I hope you still listen to T&J when you read this. I grew up listening to them sing. They started doing USO tours during The War, and they kept it up afterwards. They always have time to sing for their boys and girls. And I always have time to track their tour schedule down. I go to their concerts whenever they are nearby, and they do get around. I may be biased, but they really are the best singers in all the worlds.
Jack’s silver car cut through the evening gloom with the glowing lights of Landing City far below. It was a beautiful one that he never could have purchased back in America. Nothing like it was built anymore, and the ones that remained after Yosemite fell were valuable collectors items.
The War was a distant thing on New Earth though. It was six months after Yosemite and New Earth had barely been touched. Even the space battle on New Year’s had been precisely that. A space battle. No real damage happening to the planet. He’d heard that the president of the Chinese colony on planet had even come to Landing to negotiate an “amicable understanding” between the two colonies. He shook his head.
“What?” Betty asked, sitting in big mode with her favorite yellow sundress splaying out over the passenger seat.
Jack shrugged. “It just seems odd. After two hundred years, there might actually be a true planetary president of New Earth. Never thought I’d live to see the day.”
“Well, it’s the only play they have,” Betty answered. “We could invade at any time and they don’t have the navy to stop us. They have good ground defenses still, but we’d be fighting over their land, and they don’t want another Yosemite over them.”
“Of course they’re just talking about talking right now,” Jasmine said from her seat on the dashboard in small mode. She tapped her blue jeans with a smile. “They’re just buying time for the Chinese fleets from the colony sectors to get back.”
“Maybe,” Betty whispered.
“Even if that’s all, it’s smart,” Jack interjected. “They don’t want to fight. Well, I don’t want to fight them either, so I’m fine with that.”
“Well, I hope it works out,” Jasmine said and the car began nosing down towards the street below them. “This place is too nice to fight over.”
“Yeah,” Jack whispered, not wanting to think about fighting anywhere around Samantha. “Way too nice.”
The car flew down the road, hovering thirty centimeters above the ground on its grav plating, and approached the gate to McEntyre House. “Norman says we can come on in,” Jasmine announced as McEntyre House’s cyber opened the gate and she turned the car into the driveway. She drove them under the trees and he saw fallen leaves scattering to either side of the driveway. They pulled up in front of McEntyre House and the car lowered itself onto rubber tires, causing the dirt to crunch under them as they came to a stop.
Jasmine smiled. “Well, that’s it for me. You can take care of Jack the rest of the night.”
“Good.” Jasmine turned to Jack. “Thanks for letting me drive you here,” she added with a smile and came to her feet on the dashboard. Her tank top and blue jeans faded away and a long black dress perfect for a formal party replaced them. “How do I look?”
“Ravishing,” Jack said with a smile and a lecherous wink.
“Thank you,” Jasmine said and blew him a kiss as she turned to walk out through the side of the car, making towards the house. Her holoform faded away as she walked outside the range of his holoemitters.
“Good luck, Norman,” Jack whispered and smiled at Betty.
She chuckled back. “He’ll need it. Now you get out there and greet your date,” she added with a shooing motion. “And don’t worry, Jack. I’ll engage privacy mode now,” she finished and her holoform followed Jasmine’s out of existence.
Jack pulled in a deep breath and the door pivoted up to let him slip out of the Lamborghini to the sound of genuine “used to be a cow” leather seats creaking beneath him. He slipped one hand into a pocket and walked around the car to lean against it. He crossed his legs and stood with a thumb hooked through his belt, waiting for Samantha to appear.
She stepped through the house’s door wearing a short strapless red dress that seemed to shimmer in the porch lights. His eyes traveled down her bare, long, and shapely legs to the matching red pumps and a low whistle escaped his lips. He scanned back up to where her red hair blended with the dress perfectly and breath escaped him. She looked…beautiful.
She looked at the car, and shook her head. “You…bought another car? How?” she asked, her slight Scottish accent twisting her question, and began walking down the stairs.
Jack didn’t move, more because he needed help standing than by choice. He really loved watching her walk. He shrugged and worked real hard to take a controlled breath. “This isn’t a car. It’s a Lamborghini. There’s a difference.”
Samantha rolled her eyes. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“Oh fine. There’s this thing called ‘money’ that you can trade for goods and services,” Jack said, somehow without losing his voice, and aimed a wink her way. She made it so hard to try to look shiny it was criminal.
Samantha stepped up to him, leaned close, grabbed the scarf hanging around his neck, and smiled at him. “I’m aware of this ‘money’ you speak of.” Her smile turned impish. “I hear it makes people do things they would never do otherwise.”
Jack made a show of sighing with all his might. “Yes, Ma’am. Why just today there was this fantastic salesgirl that really flirted something great, but I think she just wanted me for my money,” he finished with a sad smile and lifted a hand over his heart.
Samantha pursed her lips and patted the hand in consolation. “She dumped you when she got it, didn’t she?”
Jack sighed again and gave her a sad nod. “Like a hot potato.” He patted the car. “But I got something to get over the heartache with,” he finished with a smile. “Wanna go for a ride?”
Samantha’s eyes opened wide and she smiled so big the freckles on her cheeks flared. “I thought you’d never ask.”
He placed his hands on her hips and stepped away from the car, moving her with him. A swift tap of a heel against the undercarriage caused the door to open and he helped her in, shutting it only after making certain all of her was inside. It was the gentlemanly thing to do after all. Then he ambled around the car and slipped in, shutting the door behind him. A quick word sent the Lamborghini rolling down the driveway in silence.
Samantha aimed a curious gaze at him. “Where are we going?”
Jack chuckled and shook his head. “Oh, I told you, tonight’s a secret,” he said with an admonishing finger. “I’m not telling you anything.”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “Well, I feel compelled to warn you that if you intend to take advantage of my innocent nature, Daddy gave me some pepper spray.”
Jack frowned and cocked his head to the side. “I thought he trusted me.”
Samantha sighed. “Okay, so he gave it to me many years ago. But I still have it.”
Jack looked her skintight dress up and down before smiling at her handbag. “I guess I’ll just have to take that first then, because you sure aren’t hiding it anywhere else,” he said with a wink.
Samantha rolled her eyes. “Men. You forget all the really fun places to hide stuff.”
“I can think of a few,” Jack whispered as the Lamborghini flew out of the gate and began pulling up into the sky over the street.
Samantha rolled her eyes and held her hand up to show the jewelry on her wrist and fingers. “Bracelet. Rings.” She tapped her ear. “Earrings. It’s easy to hide a little bit of ‘oh my God my face is on fire’ gas and a sprayer in any of these. I’ve even seen people do it in tongue rings.”
“Ouch,” Jack whispered. “I feel sorry for anyone who bit down wrong on that.”
Samantha snorted. “Don’t. I know everyone it’s happened to, and they deserved it.”
Jack caught a look in her eye that triggered his inner suspicious side. “You wouldn’t have had anything to do with that, would you?”
Samantha shifted to innocent in a heartbeat. “Me? Interfering with the operation of personal defense devices? That’s a serious crime, Jack. Please. The fact that I was there to see it each time it happened is a complete coincidence. I assure you, dozens of people were present at each occasion.”
Jack smiled, recognizing a cover when he saw one, and shook his head. “I feel sorry for the poor guy that lost business because of those problems.”
Samantha smiled and bit her lip. “Don’t. But that is a story for…oh…four years from now.”
Jack raised one eyebrow. “Mmmm…making plans for me already, are you?”
Samantha tilted her head to the side and gave him a sly smile. “Maybe. Or maybe there’s a seven year statute of limitations,” she finished with a wink.
Jack laughed out loud in sheer amazement. When he finally got himself back under control, he rubbed his chin and just watched her, eyes wide open as he tried to reconcile this new glimpse into what he knew. It was shiny. He barely stopped himself from saying three words he really wouldn’t be able to take back and brought a hand up to his mouth just to have something to do.
“You…Wow…Forget me…” he said in a series of stammers. “I have to worry about you leading me astray!” he finally blurted out with a joyous smile.
Samantha scanned him with one emerald eye. “I admit nothing,” she whispered with a sly tone. “But you…you I know have done things. I see it in your eyes every time you look at a totally innocent household chemical.”
Jack placed a hand on his chest in mock horror. “Me? Doing…things like that? No, Ma’am. I have not performed a single illegal act in all my life…in my chosen State of residence…since my eighteenth birthday…” he qualified while waggling his eyebrows at her.
It was her turn to laugh, an amazing exultation of joy that filled the Lamborghini’s cockpit. Jack took a deep breath as he watched, and relaxed back in his seat as he realized he wanted to make her laugh more often. He grasped the scarf around his neck with both hands and just enjoyed the sight of her laughing.
Her laughter finally trailed off and she met his gaze. She picked up on his mood and a curious expression twisted her smile. “What?”
Jack held his calm smile. “Well, it comes to mind that I’m wearing a scarf.”
She glanced at it for a moment, and back up to his face with a knowing smile. “It’s been over a week and it just comes to mind? You are slow.”
He reached up and tipped the brim of his cowboy hat towards her. “Yes, Ma’am.”
Her brow furrowed at his response. “Jack? What just happened?”
Jack pulled in a deep breath. “I just realized that you gave me a great gift, and I have given you nothing in return.”
Her eyes softened and she laid a hand on his arm. “Jack…”
Nervous energy ran through Jack and he desperately tried to come up with something witty to say but he had nothing. The car saved him by nosing down towards the ground. He licked his lips in worry while Samantha looked out the windshield with a frown.
“That’s Landing Stadium,” she whispered. She turned back to him. “But T&J are there tonight.”
“Yes, they are,” Jack answered with a smile he hoped wouldn’t betray his sudden concern.
Her brow furrowed and she gave him a hard look. “But they’re sold out!”
Jack just sighed at that. “They always are.”
The car dove down behind the stadium and Samantha looked at him in disbelief. “Are you serious?” Then her look turned suspicious. “Or are you playing with me?”
Jack gave her a wink that he hoped would mask the rapid beating of his heart. “You should know by now I’m never serious about anything.”
“If you are playing me…” she whispered in his ear.
“I know, I know. You’ll make me pay,” Jack said with a smile as the Lamborghini dropped to the ground and rolled to a silent stop next to a small door with two very impressed guards next to it. Jack smiled and slid out of the cockpit to display his identification to the guards. A hologram of his face appeared in the air above the car. “I’m Captain Jack, and this is my plus one.” He swallowed to mask his nerves. If they’d changed their minds, this was going to be a difficult day for him. “I believe I have backstage reservations.”
One of the guards tore his eyes away from the beautiful machine and stepped forward to inspect the I.D. up close. Then he smiled and nodded to Jack’s profound relief. “They’ve been expecting you. I’ll show you the way if you’ll follow me.” With that, he turned and opened the door.
Jack released a nervous breath and walked around to open Samantha’s door. He aimed a triumphant smile at her but she just shook her head and climbed out of the car. The guard ushered them into the stadium and they walked through the warren of people runs behind the stage. They watched people arrange clothing on racks as unseen musicians in the distance tuned their instruments.
They finally made it to a temporary living room made out of thick, brightly colored curtains hanging from a metal frame. The sound of organized chaos faded as they stepped in and Jack looked up to see a sky blue tarp over them. The room really was designed to help people escape the chaos. A drink station on one side promised refreshment without being too ostentatious, and an array of brightly colored sofas and beanbag chairs filled the rest of the floor. There was enough seating for the entire crew to relax, and several people were taking advantage of the room at the moment.
“Jack!” a blonde and brunette screamed out in unison and jumped to their feet. They rushed him and jumped up to wrap their arms around his neck and the familiar smells of strawberries and peppermint filled his senses. “You made it!” they chorused again and he realized in that moment just how much he’d missed them.
“Yeah,” he whispered. “I missed you, too.”
They examined the scarf around his neck for a moment, and then put their chins on his shoulders to look behind him at Samantha.
“Jack?” the blonde started.
“Did you forget to tell us something?” the brunette finished.
He turned to face an astonished Samantha with a smile on his face, and the two girls squirmed around to keep their eyes on her as well.
“Julianne Taylor Hansen,” he said with a nod towards her blonde head and then nodded towards the brunette. “Alexandra Jennifer Thompson.” He smiled at Samantha. “Meet Samantha McEntyre.”
“McEntyre?” Julie asked with a raised eyebrow aimed at Jack.
“Are you related to…” Alex began with a frown.
“The studio?” Samantha finished for her with a smile. “My father owns it.”
“Jack?” Julie began.
“We chose another producer years ago,” Alex explained.
“Are you trying to help her get us?” Julie asked.
“No,” Jack said quickly and licked his dry lips again. “I brought her because…ah…she’s my date.”
Julie and Alex turned to stare at him for a long second with surprised eyes. Then they looked down at the scarf again before turning to look at Samantha for another long second. They finally turned back to him with a bone-deep hurt behind their eyes that made his heart ache.
“Jonathan,” Julie started in a tone of voice that sent chills down his spine.
“Michael,” Alex continued.
“Christensen,” Julie completed his name as only she could do.
“The next time you fall in love,” Alex said.
“Do you think you could give us a heads up?” Julie demanded.
“But…” Jack started to protest but stopped when Julie and Alex’s eyes blazed white hot in anger.
“Never deny,” Julie began.
“Your feelings,” Alex finished and they squirmed out of his arms to drop to the floor. Then Alex spun him around and pushed him. “Now shoo and let us talk.”
Jack opened his mouth to protest, but then shut it. He’d come here. He’d brought Samantha with him. His heart hammered in his chest as he turned and walked outside of the room. The curtains closed behind him and he wanted to deny their charge, but he really couldn’t. They’d seen right through him once again. And they held his heart in their hands, as usual.
Situation normal. All fraked up. Maybe good. Maybe bad. Depending on what Julie and Alex did next. He considered listening in. He had the hearing to do it, but that would be invading their privacy. And as much as he wanted to know what they were saying, he didn’t want to do it that way. So he studied the work going on behind the stage, technicians installing lights and smoke projectors in their places. Over to the sides, sparklers and speakers moved into position with smooth precision. He considered moving off to help the crew. He’d done it enough times when he was young to know all about it all. But the crew was a well-oiled machine and he would just be an intruder in the midst of their chaotic order. Everything would be ready soon without his help.
The curtain opened behind him and a blonde and brunette head appeared on either side of him. The smell of strawberries and peppermint filled his senses once more.
“We need to get ready,” Julie said with a hand on his arm.
“You enjoy the room,” Alex added.
Jack licked his lips in worry about what they might have said back there. “Can I?”
Julie smiled and hugged him hard. “Her intentions are honorable, I assure you.”
“And she’s waiting for you,” Alex added.
Jack spread his arms out to hold them close. There was one thing he had to say to them. Well, more than one actually. But he wasn’t brave enough to say it all. So he said the one thing he thought he could. “I owe you my life.”
Julie and Alex smiled and leaned into him just they way they always had before they left. Both times.
“And I owe you mine,” Julie answered with a strawberry breath on his cheek. “Now we really need to get dressed,” she continued and extricated herself from his arm. Then she aimed an impish grin at him. “And you can’t help, tonight.”
Alex echoed her motion and turned Jack around to face the relaxation room. “There’s a nice girl waiting for you.”
They both pushed him hard and he walked back into the relaxation room. A deep breath picked up the scent of rose blossoms on the air, and he glanced over to one side of the room to see them, seeping in a bowl of steaming water.
“They’re nice girls,” Samantha said from the couch she sat on.
“They said the same of you.”
“Which one?” she asked with a knowing smile.
Jack shrugged. “If one says it, they both say it,” he said as he sat down next to her. “It’s the way they are.”
“You love them, don’t you?”
Jack turned and wrapped the second arm around her, holding her close against him at the waist.
“I grew up with them. We did…everything together. On the beach, in the bars, in our houses. There was this big group of us kids that just hung together no matter what. Swimming, surfing, dancing, music. Fun with household chemicals,” he said with a wink. “Anything really, whatever we felt like doing at the moment.” He frowned then and tried to keep the heartache out of his tone. “Then they left for Nashville and you know the rest of the story.”
Samantha just looked at him for several seconds. “They became T&J. But what happened after Yosemite?”
Jack swallowed and looked away from her. He didn’t want to admit how bad he’d gotten, but she deserved the truth. “I survived Yosemite, but I watched my father die in front of me. Then my mother died of a broken heart and left me alone. I was broken in every way a man can be.” He met Samatha’s gaze then. “They came back. They put me back together again. They made me a man again.”
“And then?” Samantha asked with sad eyes.
“They left again.” Jack looked around the relaxation room with a sad smile. “They have a career, you know.”
“So what now?”
“Now I just want to be here with you,” Jack said with a smile.
Samantha frowned at him. “I meant about them.”
Jack sighed and shook his head. “They’re my friends. I love them with all my heart and with all my soul, and I will until the day I die. But I don’t want to live their life, and they don’t want to live mine.” He spread his arms out wide in a helpless gesture. “What am I supposed to do?”
Samantha snuggled in closer, pulled her feet up under her, and relaxed against him. “Find your happiness,” she murmured.
“It doesn’t bother you?” Jack asked, loving the feel of her body against his. He would give her an eternity to stop being there.
“I wouldn’t say that.” She pulled in a deep breath. “But it isn’t a deal breaker.”
They sat there for a long time, just enjoying each other’s presence. Time seemed to cease in the calming atmosphere of the relaxation room, and Jack loved it.
“Ja-ack,” two voices chorused and he opened his eyes to see Taylor and Jennifer smiling at them.
They looked amazing in their performance clothing and makeup. More beautiful than ever, and he could see why the masses loved them so much. But he liked them better without all the getup. They were far prettier to his eyes in just their natural skins. All those thoughts slipped through his brain faster than he could put them to words.
“It’s ti-ime,” Taylor sing-songed.
“You don’t want to miss the concert, do you?” Jennifer asked.
Jack looked down at Samantha, not moving yet, and realized he didn’t want to disturb her. He liked her just where she was.
“Or maybe he does,” Taylor answered.
“We’re hurt,” Jennifer said with a shake of her head.
“You travel over four lightyears just to see us,” Taylor said with a hand on her breast.
“And then let the first girl you meet stop you short,” Jennifer finished.
Jack frowned. “She wasn’t the first girl.” He cleared his throat.
Taylor and Jennifer shared knowing looks.
“We went shopping.” Jack knew his voice sounded defensive, but he couldn’t help that. “I saw lots of girls that day.”
Taylor and Jennifer shook their heads in time. “Whatever you say, Jack,” they chorused and turned to walk back out.
“At least you can hear from back here,” Taylor said with a wink.
“We’ll try not to disturb you,” Jennifer said and they stepped out, leaving the curtain to swing shut with a flutter.
“Much,” Taylor poked her head back in to finish and she was gone.
Samantha finally moved, squirming out of his arm to place her feet back on the floor.
“What?” she asked and ran her fingers through her hair. “You’ve seen them perform live. I haven’t. I want to watch.” She slipped her feet back in her shoes and came to her feet. “You coming?”
Jack sprang to his feet with a broad and charming smile. “Wherever you go, I shall surely follow.” He crooked his arm out and she slipped her arm in his.
“Good,” she whispered. “You may escort me to the concert then.”
Jack breathed in deeply and felt his chest puff out in pride. “I thought you would never ask.” And with that, they walked out of the room and made their way to the wings of the stage. They stopped to watch the band warming up behind the curtains, and saw Taylor and Jennifer stamping their boots in preparation. Jack sighed and wrapped an arm around Samantha.
Samantha laid her head on his chest and he wrapped his arm around her. “Do they do everything together?”
Jack chuckled. “They’re cousins but they act like sisters. Music, cards, studying. Get them together and everyone around them will do better. It’s like they’re two halves of the same brain.”
Samantha threaded the fingers of one hand through his. “You know what I meant.”
Jack sighed. “Yes I do, but I do not kiss and tell. It is their story, and I will not reveal it for them.”
“Good.” Her eyes shifted back and forth between Jack and the other two girls before finishing on him. “So what now?”
Jack smiled. “I want to watch the concert.”
Samantha gave his arm a playful slap. “I meant about me.”
“I know,” Jack answered with a chuckle.
“You really are always playing, aren’t you?” she asked in exasperation.
He smiled at her, bent down to her ear and whispered, “Yes, Ma’am.”
She shivered and leaned back to look at him for a long time with her bright emerald eyes. “You are the strangest man I’ve ever met.”
“That’s good. I would be worried if you had met one stranger than me.”
Samantha rolled her eyes and patted the scarf hanging over his chest. She shook her head and smiled. “You Americans, always so invested in your Sirs and Ma’ams, using them like a mantra of respect…but you…you make it sound like you’re trying to disrobe me with your lips.”
Jack smiled as an image of that came to mind.
Samantha slapped him hard enough to bring him out of his imagination.
“What?” he asked in an offended innocent tone.
She waved her finger in front of his face. “Don’t be putting on that innocent act, Jack,” she said in a stern voice. “I know what you were thinking.”
Jack shrugged. “I don’t know what you were thinking about, but I was thinking about a beach.”
She looked at him with a disbelieving gaze and put a hand on her hip.
“Honest. I can see you on the beach right now.” He nodded towards Taylor and Jennifer. “They can too.” He pulled in a deep breath, met her gaze, and took another mental step down that road with no return. She was a keeper. The first one he’d found in years. And he didn’t want to lose her. “Sam, I want you on the beach. I want you off the beach.” He shook his head with a smile and chuckle. “I want you anywhere you want to be wanted.”
She aimed an approving smile at him and placed her hands on the scarf hanging over his chest. “Well, it does occur to me that I owe you a swim.” She tilted her head and looked at him with one emerald eye through a veil of red hair. “Assuming you intend to collect.”
He lowered his lips to her ear. “Yes, Ma’am,” he whispered.
She giggled and leaned in close to him before turning her head towards Taylor and Jennifer. “Thank you, Jack.” She placed a hand on one of his arms. “I know the risk you took.”
Jack followed her gaze with a smile and sucked in a deep breath. The smoke machines billowed, the sparks flew into the air, the lights flashed, and the curtains opened. Taylor and Jennifer stomped onto the stage, their jewel-encrusted cowboy boots flashing in the strobe lights. And the crowd went wild to the twin strumming of guitars.
Many, many hours later, Jack and Samantha slipped out of the ocean, dripping wet, and gathered up their things. She grabbed his cowboy hat before he could and slipped it onto her head with an impish smile.
“Come on, Cowboy,” she said and ran her finger down his wet uniform. “You still need to take me home.”
He sighed, leaned in close, and whispered, “Yes, Ma’am.”