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  • Charley Clarke

Always a Love Song EXCERPT



With the release of ALWAYS A LOVE SONG just around the corner--it drops on JUNE 5--here's the first chapter for you to get a taste of what's to come!



THEN

When Alex looked back on this night in two or five or ten years, she’d remember it as perfect. What else could it be when they were eighteen—or near enough, in her case—freshly graduated, and on top of the world? Not literally, of course. They weren’t even on top of the building. They sat on the stage in the empty Wentworth Theater, a six-pack and a battery-operated camping lantern between them. The theater had been closed for a year, but Bridget had snuck out of her house enough times to have learned a thing or two.


Their pocket of light made the rest of the black theater even eerier, but nothing could touch Alex when she was with Bridget. Her best friend. Someone who could be more than a friend. One day. But Alex wasn’t going to push it. She was just going to keep on loving Bridget, because loving made her feel like a sun spreading warmth to everyone she met. Didn’t even matter if Bridget loved her back.


“You’re going to be a big star one day,” Alex said. “You’re going to be up here on this stage, and I’m going to be in the front row clapping the loudest.”


Bridget bumped her shoulder. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”


With her golden hair, sparkling smile, and glowing personality, maybe it was Bridget who was the sun.


“But we’re going to have adventures first,” Bridget said. “Lots of them, starting with college.”

Alex’s smile fell away, and she bit her lip. It wasn’t that she wasn’t excited for the year to come. It was just that they were going to change. That was what growing up was all about.


“What is it?” Bridget asked in a whisper. “You can tell me.”


“It’s just…” Alex sighed. “What if we grow apart?”


“We won’t,” Bridget said, fidgeting with the corner of the beer carton, an idle smile on her lips as she regarded Alex. “I’m not worried.”


“You’re not? Not even a little bit?”


“Nope.”


Alex found her chest lightening. Because change could be good for a relationship. Change meant growth.


Besides, they were Alex and Bridget. Inseparable.


Bridget pulled one leg up under herself. “I can’t imagine my life without you, and now, I don’t have to.”


And all of a sudden, Alex couldn’t help it. She couldn’t fight the fuzziness that welled up in her chest and threatened to explode. She surged forward and kissed Bridget’s cheek.


Even in the dim lantern light, Bridget’s answering blush was apparent. “Why’d you do that?”


“Because…” Because it felt right. Because they were best friends. Because words sometimes weren’t enough. “You’re my favorite person. Ever.”


“Yeah?”


“Yeah.”


Bridget grinned. “Well, you’re mine, too. But for a scholarship athlete, your aim’s pitiful.”


“My aim?”


Bridget closed the gap between them again, but this time, lips met lips. It wasn’t Alex’s first kiss, but it was the first one that meant something. This wasn’t fumbling around behind the bleachers or in the corner of a house party. It wasn’t even open-mouthed. It was just soft, warm pressure and the feeling of Bridget’s smile beneath her own.


Yeah. Definitely a perfect night.


#


NOW


“Music’s golden girl Bridget Callahan has broken her silence about her fiancé’s shocking infidelity,” the entertainment anchor on TV said.


Alex finished the chai she was making and handed it off to her customer, then picked up the remote and switched the channel to a women’s golf match, but not before catching a glimpse of the screen, which showed a smiling Bridget in a stunning green dress on the red carpet. The Grammys. This past year. Not that Alex kept track of that stuff.


She had a café, a bar, and a brewery to run. Her life didn’t have room for celebrity gossip.


“Hey, Alex,” Lu said, loudly enough to draw the attention of everyone in the café. Even Benny, Alex’s pit bull, looked up from where he was lounging beneath Lu’s feet. Jordan and Owen filled out the rest of their unofficially reserved corner table, with their daughter, Keiko, in a stroller that Owen rocked with one foot.


“Refill?” Alex asked.


Lu, dressed in her park ranger uniform, shook her head and gestured to the television. “Who do you think’s going to win this tournament?”


“Oh, definitely Culey,” Owen said. “She’s been on fire all year.”


Alex filled a to-go cup with hot water. Even though the reminder of Bridget’s success no longer hurt, her friends couldn’t seem to get out of the routine. “I wouldn’t be so sure,” she said. “I’d put my money on Park.”


“Boo,” Jordan said, waving a dismissive hand. “She’s what, thirty-nine? She can’t keep up with these eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds. She’s three strokes behind Culey right now.”


“She’s a master. She’ll pull through.” Alex shrugged. “Besides, the old ones are the sure things. They’re solid. They won’t choke under pressure.”


“And let us not forget,” Lu said, “that though she may be a veteran in athletic terms, she’s by no means actually old.”


Alex dropped a fresh Earl Grey teabag into the cup and took it over to the table. She planted a kiss on her goddaughter’s forehead before handing the drink to Lu. “For your shift.”


Lu accepted it with a grimace. “If I had known this job would involve weekends, I never would have accepted.”


“Yes, you would have,” Owen said matter-of-factly. “Because, despite the weekends, you love it and you wouldn’t be happy without it.”


Lu threw a sugar packet at him. “This is why I need new friends. You guys know me too well.”


“Yeah, fifteen years will do that,” Jordan said, leaning back with a sage expression.


“You can advertise for new friends after your shift,” Alex said, waving her towel at Lu. “Don’t be late!”


“Fine. Fine.” Lu grumbled as she adjusted her ball cap. “Put it on my tab, will ya, sweetheart?”


Alex swatted her with the towel. “Get out of here.”


“Stop trying to hurry me.” Lu looked at her watch. “I have at least six more minutes.”


Jordan pushed an empty chair out from the table with her foot. “Sit a spell, friend. Make the most of Lu’s six minutes.”


“I’ve got customers,” Alex said suspiciously. Her friends were a common fixture in both the café and the bar next door, but they usually didn’t interfere with her job. What were they up to?


“You’ve also got very competent employees,” Owen said. “Now sit.”


With an exaggerated sigh, she complied. “What?”


Jordan lifted an accusing eyebrow. “You reached for that remote awfully fast, there.”


Alex rolled her eyes. “I hate gossip. Just because she’s a celebrity doesn’t mean she doesn’t deserve a private life.”


“Okay, but did you listen any before you changed the channel?”


“Why would I?” She had, sort of, but she’d been too distracted to really process any of it.


Owen swiveled his laptop toward her. On the screen was an article with the headline “America’s Sweethearts’ Shocking Break-Up,” accompanied by individual pictures of Bridget and Patrick Norwood, Hollywood’s current hottest commodity, and a third photograph of the two together at his latest movie premiere.


Alex shoved down the eruption of anger. She was past that. Bridget’s romantic entanglements didn’t affect her. Sure, she knew he’d proposed to her on stage three months ago, but only because everyone did. It was impossible to escape Bridget Callahan fever.


Talk about irritating.


She gave a disinterested shrug. “So?”


So they broke up, like, the day after they got engaged, and she wanted to keep it a secret,” Owen said, leaning forward eagerly.


“What’s your point?”


“Our point,” Jordan said, “is that maybe she doesn’t have as perfect a life as she wants everyone to believe.”


“Perfect comeuppance for a perfect bitch,” Lu said, blowing on her tea.


Owen leaned over the stroller to cover Keiko’s ears even though she’d fallen fast asleep.


“Language, Lu,” Alex said as she got to her feet and straightened her apron.


Lu raised an eyebrow. “What? Bitch?”


“No,” Alex said with a smirk. “Where’d you learn the word ‘comeuppance’?”


#


Even surrounded by people, Bridget was alone. Or, at least, it felt that way. This was what her life had become, just a still body in a sea of constantly moving people. Television studio workers scurried around prepping for the show. Her agent, Pippa, chattered on the phone, making decisions on her behalf. And Max, her best friend and songwriting partner, was too caught up in flirting with his makeup artist to even glance her way.


“I want to go home,” Bridget said. The decision came out of nowhere. Or everywhere, maybe, informed by five long years of loneliness and heartache, and exacerbated by this mess of a break-up. It wasn’t loud enough for anyone but Pippa or Kit, her makeup artist, to hear.


Kit gave her a sympathetic pout, but her hand never wavered as she applied lipstick.


Without taking her eyes from her smartphone, Pippa said, “It’s a measly interview. You’ve done a million, and every one is GIF-ably adorable.”


Bridget waited until Kit moved to eye shadow to say, “It’s the first one I’ve done since…” Since the whole world found out she’d destroyed the perfect relationship with the perfect guy. Perfect was in the eye of the beholder, though, wasn’t it? Not so perfect if she spent the entire time thinking about someone else.


Pippa finally looked at her. “I know,” she said, her tone unusually gentle. “But it’s a break-up, not the end of the world. It happens all the time between celebrities. The truth had to come out eventually, and you’ll get through it with grace, like you always do.”


Bridget did a short breathing exercise. It didn’t calm her as much as usual, but it helped. “After this, though, I’m serious about going home.”


“You’re supposed to be writing new songs,” Pippa said, slipping into her stern voice again.


Max, done with his makeup, hopped out of his chair to join them. “What do you think we’re playing today?”


Pippa crossed her arms. “One song does not an album make.”


“I have been writing. We have,” Bridget said. “And I’ll keep writing when I go home. I just … I really need a break, Pip.”


Max gave Pippa his calculated puppy-dog eyes. She was one of the few people—besides Bridget, of course—proven immune to them, but he tried anyway. “She’s the hardest working musician in the industry. She deserves a break, wouldn’t you agree?”


Pippa sighed. “And you’ll be accompanying her to work on next year’s top album?”


“We can write over Skype and stuff,” Bridget suggested, not wanting to pressure him into spending time in the middle of nowhere, even if she desperately wanted him there.


All ease and nonchalance, Max grinned the dimpled grin that drove their fans wild. “I’ve always wanted to visit Pennsylvania.”


“You know I’m nowhere near the Liberty Bell, right?” Bridget asked. Outside of Pennsylvania, that was the only thing the state was known for. And Punxsutawney Phil. Everyone loved him. Inside the state, it was pierogi and sports and remnants of steel. Fun and rich in history, but not exactly a thrill a minute.


Max groaned.


She smacked his arm. “If you’re good, I’ll take you to a Steelers game.”


“I thought you didn’t like football.”


She’d loved it once—in her old life. Sunday afternoons of full living rooms and jerseys in church and eating until you were stuffed. “Everyone there loves football. It’s a rule.”


“Then it’s settled. I’ll book the tickets,” Pippa said before waltzing off.


A stagehand replaced her. “Five minutes, you two.”


Kit ran a lint brush over each of their shoulders, then stepped back to assess them. “All done! Break a leg!”


“Thanks,” Bridget said. Once Kit walked away, she snaked an arm around Max’s waist and leaned her head on his shoulder. “And thank you.”


“What are best friends for?”


“Um…” She put a finger to her chin and pretended to think. “Writing kick-ass songs that win awards and making me delicious baked goods and saving me from making terrible life decisions.” She snorted. If only he’d talked some sense into her five years ago. Then again, they had only been acquaintances back then.


“Co-writing,” he amended. “Now let’s get out there and show the world what real songwriting looks like.”


She straightened. “Right.”


All told, the situation could have been much worse. This appearance on The Mikayla Miles Show had been scheduled before the news broke the day before. Bridget was lucky that Mikayla, one of America’s favorite daytime hosts, tended to sympathize with her guests. It was a good place to break big news. Or explain it.


Like why she’d broken up with the nation’s most famous and beloved actor after he’d proposed to her on her first world tour.


They made it three minutes without a mention.


Then: “I have to ask, Bridget,” Mikayla said, looking sincere. “You know I have to ask. You’ve been pretty quiet lately, working on your new album, but a lot has been going on. You and Patrick Norwood got engaged on your tour stop in Paris on stage in front of a screaming crowd. But yesterday, you released a statement saying you’re no longer together. So, what happened to America’s sweethearts?”


“You know, after we got engaged,” Bridget said, “we had a long conversation and we realized our visions of the future didn’t match up. That’s all.”


“So, there was no cheating involved?”


“None whatsoever. I asked him for some time, and he gave it to me, but I didn’t want to keep him from moving on.”


“And the pictures?”


“Were taken last week, after we’d been broken up for months.”


Mikayla looked at the audience. “You heard it straight from Bridget Callahan herself, people. There is no need to demonize Patrick Norwood.” She turned back to Bridget. “Now for a harder question, Bridget. Do you still love him?”


Bridget sighed quietly. How terrible it was to break another person’s heart in order to heal your own. She only wished the pain had more to do with him than with her first love. She smiled. Five years had taught her how to do it convincingly even if her heart wasn’t in it. “Of course I do. Just because something doesn’t work out doesn’t mean your feelings dissolve in an instant.”


“Thank you for your honesty,” Mikayla said. “I know this must be difficult to talk about.”


“Unfortunately, I’m a bit desensitized to people overanalyzing my personal life.”


“I’m sure. Who knows? Maybe you can turn it into a song down the road.”


Bridget laughed lightly. “Maybe.”


“And speaking of songs,” Mikayla said, “Bridget’s songwriting partner, the very adorable Max Ocampo is here, and they’re going to play for us. Are you ready, Bridget?”


Bridget smacked her hands down on her armrests. “I’m ready.”


“Well, don’t be too ready. We’ve got a commercial break now.” Mikayla addressed the camera. “Stay tuned for the premiere of a brand-new song from the one and only Bridget Callahan!”


Bridget released her breath, and a bucket load of tension, when the red light winked out.


Mikayla leaned forward to touch her arm. “Hey, was that all right? I hate asking such personal questions.”


“Yeah, it’s good. I’m good,” Bridget said. “I know you have to do it.”


“Try not to be so famous, would you?”


“Well, the plan is to lie low a while, so we’ll see.”


“Good luck with that.” Mikayla tilted her head toward the stage. “You should probably get over there.”


“Sure, sure.” She stood, wiped her palms off on her jeans, and joined Max on stage, where he perched on a stool, holding an acoustic guitar.


“Look at you, coming through unscathed.”


Bridget sat at the piano bench. “Always do.”


“Are you sure you want to sing this one? Not too late to change.”


Bridget ran through an arpeggio. It couldn’t be too late—for closure, at least, if not for a second chance. Her songs had always been personal. This one was no different, really. “No. We’re doing this one.”


“Okay.”


“Thirty seconds,” someone called.


Mikayla gave them a thumbs-up from the other side of the set. Max returned it. Bridget merely nodded. She took five deep breaths before the camera light blinked back on. Mikayla introduced them once more, and finally, Max began plucking out the intro.


Bridget lost herself in the music.


#


After the show, Bridget pulled out her phone and texted someone she hadn’t spoken to in years, hoping her number was still the same.


I’m about to tell all my followers I’m going back home for a much-needed break. I didn’t want you to find out from anyone else.


Then, as an afterthought: And this is Bridget. In case you lost my number.


The reply came a few minutes later: I know who it is. Thanks for telling me.


You’re okay with it? Bridget asked.


This response was quicker. It’s your hometown, too. I’m sorry if you stayed away all this time because of me.


Bridget let go of the breath she was holding. You always were a better person than me. Maybe I’ll see you around?


This time, there was no reply.

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