"Got your set list?"

"Yeah, Mama, I've got it." I scrubbed a hand over my face and tried to keep the yawn out of my voice. "It'll be good to see you tomorrow."

"You too, sweet pea. Get some rest." She cut me off when I started to protest. "Don't you dare think you can hide your exhaustion from me. I spent 18 years watching you trying to hide it in person, and the last 10 listening to you fake coughs to disguise your yawns. Get. Some. Rest, baby boy," she growled.

"'Kay. Night, Mama."

I pressed end on the call and threw my phone down on the bed next to me. It wasn't as though I was uncomfortable playing bar gigs. I wasn't, at all.

It was just . . . Rudy's was our bar. I hadn't gone back there since the night of smashed pint glasses, a broken nose (mine, not hers), and oh-my-god-did-you-hear-the-golden-couple-broke-up- for-real-this-time?

But when Alice, the sweet slip of a girl who was far tougher than her size let on, called me and begged me to fill an opening the following night, I agreed without thinking. Without thinking I might run into her, I might run into him, or I might run off of the stage entirely.

So I did what any reasonable 28 year old man does when he panics.

I called my Mama and relied heavily on her to tell me it would all be okay. After all, Philadelphia was a big city. What were the chances that she'd walk in on a random Thursday night?

As it turns out, they were pretty damn high.

# # #

I'd given my setlist to Mama to keep track of while I went through my routine of tuning my guitar, adjusting the mic stand, and grabbing a drink from the bar. Alice had smiled up at me in a way that could well be construed as flirting. But, being here . . . I just didn't feel right. Flirting felt wrong. Besides, the last time I'd seen Alice, she'd been wiping blood off of my face.

Alice had said they only needed me to play and talk for about 45 minutes, so I'd chosen six songs. Mama glared at me when she saw Red Solo Cup on the list, but I waved her off and told her she didn't understand the mentality of Rudy's. The people there would eat that shit up and sing along. Alice's tips would inevitably go up for the night.

The rest of the songs were a random mix. My favorite Matchbox 20 song, Disease. Fun.'s We Are Young, at the request of Miss Alice. Mama's favorite was always Jimmy's Come Monday, so I added that to the list. I knew Friends in Low Places was always a hit with the Rudy's crowd, so that was a last minute addition. Rounding out the night, I was planning to play my own version of Empire State of Mind.

I'd played through Disease, and We Are Young, and was in the middle of Red Solo Cup when she walked in.

Bella didn't look to the stage and from the look of it, she was barely aware there was even music being played. She waved to Kate, because Alice glared at her the moment they walked in the door. I was only a little surprised she wasn't with the linebacker who'd punched me in the fact the night we she ended our relationship. The guy she was with looked more like a business dude than a football player.

But she . . . well, she looked stunning. I wasn't sure what it was about her, but something had changed. She looked more content than she had in the entire time we'd be together, even when we were planning our wedding.

It ate at my heart. I couldn't help it; I deviated from the setlist Mama had protected for me until I sat on that stool. When I picked out the first few notes, Mama's eyes grew wide. She was familiar with it, because Daddy had played George Strait every chance he got. In fact, if I thought on it, this was probably the first time she was listening to George since Daddy passed away.

I shook my head to clear it, and my voice cracked on the first verse. Alice smiled at me sympathetically and mimed tossing Bella out in the street. I gave a minute shake of my head and smiled wryly when I got to the spoken part of the lyrics and Bella finally took notice of where I sat on the stage.

"I wasted a lot of years not seeing you, but tonight your beauty is shining through. I never took the time to let you know, so before he takes you away, please let me say . . ."

Though my heart ached as I sang the last part of the song - including the part about her still wanting me because until that moment, I actually had wished she still wanted me - as soon as I played the last chord, I felt a huge weight lift off of my shoulders.

She'd gotten to say her goodbye when she'd burst into Rudy's with the hulk of a linebacker, planted her lips on his, and waited for my reaction. I still don't know what ever possessed her, but that's what she'd done. This was my goodbye.

Mama, Alice, and Kate all had tears in their eyes and Mama's grew comically large when she spotted Bella walking toward me. The poor bastard she was with looked so confused. When he grabbed at her wrist, she hissed something in his ear and I watched as realization dawned on his face.

It was a punch in the face all over again. Memories of her smug face when she'd come in with Emmett, kissed him, and thrown my Grama's engagement ring at me; the broken pint glasses when I just snapped and lunged at her, begging her not to do this; the sharp cracking sound my nose made when Emmett's fist landed flooded my head and it was all I could do to start the next song before she got to the stage and tried to talk to me.

I launched into Come Monday and saw out of the corner of my eye when Mama snorted. I quickly played through the rest of the set, teasingly telling Alice I had one more if she didn't mind (because I was only supposed to play six songs), and laughing when she jumped up on stage with me to sing the Alicia Keys part of Empire State of Mind.

I was sweaty and in desperate need of a drink when I finished the set, so I made my way to the bar with Alice on my back, laughing like a maniac. Kate already had a drink waiting for me. "Don't ever say I haven't done anything for you, Jasper," she said with a wink.

I dropped Alice off of my back and turned to look for Mama in the crowd when I felt a delicate hand on my arm.


"Can we talk?" she asked meekly.

I shook my head. "No, Bella, I don't think so. You said all you needed when you came in here with Emmett."

"But . . ."

Her voice trailed off as I put my arm around Alice's shoulders. "Go back to him. You look happy with him. And I'm happy with Miss Alice," I said, winking down at Alice just as she wrapped her arm around my waist.

I tilted my glass in a salute to Bella when she got back to the suit she'd come in with. "Bye, Bella," I whispered softly.

"So what's this I hear about us being happy together, Jasper? You finally going to take me up that date offer? You've keep me waiting a long time, you know."

I smiled at her tenderly, touched the glass to my lips again, and said, "My apologies, ma'am."

# # #

This was something I wrote for a compilation last year. Thank you to LyricalKris, who worked the idea out with me & looked it over.