s face, “Just today.” my voice trailed off.
“This is Summer.” He nodded at his partner and gave her a small smile, “She’s a great runner.” Summer shot Clint a happy grin and smiled politely at me. It took Clint another second before he tore his gaze from her, “Summer, this is my ex-wife Arabella.”
Something happened there, some part of the past that was wrapped around me got set free. A lot of the guilt and regret, all the pain I knew I was the cause of, I could see it unravel, float away like a ribbon in a breeze.
We didn’t exchange any further conversation. I didn’t learn anything else about Summer, but my heart was telling me I didn’t destroy Clint, his life was moving on. He had a bright future ahead, just like all those children out there.
I was the only one standing in my own way. Holding myself back. I knew that if I wanted to move on, have a future, I would have to come to terms with my past. I would have to forgive myself, and forgive Jackson. He had already said goodbye to me, now it was my turn to say goodbye to him.
The hotel was eerily quiet when I arrived. Everything was dark outside, and there was only one person behind the desk, a young woman who looked bored until she saw me. When I mentioned my name, her eyes grew wide with awe and she quickly gushed how Jackson Stone was her favorite singer and how great his videos were.
“His band checked in a couple of hours ago, but he hasn’t arrived yet. Do you know if he’ll be arriving soon?” She was telling me all this as if I were someone important, as if I knew all the answers, little did she know I knew just as much as she did at this point.
“Uh…no, I’m sorry, I haven’t been in contact with Mr. Stone lately, but I’m sure he’ll arrive soon.” I gave her a polite smile and tried not to snatch the key card out of her hand.
“I hope we get to see you both together, are you here to film something new?” She wouldn’t let that key card go, and I thought for sure we were going to get into some kind of tug of war over it.
“No, I’m not aware of anything new. I’m here simply for a photo shoot.” I kept telling myself it wouldn’t look good if I got into a fight with the desk girl, she wasn’t doing anything wrong but her voice was annoying me.
“You’re so lucky. You get to see him all the time. Is he a nice guy in real life? He seems like a nice guy, but sometimes it’s all a joke, and they turn out to be jerks.”
Now that did it, I yanked the key card from her hands, thankful the large wooden desk was between us, “He’s one of the sweetest men I’ve ever met. He’s more than nice, and if more people were like him, this world would be a lot more pleasant.”
I would have said more. I was ready to say more, but that’s when I saw him there. He was halfway hidden behind the turn of the dark hallway, the outline of his broad shoulders making shadows on the wall behind him. His green eyes were wide and round as they watched me and I could see his fingers gripping the corner of the wall frame with so much force his knuckles were nearly white.
I could feel my hands start to shake, my voice lost in a trail of nonsense jibberish.
He was looking at me as if he saw a ghost, and I wasn’t ready to face him yet, still tumbling from annoyance the desk girl had ignited in me.
I just swallowed hard, tearing my eyes away from his, and looked down at the key card in my hand.
The desk girl was still trying to be helpful, “Your room is on the top floor, the elevator is to your right.”
Her words were enough to push me onward, and I gripped that key card harder and walked right past him, walked pass the darkness he was hidden in and headed for the elevators. I kept waiting to hear his voice, my ears strained to make out that pretty accent, but there was nothing, nothing but the soft ding of the arriving elevator and the quiet humming of the doors opening for me.
I stepped inside, slowly turning myself around, trying to ignore the cry my heart was making, trying to shut out the wish that he would magically appear in front of those still open doors and come inside with me.
But he didn’t.
The doors closed with a soft whoosh and I found myself alone, rising to the top floor not knowing what to expect next…