Shellie,

 

Well, in typical ~A fashion, I’m late for the party and I owe you an apology for not getting this out on time.  I didn’t get the project info until it was too late, and I’m sorry for that.  I’m so glad that we’ve gotten to know each other better over the past few months.  You’ve put up with my cryptic-ass self and it’s been such a nice break from some of the other drama that seems to follow me everywhere.  Lol.  I hope your day was fantastic and you enjoy my little “gift,” as cheesy and sappy as it may be.  Happy birthday, girl.

 

Love,

 

~A

 

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Ten-thirty.  She stared at the clock as it ticked slowly along, moving from one minute to the next, time slipping through tightly-clenched fingers as she morosely waited for the phone to ring.

 

It never did.  She had grown so tired of waiting, tired of listening to excuses that never changed, year after year.  He had forgotten again.  She was sure of it.  Happy fucking birthday, indeed.

 

At first, the first year, she had blamed it on his schedule.  It was easy to dismiss forgetfulness when she knew he was trapped in a rigorous, relentless schedule that left precious few moments for down time, let alone the chance to slip away for a few days.  Later she would accuse him of “relaxing” in a famous bar or lounge with a hundred willing women, but he just gave her a sad, sad look and muttered that it wasn’t relaxation, that his body refused to calm down and his only choice was to force himself into exhaustion.

 

And exhausted he was.  Shellie could see it.  It was written, clear as day, in the dark hollows of his eyes, in his stilted, pained gait, body weary from one too many performances.  She could hear it in his voice, which had grown cross more and more frequently, his words frequently tinged with bitterness.

 

“You’re wearing yourself out, Joey,” She’d whisper quietly, and he’d grunt noncommittally, refusing to admit to the slightest weakness.

 

“Please come home,” She’d offer, just as an afterthought, but he would change the subject and her heart would hurt just a little more with each silence that spoke volumes.

 

She didn’t mean to fall in love with him.  If she had her way, she would have chosen someone else.  He was supposed to be a passing fad, a transient obsession that another band or movie or film star would cure.  He was never supposed to buy her a drink after yet another tour of the Disney Backlot.  He wasn’t supposed to ask her to dinner, to kiss her late at night, on her doorstep, with the stars as their only witness.  He was supposed to be a phase.  A fleeting fascination.

 

The clock chimed eleven and Shellie’s head fell into her hands.  There was no chance now.  What was the point?  He was probably bouncing at Twirl, taking in the noisy atmosphere and enjoying the free drinks the house showered on anyone in his position.  He hadn’t remembered her in the slightest.

 

Shellie walked to the window, watching the shadows play tag with the moon, flickering and jumping across the line of cars just down the street.  Nature’s symphony was tuning up; the crickets and the cicadas just barely whispering as a thick buttery slice of moon peeked over the horizon.

 

Swallowing against the tears that rested heavily at the base of her throat, Shellie sighed sadly.  She had expected this.  Nothing more, nothing less.  It was just another birthday, another day older, another ordinary day in an ordinary life that was beginning to weigh heavily in her heart.

 

She could remember, just vaguely, being happy once.  When she rested in Joey’s arms late at night, his peaceful breathing warming the sensitive skin at her neck, she would smile softly and gently run her fingers across his strong arms that rested snugly at her waist.

 

“Love you,” She’d whisper to the darkness, and his murmured response would propel her through another day.

 

But lately…lately…those responses hadn’t come.  She couldn’t remember the last time he had held her, or she had tasted his kisses, or they had talked on the phone longer than it took to say a quick hello.

 

She knew he was living his dream.  She knew that the musical was his first real shot at any sort of credibility, and in order to gain that credibility, he had to work hard…but the hard work was killing him…and it was eating her alive.

 

She had called him a week ago, just after two, feeling guilty that she would probably wake him, but feeling too overwhelmed by the need to hear his voice to care.

 

“’lo…” He mumbled into the phone, and she felt her heart liquefy at hearing his voice.

 

“Hi, baby,” She whispered tenderly.

 

“Shell…wha?” He blinked in the darkness, trying to get his bearings.

 

“Yeah,” She smiled softly, “It’s me.  I…I’m sorry for calling so late…I…I just needed to hear your voice…”

 

Awwww…that’s sweet, baby…” He purred.  “How ya doin’?”

 

Suddenly her mouth was dry and her eyes were watering, and the words were out before she could stop them.  “I miss you Joey,” She sniffled, trying to keep the tears out of her voice and failing miserably.  “I….I miss you…”

 

Shhhhhh…” He whispered, and his voice was low, soothing.  “It’s okay, baby…I’ll be home soon.  All right?  Stop those tears, okay?  It’s all right…”

 

“Promise?” She said softly.

 

“Of course.  I’ll be there in a week, honey.  I won’t miss your birthday.  I promise.”

 

But here it was, eleven-thirty on Friday night, with the minutes ticking away.  Another broken promise, added to a list that kept growing despite her every attempt to stop it.

 

“I’m such a fool,” She muttered to herself.  “So stupid…”

 

“Who you callin’ stupid?” 

 

Shellie choked back a scream and jumped a mile before turning around and seizing a picture frame, ready to hurl the object at the intruder’s head.

 

“Whoa!” A voice came, laughing.  “I thought I’d at least get a hug or maybe a ‘hey Joey, good to see you,’ or something like that…”

 

Shellie’s heart stopped.

 

 “Oh my god,” She whispered.  “You’re here…”

 

Joey stood in front of her, eyes bright with mischief and playfulness, and nodded once, slowly.  He smiled deviously, his eyes crinkling around the edges, his arms crossed teasingly over his chest.

 

Shellie let out a soft cry and launched herself at him, hurtling them both backward a few steps as Joey laughed, surprised.  

 

“Hey…hey now!  I know you’re happy to see me but…Shell?  Shellie?  Why are you crying, baby?”  Gently he tipped her head up to stare into tear-soaked eyes and a lip that quivered uncontrollably.

 

“I…I didn’t…I mean…” She stuttered, hands gesturing helplessly.

 

“You thought I wasn’t coming?”

 

She could only nod, ashamed.

 

“Oh…sweetie…” He said gently.  “You know I wouldn’t miss it.  Come on now…look at me…”

 

Meekly she raised her eyes to his, a thousand questions swirling in their depths…questions that were answered as he slowly lowered his head to brush his lips against her trembling mouth.

 

“I love you, Shell,” He breathed, placing warm soft hands on her hips, pulling her body against his own and stifling a groan at the delicious contact.  “Don’t ever forget that.  Happy birthday, baby…”

 

She smiled then, a real, genuine smile, and eagerly pulled his lips down to hers again.  “Thank you…” She said quietly.  “I love you too.  And I’m sorry I doubted…”

 

Shhhhh…” He interrupted.  “None of that.  No apologies tonight, okay?  Just you and me…”

 

“Just you and me,” She repeated, and she felt the warmth of love racing up her spine, settling in her stomach, filling her with a powerful feeling of safety, of belonging.

 

“Come on,” He smiled teasingly.  “We still have to get to your present…”

 

“Present?” She said coyly.  Hmmmm…what could that be?”

 

He leered at her then, causing them both to break into a fit of giggles.  “Let’s just say it’s highly…interactive…”

 

Exchanging a knowing look, they kissed one last time before racing up the stairs.

 

Downstairs, the clock chimed midnight.

 

A new day had begun.