Kiss You Tonight
He’d been making me laugh all morning.
As soon as I made my way downstairs to the small conference room in the hotel where Cheryl told me they were all having breakfast, I could see how happy he was, how carefree.
The sight of him eating and joking around with the guys lifted my heart, sent a smile spreading across my face. His eyes were all lit up, his body so relaxed against his chair; he chuckled at something Dustin said to him before grabbing another biscuit from the bowl in the center of the table.
They all greeted me good morning, Cheryl urging me to grab a plate of food. There was a long table to the right of us filled with every kind of breakfast food you could imagine.
I placed a croissant and a small cup of fruit on my plate. There was only one empty chair next to Jackson. It didn’t look or feel like that was done on purpose, I actually was happy to take the seat next to him, and the few butterflies that I couldn’t ignore fluttered rapidly when he looked up at me with that lopsided, little boy grin.
“Good Morning Miss Ara. You sleep well?” He moved his napkin over so that I would have more room on the table next to him, all while smiling at me.
“Yes, thank you. How about you?” There was no stopping my smile or the affection in my voice, I didn’t even try to, and his grin got even bigger as I sat down.
“Slept like a baby.” He grabbed a quick drink of water from his glass, “Thought I’d be too excited to sleep but those pillows were just calling my name.”
“Yeah, they were heavenly but I’m glad you slept, tonight’s a big night for you. I’m excited too.” I smiled at him and looked around the table at the others. They all had the same look on their faces, it was almost comical, these open-mouthed aww looks as they watched Jackson and I talk. Cheryl even gave out a small giggle when my eyes met hers.
Jackson seemed oblivious to their stares and turned his head towards me, “I can’t thank you enough for staying.” his smile was still there but his words were just a little more serious, “It means the world to me, and maybe later, before you leave I can show you the moon song.”
My head tilted in question, “The moon song?”
He chuckled at my reaction, “Yeah, the other night, remember? We were looking at the moon. Well I did it, I wrote a song about it.”
“You did? Really?” My brain told me not to read too much into it, that the song was actually about the moon, but my heart told me otherwise.
“Sure did,” He kept right on smiling at me, “And it came out pretty nice if I say so myself.”
I couldn’t help it, I’m sure I blushed. It was just the way he was looking at me, the way his eyes twinkled as they stared into mine. “I’d love to hear it.” I know my voice gave me away, showed what was playing in my heart but there was no stopping it, I knew I wasn’t going to be with him much longer, I wasn't really trying to hide it.
He just grinned wider at me and bumped my shoulder playfully with his, “Thank you Ma’am.”
It took all my strength not to melt at his words.
For some reason I really happy here. I guess all this wide-open space left me with a sense of peace, and I was super excited about tonight. I’d been coveting that songwriter’s award for years now.
It just added to my excitement that Ara was going to share it with me, and I looked forward to the evening seeing her stand up on stage holding that trophy. If we were going to end, at least I could share this one last night with her, this once in a lifetime event.
To kill time and before the sun got too bright we all made our way out behind the hotel, past the pool and weight room. We lent up at the children’s playground. There was this little pond near the side; these wide, white stones surrounded it. The pond itself couldn’t be more than two feet deep. Tiny specks of orange and gold flickered throughout it as goldfish swam in dizzy circles.
Dustin and Cheryl stopped by the swings, Cheryl was urging him to push her, and I knew he would, eventually. Brett settled nearby under the shade of a large bushy tree that had these tiny purple looking flower buds dotted on it.
But I went all the way up to the pond, and Ara followed me. It was nice, I was listening to her voice. She was chatting about a random story involving her students and muddy water. Her words were light and airy, matching her mood, and the breeze made her hair move back and forth along her shoulders.
I didn’t sit down, just stood at the edge of the smooth stones, my hands in my jean pockets, and looked down into the water. I could see the moving goldfish, the sunlight sparkling through the tiny waves as the water swished about, and finally, as Ara stood next to me, I could see our reflections, they bounced off the water, moving hazily along the ripples, brightly shining back at both of us.
I stared at down at them for a long minute, tried not to let that familiar wishful want to seep back into my being, but at the same time not fighting it very hard. I wondered if she felt the same way, she’d fallen silent and she stared down into the water too.
“It’s pretty.” her voice lowered.
I could see her eyes looking at me through the reflection in the water.
“Yes it is.” And this time I couldn’t deny the ache flowing through me.
“Every place you’ve ever taken me, it’s always so pretty. I won’t ever forget it, even when I leave tomorrow, I won’t ever forget you.” Her eyes never left my reflection in the water, her words were strong and honest.
I just turned to her, to face her, knowing my voice was going to sound raw, “I won’t forget you either, not tomorrow, not the next day, not ever.”
She smiled at me, soft and shaky, her eyes were shining though, and I wanted to say it to her, that I loved her, that I would always love her.
“Promise me you’ll keep writing, and singing. But do it for you, not anyone else, just for you.” her eyes kept searching mine, holding me there, holding my heart.
“Yes Ma’am, I promise.” my voice had gone down almost to a whisper, and I knew if I didn’t tell her now, I would never tell her.
She took a little breath, her smile not leaving her, “I’m glad I stayed,” she nodded slightly, “For tonight, I wouldn’t want to miss that.”
“I’m glad you stayed.” I repeated her words, “I’m glad I’m sharing this with you, you’re the only one I want to share this with.” and that was the closest I was going to get…
The Isleta Amphitheater was a lot bigger than I imagined it. There were just rows and rows of empty seats going further back than my eyes could focus. It made me slightly nervous. Cheryl said tonight was sold out, that meant every one of those seats would be filled.
I was by myself out here on the stage. Actually I snuck out of my dressing room to come out and peek. It was empty, the crew and technicians had finished hours earlier so the only thing that shared this space with me was a single microphone sitting on its stand in the center of the stage.
I stood there next to it, tried to imagine for a minute how Jackson felt standing up here, looking out. It really was frightening; to be honest, but at the same time I could see why it was rewarding too.
My heels clicked softly as I moved away from the microphone and over to the edge of the stage looking past the rows of seats.
I was leaving tomorrow.
Leaving behind all of this.
This was the last night I would ever spend with him, and Cheryl, and Dustin and Brett.
It tore a sigh out of me and I kept trying to see if I could make out the last row, I couldn’t.
I knew I would never get over Jackson, never stop loving him, but at least I came to terms with that, and with letting him go. I hoped he understood what I was trying to say this morning back at the goldfish pond. He looked like he understood, but at the same time, his eyes, they held so much grief.
It was still too far away to see, the last row. Just a blur, everything blending into each other making it one big mass of darkness.
I gave up trying, and closed my eyes. I willed the tears away, this was going to be such a big night for him, I couldn’t ruin it, not with tears, or wishful thinking. I would be strong, for him, and for me. I would somehow get through tonight.
And I would leave tomorrow.
“I love you.” I whispered into the emptiness, opening my eyes and glancing at the endless rows one last time before turning around and heading back to my dressing room.
Back inside I slipped into this pretty white lacey dress, it screamed of country style with a sweetheart neckline and flowing skirt, Cheryl given it to me earlier this afternoon telling me to wear it with my boots. I didn’t question her, I figured since this was going to be a televised event that she wanted my look to be county, and not glamorous.
I opted to get ready on my own today. Waved away the make up girl and the hairstylist. Something in the back of my head just kept telling me to keep it simple, not to overdo it. So I just dabbed a bit of foundation and some shimmer powder along my cheekbones, used a brown instead of black to line my eyes. A touch of gloss along my lips finished my face. I actually liked the way I looked, nothing heavy, it was me.
I didn’t expect to see anyone before the awards began. I knew they were all getting ready and wouldn’t have time for me, so I was truly surprised when there was a short knock on my door and Cheryl peeked her head inside my room.
“Hey Cheryl!” I turned around with a smile, “What are you doing here? Don’t we start in like ten minutes?” I turned away from my mirror and over to the door where Cheryl was standing.
I should’ve seen it on her face, but I didn’t. Her words literally threw me, “Hey Ara, you look beautiful. I don’t have time to explain, but I didn’t want you to go out there without knowing, and be surprised.” she paused, I could see the light fade from her eyes, the way she shifted her feet nervously, and that’s when I knew, felt the floor sink from underneath me, her voice was low, “Layla’s here, of course.”
Of course. What other way would it be? How else would this night turn out?
“Uh…okay…thanks Cheryl.” I turned back towards the mirror, trying to swallow the lump in my throat. I didn’t try to hide what I was feeling, I’m sure it was all over my face.
“I’m sorry Ara. I didn’t think she would come. She wasn’t even in the states yesterday. She must’ve landed sometime this afternoon. I honestly don’t know why she does this.” Cheryl didn’t move away from my door, I could hear the pain in her voice.
“She does this because of me.” I suddenly swung around, trying not to let that familiar anger fuel me, “She’s here to make sure I understand that Jackson is hers, that she won.”
Cheryl just eyed me sadly; there was no disagreement from her.
“That’s all it is for her, a game.” I waved my hand and spun around again, moving back to the vanity chair, trying to smooth my dress down. “Well I’m done playing. I won’t be playing anymore. I know I’ve lost. I know he’s gone.”
Cheryl sighed and moved slightly away from the door, it was almost time for both of us to get out on stage, “I just wish Layla wasn’t the only one fighting to win.” she said softly before walking away.
Nobody told me.
I don’t know how fucking long Layla was waiting in my dressing room before I walked in.
She had her photographer there, so when I entered the room she jumped up and headed towards me before I could say or do anything.
“Jackson darling! Surprise! I’m so happy I made it on time. I didn’t want to tell you I was flying in until I was sure I would be here before your little show started.”
I didn’t hear the rest of it; she already had her arms wrapped around my neck. I could smell her expensive perfume, feel the coldness of her arms, the nonsense she was spewing.
It just swam and swam around me, left me dumbfounded in place. Everything I seemed to have learned about myself these last two days got squashed down somewhere inside of me, and that old pushover Jackson made his way to the front.
Layla had her photographer take some pictures. She told me he was going to videotape the award ceremony later. She went on and on about how happy she was, how glad she found the time to get here.
But never once did she say she was proud of me.
It was loud.
Not concert loud.
Just normal loud.
And I couldn’t fight.
I know that’s what Cheryl wished for, what she wanted, but I couldn’t do it. This was not my fight, it never was.
So instead I moved around backstage waiting for my cue to go on. Cheryl had already been introduced and was now on the opposite side of the stage. I could see the trophy, it was set all alone on this small white table a little card that was folded in half sat next to it. The card held Jackson’s name on it, inside said Billboard Songwriter Visionary Award. My instructions were, as soon as they called my name I would carry it out to him.
I stared at it silently, it reminded me of why I was here, what my purpose was, the harsh reality of it all.
Jackson was already on stage. He sat motionless on a stool on the far end of the stage away from me, his eyes were devoid of emotion, fixated straight ahead. Everyone was watching the large white screen; it was showing clips of Jackson’s career, his life story, his musical history, and then other country stars graced the screen, congratulating him, offering him their best wishes. The narrator talked about all of Jackson’s achievements, how he made it to the top. It showed his family, his friends, all pictures I’d seen before, everything I already knew.
It nearly choked me up inside as I watched, and I wondered if he felt anything. His face was so blank, so empty.
“Billboard is honored to be sharing the stage with one of the best songwriters in the country. Jackson Stone’s songwriting introduces us to powerful imagery and themes that are deeply layered to everything that effects mankind today. He influences entire generations of bands and other songwriters alike. His writing has inspired some of his greatest success in music video today, and we are doubly honored to have the woman who’s beauty and charm no doubt was able to capture that inspiration and project it onto the big screen, she’s here to help present this award to Mr. Stone tonight, Miss Arabella James, ladies and gentlemen.”
I could feel my knees shaking as I made my way across the stage, my hands tightly clutching the trophy. My stomach lurched when my eyes fell down to the seats in the first row. Layla was already on her feet clapping, her eyes full of false elation. She wasn’t looking at me; her eyes were resting on Jackson.
But Jackson was looking at me.
And I swear for that split second there was life in his eyes again. He rose from his stool with a smile that was genuine, and walked a few steps towards me.
I wasn’t supposed to say anything, or do anything besides hand him that trophy, but I was lost in those green eyes, lost in his smile, lost in him.
I grinned at him, felt my arms go around him out of their own accord. I didn’t even hand him his trophy first, just threw my arms around him, whispered loudly in his ear, “Congratulations Cowboy!” pressed my lips to his cheek and then nestled my face in the crook of his neck. All that with his wife right there, with the cameras in our faces, with thousands of people all watching.
Those strong arms lifted my feet up off the stage and he half swung me around. I could feel his body shake with his chuckle as he hugged me back, he lowered his head with a smile while I kissed his face, he didn’t even reach for the trophy.
“Thank you, Beautiful.” he said into my ear, only the entire amphitheater could hear him, his microphone had been turned on.
I knew she would ruin it later, take over the show, take over him. But right now, this second, he was mine, so I just placed my free palm over near his jaw giggling with him affectionately until I stepped back and handed him his trophy. He took it from my hand with a similar grin, and it was only then did we both notice the thunderous clapping and cheering going around us.
Jackson turned his head to face the crowd; he chuckled again and raised the trophy over his head in triumph. The cheers only got more thunderous…exhilarating…
I’m sure the she saw it, they saw it, in my body, in my eyes, the shift from being emotionless and still, to full of life.
I’m sure the audience wondered what it was about, and Layla, I’m sure she was fuming.
You see, once Ara walked onstage, I forgot...
Who I was supposed to pretend to be.
Everything the audience saw up on stage at that moment was me, the real me.
And like every time before, I knew it was because of her, she brought out the real me.
And she was beautiful. Just like the first time I saw her. Pretty little white dress, cowgirl boots, fresh glowing face and glossy lips, wavy bouncy hair. It all just dug into my mind, reminded me of why I was living.
And she only confounded that feeling when she threw her arms around me as if she didn’t care at all what anyone thought. She was everything beautiful in my life, everything I could ever want.
She smiled brighter at me, and I could feel it, I could see it, there was no hiding it.
She was proud.
She was so proud of me.
So the real me just scooped her up in my arms and swung her around. The smile everyone saw wasn’t there for the cameras, it was for her, it would always be for her.
That’s what the trophy represented. That’s what I would always remember. Not because I was a songwriter, or even a singer. No, that trophy would always take me back, make me remember the one woman who singlehandedly taught me what love was about, what true success was.
And no one could ever take that away from me.
It made the rest of the show so much easier for me. I was dreading it once I knew Layla was here. But now my heart felt full, and I found myself singing to my audience with a lot more joy and feeling.
Ara was watching me from the same stool that I had been sitting on just minutes before. She was still smiling and swaying softly to my music that fell around us, and I moved all across the stage trying to show her somehow, exactly how thankful I was to her, how much she meant to me.
I didn’t even notice that Layla had left her seat. I didn’t notice that until the show was over and everyone was on their feet clapping, Ara included.
It didn’t faze me one way or the other really, I’m sure Layla thought she’d been here long enough to count, and was now on her way back to the life she was comfortable in. I was actually glad she was gone; I could share these last few hours with Ara, before she had to go.
Backstage everyone from the crew wanted to shake my hand and congratulate me. I let them; smiling and thanking them. I was looking forward to the afterparty, the winner’s lounge. Ara had never seen the winner’s lounge before. I bet she would like it.
Cheryl was waiting at the door of my dressing room, her back was to me and my mood was still high, acting silly I quickly tapped my fingers to Cheryl’s shoulders trying to scare her. “Boo!” I joked.
She spun around with a quick gasp but she was not smiling. “Oh! Jackson, you scared me.” her mind was elsewhere, I could tell.
“Sorry,” the smile from my face faded a bit, “What’s wrong? You waiting for Dustin?”
“No,” she shook her head, tilting her head up to look at me. That’s when I saw it in her eyes, loss and distress.
“What’s wrong Cheryl? Is Ara still here?” It’s the first thing that came to my mind, that Ara had left, gone home.
Cheryl didn’t answer right away, she took this tiny breath and shook her head, “Ara is still here, she’s in her dressing room. I thought, um, I thought she’d hang out with us afterwards but I guess that’s not going to happen.”
“What? Why not? Why wouldn’t she hang out with us?” I could feel my throat tighten. I don’t know why but now the only thing that kept running through my mind was that her husband was here, that he was here for her.
“Did he show up?” I took a step towards Cheryl my voice breaking, “Is her husband here?”
I could hear her suck in her breath, her eyes jerked to my door and then back to me, she opened her mouth to answer, the same time my dressing room door flew open.
“Darling! Come inside. Let’s have a drink before we head to the winner’s lounge. I was lucky enough to find out Country People are here for your celebration, and Entertainment Tonight wants to film you, you have to say a few words to the press…”
We both turned to Layla at the same time. Cheryl quickly swung her head back to me, shaking her head no. I didn’t have time to move, or think actually, because Layla moved around me so fast, using her body to shield me from Cheryl, forcing me to move inside so that I wouldn’t brush my body against hers. She shut the door behind her with a swift click, and turned back towards me.
“What the hell is going on Jackson?” The sweetness to her voice disappeared as she faced me, “I thought you were done with your little fling?” Her words were spiteful and harsh, and her eyes narrowed at me.
“What?” My mind was still spinning, my body was still in shock at the knowledge that Ara’s husband was here.
“Do you want me to look like a fool? I left the islands in the middle of a press gala to come to this little redneck party, nobody told me about it. Rick never called me, I found out through your damn Facebook page. You should at least tell me about these things. Unless you want the world to get suspicious about you and that little whore of yours.”
I could hear her words. They were loud and obnoxious, they made my blood boil, sent searing bright red through my brain, but I didn’t have the chance to move, much less answer her, two members of my crew pulled open my door both chatting happily to each other at the same time, their excited eyes rested on me. I was needed in the winner’s lounge; there was more press than they figured so it was crowded in there. Only Layla and I were going.
Layla’s smile returned instantly and she placed her hand on my arm. I jerked away from her still reeling from her words, my mind scrambled beyond comprehension. Everything was going so fast; I couldn’t put it together, make sense of anything.
Layla quickly turned to the crew in alarm but they weren’t paying attention to us. This satisfied her and she tried once again to get my attention.
“Come on Darling, everyone is waiting for us.” her sickly sweet voice filled my ears, she didn’t try to touch me again, but she waited, her eyes fixed on me, warning me that I had to go through this.
My feet moved automatically. I couldn’t breath, couldn’t focus. I didn’t take my eyes of the backs of my crew members, just followed them, not slowing down for Layla, not waiting politely, nothing. I just couldn’t play the game anymore.
Because all I could think about was Ara. She was leaving, right now, she was leaving, and I wouldn’t get to say goodbye.
It didn’t surprise me.
Oh it hurt of course, but didn’t surprise me.
I heard it from the audio guy.
Not from Cheryl, or Jackson, but from the fucking audio guy that my job here was done and I could go, that there wasn’t room in the winner’s lounge for anyone but Jackson and his wife. A taxi was waiting outside if I wanted to leave, whenever I was ready.
I just stood in the center of my dressing room for a long minute. Just staring at the floor. Nothing had changed, it was all still the same. And I could never live like this, keep living like this.
It was time for me to leave.
I took a few steps over to the chair where my bag lay; glancing around to make sure I hadn’t left anything behind.
The door made a soft scraping noise as it opened, causing me to jump.
“Oh, sorry Ara. I didn’t mean to scare you. What are you doing?” Cheryl was holding her phone in her hand watching me. She looked so exhausted and sad, her eyes lacking their usual pep.
“I’m just getting ready to go.” I kept reaching for my bag, turning away from her.
“Where are you going? Back to the hotel?”
“No,” I shook my head, “I’m going home.” I didn’t realize how badly it would hurt to say those words out loud, every fiber of my being ached as I stood there, especially my heart.
“Home? Now? I thought you were staying until tomorrow? Is it because Layla’s here? I’m sure she’ll be leaving soon, probably right after the interview.”
“She probably will.” I finally turned to look at Cheryl, I wasn’t going to be anything but honest here, I had nothing to lose anymore, “She’ll take off, go on with her fabulous life. This will satisfy her for a little while, but she’ll be back, she’ll always come back. You know that.”
Cheryl stared at me, her eyes boring into mine, she didn’t say anything but nodded her head once.
“I don’t have any reason to be here anymore.” I sighed softly, “No reason to stay. It’s best I go home now. I need to go home now.”
Cheryl took a few tiny steps towards me, blinking back a few stray tears that she ignored. “He really does care about you, you know.”
“I know.” I gave her a halfhearted smile, “I really care about him too.”
“You sure you want to leave? Right now? Don’t you want to say goodbye?”
“I’ve already told him goodbye. He already knows. You take care him for me, Cheryl. Promise me you’ll take care of him?” My voice begged her, breaking and cracking at as I spoke.
“I…I promise.” she was shaking her head at me, her hand halfway up. I knew she didn’t want to believe I was leaving, I didn’t either, but there was nothing left here for me.
She stepped forward, wrapping me up in a big bear hug. Her arms tightened around me as she held on.
“I’m gonna miss you.” she whispered fiercely, “I wish you didn’t have to leave.”
“I’m gonna miss you too.” I hugged her back, “thank you being for being such a good friend.”
“You make it easy Ara.” She pulled back and looked at me, “You are the nicest person I know.”
Her phone startled the both of us, its incessant ring echoed throughout the room. She gave out a little huff as she glanced at it, “It’s Rick.” her voice held annoyance at the interruption.
I just nodded and stepped back knowing it was business, let her deal with Rick. She was muttering a few words, but mostly listening. There was a quick pause, she frowned into phone immediately, and then frowned again. I tried not listen, tried not figure out what was going on, I’m sure it was about Jackson, probably Layla.
I took another step away and glanced down at my bag, wondering if I should grab it, my hand closing over the small handle. Maybe I should just leave now. Let Cheryl take care of whatever business she had to, let them all get back with their lives.
“What?!?!” The pitch in Cheryl’s voice rose. The alarm in her tone is what caused me to spin around to face her, she was already looking at me, her phone resting against her ear, her mouth open, her eyes round and wide as they pierced mine.
It frightened me, made my breath catch in my throat. “What is it?” I tried to say, but nothing would come out.
The questions were all the same.
Everything was the same.
The reporters were all eager, the lights all shone brightly, Layla smiled sweetly and clung to my arm.
Only I wasn’t the same.
It all spun around me like a giant blur, the thoughts in my head turned round and round.
I couldn’t stop any of it.
Not the reporters. Not the lights. Not even Layla.
I couldn’t stop the suffocating, the anger, the strangling fear that this would never end.
It had to end.
It had to end today.
“You’ve been on a stroke of good luck, a string of number one hits and videos alike, how have you handled all that success?”
A stroke of good luck? Was that all it was?
I heard him, the reporters voice, understood him clearly, I just couldn’t answer him, stared blankly at him, half nodding my head. I could feel Layla tighten her arm slightly around mine. I was probably embarrassing her and I didn’t give a fuck.
The reporter waited for a moment and then shifted his gaze to Layla with an unsure smile, “And how have you been enjoying your husband’s success? And your newborn? We can only imagine the whirlwind your life has been.”
“It’s been amazing, truly amazing, I've never been happier.” Layla’s voice was loud and she smiled her megawatt smile at him.
He chuckled at her words.
And that’s what set me off.
I couldn’t see the lights anymore, or the cameras for that matter. I couldn’t see much of anything, I just yanked my arm out of Layla’s grip, ignoring her surprised gasp, trying to see below me, find the source of that chuckle.
There was an audible gasp rippling through the reporters at my actions. I couldn’t find the guy who was laughing but I could see all the cameras pointed at me.
“Layla’s truly been leading an amazing life.” I could feel everything bubbling to the surface, the anger…anxiety…regret.
“She has been an acquaintance and supporter of my career as it was beginning and that I am thankful for, she is a wonderful mother to my son Colt, and a wonderful mother to her son Finly, whom she is raising with Finly’s father, Pete Richardson, her producer. I appreciate her taking the time to come out here today, so that we can let you all know that we will be divorcing, it’s time we both move on with our lives.”
I paused, not sure if I was making sense, the stone silence in the room was making me nervous and the look on Layla’s face, I can’t describe it.
And just as quickly, the silence turned to chaos. It seemed like every single person in that room burst into chatter, I could see them, their eyes deviously bright, their bodies eagerly moving towards me.
I just turned on my heel and walked off the stage. There was nothing left for me to say, but there was one more thing for me to do.
I could hear Layla’s horrified gasp behind me as the reporters began barking their questions to her.
A few of the camera men had scrambled upstage and were now following behind me, their whispering, excited voices jumbled up in the back of my head.
I met the eyes of several of my crew who watched me open-mouthed as I walked by, but they didn’t try to stop me.
I just kept going, my boots pressing firmly on the hard floor as I made my way down the hallways, my mind was racing, what would I say to them, and what would I do, if they were gone.
I didn’t get to finish my thought.
I didn’t hesitate or look back to see if the cameramen were still there. I just grabbed the doorknob and pushed roughly, flinging the door open so hard it slammed against the wall as it swung.
I saw Cheryl first. Her eyes met mine wider than I had ever seen them before; she held her phone to her ear, which she quickly dropped when she saw me. Her mouth opened, but she didn’t say anything.
I didn’t address her.
Didn’t ask her anything, my eyes scanned the room rapidly, searching…
All I could feel was the flood of relief that was making me catch my breath, the intense longing that flowed through my veins. Ara was standing right there, just a little to the right of Cheryl, her face filled with bewilderment as she watched me. I stopped looking around, didn’t bother to check the rest of the room, think about anything except this beautiful woman standing before me.
I moved towards her.
I could hear the cameramen pushing their way through the door, the scramble of excitement in their voices.
I just kept taking those footsteps, closing the distance between us, finally giving into all the yearning that I had been keeping inside for so long.
Her arms hung limply at her sides as she looked up into my face. Her eyes were wide with fear and question, her hair falling loosely around her shoulders. She didn’t say anything even though I knew she must have a million questions.
I didn’t have time to explain, not with words.
My hands reached out around her, sliding down her hair and face, pulling her to me, lowering my head to hers, hearing her soft gasp, seeing the pink spread along her cheeks, feeling the softness of her lips.
I couldn’t wait to feel the softness of her lips.
Her mouth opened to mine and at that moment I knew, and I would let the whole world know too.
It exploded around us.
The flash of the cameras, the noise and gasps, the clattering of more footsteps and excited squeals.
My hands moved around her waist, lifting her up, not breaking our kiss, my heart pounded and my blood roared.
And finally, as I felt her arms go around me, the soft slide of her fingertips along my jaw and behind my head, the way her lips moved over mine, my world stopped.
I just kept right on kissing her, not wanting to end this moment, reveling in her warmth and sweetness, pressing my forehead to hers when our lips finally fell away from each other, breathing in her scent and surrounding myself in her presence.
She was looking at me, when I opened my eyes. Her face searched mine in silent question, waiting, a hint of confusion still tinted her eyes, and I could only think of one way to answer everything at once.
“I love you.” I could hear my own voice, it was low and raw, but firm and true. My hands moved up to her face, moving across her temple and down her cheek. I didn’t pull my forehead away from her, but I made sure she could see my eyes.
Her breath escaped her at my words; I could feel the soft whisper of her overwhelmed cry brush across my lips, her hands tightening behind my neck. She took in a shuddering half gasp; her voice torn between a sob and laughter as her of her hands gently touched my jaw. Her eyes lit up.
“I love you too.”
And that was all I needed to hear.
I just swung her around in exhilaration; the both of us laughing, her arms were around me again, a million flashes still clicking away at exorbitant speed. I could see Cheryl out of the corner of my eye, she was crying and laughing at the same time. Dustin and Brett were crowding the doorway, half pretending to be guarding the masses of people standing behind them, wearing big ass grins on their faces.
None of the cameramen inside the room approached us, oh they all kept taking pictures of course, but I swore all of them were smiling.
Cheryl told me afterwards.
About Rick’s frantic call.
How Jackson pretty much told the entire room about Layla’s business and walked offstage leaving her behind with the mess.
I mistook the concerned look I saw in Cheryl’s eyes for fear. That something terrible had happened to Jackson out there.
I had no time act on it though. The second Cheryl’s eyes met mine I could hear this awful commotion echoing down the hallway. I think we both turned our heads towards it, my hand letting go of my bag as I turned.
The door swung open so hard the slamming noise drowned out everything around me. I know I jumped, I could feel my body shake at the sound.
At first his hat caught my eye, that beautiful grey felt almost shimmering under the lights, but then I saw the look on his face. The intense stare in his eyes, the way his jaw was clenched. I don’t think I had ever seen him look with this much purpose in his eyes.
He marched towards me, and the distance between us was shortened within a matter of seconds.
It made my heart start pounding. I didn’t have time to think, or even move.
There were so many people behind him, the doorway was completely filled with cameras and the men holding them with their hurried excited whispers.
It added to my confusion, to the spinning in my brain. Nothing made any sense.
It didn’t make sense until I felt his hands. That familiar way his hands moved down my hair, his fingertips sliding along my cheek ever so gently. The warmth of his arms around me, the way he pulled me close.
His kiss sent a shuddering slam into my already fragile heart. I missed this man with a passion and I threw my own arms around him, giving in one last time to the callings of my soul.
I didn’t have time to analyze it, to wonder about it. He didn’t let me go, kept me close to him. When I looked up into his eyes there weren’t any goodbyes in them.
His hand moved above my eyebrow and slowly down my face, it had been so long since he’d done that.
I never stopped looking into his face and those deep green eyes kept their hold on me.
“I love you.”
His voice was so gruff and emotional, a sob caught in my throat. Even in my wildest fantasies and all those nights I lied awake imagining him saying those words to me were no match for the way my heart soared and melted into him.
I could only pull him to me, trying not cry, trying not to laugh, finally letting my hand rest against his jaw and looking up into those eyes, into my future.
“I love you too.”
And I meant it, every word.
“You owe me five bucks. You lost the bet.”
Cheryl just rolled her eyes at both guys, settling into her seat with a magazine and a satisfied sigh.
“No I didn’t, it’s not over yet.”
“They’re together aren’t they?”
Their voices were interrupted by the sounds of horns as over a dozen or so vehicles followed the RV along its route towards the highway.
Both Dustin and Brett ignored the beeps and honks as they continued to argue over who was right.
“You both won.” Cheryl lowered her magazine looking at both men with an exasperated smile. “Jackson and Ara are together right now, on his bus. They’re lucky the press thinks they’re right here with us in the RV. No one is following the bus. I don’t even know where the bus is heading, he wouldn’t tell me, or Rick.”
“I said they had to be together, together, not just in the same bus.” Dustin waved his hand in the air knowingly.
“What the hell do you think they’re doing right now dickhead? Playing checkers?” Brett tossed his last handful of chips at Dustin, causing Cheryl to squeal and scold both men.
But their laughter could be heard well into the night…