Just One Song
Author:Stacey Lynn

chapter Eighteen





The red carpet is a blur of lights and reporters. Zack talks to Entertainment Tonight, TMZ, and several other shows I have never heard of. My hand clings to him so tightly, at some point I try to loosen up afraid of leaving a bruise. I relax once we pass the first large group of reporters. They must think I am one of his many random dates because no one even bothers to ask who I am. Thank goodness. Besides the occasional glance, we are so busy being ushered along the carpet we don’t even have a chance to really speak. I hope my smile shows excitement – versus the overwhelmingly terrified feeling I have inside. My eyes drift off to the crowd searching for Mia, Chase, or anyone else from Zack’s band, but the attempt is futile. I can barely see Tina behind us and I know the other limo is at least ten minutes behind.

“And who is your beautiful date tonight, Zack?”

The question snaps me back to the present. My eyes widen momentarily but I try to recover quickly when I look straight ahead. A camera is facing Zack - and me. The red light is on. The microphone in front of his mouth says ‘Inside Edition’ and is held by a beautiful redhead whose large smile is obviously the result of too many botox injections. I look to Zack trying to keep my smile genuine. He smiles down at me with one hand covering my grip on his arm.

“This is Nicole, Marie – she’s very special to me.” Zack flashes me the same smile that usually makes me feel warm all over, keeping his hand over mine.

Her eyes sparkle and her smile grows infinitesimally larger. She knows she has just caught a story to tell. I resist the urge to take a step back and hide behind Zack. Marie looks like a starving predator who just caught a whiff of a long needed meal.

“Please tell us, Zack. Has America’s favorite bachelor settled down?” Her voice drips in fake sweetness. I secretly begin to hate her.

Zack, always confident and perfectly able to work a crowd, simply smiles and laughs lightheartedly. “I don’t know about America’s favorite bachelor, Marie. But I am taken, for as long as she’ll have me.”

He flashes his megawatt smile that causes girls all over the world to drop their panties at his concerts and before I know it, he leans down and kisses my forehead, just barely brushing his lips across my skin. I can’t remove my eyes from him, and am certain the camera catches me blushing furiously. I can feel the heat on my chest and cheeks.

“Have a great night, Marie.” Zack nods to the camera with a smug grin and pulls me along.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” He whispers to me once we’ve taken a few steps.

“I’ll let you know when I can breathe again,” I drily reply. Fortunately, I look up and see the entryway of the amphitheater. I have survived my first red carpet walk.

“I need a drink.”

“Good. Maybe now you’ll release your death grip on my arm.”

I remove my hand and swat him, but I don’t mean it. America’s favorite bachelor is all mine, and he has no idea how incredibly sexy he is. That alone is totally hot.

Zack leads me inside just as Tina appears at my side out of nowhere. “You were great, Nicole!” She exclaims.

I mutter my thanks, still too nervous to speak much and follow the two of them to the bar. The only thing I’m thankful for right now is wine, and that I didn’t fall outside.

I finally take a breath once I take my first sip of wine. The smooth texture of Chardonnay instantly warms my throat and calms my nerves. The entryway overflows with musicians and their dates or spouses. Most of whom I couldn’t recognize if you paid me too, but I am able to catch a few I know like Mystical, Coldstone, and a few others. I soak it all in, thinking how much Mark would be in total seventh heaven right now.

And for me, this time, it’s a happy memory as I picture how large his smile would have been. I feel no sadness, and no guilt.

I am free. I am free to live again, and to love again.

I smile to myself and take another sip of wine.

Zack leans down and kisses me, just a little bit, regardless of the fact that we’re in the lobby or an amphitheater surrounded by hundreds of people. When he pulls away, I turn to the doors where I expect Mia to walk through. I try to look as nonchalant as possible as I watch music icons, actors and actresses filter by. The presence of money and beauty in such a small area is overwhelming. Everyone is dripping in designer gowns and diamonds and jewels larger than I have ever seen in my entire life. Not to mention botox and boob jobs. But critiquing the elite of the ‘rich and famous’ helps me maintain some semblance of confidence while I wait so I continue my silent critiquing of dress choices and fashion faux-pas.

I am lost in my star-watching when Mia comes up and throws her arms around me, almost pulling me out of Zack’s arm that is firmly clenched on my waist.

“Oh my gosh, Nic! What did you do out there!?”

I shrink closer to Zack as I listen to her babble. “Seriously. Every person the guys talked to asked who you were, how long you’ve been together, it was crazy!”

“You doing okay?” He gently places his lips on my forehead.

“Perfect.” I’m not. Not really, but he helps.

“Your girl is causing madness outside, you know.” Chase smiles broadly, clearly enjoying all this attention. I want to beat him. Instead, I scowl.

“Is that so?” Zack raises an eyebrow. I shrug and sip my wine trying to appear more comfortable with all this than I feel. “I’m not surprised – look at her.”

“And how do we feel about this?” I know what he is asking. The whole possibility of this exact situation was what caused our distance over the last several weeks. I have an inclination that the tense grip I feel on my waist is not because he loves me, but perhaps trying to keep me from bolting from the amphitheater as soon as I have an opportunity.

I don’t entirely blame him.

“I knew this was part of the deal – so we’ll survive just fine.”

I look at him with love in my eyes, and I realize it’s totally true. I’ve been nervous all night about the paparazzi and the photos. But a lot of healing was done at the cemetery last week. As soon as I realized it wasn’t the fear of their story being told that had me running, but the fear of forgetting them, I was able to let everything else go. I’m not nearly as nervous as I thought I would be.

And as I look at Zack, I know that I love him. I want to be with him. I remind myself of that, and about what Zack said at Thanksgiving. The only thing that matters is us. And in this moment, it’s one hundred percent true.

***

Halfway through the show, Zack leaves his seat next to me and goes backstage to announce the nominations for Best New Artist of the Year. I have all sorts of nervous energy running through me at the thought of seeing him on stage. I know, having won this award before, that Zack is honored to present it this year. It shows his respect among the music industry and his growth as an artist. I proudly hold Mia’s hand. She sits on my right and grins as large as the Cheshire Cat.

“Can you believe we’re here?” I squeak at her. We giggle like schoolgirls until the music signaling the end of a television commercial break starts and Zack walks across the stage.

He is stunningly handsome. And I blush immediately, when right before he opens the envelope to announce the winner, he finds me and winks.

His sexy smile doesn’t disappear while he’s on stage and just like at his concerts, he exudes full confidence, control, and definite sex appeal. He was born to be on a stage, regardless of the venue. He announces the winner, FunTimes, and the crowd goes wild with applause. Zack’s smile never falters as he congratulates the new band that I know he really does like, and escorts them off the stage.

Once he clears the stage, a hand from behind grasps my shoulder. Hard. I freeze instantly. I glance over at Mia whose eyes are widened in shock and my eyes fall to the perfectly manicured fingernails clenching my shoulder.

“Enjoy being his shiny new toy while you can. But Zack always comes back to me.”

What the hell? Mia stares at me. My eyes widen and my eyebrows arch as if to silently ask her if she heard that. She nods in response. As the woman loosens her grip, I slowly turn around to see the owner of the evil voice. I close my mouth quickly.

Sitting directly behind me is Rachel McAllister. She’s gorgeous, but her eyes and wicked smile tell me a different story completely. She hates me – and it’s completely obvious in her body language and expression. I feel color begin to drain from my face as I stare at her, remembering the picture of Zack and I leaving the bar in Boston and the caption about her on again off again romance with Zack.

I turn around and clench the arm rests of my chair to calm myself down. I am still sitting like this, my knuckles white, when Zack finally returns to his seat.

“You okay?” His eyes are filled with concern. Normally I want to take that look away and replace it, but right now, I’m too upset.

I shake my head once. There is no point in even trying to hide the anger and humiliation that is rolling off me.

He leans in to my ear. “What happened?”

My hands still shaking, I grab a pen from my clutch and scribble on the program in my lap. Rachel happened.

He curses to himself and scribbles back. What did she say?

I shake my head.

As the music begins, signaling another commercial interruption, Zack leans into me and kisses my cheek., “I love you. Only you.”

His arm slides around the back of my chair squeezing me tightly. I turn slightly in my chair, lean towards him, and kiss him. Given the audience and location it probably borders on inappropriate displays of affection, but my hand goes to the back of his neck to pull him closer and he does nothing to stop it. I pull away quickly, but the effect is perfect. His eyes hold lust and desire for only me. Our breathing has accelerated, and I know that one act, silently speaks volumes to him. I love him, too.

I have a feeling if looks could kill, I would be dead by now with the silent arrows I can feel being shot at the back of my head.

I don’t care anymore. Rachel can take her evil claws and use them on someone else.

When he wins the award for Best Album of the Year, the one he was sure he’d lose, I don’t remove my smile from him for a second. And when he looks directly at me and thanks me from the stage, I don’t care that he mentions my name, and I definitely don’t care about the woman fuming behind me.

***

“What did she say to you?” Zack asks me once we’re sipping champagne in the limo on the way to the after party.

“I believe her words were something similar to ‘enjoy being his shiny new toy while you can, but Zack always comes back to me.’” I don’t take my eyes off of him. I want him to know how little her words can hurt me.

He cups my chin in his hands, lightly brushing my cheeks with his thumbs. I love it when he does this.

A flash of love flickers through his eyes before they change to something else; something dark. He is pissed. Jaw clenched, eyebrows furrowed, and his breaths are deep and slow. “Rachel and I saw each other off and on for almost two years. It was nothing more than a physical connection for me. And she’s right – I went back to her, but only because the only other girls I was with were the ones I told you about. Rising actresses or singers who I could take to a show and be seen in public with. I never led her on, and we never actually dated.”

He has a sheepish look on his face when he is done almost as if he didn’t want me to know he’s had sex just for fun. “I haven’t been with her since before the tour started and you know this.”

I let him say what he needs to say so we can just get over this and move on. I don’t need to hear about her. She’s not a threat, and despite how secure I finally am in us, I really don’t want to hear about all the women he had before me.

“I don’t care about Rachel, Zack.”

He sighs in relief and I watch his angered expression soften to the relaxed Zack I prefer. He eyes me hesitantly. “She may be at this after party tonight. We can skip it if you want, I don’t want her causing problems for you.”

I roll my eyes. “I’m a big girl. And if she starts anything, I’m pretty sure Mia can take her.”

The entrance to the Four Seasons hotel for the after party is almost as blinding from the flashing lights as the red carpet. Zack ushers us through the screaming fans and lights with an arm around my waist and his eyes on me the whole time. His piercing gaze sends shivers down my spine. I couldn’t look away even if I wanted to.

I freeze at the entrance to the ballroom and clasp Mia’s hand. It is the most spectacular and overwhelmingly beautiful sight I have ever seen. Crystal chandeliers hang throughout the room, exotic flowers I’ve never seen sit on the bar height tables all throughout the room. A bar is along the right wall complete with an ice sculpture and chocolate fountain. Yum. A live band plays quiet music as we enter.

“Crap, Zack. You live in a fairytale.”

He laughs but squeezes my waist tighter. “Wait until you see the Grammy’s, this is nothing.”

I look up at him with terrified eyes.

“You’ll get used to it; I promise.”

I highly doubt it, but I smile anyway.

I feel completely out of place amongst the obscene glamour. A part of me feels like I’ve stepped into a fairytale book and at any moment the fairy godmother is going to arrive, wave her magic wand, and send me back to the squalor of middle class.

The other part wants to hold tight to the man who taught me I could love again and never let go.

“Come on Cinderella, let’s go enjoy our fairytale before we turn back into pumpkins.” Mia grabs my hand and whisks me towards the bar. I turn to Zack to see if it’s okay that I’m leaving. He nods his head in approval; not like he has much of a choice with Mia around anyway.

“So,” Mia says once we settle near the bar waiting to get a drink. Or twelve. And shots. I’m wound so tight from the nerves and excitement and encounter with Rachel, it’s just going to be that kind of night. “What did that witch say to you?”

“Ugh, I don’t want to talk about this right now. Suffice it to say, she wants Zack. And I’m leaving it at that.”

“What did he have to say?”

I move my eyes from her to the band and shrug my shoulders.

“Oh stop it,” she says and hands me my first shot of Patron. “It’s not like I couldn’t tell what you two were whispering about on the way here. What did he say?”

“Fine. He got pissed and told me they were basically friends with benefits for a while.” I rub my forehead nervously and wave my shot glass in the air signaling the bartender for another round. “I’ll get over it, I just hate seeing that look in her eyes.”

We take our shots and I wince again as the flavor gently burns my throat. Tequila. Awesome. It fills me with bravery immediately. Or I’m just starting to get a bit drunk from the shots and little food in my stomach. Either way, I feel better; calmer. And that’s what is important.

We laugh as we walk away from the bar stopping at the waiters walking around with champagne and appetizers and look for Zack while gawking shamelessly at the celebrities who surround us. For the most part, they ignore the lowly unknowns, but a few times we catch whispers of other girls pointing our way. I finally spot Zack in a corner with Jake and Chase, and a few other girls.

Mia and I make our way towards them when I recognize the girls.

Rachel McAllister.

Zack’s posture is stiff. He’s standing up straight with his arms crossed in front of him, clearly giving off the nonverbal cue for her to walk away. I walk closer and see her hand reach out towards Zack’s arms. He scowls more deeply, says something and moves out of her reach. I inwardly smile. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him be so rude to anyone except Ethan. She either isn’t getting it, or notices and doesn’t care. My bet is on the latter option.

Mia’s light touch on my elbow signals to me that she saw it too. I turn to her and recognize the fury in her face. Mia is ready to battle, on my behalf. I laugh unnecessarily.

This is just absurd.

I stop for a minute and look around the room to try to find something else we can do so we can just ignore Rachel until she walks away. But when I look back to Zack, he locks his eyes on me and I know there’s nowhere else I want to be, regardless of Rachel.