There was a knock on the door.
He froze. It could be anyone; his manager, one of the other band members, an old friend who’d seen his name on the marquee and wanted to say hello.
Jesus, Cameron, it’s been a long time!
Three years, exactly.
He was alone, and he slowly approached the door. Heart hammering in his chest, he squinted into the peep hole.
He knew it. He’d had a feeling.
It was her.
Her straw-colored hair had grown past her shoulders, but there was no mistaking those blue eyes. She’d lined them in black, the way she used to when they would go out on the town together. Once upon a time.
He had wondered- hoped– she’d come. He had tried to call her but the line was disconnected. It had been so long since they’d spoken, he wasn’t sure she was still in town. She used to be a manager at the grocery store down the street, and she would have driven past this lodge every day, the marquee announcing the weekend’s entertainment. They brought in live bands every Friday and Saturday, and his homecoming would have been a big event, one to which they sold tickets instead of enforcing the usual cover charge.
Award-winning musician Cameron Black makes his way home.
He wasn’t playing the whole weekend, as he did back before he was selling out shows. He was just here for the night. Tomorrow he was headlining an event in San Antonio.
He opened the door, and when she saw his face she smiled and opened her mouth to speak but found she had forgotten everything she had planned to say.
Maggie Hall. Once his best friend, now the stranger standing outside his hotel room door.
“Hey,” she said finally. She jabbed a thumb towards the front office. “I’m sorry, I knew the girl at the counter, and she told me your room number…”
“Mags, oh my god,” Cameron breathed. His body was taking over for him. Years of familiarity, of late nights and drinking games and long drives and pranks drew him to her. In an instant his arms were folding her against his chest and he was inhaling the scent of her perfume. She smelled different, but she felt like the girl who’d gotten away.
“I can’t believe it,” she giggled happily, “I can’t believe you’re really here!”
She squeezed him tight, and he could feel her breasts pressing against his chest. He cleared his throat and pulled away.
“You heard I was coming, huh?” he asked.
She rolled her eyes.
“It was impossible to miss. You’re all over the paper, the radio. You don’t know what I had to do to get a ticket.”
He raised an eyebrow, and she laughed.
“No, no, nothing like that,” she said, waving away his thoughts. “You’re just such a big deal now. Everyone here tonight had to know someone just to get in.”
“I would have given you a pass. I tried calling.”
“You did?” she looked genuinely pleased, then disappointed. “Oh, yeah. Sorry. I had to change my number a while back. I should have told you.”
“Yes, you should have.” He smiled, though it did not quite reach his eyes. “But I understand why you didn’t. We haven’t spoken in, what, two years?”
“God, has it been that long?”
“Since you married Cody.”
“Oh, right.” She looked away and sighed. “You didn’t hear what happened?”
“I never hear anything about you anymore, Maggie.”
It made sense, and she nodded. She might as well have fallen off the face of the earth. She had lost most of her friends shortly after she got married, and she wasn’t much for social networking. The only people she spoke with these days were her mother, her best girlfriend, and her lawyer.
“Cody and I are getting a divorce,” she said.
Cameron looked down at her hand and for the first time noticed she wasn’t wearing a ring.
“Seriously?” was all he could think to say.
“He cheated,” she told him.
“A lot,” she added. “He cheated a lot.”
She waited for him to say I told you so, but he didn’t.
“I’m so sorry,” he said instead.
“You warned me. I didn’t want to believe it. I wanted to believe he’d changed.”
“Are you okay?”
She took a deep breath and nodded.
“I’m getting there,” she replied. “This is my first time out in six months.”
“I’m glad you came.”
She looked past him into the room, where his suitcase was open and his clothes were scattered all over the floor.
“I see you’re not quite the neat freak you used to be,” she teased.
“I don’t take the time to unpack anymore,” he said.
His phone buzzed in his pocket.
“Shit,” he muttered, glancing at a text. “They’re wondering where I am.”
“You should probably get down there, Mr. Fancy Pants.”
He smiled wryly and dove into the room to grab a flannel shirt out of the pile of clothes. He threw it over his tee shirt, which was dark gray and read This is it.
“I can’t believe you still have that thing,” Maggie said.
“That tee shirt I bought you.”
He looked down as if he had forgotten what he was wearing.
“This is my favorite shirt,” he said with a grin. “Why would I get rid of it?”
She didn’t want to give him a reason, so she said nothing.
This is it.
It’s what they had always said to each other during their favorite moments. Floating down the Frio River in August. Watching the fireworks at the end of a concert on the 4th of July. Sailing in the Gulf, licking salt off a Dos Equis at a cantina in Mexico, getting chased by ducks at the River Walk, driving through the hills at three in the morning with the doors off his 4-Runner and Garth Brooks blaring on the stereo.
It was the greatest moment of their lives. It was all they had.
He stepped out of the room and pulled the door closed behind him, then he put an arm around her shoulders the way he used to and together they walked towards the lounge where he was to perform.
Then something occurred to him.
His arm twitched, but he didn’t remove it.
“Did you come here with anyone?” he asked.
She laughed, that loud honking laugh he had always found so contagious. He relaxed.
“I came here to see you, Cameron Black. Just you.” She gave him a little squeeze around the middle, where her arm was draped across his lower back. “But Eva will be joining me tonight.”
“Eva Zevala? She’s still around?”
“Yes. And it’s Eva Hunt now.”
He looked at her sideways.
“Hunt, as in Jackson Hunt, owner of this establishment?”
“Yessir. Married him last fall.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“He’s twice her age and she’s nuts about him.”
“Now I can see how you acquired your tickets.”
“Jackson almost didn’t let me in. He was being such an ass. Eva had to do unspeakable things to him just to…”
“I don’t want to know, Mags,” Cameron grimaced.
She laughed again. Eva had been their third wheel since high school, and she had always been the wildest of them all.
They rounded a corner, and Cameron’s arm dropped from around Maggie’s shoulders.
“I gotta go in through the back door,” he told her. “I’ll see you after the show?”
As she walked away from him and towards the front entrance to the lounge, she smiled to herself. She had been so frightened he wouldn’t want to see her, so frightened he would be cold. But that wasn’t like Cameron. She had been the one to push him away, to isolate herself from his intentions to rescue her from a bad marriage. She had been so afraid of his love for her. Of her love for him. Afraid it went further, deeper than either of them quite understood.
She presented her ticket and waded through the sea of people to find Eva, who stood an inch taller than every other woman in the room and whose long, black hair seemed to glow blue from the neon lights. She was standing near the stage, a beer in each hand. Someone budged her from behind, causing the beer to slosh onto her designer heels, and she whipped her glossy head around to deliver an explicit rebuke. When Maggie sidled up beside her, Eva handed her one of the beers and rolled her eyes.
“Got you this,” Eva said, then raised her voice loud enough for the surrounding ears to hear. “But the fuck tard behind me spilled it, so you can thank him.”
Maggie just giggled.
“I’m not worried about it,” she said, and took a sip. Bud Light. It was always her go-to at the bar because she could afford it. And there was just something about the taste of a crisp, ice cold Bud Light on a hot Texas night. She closed her eyes and held the beer against her cheek to cool down.
Cameron would be on the stage at any moment, and she felt her heart racing at the thought of seeing him again so soon- so close, so real. She had seen him in magazines, on CMT and various award shows, and he had looked good, but nothing could have prepared her for what she saw when he opened that hotel room door. All throughout high school and their early twenties, he had remained clean shaven, and he had been tall and soft like a teddy bear. She had loved that about him. His face had been kind, clean, and handsome, but he had changed. He was no longer the boy she remembered. Now he was a man with sharper edges, an unshaven jaw line, strong arms and a flat stomach. His jeans hung from his hips in a way they had never done before, and his eyes looked older, grayer. Still soft, but matured, as if they had seen more than they had bargained for.
“So,” Eva turned to Maggie and studied her with her huge green eyes. “How did it go?”
Maggie blushed, and it was not lost on Eva.
“Oh. My. God,” Eva said.
“Good,” Maggie replied, unable to meet those eyes. “It was good.”
Eva’s lips tightened the way they did when she slipped into interrogation mode.
“And?” she prodded, her long bangs shivering against her eyelashes. “Spit it out. What happened?”
“It was almost like nothing’s changed. I mean, a lot has changed… obviously… but we just… we just picked up right where we left off. He’s still Cameron. Maybe a little jaded, but it’s him.”
“He hasn’t been lost to fame?” Eva teased. Kind of.
“I didn’t get that impression,” Maggie said. “He was really glad to see me. I was afraid he wouldn’t be.”
“Did you tell him about Cody?”
“What did he think?” Eva asked.
“He seemed genuinely sorry.”
“He would have wanted to be wrong. He wanted you to be happy. But he knew Cody was an asshole. Just like the rest of us.”
Maggie didn’t want to hear this lecture again. She placed a cool set of fingers against her forehead and began to rub.
“I know, Eva,” she sighed.
Eva studied her friend a second longer, then looked towards the stage.
“I saw his new music video,” she said, then whistled. “Damn, he got hot.”
“Oh my god, Eva.”
“What? You know I’m right.”
“He could be the Pope, and if he looked like that, I’d still think he was hot.”
Maggie brushed an invisible hair out of her eyes. The reality of her oldest friend’s transformation made her uncomfortable. She wanted the show to start.
She glanced around the bar and saw some faces she hadn’t seen in years. She hoped they wouldn’t recognize her, hoped they wouldn’t approach her after the show and ask her questions. She suddenly wished she were invisible, and then the lights went down and she was.
To everyone except him.
Cameron came onto the stage to a deafening reception. The room exploded with applause and raised voices, and bodies pushed against Maggie and Eva to gain proximity to the stage. Eva spilled her beer again.
“Shit! Mother fucker!” she spat.
“Should have worn your boots,” Maggie shouted.
“My boots cost more than these damn things,” Eva shouted back, “but these’re still Tom Fucking Ford’s.”
When Cameron reached center stage, the spotlight illuminated his face and Eva forgot all about her shoes.
She leaned close to Maggie and nudged her shoulder.
”Hot,” she said.
Maggie just shook her head, refusing to agree. But she did agree. Cameron looked amazing. Standing there below him and staring up at his hard-earned fame and beauty, she suddenly felt simple and dull. He was one of country music’s most eligible bachelors, and what was she? A soon-to-be divorcee from Food Mart, who was still wearing the boots her father had bought her when she was sixteen. Beside her, newly married Eva Hunt was far more glamorous, but then again, Eva had always been glamorous.
Maggie bit her lip to avoid muttering the word Pathetic to herself.
In an instant her mind was silenced as she realized Cameron was gazing directly at her. He leaned in to the microphone and looked left towards the bar.
“Hey, Joe?” he said, and everyone grew quiet.
Joe, the bartender, had a considerably smaller voice when he replied, “Yeah, Cam?”
Cameron pointed at Maggie and said, “This pretty girl is drinkin’ on me tonight.”
Joe gave him a thumbs’ up while the audience whistled and cheered.
Cameron winked at Maggie, who mouthed the words, Thank you.
He stepped away from the mic long enough to take a sip of water and say, “This one’s for you, Mags.” His drummer counted off, and the band began to play the song Cameron had written for Maggie just before she got married. It was the last song she had heard him play live, and she remembered the sting of the tears that ran down her cheeks while she had listened. That may have been the moment she realized she loved him, but it was also the moment she knew she would push him away. It had been the song to break her heart, but now it was different. Now it was the song that brought her back to him.
“The way he looks at you hasn’t changed,” Eva told her.
Maggie shut her eyes to keep them from tearing up.
“I know,” she said.
It was what she had come here tonight to find out. No one had ever looked at her the way Cameron did, and she had wondered- hoped– he still would.
He played till midnight, a full two-hour set. Afterwards, when the lights came back on and Josh Abbott bellowed from the speakers, the house began to clear, making room on the dance floor for those who would stick around till last call. The band began clearing the stage, and for old times’ sake, Cameron lent a hand. He had long graduated from packing his own gear, but tonight was different. Tonight he was home.
He wasn’t left alone for long. Old friends and new fans surrounded him. He handled their small talk and requests for autographs gracefully, but he searched their faces for the one he knew best. He found her standing to the edge of the dance floor, where she was watching him with an amused smile. He soon broke away from the small mob and went to her, and before she could protest he had taken her hand and spun her into his arms. They moved into an easy two-step, and he pressed his chin against the side of her face. His mouth was in close proximity to her ear, perfect for conversation despite the loud music.
“Sorry, I just wanted to be close to you,” he said.
“I’m not sorry,” she replied.
“What are you doing tonight?”
“Whatever you want to do.”
“I really don’t care, as long as I’m with you.” He smiled as he got an idea. “You want to get out of here?”
They finished out the song, then Maggie located Eva near the bar.
“I’m just going to tell her I’m heading out,” Maggie told Cameron. He nodded and she crossed the room to Eva, who watched her friend approach unblinkingly.
“You’re leaving with him,” Eva said before Maggie could speak.
“Yes. Is that okay?”
Eva didn’t answer, but instead wrapped her arms around Maggie and said, “Don’t let him get away this time, Mags.”
When she returned to Cameron, he took her hand and led her backstage and out the rear exit.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Let’s just take a drive.”
“You still have the old Mini?”
Without thinking about it she reached into her pocket and handed him the keys. Still holding his hand, she led him to her car and he opened the passenger door for her. She had hoped he would drive, hoped she could watch him in the dim light from the dashboard.
He slipped into the driver’s seat and they headed east towards the interstate. For a few moments they said nothing, their individual thoughts filling the silence. They didn’t bother with the stereo.
Once they reached I-10, Cameron sneaked a glance at Maggie before returning his eyes to the road.
“Is this okay?” he asked.
“This is perfect,” she said.
“I’ve missed you, Mags.”
“I’ve missed you too. I’m so sorry, Cam.”
“Nothing to apologize for.”
“Yes there is. There’s so much.”
“You’ve always seen the best in people, Maggie. Sometimes to a fault. But I never held that against you.”
“I don’t deserve your forgiveness.”
“You don’t have to.”
She sniffled, and he realized she was crying. He picked up speed, wanting to reach the next exit as soon as possible. He wanted to stop. To put his arms around her.
“He was like this foreign thing,” she said through her tears. “He wasn’t like the rest of us, growing up here the way we did. I was dazzled. I convinced myself he was what I wanted. That he was my ticket out of here. I know you and Eva saw right through him, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t. Or maybe I just didn’t want to try hard enough.”
“You can’t keep beating yourself up about it, Maggie.”
“But I do. Because I lost you, and you were everything to me. You were my best friend and I haven’t spoken to you in two years. I missed everything. I should have been there when you headlined your first tour, when you crossed over from Texas country and became who you are now. I’m so proud of you, Cameron. You deserve it. You deserve all of it.”
He didn’t respond. Instead he pulled off the interstate and onto a frontage road, one he hadn’t driven since he was a kid. He knew where it led.
They came to a cattle gate, where Cameron parked the Mini and went around the side of the car to get the door for Maggie. He took her hand and helped her over the gate, and side by side they crossed a field towards a line of cypress trees. Beyond the trees, a small lake shimmered with the light of a crescent moon and a million stars.
When they came to the edge of the water, he didn’t let go of her hand but instead drew her against him.
“Come here,” he said. “Hit me with your heart.”
She could hear but not see the smile on his lips.
Her heart pounded against his chest, and she realized she had stopped crying. Her breathing was beginning to even out, and she found herself relaxing into his touch.
“Girls must throw themselves at you,” she said.
“They do try,” he admitted.
“Is that weird?”
“You get used to it after a while.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“You want to know something?” he asked.
“I never could quite get over wishing they were you.”
“Serious.” He pulled back just far enough to see the stars dancing in her eyes. “Every single show. I look out at their faces hoping to see yours.”
She didn’t know what to say.
“I was afraid to hope you’d be there tonight,” he told her. “I wanted it more than anything.”
“Just one night,” she murmured.
“Enough to get me through the next two years,” he commented wryly.
“Cameron,” she chastised.
“I know. Bad joke.”
“I won’t let that happen again.”
“You better not. We have some serious making up to do.”
The way he said it made her heart beat a little faster. Her mouth went dry.
“Yes, we do,” she agreed.
She felt breathless.
“Maggie,” he whispered.
His arms tightened around her.
“You never lost me,” he said.
She remained quiet, so he continued.
“I’ve loved you since the day I met you; since we were thirteen and I had those glasses that were too big for my face and you still had braces and frizzy hair. You were beautiful to me then and you are beautiful to me now. I didn’t fully realize how essential you were to my life until you stopped being a part of it, and now that I’ve got you back I don’t want to let you go.”
“You could do so much better than me, Cameron.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. I’ve been around the world, Mags. I’ve yet to meet anyone who gets me like you do.”
She thought about the other celebrities she had seen Cameron photographed with. Pop stars, actresses, models. She imagined her Food Mart smock, her imaginary social life, the house she could no longer afford. She had lost so much weight since Cody left she barely fit into her clothes.
“What could you possibly see in me?” she asked.
He gently tugged her hair back and tipped her chin.
“Everything,” he replied. “I’ve always seen everything.”
He kissed her then, long and deep. The way he had wanted to since the moment Cody Taylor stole her attention four years ago. The Australian with hair longer than Maggie’s, who’d had an affinity for surfing and weed and exotic countries, who had never believed in monogamy but who swore he couldn’t live without Maggie Hall. You’re like the girl in a country song, Cody had told her, and she had laughed and looked at Cameron. I am the girl in a country song.
And she was. She was the girl in all of his songs. Always had been.
Cameron pulled away from her just far enough to speak. He leaned close to her ear.
“This is it,” he whispered.
“Come to San Antonio tomorrow,” he told her.
She made a long hmmm noise.
“I can’t,” she said gradually. “I have to work.”
“Call in sick.”
She didn’t take long to think about it.
He kissed her again, and before she could stop herself she started to giggle.
“This is so weird,” she said. “I’m making out with my best friend.”
“It’s a little weird, yeah,” he agreed. “But it’s good though, right?”
She touched his face.
“You have no idea,” she murmured.
He cocked his head a little to the side and replied, “Oh, I think I do.”
He kissed her in the dark till the moon had crossed to the other side of the lake. After so long without her, he could not quite get her close enough. His heart broke for her, for the fragile thing she had become in the wake of her husband’s betrayal, but he was certain of one thing as he held her beneath the stars, the distant sounds of the interstate creating a muted echo all around them: he wouldn’t let her get away again. He would spend the rest of his life coming home to her.