“This is a state of grace. This is the worthwhile fight. Love is a ruthless game, unless you play it good and right.” I sang the last words of “State of Grace” and they echoed out over the Toyota Center in Houston, the empty stands rising all around me. As the last notes faded, the band started to unplug, eager to get some post–sound check snacks.

“Tay, you coming?” asked Amos as he handed his bass to a roadie named Avery.

“Be along in a second. Try to leave some cookies for me?”

I sat down on the stage, cross-legged, roadies and sound engineers taking care of last details. I’d been opening the Red Tour with this song for two months now, and I thought it would get less overwhelming. That the emotional echo would quiet down, as it had with other songs. But something about this one, still brought back vivid memories of fall and of falling . . .

  ***

“So you’re sure you have no standing mixer?” I asked, surveying the last possible cupboard that could hold the gadget. It would just be so much quicker if I didn’t have to mix this second batch of batter by hand too.

“Standing mixer?” Half of Jake’s mouth curled up in a smile as he leaned against his kitchen counter. “I know nothing that would undermine my uber-manly public image faster. Can you imagine if the paparazzi found out? It’d be bigger news than them discovering I’m dating Taylor Swift.”

“Who’s Taylor Swift anyway?” I joked, picking up a wooden spoon. I started combining the wet ingredients, orange pumpkin swirling through the batter. “You know if this doesn’t live up to my usual pumpkin bread standards, I’m blaming the inferior equipment.”

“Fair enough,” offered Jake, departing for the living room, where he started flicking through the records on his dark wood shelving, specially made to hold his huge collection of LPs. “I’m sure it will turn out much better with some good music. Why the urgent need to bake, anyway?"

“There’s something really calming and soothing to me about having everything measured out and stirring it and pre-heating the oven, and it all working out,” I said. “Plus, fall should have pumpkin everything.”

“Okay, but surely one kind of pumpkin bread would have been enough,” he said, slipping a record out of its sleeve. I stopped stirring the batter long enough to admire him for a second, crouched in his jeans and plaid shirt. People say he’s too old for me, but right now he didn’t look older at all.

The loaf baking in the oven was making the kitchen smell amazing: like cinnamon and nutmeg and fall in Pennsylvania, when Mom would make this same thing. “And have to decide on just one recipe? No way." I scraped the batter off the spoon with my finger. "Plus, I want you to have one, and I want you to send one with Maggie when she visits tomorrow. To tell her I’m sorry I won’t be able to meet her.”

“So even apologies should be pumpkin-y.”

“Naturally.” I poured the second batch of batter in a new pan, getting it ready to go.

I heard the needle drop, and the familiar opening to Mumford & Sons’ “The Cave.” Jake stood in the living room and held out his hand, gesturing me over. He knew I loved all of Sigh No More—it was one album we could agree on. I hesitated for a second, glancing back at the oven, but as soon as the tempo kicked up, I couldn’t resist. 

Jake grabbed both my hands and we swirled like kids in the playground then linked arms reeling. I did my best Irish jig, hopping madly from foot to foot. I tried to remember all my best moves from fiddle jams with Caitlin. I was panting with effort in no time, but the tempo kept increasing, and my long limbs flew with reckless abandon. Jake just watched with a funny little smile. I knew I probably looked ridiculous. But boyfriends shouldn’t care, right?

Cause I need freedom now
And I need to know how
To live my life as it’s meant to be

As the music changed to “Winter Winds,” Jake pulled me close, and wrapped him arms around me, so we swayed in time to the music, a hug turned into a slow dance.

And my head told my heart
“Let love grow”
But my heart told my head
“This time no
This time no”

Something twinged in my stomach at the words. I looked up at him to stifle the worry. His blue eyes reflected mine, a perfect pair. Head be damned. 

Suddenly the pumpkin smell turned acrid, and I looked back at the kitchen to see gray smoke creeping out of the oven. “The pumpkin bread!” I ran over and yanked open the oven. Grabbing a dishtowel, I reached in and pulled out the blackened loaf.

Jake appeared over my shoulder to inspect the smoking remains. “I guess it’s good you’re baking two after all.”

I dumped the ruined bread into the sink. “Is this what happens when two fire signs get together?” I joked, waving smoke away from my face.

“If only I’d read my horoscope today: it might have said to keep an eye on the oven.” he added. Jake crossed the room and started opening windows, the crisp fall air, smelling of leaves, and somehow of campfires (or maybe that was just the oven).

I put the second loaf in the oven, then set the timer on the microwave this time. “It’s beautiful out, maybe we should leave this mess behind and go for a quick walk,” I suggested.

“And share you with the world?” said Jake, taking hold of my hand and pulling me toward him. His lips fell on mine. “Not a chance.”

He led me to the bedroom, and pulled me down beside him onto the unmade bed. I nestled in close, his warmth even more irresistible with the cool outside air swirling through the apartment. For a while we just lay there, breath rising and falling together.

“You know,” he said, smoothing my hair, “I was never a saint, but you make me feel like this is a fresh start, like the only thing that’s every mattered is what’s happening right now.”

“Right now?” I said, leaning in to kiss him.

“Mmmm,” he replied as our mouths met and his stubble tickled my face.

I could have kept kissing him forever, but my phone beeped a reminder of my dinner with Anne from Sony. I pulled away, and settled my head onto his chest. Golden afternoon light streamed in through the window, making everything warmer, more inviting. Like a filter from that Instagram app people were talking about.

“Tyrannical alarm. Are you sure you can’t stay?” he asked.

“’Fraid not. Got an empire to run, you know,” I joked, reluctantly pushing myself to sitting. “Don’t forget to take that bread out, or someone’s going to call the fire department this time for sure.”

I wandered back into the living room, Jake trailing behind me, and slipped on my jacket and grabbed my bag. He picked up my scarf from a chair and looped it around my neck, then held my face in both hands and kissed me square on the mouth. “Good luck with Sony. Don’t let them talk you into anything crazy.”

I smiled. “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.”

I walked out onto the streets of New York City pulsing with people in the dinner-time rush. Everyone in a hurry, everyone with somewhere to be. I had somewhere to be too, and even as I hustled, dodging people in suits, I felt unthinkably light, a balloon on a string, barely held down to earth. All I wanted to do was go back to Jake and soar.  

 ***

The arena was empty, and with everyone backstage, it was quiet. I flopped back on the stage and stared up at the bright lights. That Taylor seemed so different, so naïve. I’d never be like that again, or love the same way.Next time, I thought, I’ll pick someone who’d keep dancing with me — no matter how crazy we look to the world.

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