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“I hate my name.” Bailey fanned out a sheaf of promotional photos and gloomily studied the autograph. “I can’t even blame my parents; I chose it. What was I thinking? Why didn’t you stop me?”

“I didn’t know you then,” Trista said calmly, nudging the disordered photos back into something like a tidy pile. “And it isn’t so bad.”

“Isn’t so—Jesus, Tris! Bailey Everest? I mean Bailey, okay, but Everest? Who in their own right mind—”

“You were sixteen,” Trista soothed, trotting back over the usual list of reasons with an ease borne of practice. “You thought you were going to be a country music superstar. It all made very good sense.”

“Except for, you know, the part where I thought I was going to be a country music superstar.” Bailey flopped back in the car, fingers twisting through the glittering lap of her dress. “Can you imagine?”

“I’ve seen the original proofs from your first shoot,” Trista reminded her. “You were very blonde back then. And the hair was . . . something else.”

“Can and a half of hairspray,” Bailey reminisced. She settled into the seat a little easier, and Trista marked, without appearing to mark, the easing of the tension along the back of her neck; the way her hands settled, stopped picking, stopped forming white-knuckled fists in her lap. “I sneezed for hours.”

“Your first album was kind of twangy, too.”

“Christ, it was,” Bailey said, as if she had actually forgotten. “Oh my god that one about my boots.”

Trista blinked, then her face smoothed over.

Boots. Right.”

Bailey threw her a startled, sideways look then burst out into actual laughter.

“You are not half as professional as you pretend to be, Tris.”

“Well right now I’m not pretending all that hard.”

Bailey’s lips curled into a slow, inviting grin and she leaned across the narrow expanse of back seat between them.

“Yeah?” Her tone dropped an octave and Trista felt a few more vestiges of professionalism curl up along her spine and waft away on the non-existent breeze. “How much to forget it altogether, tonight?”

Trista smiled, half sad, all sweet.

“I can’t, honey. That’s not . . . look. I’m here for you, okay? I’m not here, here, but I’m around all the same. You go out there, tell them you’re working on your new album, drop whatever hints you want about . . . whoever it is you’re supposed to be dropping hints about, I can’t even remember. Is it the one with the new contract for the James Bond movies?”

“That’s next month.”

“Right, well, hint about this month’s, and whatever else you like. Hell, tell them you might get back into country, if you think it will make a stir.”

Bailey yelped and swatted Trista’s arm.

“Will you quit teasing me about that, already?”

“Who's teasing?” Trista grinned, and this time it was her own turn to drop her voice an octave. “Maybe I have a soft spot for a girl with an acoustic guitar.”

Bailey’s cheeks brightened. Her eyes softened.

“Won’t you please be my actual date tonight? Just this once?”

But Trista declined.

“Spotlight’s not my scene. You know that. I can watch you so much better when nobody’s looking back at me.”

So Bailey nodded, like she did every time, and unfolded herself from the car to an explosion of flashbulbs and made her way down the red carpet alone, leaving Trista to navigate from a more discreet distance.

The night went as the nights always did. The usual questions, Bailey’s answers predictable, her smile glittering as brightly as her dress. Trista angled her way along at her back, neat and unremarkable in a dark tailored suit, expression impassive. They both had their own front to put up tonight and Trista would be damned before she ever so much as let slip that she was in this for anything more than the paycheck.

There had been a time she thought it might work, them going public. The country days were safely behind Bailey now, and being a pop sensation didn’t prohibit the occasional girlfriend nearly the same way that recording out of Nashville would.

But then had come that summer in Colorado, with that fucking deranged stalker who had decided Bailey was destined to bear the next Messiah and it had taken every shred of Trista’s willpower not to burn his whole cabin to the ground with him inside it, wedding dress and macabre album of photo manipulations and all, once she’d talked her way in to take a look around.

He’d never have let her get that close if he’d known who she actually was, and being publicly known as Bailey Everest’s only serious relationship for the past half decade would ensure EVERY psycho stalker, past present and future, knew exactly who she was.

Which meant she’d never be able to keep Bailey safe like that again.

She’d have to watch somebody else take over, and spend the rest of her days wondering if they’d commit to the job like she knew she would, or if some careless slip up would get them both killed.

Trista knew her limits, and that was beyond them. Putting Bailey in a position to get hurt was always going to be beyond what she could handle, so going public was, too.

“Now where did you hear that?” Bailey was wondering, using her favorite cannot-confirm-but-refuse-to-deny trademark tone. “I certainly admire Mr. Alexander and I think he’s a talented performer but of course that doesn’t mean we’re involved in that way. You need to check your sources, Micky!”

Micky looked like he knew exactly what that meant, and every other reporter within earshot did, too. Trista tucked her smile behind her sleeve, watching Bailey twinkle at them all and move along in response to the necessity of her schedule.

“Not going to tell them you’re heading to Nashville to stage your country comeback, hmm?” she murmured, falling into step behind Bailey as they passed through the side door marked for presenters only and followed the professional guidance of a stage manager, directing them to the necessary space back stage.

“Tell you what,” Bailey suggested, angling her head just enough to be heard under the general hubbub all around them, this of a far more purposeful and professional sort than the clamor of the crowd outside, “I will grab that damn acoustic guitar and start composing something this very night if you will let me kiss you, just once, in front of them all.”

Trista placed her hand at the small of Bailey’s back, guiding her over a tangle of wires, feeling and loathing the usual tension that held her frame taut through every single one of these events.

“So that’s a no on the sponsorship deal with NASCAR.”

“Fuck you,” Bailey said fondly. Trista laughed.

“Later.”

She was as good as her word.

Much, much later that night they unfolded themselves from the car and rode the elevator to the set of rooms Bailey had taken for the week. Tomorrow there’d be a press junket, something on a yacht, and she was supposed to be seen ducking into a particular restaurant with a particular man she’d then solemnly swear was just a good friend until they were carefully accidentally spotted together at his sister’s house in Montauk the following weekend.

But that was hours away, and tonight it was just them, Trista sweeping the rooms, coming up clean, drawing her into the dark of the bedroom and fumbling her out of that glittering sweat-stuck mess of a dress, baring her skin to the cool, dry air and the soft, warm kisses she pressed to it.

There was silence a moment, broken only by soft gasps, then a whisper, and then . . .

Bailey giggled.

“What did you just say?”

Trista smiled against her skin.

“Nothing.”

“Were you singing?”

“What if I was?”

Bailey laughed into the dark.

“Sing the rest of it.”

Trista considered telling her to record her own album, if she was that desperate to hear cheesy lines from country songs. But she was soft and warm against her, and the strain was gone from her voice again, so wasn’t that something to celebrate.

“Every night I should be on my knees—Bailey, stop laughing.”

Bailey couldn’t. Not altogether. But she did pause, hiccup, and plead,

“Oh, finish it, Tris. Nashville bound or not, I want to hear you sing it.”

Trista couldn’t refuse her. Not when she asked like that.

“I’ll never say near enough, thank God for this woman.”

Bailey arched against her, sweet, clinging, soft and relaxed in a way nobody else would ever see her. Trista felt a rush of rightness; of triumph. That this space between dusk and dawn was always, only, ever, theirs. Bailey’s fingers threaded through Trista’s hair and her voice sounded the final note of the song even as Trista bent her head to accomplish what she’d set out to do.

“Amen.”