Ella’s eyelids slowly separated, allowing the slightest bit of light to invade her fuzzy eyes. She rolled over, the smell of the room and the touch of the sheets on her bare skin causing a feeling of déjà vu. She’d fallen asleep and woken up in this room countless times in her life, but that wasn’t what she was experiencing in this moment. Maybe it was the excitement of waking up after a night like the one she’d just had. Maybe it was the optimism of waking up with a purpose… an optimism she hadn’t known since leaving New York. Or maybe it was the thrill of the unanswered emails she’d sent just before falling asleep.

Ella turned on to her back and rubbed her eyes, the attic’s wood ceiling coming clearly in to view as she longed to replay the events of the previous night in her head. Oh how she wished she could go back.

The crackle of the fire… the subtle light falling from the sky… the clear summer night… the stars… the moon… the Portland summer nighttime air whispering its way through the trees…

She regretted not opening her journal the moment it was over and recording the night’s events. What she’d give to be able to read her recollection of exactly what had happened before her head hit this pillow around three in the morning.

The phone. The video.

She had something better than a journal entry. She had almost seven minutes of their time together on film. Well… on a digital video file on her iPhone.

Ella reached her left arm across her body and found the device, waiting patiently on the nightstand.

As she touched the screen with her index finger, she felt the pace of her heart pick up… another déjà vu moment. But unlike the feeling she had just moments before, while waking, she knew exactly where in her brain to find the other side of this memory.

It was the first time she’d heard this same song. The voyeuristic nature of hearing her unsuspecting neighbor playing a song from the porch next door was not unlike watching this video that she’d recorded without that same neighbor’s knowledge just the night before.

The picture took a moment to stabilize, but once it did, Ella was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the video. The fire lit Jake’s face just enough to make it look like it was on purpose, and the audio quality was phenomenal. All she’d done was hit “Record” and try to keep her hand from shaking too much, yet she was proud of the film she’d created.

Ella couldn’t wipe the smile off her face for the entirety of the video.

Listening to him sing… watching his body move as his passion found its way through his fingers on the fret board … hearing the hurt and longing in his voice. It was doing to her now what it had done to her last night in his back yard.

Did you walk out with it when you walked out on me?
Oh, I can’t sleep

The song went on, the emotion rising and falling alongside the melody.

The video ended abruptly, but the vision of what happened next was just as clear in Ella’s mind.

The last note rang out, giving way to the crackle of the fire… the subtle light falling from the sky… the clear summer night… the stars… the moon… the Portland summer nighttime air whispering its way through the trees…

For a moment, time froze in the back yard of the Adeline’s old house on Ladd Avenue. Jake let the guitar rest on his lap while his eyes came back… back from a memory… a place far sadder than this picture perfect night in the Pacific Northwest.  

“You ok?”

“Yeah,” she answered, his eyes never leaving hers as she stood, walked past the fire, and sat on the bench next to him.

It was the moment she’d hoped for since that awkward conversation with her mom on the night he’d found his notebook in her bedroom. Sliding her hand between his arm and his side… resting her head on his shoulder… as they silently listened to the crackle of the fire… the subtle light falling from the sky… the summer night… the stars… the moon… the Portland summer nighttime air whispering its way through the trees…

“Are you ok?” It was Ella who asked the question this time, but she wasn’t exactly sure whether she was referring to the reopening of the wound from the song, or the fact that she’d just nestled herself underneath his arm.

Jake didn’t answer right away, which caused Ella to shift her stare from the fire to his face. He didn’t seem to notice. He just sat; staring at the stars while the quiet of the sleepy neighborhood surrounded them.

The journalist inside Ella had completely turned off. She wasn’t looking for adjectives to explain the way that his journey was written all over the beautiful lines on his face… the way his eyes told a story that didn’t yet have an ending… the way his beard so perfectly portrayed the messiness of his past. No, she was just there. No mental notes or creative prose for her journal.

She just was.

“Yeah,” he finally replied.

And that was the only confirmation she needed. Without words, she placed her hand on his jawline, ever so slightly, and softly kissed his neck with the same gentleness. She could feel the beat of his heart… pulsing… she kissed him again, while he slowly turned his face toward her.

Ella kissed him again, this time on the cheek, while she made her way toward his lips. Once his finally met hers, it seemed as if a world of tension dissolved between them. No longer was there the anxiety of the previous weeks, or the wondering if there was something there. For Ella, it was the answer to the only question she’d cared to ask this past month.

It was perfect. The crackle of the fire… the subtle light falling from the sky… the clear summer night… the stars… the moon… the Portland summer nighttime air whispering its way through the trees…

Ella clicked “play” on the video again before setting the phone on the nightstand and getting out of bed. Jake’s song filled the room while Ella got dressed… black shorts and his sweatshirt, the same one from the night before. The aroma of last night’s campfire was still there, a memory she hoped would stay with her… and this sweatshirt… for days.

Down the attic stairs, to the left, her feet feeling the slight give in the middle of 2nd step from the top, the house making its signature groan while she shifted her weight from the bottom step to the living room’s wood floor, and then beyond the living room, where a half full French Press greeted Ella in the kitchen.

With mug in hand, she made her way out the front door and found her mother, in her usual spot, on the front porch. “How The Day Sounds” was spinning on the Admiral, the voice of Greg Laswell filling the air.

“I love this song.”

It was Caroline who spoke, not looking up from the Steinbeck novel in her hands.

Ella sat, looked at her mother (still lost in the story of Adam Trask), and then looked past her toward Jake’s house.

Was he awake yet? Had they hit the point in their relationship where she could just walk in the front door unannounced? She longed to be there when he woke… to cuddle up next to him on the couch and not get up all day.

Instead, she slipped her phone out from her back pocket and stared at the screen. There he was, Jake, at the end of the video she’d filmed just a few hundred feet from this very spot. She could feel the smile forming at the sight of this memory.

She clicked the home button on the iPhone, swiped left, and then touched the screen on top of the little envelope that contained her email. She swiped down to refresh, but the scrolling wheel came up empty.

No one had responded yet.

It had been years since she’d done this: been so excited for the response to an email that she compulsively reloaded the page, just in case the person on the other end of the conversation had hit send in the previous 24 seconds.

Nothing.

She swiped left again, and clicked “Sent Mail.” Had her messages gone through? They had. An email to Simon Monaghan, the former head of ID Magazine that she’d fan-girled about over drinks in that modern-day speakeasy; and another to Troy Forrester, one of Dominic Graham’s best friends in the industry.

It had only been eight hours since she’d clicked “Send” on her laptop, but she grew a bit more nervous with each swipe.

The song on the Admiral faded, and the next one began. And with the first chord of “What a Day,” Ella was unexpectedly jolted off the porch and deep inside a memory.

Nashville in May… There was an energy in the streets that took Ella by surprise after another horrible night’s sleep on the tour bus. Perhaps it was the arrival of spring, or maybe it was that same entrepreneurial spirit she’d felt in San Francisco, but it definitely suited well the soundtrack playing in Ella’s earbuds.

The previous few days had been a whirlwind… everything had been going so well. The blogs were still paying In Stereo’s mortgage, the shows still as fun as they’d been a month ago during the first nights of the tour. Ella had been spending more time on Riley’s bus than her own… at least until Rebecca had returned a few nights ago.

And then, while the bus was parked outside of the arena in Indianapolis, the phone rang.

“Ella, we need something bigger.”

“I’m sorry?” Ella was used to hearing her boss make frank statements without qualification.

“Your blogs have been great, but we need a story that’s…” he paused to find the right word. “Sexy.”

“What?” Ella didn’t try to hide her annoyance with Dominic.

“These Riley stories have tested well with every demographic, and we need a…” Another pause.

“Are you familiar with baseball terms?”

“Sure.”

“We’ve been hitting doubles with these stories, and now we need a home run.” He stopped talking to let her respond, but she stayed silent.

“Is there anything you could write about that you haven’t covered? A headline that will cause every fan in America to click the link?”

Ella had exactly the story that would accomplish this purpose, but she couldn’t tell Dominic that.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “It sounds like you’re asking me to get in the gutter and write a click-bait tabloid story.”

“Come on,” he replied, now as annoyed as she was. “You know me better than that. All I’m saying is that we have the momentum, and now we need to capitalize. Figure it out. You’re the best writer I’ve got, and I know you can do it.”

The line clicked, and Ella stared at her phone… speechless.

In that moment, she was taken back to her 22nd story apartment balcony, that night she’d gotten drinks with Dominic Graham and Simon Monaghan, and thought of her promise to herself. “You have to kill it.”

Could she really tell the story that she’d pieced together these last few weeks? It was so extremely obvious, and it seemed that Riley had no intention of hiding it from her. Perhaps it was simply a part of chasing the thrill, but surely he’d have been more careful if he didn’t want her to share it with the world, right?

That night, she’d put all the elements on paper… in her journal of course, and not in her laptop.

-The package
-The chasing of every high
-The conversation at Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco
-Rebecca’s trip to Cuba
-The briefcase (presumably full of cash) on the tour bus in Chicago
-The sketchy business man who said he couldn’t wait to keep the relationship going

And then there was the conversation she’d overheard outside the green room a couple nights ago in Pittsburgh. There she was, just her and Riley in his dressing room, snacking on some horrible vegetable that Ella had never heard of, when his phone rang.

In that moment, she thought of how much had changed since the first time she’d heard a phone ring in Riley’s green room. She seemed an entire life removed from reading that text from the contact named “Z.”

We’re over the border. We’ll pick up the package tomorrow. I’ll be in touch.

 In the weeks since Ella had almost been caught sneaking glances at the phone, she and Riley had spent countless hours together. From backstage to the tour bus to morning coffee, she had more access than she’d ever imagined in those early days.

“Hello?” Ella could tell from his tone that this call was not from his wife. Riley smiled at her, held up one finger, and left the room with his phone to his ear.

Unlike a few other instances, Ella was not intentionally trying to snoop on the subject of her recent stories. She simply sat on the sofa, sipping on a club soda and trying to stomach the kale or chard or leek, or whatever it was, that Riley’s people had made sure had filled this room.

But the door was cracked, and the concrete floors of this venue weren’t doing any favors for Riley’s privacy.

“I don’t want to hear any excuses.” Riley’s tone on the other side of the door was foreign to Ella, piquing her interest.

“Do you have any idea how much money I have on the line?”

By this point, she longed to be able to hear the other end of the phone line. What in the world was going on?

“Let me lay this out for you,” he was almost yelling now. “I paid to make this happen... a lot of money. And if I remember correctly, I paid you even more money to…”

His speech faded to a mumble. He must’ve been walking down the hallway away from the door. Ella sprung from her seat, now fully invested in the conversation, and peeked through the cracked door.

He was at least 15 feet away; his back to the room, and his words were still nothing more than a murmur.

Ella was about to give up and resume her spot on the sofa, when he turned, still pacing, but making his way back toward the room.

She never got used to this feeling… that split second where hearing one more word could result in getting caught… the tension of appearing clueless while in fact being privy to far more than your subject knows.

His footsteps on the concrete floor were getting louder, but she didn’t have enough info yet. Another step… she was catching every third or fourth word… cash, next week, Havana, package… there it was again, the package.

 Ella longed to know more, so with each step from the hallway, she took one toward the couch. More words, these pieced together a bit more than the last: we’re not done, big splash, I thought you… smuggling isn’t supposed to be…”

 Later that night in Indianapolis, she filled her journal with these phrases, trying to piece together exactly what was going on. Obviously, Riley didn’t want her to know about it. And that made her think that it was likely a really big deal. I mean, really big. She thought of all the incriminating stuff he had told her, marital woes to drug experimentation. He’d been so incredibly open and frank. What on earth could be so big that he’d keep it from her?

Ella didn’t sleep at all that night, multiple conversations echoing inside her head.

“And now we need a home run.”

Over the words of Dominic repeating in her mind, she could hear the silence of Dominic’s office, totally removed from the bullpen she’d been terrified of leaving.

More conversations…

“All you gotta do is get a couple of monster stories and deliver. Two or three of those in the next decade, and you’re an executive before you hit 40.”

“But don’t over deliver, or I’ll never let you out of the bullpen.”

“Indeed. One of the biggest mistakes the best writers make is being too good.”

And then the conversation with herself that night on her apartment balcony…

“This seals it. I’ve gotta kill it. I have to over-deliver.”

But then her thoughts would take her to Riley Martin, to his beautiful smile and beautiful vulnerability. This story would ruin him.

But not writing this story might ruin her career.

Ella washed down the back and forth with more than a few shots of the whiskey she’d kept in her bunk.

Her head was swimming from the drink, but her mind was still racing.

“You’re kinda cute when you sleep.”

She smiled, half drunk, remembering the way the words had fallen from his mouth. And it was in that moment that she made her decision. She couldn’t do it. She wouldn’t write the story that would no doubt ruin Riley Martin’s career… and ruin his life. 

// TAKE A BREAK HERE //  

Jake Whitley was dead asleep when the sun peeked its head over the horizon. This had only happened a handful of times during his stint in Portland. Usually, his demons kept him awake until the daylight had made its grand entrance from the other side of Mt. Hood and the east side of the city. Most nights, it was the liquor or pure exhaustion that finally did the trick around the breakfast hour. But last night, the clock had not yet hit 1am when his head hit the pillow in the borrowed house.

After Ella had headed home, Jake shut the door behind her, walked through the IKEA showroom of a living room, up the stairs, and got in bed. He didn’t allow himself to give one thought to the night that had just happened. He’d started that day not knowing if he’d ever speak to Ella Copeland again, but they’d made up quickly. They’d apologized and made things right. And then he ended the day with his first ‘first kiss’ in almost a decade. But that night, Jake turned it off. Completely.

He simply slipped his still clothed body under the bed sheets and closed his eyes.

It was 10am before another thought entered Jake Whitley’s brain. And boy, did they come like a flood. His successful attempt at closing his mind the previous night had him unprepared for the onslaught that bombarded him this morning. And the worst part was that he had no idea what to think.

Was he elated or devastated? Was he filled with hope or remorse? Maybe the answer was all of the above. But that morning, Jake had no idea.

He’d felt this way before… completely lost with no feasible direction in sight. But in the past, she’d known how to guide him. An hour face to face with his wife was all he’d needed to course correct, to ease his anxiety and find his way. There’d been the time when he had to choose between the church job in Dallas and another in Tallahassee. Then there was the year that London was born, when their lack of sleep and inexperience made it seem like their whole world was upside down.

But she wasn’t here, and that added another emotion to the morning… anger. Was he angry with her for not being here, or himself for leaving? He hadn’t made it that far in his line of thinking.

Jake slipped out of bed, took off yesterday’s clothes, and let the scalding water of the shower wash away the smell of last night’s backyard fire. He closed his eyes and let the steam soak into his skin. For a moment, the chaos in his head calmed and the memory he’d been trying to suppress made its way to the front of his brain.

“So Jake, play out this exercise with me.”

Dr. Wertz came highly recommended, but his real appeal was that he was all the way in Denton, a good 45 minutes from anyone Jake and Kira might know from their church work. The therapist continued: “The grass is often greener on the other side, or so we think. And so I’d like you to close your eyes and imagine: what would your life would look like if you actually went through with the divorce?”

This exercise would’ve been a lot less awkward if Kira were not sitting next to him, her breath heavy as he imagined a world where he was not married.

“Are you happy? Think about going to sleep every night by yourself… waking up every morning alone. Think about a house that’s completely quiet because you’re the only one in it. I know you’re not the sort of man who drinks alcohol, but how likely would you be to find a vice of some sort? Maybe it’s television, maybe it’s food, maybe it’s something far more destructive. Is that a real possibility?”

“I don’t know.” Jake responded without opening his eyes, and neither he, Kira, or Dr. Wertz knew which question he was answering.

“Now, keep imagining that you do get divorced… that you give up and your marriage ends. I want you to see this from every angle before making such a life-altering decision. A few years pass, and… well, you two are still very young. So say that Kira gets in another romantic relationship.”

Jake’s eyes were still shut, but he winced.

“Now imagine that you just got back to your house, where you live alone, remember, and you open up your computer, click on social media, and see a photo of Kira and her new love interest.”

“Do we have to do this?” Kira butted in, but Dr. Wertz continued as if he hadn’t heard her.

“And in this photograph, let’s say it’s New Year’s Eve. And they’re kissing. Nothing explicit, just a romantic couple ringing in the New Year.”

Jake swallowed hard and felt a tear escape from his tightly closed eyelids. He closed his mouth and slowly inhaled through his nose. And then he felt Kira’s hand slip into his, which caused more tears to run down his clean-shaven cheek. It was the first time their skin had touched in weeks… and it was in that instant, his wife’s fingers intertwined with his and the thought of her kissing another man in his head, that he told himself that he would stay.    

But now it was Jake who had the taste of another woman on his lips. The shower water was cooling now, telling him that no amount of cleaning was going to wipe this away. He dried, dressed, and made his way down the stairs, through the living room, and into the kitchen. He opened the cabinets, but nothing sounded good… the same with the refrigerator.

So Jake Whitley did what Jake Whitley does whenever life feels like this: he grabbed his Martin auditorium and fell into the closest chair.

He began to strum, but no song came out. No problem. When this happened, Jake knew what to do. He’d simply sing a song he’d already written, and eventually the creativity would flow. So he switched to the key of E and began the chord progression of a song he could sing in his sleep. E… C#m… G#m… A. The six beats between chords seemed to dance as his finger found the strings. But when the intro had ended, Jake couldn’t bring himself to open his mouth. The words were right there, on the tip of his tongue, but something inside stopped his vocal chords from finding the opening melody.

Confused, Jake stopped, regrouped, and tried another. He’d written this one the night they’d met, in London, all those years ago, and he’d sung it hundreds of times since. F… C… G. But again, the words wouldn’t come. It was as if Jake’s subconscious wouldn’t let him go to these places from his past. Fine, he thought out loud, I’ll just have to write a new song.

But he couldn’t. He tried multiple progressions and opening lines, but it was all so incredibly cliché. The blank page of the Moleskin in front of him sat mockingly. So he took a deep breath and tried again. Key of A in 4/4. Nothing. Key of C# in 6. Not a chance. He even tried the basic 1-4-6-5, the first progression he’d ever learned, in the key of G. Yet still the notebook remained without ink, and silence filled the room.

Out the dense front door, past the chiseled names in the front porch, down the stairs and across the yard, Ella Copeland sat, writing profusely in her journal as Greg Laswell continued to sing on the Admiral.

It’s hard to imagine that I’m only a month removed from 34E, that awful plane ride from JFK to PDX. Even two months ago, the thought of sitting on this porch, listening to this record, with my mom, no less… I couldn’t have even fathomed this. I wonder if he’s awake yet. I keep looking over there, hoping for a sign of life inside the windows. Settle down, Ella. It was just a kiss. Don’t act like it was… Ah, who am I kidding? It was so much more than just a kiss. It’s been a month, and we’ve gone through more in that month than, well… most of my previous relationships. And we’ve lived… we’re not college kids trying to play out a romantic comedy. We’ve seen hell, been back, and lived to tell about it. God, that sounds dramatic.

 Ella took a deep breath and stared at the full sheet of paper in front of her.

This notebook was filled with full pages… some of the most dramatic moments of Ella’s life. The memory attached to that song from earlier this morning was just a few sheets of paper beneath the page that was in front of her: her recollection of the day in Nashville, with “What A Day” in her earbuds. She’d come to grips with her decision. She really had. She was not going to allow herself to put two and two together and write the shock jock story of the century. She would not out America’s picture perfect rock star for what he really was. Screw the voices in her head telling her to kill it. Screw the silence of the executive office next to the bullpen. She simply couldn’t do that to the man she’d become so close to on this tour.

Things had been a bit different since Rebecca got back. The days of early morning movies on Riley’s bus and consistent walks to coffee had ceased, but they still had their little moments… passing moments of eye contact that were a whispering reminder that she was more than just a reporter on this tour. There were entire pages of Ella’s journal about those looks, what she thought they meant… what she hoped they meant to him.

Things were good on that morning in Nashville. She was at peace with her decision to suppress the story she’d gathered; she was optimistic about both the tour and the future. The sun was shining, the air was warm, and she was in one of her favorite cities. The bus was parked in front of the iconic Ryman Auditorium for tonight’s show, a venue that Ella had always wanted to experience. She walked the handful of blocks to Crema and ordered a soy latte, and then let the sun soak into her skin as she walked through town.

Most tourists spend their time on Broadway. Live music blares from every building, while every bartender, barista, and Uber driver has a demo in their back pocket, one celebrity away from their big break. But Ella wasn’t heading for the honkytonks. No, Music Row was the spot that Ella longed to spend her afternoon. Without the banners in the front yard congratulating songwriters on their recent #1 hits, one might not know that some of their favorite songs were written inside these houses. But the bodies that filled these blocks Monday through Friday were some of the greatest minds in music. And so Ella walked the couple miles through downtown to the somewhat unassuming few blocks called Music Row.

She felt like a rookie again, staring at each front door as she passed, hoping to catch a glimpse of a face she might find on the cover of Rolling Stone or American Songwriter. RCA Studio B… Warner… Compass Records… So much history…

Ella noticed a familiar face when she turned the corner on 19th and Adelicia. But unfortunately, it wasn’t the face of a celebrity or an icon that she saw on the front porch of the Universal Music Publishing building. It was Todd Locker, smoking a cigarette and pacing back and forth while he held his phone up to his ear.

Ella stopped in her tracks, not wanting to ruin this perfectly good day by having a conversation with the arrogant reporter from ID Magazine. She was contemplating her next move when Todd spotted a black car pulling up, hung up the phone, and started walking toward the sidewalk. Ella turned her head, hoping that he hadn’t recognized her. She hit the little button on her earbuds to stop the music, as if what was playing in the headphones could somehow affect whether or not Todd Locker would spot her.

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched him reach the curb, wait for the car to slow to a stop, and then open the door. Ella shouldn’t have been surprised to see Rebecca Martin appear from the back seat, but she was.

What in the world was Riley Martin’s wife doing with Todd Locker?

 In the weeks since she saw them drive off together in Denver, she’d explored every possibility. Were they having an affair? Were they old friends? Were they simply sharing a ride from the party back to the venue? She’d considered bringing it up to Riley, but still, she had nothing more than the sick feeling that accompanied the thought.

Ella watched as they exchanged pleasantries on the sidewalk. She didn’t even care if they recognized her now; she wanted answers. So she walked their direction, keeping her eyes fixed on their conversation, an attempt to discern the nature of their relationship through facial expressions. She was so focused, in fact, that she didn’t even notice Riley follow Rebecca out of the car… at least at first.

When she did, she lost her breath, and then her balance. She stumbled around, her back now facing the three, and her feet moving quickly away. This doesn’t make sense. Todd Locker is supposed to be no more than a comp ticket writer whose only access on the tour was from the 15th row. So what’s doing with Riley? What’s Riley doing with him? In that moment, Ella’s emotions ranged from betrayal to anger to confusion, all in a matter of five or six steps. She stopped, gathered her composure, and turned her head.

They were gone. Her eyes scanned the street, but they weren’t there. She moved quickly now, back to the spot where the car had been just seconds before. Nothing. She spun around in a complete circle, looking for any sign of the Martins or Todd Locker. Ella noticed the smell of cigarettes in the air, and then the smoke from the still lit butt on the porch of the Universal building. Without thinking, she took two steps toward the porch… and then she saw it.

There he was, through the front window: Riley. The room looked like a living area, and Ella watched sneakily as the man she’d been hired to write about sat on what appeared to be a sofa. Ella’s heart sank when Rebecca came into view, and then took a seat next to her husband.

What was going on?

Maybe it was happenstance that Riley Martin and Todd Locker ended up in the same building on Music Row. Maybe their simultaneous arrival here had nothing to do with each other. Ella was trying to calm herself down with these thoughts when the sight of Todd walking into the room obliterated this hopeful hypothesis.

What was that in his hand?

 Ella stood and stared, so blown away by what she was witnessing. It was a camera, and Todd was placing it on a tripod and pointing it at the Martins.

What on earth was going on?

Ella was furious. Why hadn’t Riley told her about this meeting? Surely they were close enough for that, right? And what were they talking about in there?

“I don’t do press, remember?” He’d said these words to her on more than one occasion. So why was there a camera in his face, and the douche from ID Magazine on the other side of it?

The walk back to the Ryman happened much quicker, and with far more intensity than the walk to Music Row.

What on earth were they doing with Todd Locker?

Every insecurity was moved to the front of Ella’s mind. What was Dominic going to say when he saw a video of Riley on ID’s website? What was Locker getting that she wasn’t?

That feeling came back, the one she’d had a day before this tour started, when she thought she’d lost her exclusive. In fact, it was more than a feeling… it was a fight. And Ella had to win. She racked her brain… what did she have that Todd didn’t? Access. Well, not today, but in general. She had more than a month of one-on-ones with the man who was sitting in front of that camera. And now she knew she had to use it.

She reached the bus, grabbed her computer from her bunk, and began typing. Every gritty detail of their month together… the chasing of every high… the package… the smuggling… the phone calls to Cuba… the briefcase on the bus in Chicago…

“But why,” Ella wrote her last paragraph, tears of anger sitting at the corners of her eyelids. “Why would America’s favorite songwriter risk it all by involving himself in a cross-border drug empire? I found the answer on a foggy morning in San Francisco about a month ago. As we sat over coffee, I saw the eyes of a man who was miles beyond lonely. I saw the hands of a man who had tasted it all, yet came up empty. And I saw the heart of a man who had fallen completely out of love, and was searching for something that fame, fortune, and even his wife couldn’t give him.”

Ella re-read her work. It was by far the most provocative piece she’d ever written. And if she hit that button, Submit for Review, it would likely be the most read piece she would ever write. Even in the moment, she recognized the emotion that filled each sentence. And she knew that’s what made it so powerful.

That night, the sound of Riley’s songs filled the Ryman, and it was magical. Ella abandoned her normal spot backstage, and took in the show from the third row. As she heard him sing and watched him lead his band, there was an ounce of regret for the words she’d put on that page. And when he made eye contact with her for entire back half of “It’s Always Been You,” Ella was so glad that the file was still on her computer, and not in the hands of the team back at In Stereo.

She had every intention of submitting it before tonight’s show, but something had told her not to click the button. So it sat, open on her laptop in back in the bus. The hour and a half of Riley’s set had been enough to convince her to trash the story. Regardless of his extracurricular activities, he really was a good guy, and there was definitely something special between them. She couldn’t ruin his career, even if it meant suppressing the truth.

If she had any doubts about this new decision, they were put to rest by the sight of him backstage after the show. He was gorgeous. And Ella had never looked forward to something as much as she looked forward to their time together.

“Hey, you were in a different spot tonight.” He was using a towel to wipe the post-show sweat from his brow. “Caught me off guard.”  

“Yeah,” she replied, remembering how much she liked him. “It is the Ryman, and you are Riley Martin. I figured I couldn’t miss it, or watch it from backstage.”

“I liked it,” he said, not attempting to hide his smile. “Watching you while I sang.”

That sealed it. As soon as this conversation was over, Ella was going to walk right to the bus, and delete the story she’d spent all afternoon crafting.

“How was your day?” He asked. “I didn’t see you around.”

“It was fine.” She lied, but only because she truly thought it was going to be fine. “You do anything exciting?”

How was he going to respond to this? Maybe he’d tell her about the Todd Locker interview, or whatever it was. Maybe he’d say Rebecca dragged him to it, and he BS-ed his way through Todd’s stupid questions.

“Um… nothing, really. Pretty much just hung out in the bus all day. Need my rest, you know?”
“Yeah,” Ella lied, knowing that she wasn’t going to be able to keep her composure while he stood her and lied to her. “Hey, I gotta run. Talk to you later.”

Riley furrowed his brow. “Everything ok?”

“Yeah, I just gotta…”

Before she finished, she turned around and walked away. The tears of anger from earlier returned, this time with a fair amount of hurt to accompany them.

The bus was empty, the crew busy cleaning up the stage and packing away the gear.

She felt foolish for being swayed by his songs, her mind changed by his charm.

So she opened the laptop, the story still on the screen in front of her. She wouldn’t be deceived again. She scrolled her mouse over the Submit for Review button, then hesitated.

“Screw it,” she said out loud before scrolling down and hovering over the “Publish Now” button.

She clicked the icon, watched the story become live online, and closed the laptop.