From the June 2010 issue of True Love Magazine
I stared in horror at my friends’ gloating faces. “Did he just call my name?”
The man with the microphone waved a slip of paper in his hands. “Nicole Malone, we hear it’s your birthday? Come on up.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I grumbled.
Sarah shoved against me with her shoulder. “Go on. You gotta do it.”
“No, I don’t,” I hissed. It was bad enough my three closest girlfriends dragged me to karaoke on my thirtieth birthday, but to embarrass me by having me stand in front of a crowd of self-deluded crooners was beyond humiliating.
Michelle and Heather jumped from their barstools, each taking a hand and pulling me toward the stage.
“Ah, there’s the beautiful birthday girl. Come on, sweetheart. We don’t bite.” Given the karaoke master, or whatever his title was, wore a studded collar around his neck, I couldn’t take his word for it.
Accepting there was no way out of standing center stage while enduring an off-pitch rendition of the happy birthday song, I faked a gracious smile and walked to the front of the crowd.
Catcalls and whistles pierced the air in the packed bar.
I took my place next to the Pat Sajak of the karaoke world when suddenly a spotlight flipped on. Great. Now the whole room can see my red face.
“Woo hoo! Go Nikki!” Sarah was really going to get it when I returned to the table.
The announcer put his arm around my shoulders as if we were good buds. “Ladies and gentleman, it’s the lovely Nicole Malone.”
Crazy cheering broke out. You’d think I was a celebrity with their level of enthusiasm. And I had to admit that their energy was contagious. Just to be a good sport, I curtsied. So what if they sang happy birthday to me? I was a big girl, officially a real adult. No longer a twenty-something.
Wow. That was a depressing thought. Thirty years old in an uninspiring job and no relationship to speak of, unless you counted my live-in Scottie. And no, I didn’t have some hot-kilted guy waiting for me at home. My Scottie was a dark haired cutie who liked walks in the park and belly rubs.
The announcer handed me the microphone, and I stared at it as if he’d handed me a snake. Did they expect a speech? “Um, thank you?”
“Material Girl!” someone in the back shouted out.
What is wrong with these people?
The announcer, who towered over me by a good foot, grinned expectantly. “Well, what’s it going to be? Are you an 80’s girl, or do you wanna rock?”
Whoa! They expected me to sing? I covered the microphone with my hand. “I’m sorry. There’s been some mistake. I don’t sing.”
When he took the microphone back, I almost melted with relief, but it was short lived. “Our little Nikki is shy, and she needs your encouragement.” He waved both arms in the air, cuing the crowd to join him. “Nik-ki! Nik-ki!”
Soon the whole room exploded with noise. They chanted my name over and over until I knew there was no way I’d leave that stage without singing. Now I wished I’d had that second margarita.
I nodded as my knees knocked together. Again, they cheered. I accepted the microphone. “I don’t know what to sing,” I whispered.
The man looked into the crowd. “Tyler, why don’t you come help out the birthday girl?”
Someone stood, but with the light behind him, I couldn’t tell anything except he had nice shoulders and a tapered waist.
The crowd broke into a frenzy of excited screams as Tyler made his way to the stage. Forget the margarita. I wanted some of whatever everyone else was drinking.
The first thing I noticed when he hopped on the stage was his bare feet. They were nice-looking feet as far as that went, but who didn’t wear shoes in public? In fact, didn’t I see a sign when we came in that said, “No shoes, no shirt, no service?”
My gaze traveled up his long blue-jean clad legs, took in his slender hips and screeched to a halt at his gorgeous face. My, I’d never seen any man that handsome unless he was twenty feet tall and projected onto a movie screen.
His smile about knocked me on my backside, and the amused look in his eyes told me he’d noticed my bold assessment. My cheeks burned with mortification.
He extended his hand. “Hi, I’m Tyler.”
I shook his hand. “Hi, I’m the worst singer on the planet, but my friends call me Nicole.”
He winked. “You couldn’t possibly be the worst. My dad holds that title.” He grabbed another microphone from the table and leaned to say something to the karaoke guy, who consulted his laptop.
Tyler returned to my side and nodded to a screen set up to the right of the stage. “Do you know ‘Cruising’ by Smokey Robinson? You sing the lines in green and I’ll take the red ones.”
I swallowed hard, sure I might pass out.
He grabbed my hand and squeezed. “Just think of the stories you’ll have to tell at work Monday.”
For some reason, the touch of this stranger’s hand settled the turmoil in my stomach. The intro started to more cheers, but the crowd quieted quickly.
Tyler looked into my eyes. “Baby let’s cruise.” His voice was as smooth as café au lait and made me warm all over.
“A-away from here.” I almost missed my cue and my voice came out as a rusty squeak at first.
He beamed at me as if I’d done something miraculous, like founded the Hair Club for Men or invented the Magic Bullet.
I cleared my throat as he sang the second line. “Don’t be confused.”
“The way is clear.” This time I surprised myself by not sounding like fingernails against a chalkboard.
By the time we reached the chorus, I was more relaxed and I had to admit, I didn’t sound half-bad. And my partner was quite the performer. Even I wondered by the end of the song if we were involved in some torrid love affair. Right. No such luck.
The applause was shocking. I couldn’t believe how wild the crowd went. Tyler stepped back and swept an arm toward me. It really was invigorating.
Once the clapping died down, Tyler led me off stage and escorted me to my friends. “Mind if I join you ladies?”
“Not at all,” Michelle said, and scooted over for him to pull up another barstool.
His hand touched my upper back and he spoke softly in my ear. “That was fantastic. Let me buy you a drink.”
I nodded, too overcome by his nearness to speak.
“Yes, thank you.”
He offered to buy a round for my friends, too. As soon as he left for the bar, Sarah leaned over. “Do you know who that is?”
“He’s the drummer for Chaos.”
Sarah lifted her eyebrows. “The band? Hello, where have you been hiding the last year?”
Michelle squealed with excitement. “They’re touring with the Repentant Ones soon. Sold out shows all over. I wanted tickets so bad.”
My friends all began talking at once, but shut up fast when Tyler reappeared with a starry-eyed waitress and our drinks. I didn’t miss how she brushed against him when he gave her a tip. He probably had women throwing themselves at him all the time. Didn’t women go gaga over drummers?
I could see why in this particular situation. The drummer of Chaos made me feel like a chaotic mess inside.
“Well, thank you for the drink,” I said. “And for standing beside me on stage. I’ve never been so frightened in my life.”
He grinned, his white teeth flashing in the dim light. “Is that a hint I should go now?”
Sarah, Michelle, and Heather all shouted out, “No!”
Tyler chuckled. “Thanks, ladies, but I was asking Nicole. After all, she is the birthday girl.”
I smiled shyly. “Of course, you should stay if you’d like.”
He leaned close, sending my heart into a rhythm to upstage any drum solo. “I like.”
Surprisingly, he didn’t leave our table the rest of the night, despite the different women stopping by trying to gain his attention. He spoke politely to each one, and then picked up our conversation again.
Eventually, my friends became bored with watching us talk and wandered off to speak to other people they knew.
“What’s a famous drummer doing in the Midwest?”
The smile slid from his face. “Am I famous?”
I shrugged. “That’s what I’m told.”
“So, you didn’t know who I was on stage?”
“No, I just thought you were some dorky guy with no shoes. Which reminds me, where are your shoes?”
Tyler laughed. “Ah, Nicole. You are a breath of fresh air. I guess you have no idea the reason I’m not wearing any shoes either.”
I lifted an eyebrow. “Should I?”
“It’s my thing, my gimmick.”
I made a face. “But it’s disgusting! You can’t tell me this floor is clean. Let me see the bottom of your foot.”
“No, I don’t want to.” His sudden bashfulness was adorable. “I don’t eat with my feet.”
“Good thing,” I retorted. “You might get hoof and mouth disease.”
He laughed again and hugged me to his side. “I really want to take you home.”
I stiffened. This is what he wanted? A one-night stand?
I squirmed out of his embrace. “Listen, Tyler. I’m sure you’re used to women jumping in bed with you, probably without an introduction even, but I’m not—”
His eyes widened. “No! Oh, man. That’s not what I meant.”
What? He didn’t want to sleep with me? Why the heck not? I’m still a hottie. Really, thirty is not that old.
He must have noticed my frown. “Don’t get me wrong, Nicole. You are gorgeous, but I meant you’re the type of girl my mom would really like.” I wasn’t sure if he was blushing or if it was simply the red glare of the disco lights. He blew out a long breath and ran his fingers through his dark curls. “Wow. I can’t believe I said that aloud. You probably think I’m some kind of freak.”
I reached out and placed my hand over his. “You are a complete freak, but I kinda like you. How about we meet for coffee first, then if we hit it off, in ten to twelve dates you can take me to meet your mom.”
“I’m only in town for three weeks. Could we start dating tomorrow?”
How could I resist? I could use a little fun in my life. “We could count tonight as our first.”
“Excellent.” He cocked a grin. “How many dates until I can get to first base?”
“What are you, an adolescent?” I teased. “What is first base again?”
“A kiss.” His husky voice sent chills racing along my skin.
“I don’t believe in PDA. Otherwise, you’d probably get lucky tonight.”
Despite my flirtatiousness, I was usually very uptight. Never in a million years would I have dated a rock star or kissed a guy I just met, but I was thirty. Time seemed to be slipping by a lot faster than I liked. My entire teens and twenties sped past without me ever doing anything wilder than purchasing a skimpy bikini off the clearance rack, one I never wore.
At the end of the evening, Tyler walked us to the car. We arranged to meet the next day at Maggie’s Café, and I gave him my number.
All the way home, my friends squealed like teenage girls, and their excitement began to make me nervous.
When I walked into Maggie’s the next morning, Tyler was already there in a booth. An older waitress fussed over him.
“Now, are you sure I can’t get you anything else, sweetie?”
Good grief. Were there no women immune to his charm?
“No, Aunt Kay,” he answered. “I’m waiting for a friend.”
Oh. Did I ever feel foolish!
Tyler broke into a big smile when he spotted me. “Nicole.” He scooted out of the booth to greet me with a hug. “I’d like you to meet someone.” He turned to the waitress with his arm around my shoulders. “This is my favorite aunt, Kay.”
We exchanged warm greetings, and she poured me a cup of coffee before leaving us alone.
I leaned on my elbows. “I thought we agreed to several dates before I met your family.”
He shrugged. “I didn’t know she worked today. Besides, we agreed you wouldn’t meet my mother until ten to twelve dates. I have family all over town, so I’m afraid we won’t be able to avoid them.”
That explained why he was in town.
He reached across the table and took my hand. His touch had the same effect on my senses as the night prior. I felt giddy inside. “Of course, you’ll fall madly in love with me before ten to twelve dates, so I let her know we’ll stop by toward the end of the week.”
I knew he was joking, or at least I thought he was. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. And don’t worry, I won’t fall in love with you. In three weeks, you’ll be on the road. I’m nothing, if not practical.”
He flashed his grin, his sea-blue eyes sucking me right in. I really couldn’t allow myself to fall for him.
“Three weeks gives me plenty of time to convince you otherwise,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “Knock yourself out.”
Over coffee, I found out Tyler was born and raised in this town. He left after high school to attend Northwest University in Chicago and graduated with a degree in fine arts. For fun, he’d joined a band with some of his classmates, and when they started booking gigs in small clubs, he discovered he loved performing.
He hadn’t had a serious girlfriend since college, and I got the feeling from some of his comments, that he’d had some bad experiences with women who turned out to only care about his modest fame.
“So, I make a living doing what I love,” he said, passing a creamer across the table after Aunt Kay refilled my cup. “I’m one of the few living a dream.”
He leaned back and draped his arm along the back of the seat. “What about you? What’s your dream? Don’t tell me you enjoy banking.”
I wrinkled my nose and peeled the paper from the creamer. “There’s nothing wrong with banking.”
He chuckled. “No, but your eyes don’t light up when you talk of your job. If anything, you look as if you’re about to lapse into a coma.”
Dumping the cream into my coffee, I figured he had a point. “It pays the bills. And I’ve made good friends.”
Tyler leaned forward. “But isn’t there anything that stirs your passion?”
I sighed. “Let’s go. I have something to show you.” We both slid from the booth and Tyler dropped a twenty on the table.
“Bye, Aunt Kay. I’ll see you next Saturday.”
Aunt Kay waved from behind the bar. “Sounds good, sweetie. It was nice to meet you, Nicole.”
I returned her warm smile. “What’s next Saturday?” I asked Tyler.
“Family gathering. I’d ask you to join us,” he said with a teasing twinkle in his eyes, “but I don’t think we will have been on enough dates by then.”
We stepped from the cool air-conditioned café into the balmy summer air. “I always love how the heat feels like a cozy blanket wrapping around me when I first step outside.”
He took my hand and squeezed it. “So, where are you taking me?”
I pulled him along the sidewalk. Our destination was only two blocks away.
A bell tinkled when I pushed open the glass door to enter the Second Street Gallery.
Janice, the owner, broke out a large smile and stepped forward, but she caught the warning look I sent her. “Welcome,” she greeted as if we were customers. “Please feel free to browse, and if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
“This is your passion? Art galleries?”
I shrugged. “Care to look around?” I led him to a display of black and white photographs. My stomach churned. What would he think? These pieces were a glimpse into my soul.
“Wow. These are amazing. Are these your favorite?”
He perused my work, candid photos I had taken around town. One was of a vagabond passing through with his backpack. He’d taken refuge in the alley behind the bakery and leaned against the chipped red brick wall. The vacant look in his eye had drawn me to him. It was as if he’d already lived life and only the outer casing remained. After I took his photo, I offered him twenty bucks. I still tear up when I see his image.
I had pictures of young children playing in the water fountain at the park, an elderly couple walking hand-in-hand with love in their expressions, and a baby napping on a picnic blanket while his father gazed at him in such adoration.
Tyler moved closer to the photos. “N. Malone?” He smiled at me over his shoulder. “Nicole, these are magnificent.”
The wonder and admiration in his voice warmed my heart. “These pieces are my passion,” I said shyly.
Tyler faced me again and stepped closer until I could feel his body heat and smell his light cologne. With a gentle touch, he pushed a piece of hair behind my ear, sending waves of pleasure zinging throughout my body. “Thank you for sharing these with me. I am honored.”
I grinned. “And I’m easily flattered.” The gallery was empty of other patrons, and Janice had disappeared into the back storage room. “Enough to allow you to get to first base.”
“Now, that’s what I’m talking about.”
His fingers slid into my hair to cradle the nape of my neck, and he brushed his lips over mine. If I thought his touch was electrifying, his kiss was like a lightning bolt. My legs trembled, and he wrapped his arm around my waist to steady me.
When we broke the kiss, he didn’t let me go. Instead, he stared into my eyes, his having darkened to a stormy blue. “Nikki, Nikki. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to let you go.”
If only that were true, but I’d be a fool to believe it. He’d be gone soon enough, and he’d have plenty of women ready to make him forget all about me.
From the art gallery, we walked to the riverside park, just enjoying each other’s company.
“Would you photograph me sometime?” he asked, as we meandered along the shaded path.
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll sell them to the tabloids?”
“Ooh,” he rubbed his hands together in mock delight, “nude pictures might make me a star.”
My cheeks heated, but I couldn’t help laughing. “That wasn’t what I meant.” Then feeling like the flirtatious girl I had been the night prior, I added, “But I have a feeling you’d be a work of art.”
“As would you, my pretty.”
As evening approached, I was reluctant to leave Tyler. Darn him if he turned out to be right and made me fall in love with him.
As I lay in bed that night, my cell bleeped with a text message. “Can’t stop thinking about u. See u tomorrow? Tyler.”
Tomorrow wasn’t soon enough, but it would have to do. I sent him a message in return.
Funny, but by the end of that week, I was ready to meet Tyler’s family.
We attended the family gathering, and everyone treated me as if I was part of the clan. I couldn’t believe how sickeningly happy I was.
That night, against my better judgment, Tyler and I made love. I was head-over-heels for a man only a week earlier I’d promised I’d never love.
When the rising sun peeked through my windows the next morning, it created the most beautiful shadows on Tyler’s face. I quickly grabbed my camera and clicked off several frames before he stirred.
He grinned, and looked as sexy as could be. “I knew you’d take pictures of me in the nude.”
He eased the sheet down to reveal his sculpted chest and firm abdomen. The trail of dark hair disappearing under the covers stood out in strong contrast to the white sheets. “Why not?”
Tyler was beautiful. I clicked a few more frames, all very tasteful, while he posed for me. The only semi-inappropriate one accidentally showed his bare bottom, but I was too enamored with his captivating smile to notice until later.
He reached for my camera. “My turn.”
I felt really awkward being in front of the lense, but as Tyler showered me with loving words and admiration, I loosened up. I actually felt like the seductress he believed me to be.
At the end of three weeks, I hated to see him leave on tour. We made plans for Scottie and me to join him for two weeks on the road in the middle of his tour, and I marked off each day on my calendar, hoping it might speed up the process.
Unfortunately, time seemed to slow down instead, and talking on the cell phone in the wee hours only made me miss Tyler more. When he ended each call with “I love you,” it was all I could do not to cry. I was a goner whether I liked it or not.
Two weeks after he’d left, I invited my girlfriends over for dinner thinking it might help me get back into the swing of things. It was nice getting together with them again. I had ordered Chinese take-out and we sipped on white wine.
We sat in my living room laughing and gossiping about the latest office romances. I pulled out my camera, as I often did, and shot a few pictures of my friends. When my cell rang, I sat my camera on the side table and hurried to find my phone.
It was Tyler. He’d gotten a chance to call before the show. We didn’t talk long since my friends were over, and when I walked back into the living room, Michelle held my camera.
“Oh my gosh!” she exclaimed. “He is so hot!”
My other friends jumped from their chairs to crowd around her to see the viewer.
“Totally hot,” Heather agreed. “Nikki is so lucky.”
My heart tripped and I ran across the room to snatch the camera before they discovered Tyler’s bare bottom picture. “I’ll take that,” I said, scooping the camera from Michelle’s hands.
“Spoil sport,” she teased. “So, when do you meet up with him again, anyway?”
I shared our plans to meet in Kansas City in six weeks.
“You really are lucky,” Michelle said on a sigh. “I wish it had been my birthday that night. Tyler Samson is the best gift ever.”
“Yeah,” Heather agreed. “How will you stand being away from him for so long?”
I shrugged. “We’ve only been dating a few weeks.” I tried to play it off, but the separation really was killing me.
The time to join Tyler on tour was close. Scottie and I would be on a plane in three days, and I couldn’t wait. As I wrestled over which bathing suit to pack, my phone rang. It was my mom.
“Now, Nicole, don’t freak out,” she said. My mom always said that when she called, so I never freaked out. What was it this time? Her seventy-year-old neighbor bought a red sports car and traded in his wife for a buxom blonde. Buxom. That word always made me laugh when my mom used it.
“Okay, I won’t,” I promised, cradling the phone with my shoulder while folding a pair of shorts.
“Tyler’s on TV.”
I chuckled. “Yes, Mom. He is from time to time. What channel?”
I grabbed the remote from my bedside table and clicked on the flat screen. A butt filled the screen, and my mouth went dry. The picture widened to show Tyler’s smiling face. No way! It was my photo!
“It’s an exposé,” my mom whispered. “Apparently, he’s posed for some X-rated magazine. They say he’s selling pictures of himself to pay for drugs.”
“That’s a lie,” I exclaimed. How could this be happening? How did my photo end up on Entertainers Exposed? “Hold on, Mom.” I dropped the phone on my bed and raced to find my camera. Popping it open, I saw the memory card was missing.
No! Oh my gosh! Tyler’s going to think I betrayed him. Frantic, I scrambled back to my bed and rifled through the covers to find my phone. “Mom, I’m sorry, but I have to go.”
“Is everything okay?”
“Tyler doesn’t use drugs.”
“I know that, honey. Don’t you worry, no one else is going to believe it either.”
My heart beat against my ribs, and my hands shook as I hung up. Immediately, I tried to reach Tyler, but his voicemail picked up right away. “Um, Tyler. It’s Nicole. Please call me when you get this message.”
An hour later, I still hadn’t heard from him. I tried again, but I reached his voicemail. He probably hated me, and how could I blame him. Even though I hadn’t released his photographs, I hadn’t kept them safe either.
I jerked up my phone and dialed another number, but reached voicemail again. “Michelle, it’s me, Nicole. I want to know what you were thinking stealing Tyler’s photos. I’m furious with you.”
I tried Tyler four more times, but never reached him.
At ten o’clock after Tyler hadn’t taken any of my calls or returned them, I knew it was probably over. I was exhausted and beaten down when I fell on my bed and let the tears come. I sobbed for the great sense of loss I had.
Poor Scottie didn’t know what to think during all of this. He had whimpered and followed me around the house earlier. Now, he curled up by my side and shivered.
“Shh, everything’s going to be okay,” I told him, wishing I could believe it.
A loud knock jarred me awake. I looked at the clock. It was eleven-thirty. The knocking continued, getting more insistent. I stumbled toward the door, not even fully awake yet.
“Who is it?”
“Open up, Nicole.”
Tyler’s voice sent a shockwave through my body. My hand shook as I twisted the deadbolt and opened the door.
“I’m ticked,” he said and barreled into my apartment. “What a B! I got here as soon as I could, because I had to look you in the eye.”
Just as I’d feared, Tyler hated me. “I’m so sorry, Tyler. Really, I am.”
He looked taken aback. “Sorry for what, sweetheart?”
I blinked, really confused. “Don’t you know about the pictures?”
He dropped his backpack on the floor. “Heck, yeah, I do. And that hack job writer at Exposed is going to pay, making up that idiotic story about posing for money for drugs.” With a frown, he stepped forward and held out his arms. “Are you okay? I can’t believe Sarah took credit for your work.”
Sarah? My best friend? “It was her?”
Tyler wrapped his arms around me and kissed the top of my head. “I’m sorry, Nicole. Didn’t you get my messages?”
I shook my head before pulling from his embrace to go check my phone. Sure enough, I had four messages. I’d put my phone on silent somehow. “Are all four from you?”
“I left three of them.”
I listened to my messages and learned one was from Michelle. “I feel awful. I accused Michelle.”
“Well, call her and apologize.” Tyler plopped onto the couch. “I can wait.”
I called Michelle and apologized profusely for being such a moron, and fortunately, she forgave me. To make it up to her, Tyler promised her two tickets and backstage passes to the Minneapolis show. She gladly accepted with a shriek that almost burst my eardrum.
With things smoothed over with Michelle, I felt a little better, but I still felt awful about Tyler’s photos being plastered on TV. “If I hadn’t ever taken those shots—”
Tyler held out his hand. “Come here, Nicole.”
I joined him on the couch and almost cried with relief when he put his arm around me. “Those shots were amazing, and though I’d prefer not to have my butt shown to millions of viewers, it’s not bad publicity for a musician. In fact, the other guys want to know if you’ll photograph them, too.”
He kissed the tip of my nose before nuzzling my cheek. “I’ve missed you. Please, say you’ll come with me on the road. I can’t do this anymore without you.”
I pulled back, needing to break contact to think straight. “But, I have to work. I have bills to pay.”
“You’re a banker. Don’t tell me you don’t have a savings account.”
“I do, but it’s for emergencies. I don’t think running off with my rock star boyfriend counts.”
Tyler grabbed my hands in his. “Nicole, this is a chance to live your dream. I wasn’t joking about the guys in the band. We love your work, and we’ll pay you for your photos. Our manager wanted some new publicity shots, too. Think of all the subjects you’ll find traveling the world.” He pulled me close. “Please, come with me. I thought being part of a successful band was everything I ever wanted, but I was wrong. I want you by my side.”
If I did this, it would be the biggest risk of my life. But really, it was everything I’d dreamed as well, following my passion and loving a wonderful man. The fact that I’d turned thirty probably had a lot to do with my decision. It seemed silly to wait until age forty to begin living my life.
“I’ll come with you,” I said.
“Yes!” Tyler kissed me and sent a jolt of electricity to my toes. “I’ll never let you regret it.”
And Tyler has kept his promise. This September we will celebrate our second wedding anniversary, and every day is a dream come true.