Author’s Note: This chapter contains scenes and situations of an adult nature. Reader discretion is advised.
Fire… chaotic and elemental. It cleanses impurities from a precious metal, or wickedness from a lost soul. Fire… it consumes everything it touches, swiftly, completely, and without prejudice. Will I be spared its wrath? Or will I be forced to bear the searing heat of the crucible?
Two Weeks Later
After a two-week production delay, my first single was finally scheduled for release. To celebrate, Ernie hosted a party in my honor at the Los Sueños Private Club the night before the song went public. The agency spared no expense for my official launch into showbiz. Ernie made arrangements with the club’s proprietor for me to debut the song that evening in the presence of record executives and other important industry figures. Anyone and everyone who mattered in the music business would be in attendance; I was scared half to death.
Ernie allowed as many friends as I wanted to attend the bash. As my date, Jared was my first and obvious choice. We’d been out together only a couple of times since I left the coffeehouse, fooling ourselves by saying we were still just friends. In our hearts, we knew better; somehow, we had still not taken that step into romantic partnership.
Stephen declined the invitation to my party, stating he would be busy. I was disappointed, but we hadn’t spoken much since the whirlwind began almost ten weeks before. I couldn’t really blame him; every bit of neglect fell on my shoulders. Even so, Stephen would always be my rock and my best friend. He knew I was good for it in the long run, and vice versa; in this, I was confident.
Ernie hired a stretch limousine to bring Jared and me to the private club, so Jared met me at the house. He let himself in the front door when I didn’t answer it.
“Des?” he called out. I heard his heavy footsteps in the stairwell approaching quickly, but I couldn’t cover myself fast enough; he caught me wearing just my underwear. His eyes widened, and his face reddened to match the tint on my lips, but he didn’t look away.
“Jared!” I gasped. I stood there, frozen in place, while his gaze lingered.
“Oh my gosh, Des! I’m sorry!” He was still gawking at me, which made things even more awkward.
“My eyes are up here!” I said, giggling. He looked like he was going to die from embarrassment; nevertheless, he continued to stare.
Jared shook his head in utter disbelief. “You’re so stunningly beautiful, I can’t take my eyes off of you, baby. Wow.”
As uncomfortable as it was, I shrugged it off. I figured he’d see me in less clothing eventually if our relationship progressed. “As long as you’re standing there leering at me, make yourself useful.” I stuck my tongue out at him, beckoning him into my bedroom. The gown I’d wear still hung on its padded hanger. “Help me with this contraption?”
“Y-Yeah, of course,” he stuttered, obviously flustered. “Need me to zip you up?”
“Mmhmm,” I said. “That, and I need help to make sure it’s straight. This dress has an odd fit.”
The gown was gorgeous, a pale blue chiffon with a smattering of sequins on the skirt. A soft, silky scarf would rest across the front of my neck and shoulders, then drape down my back. This was what I really needed help with, and Jared’s offer was perfect. His lips brushed over my shoulder while he zipped the back and adjusted the scarf; my skin formed goosebumps under his touch.
“This is beautiful on you, Des,” he whispered into my ear.
Now I was the one blushing. “Thank you,” I whispered back.
He spun me around, allowing the dress to move with me. “It’s going to be an incredible party.” Jared’s eyes followed the flow of the skirt, then twirled me around into his arms. “I bet you’re excited, aren’t you? Singing your new song on stage for the first time.” He pressed his lips to my right temple and kissed me. My eyes closed, savoring the closeness of his face to mine. “How are you going to manage your guitar with these things?” My hand was in his; he placed a soft, tender kiss in the palm of it. If he wasn’t careful, I’d miss my own party.
“It’ll be hard to play with these daggers on my fingers. What in the world was I thinking, Jare?”
Dressed to the nines in a brand new tux, he was impeccably groomed and, I won’t lie, he smelled amazing. I’d never seen him so fancied up before, and it looked great on him. Jared wrapped his arms around me and kissed my nose. It was as tender a moment as we’d ever had; we hadn’t even shared our first romantic kiss yet. “I know you’ll figure it out.” My head rested on his shoulder and I held him close. “I love you,” he whispered in my ear. “Don’t forget it.”
He’d never been so blunt with his feelings before that moment; though I’d long suspected it, the spoken sentiment shocked the hell out of me. I fumbled for the words I wanted to say, the ones I yearned to tell him.
“I-I… I love you, too.” I was surprised to realize how much I did, too.
“I didn’t say those words to hear them back. I just wanted you to know, with no lingering doubt, how much I love you.” He grinned ear to ear, pleased with himself. “Don’t you know how good it feels to be able to tell you that, Des? As much as I hated it, I think you leaving the coffeehouse was the best decision for both of us.”
Jared sure knew the right words to say to make me feel amazing. “I think so, too.” I was about to lean in for our first real kiss when I heard a knock at the front door; the chauffeur! “Um, Jare,” I said, “we need to go!”
The look in his eyes showed his very obvious delight. “Come on, beautiful. An adoring public awaits you!” I rolled my eyes at him and giggled. Jared held his arm out for me; I hooked mine around his and allowed him to escort me down the steps and to the limousine that stood by outside.
We pulled up in front of the private club ten minutes later. There were spotlights, balloons, a red carpet, and live music blaring from inside the club, muffled by the closed doors. A bouncer stood at the entrance, looking very much like he expected us. The chauffeur opened the door to let Jared out; he stood, then held his hand out for me. I stepped from the limo onto the sidewalk, feeling—and, I’m sure, looking—like a wide-eyed country hick in the big city for the first time. Jared smiled at me, noticing my spellbound gaze, and slipped his arm around my waist.
“This is it, my sweetheart. How are you feeling?”
“In a word? Overwhelmed. But this feels right, like I’m where I’m supposed to be.”
“Damn straight you are, Des. I’m so proud of you.” He kissed my forehead, then offered me his arm, which I took. “I really am the luckiest man in the city right now.”
My cheeks flushed, and I felt warm. His sweet sentiments always turned my heart to mush. A flustered “Thank you” was all I could muster. Security allowed us to pass through the front door and into the club. I looked around in wonder; my publicity photos were everywhere, along with promotional materials and pre-release copies of my single “Love Is A Wave (Wash Over Me)”.
Ernie Gonzales stood talking with a group of important-looking people. One of them I recognized right away; Aiden Chandler, the CEO of Soundwave Records. Ernie spotted me and smiled, excused himself, and approached Jared and me.
“Destiny! You look like a star, baby!” Ernie hugged me and placed a friendly kiss on my cheek. He turned to Jared and shook his hand. “Jared McMurphy. How the hell are ya? How’s the coffee business going?”
Jared grinned and returned a firm shake. “Oh, you know, it’s the same old grind.” Ernie burst out in raucous laughter and slapped Jared on the shoulder. “I’d like to be angry that you took my finest employee away from the Flying V, but seeing how talented she is, I just can’t be upset. Next time you’re close by, stop in for a cappuccino. It’ll be my treat!”
Ernie nodded. “I’ll take you up on that soon!” He turned his attention to me. “I didn’t know you would be on McMurphy’s arm tonight, darling. He’s a lucky man.” Ernie winked at me and tugged me away from Jared’s grasp. “Come with me! There are some important, influential people here, and they’re dying to meet you!”
I looked at Jared and mouthed the words, “Help me!” He chuckled as Ernie dragged me away to a bunch of stuffed suits. He grabbed a glass of champagne for himself from a roaming server, rubbing elbows while I took care of business.
Ernie had invited to this party the proprietors for some of the primary venues in the city, mostly so I could get acquainted with them. I met Phil Trice, proprietor at Verde Park, Erin Stratz from Rodeo-Go-Go, and Jesse Lu, the entertainment manager at MN8. A taller, darker man chatted with a group of people; Ernie excused himself and tapped him on the shoulder. When he spun around, I froze in place.
“Destiny,” Ernie said, “this is Arthur Atwood, the proprietor here at the Los Sueños Private Club. Art, this is my newest star, Destiny Hill.”
Arthur flourished, took my hand, and placed a delicate kiss on my fingers. “Ah yes, la bella signorina! We meet again.” My face flushed red. He remembered me?
Ernie looked at me, totally bewildered. “Do you two… know each other?”
Arthur wasted no time with an explanation. “Sì! Sì, we’ve met before, but only one time.”
“I’m surprised you remembered me, Arthur. It feels like a lifetime ago.” Arthur was just about to speak when a voice sounded from over my left shoulder..
“What feels like a lifetime ago, sweetheart?” In a flash, Jared materialized seemingly out of nowhere and slipped his arm around me; his sudden appearance was surprising, to say the least. I took Jared’s hand into mine and introduced the two men.
“Arthur, this is my boyfriend, Jared McMurphy. And Jared, this is Arthur Atwood. He’s the proprietor here at the club.” I turned to Arthur and spoke. “Jared owns the Flying V Coffeehouse across the street.” Jared extended his hand for a polite, but cautious, shake. Arthur’s warm smile cut through the awkward tension that Jared’s abrupt arrival created.
“Ah, so you’re the man who owns the coffeehouse! Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir,” Arthur said. “You’re a lucky man to catch this beautiful lady.”
Jared smiled at Arthur’s compliment. “Thank you. I think so, too.” He kissed my cheek, almost as though he was marking his territory, then took my arm. “You should probably mingle a bit, Des.”
I nodded in agreement. “You’re right, Jare.” I turned back to Arthur. “It was good to see you again, Arthur.” We shook hands, then Jared led me away from him. When we’d gotten a good distance from him, Jared spun me to face him.
I gave him a wry smile. Was he really jealous? “Yes?”
“How do you know him? You know… that Arthur dude?”
I giggled. “He drove a cab that I took to the airport when I was still engaged to Jeff. I was nothing more to him than a fare. I promise.”
“And yet, you seem like old friends.”
I kissed his cheek and squeezed his hand. “I only have eyes for you, Jare. Please relax!”
Jared’s cheeks flushed a light pink. “I’m sorry, Des. It’s just that you’re so beautiful. Sometimes I can’t imagine why you’d want to be seen with me…” He kicked the floor with the heel of his shoe. “I don’t mean to be jealous.”
“I’ve loved you for so long, I almost don’t remember a time when I didn’t. So quit worrying, okay?” I pulled him close to me in a warm, tight embrace, just in time for a photographer to catch our tender moment. We turned toward the flash, smiled and posed. I figured I needed to get used to being photographed, anyway.
Jared’s posture relaxed again into his easy-going, cheerful self. “I meant what I said, you know, back at the house.”
I stroked his cheek, and I met his stare with a starry-eyed gaze. “I know, and I meant what I said, too.”
Ernie swept back around toward us, ushering me toward the stage. “Arthur is almost ready for you, Destiny. Aiden will introduce you, and you’ll walk on stage from the left side. Your band is already up there waiting for you.”
I peered around Ernie and glanced at the stage. “There’s no guitar for me to play?” A part of me was relieved.
“Nah, you don’t need it. Just do what you do best, Des, and work the crowd.” He patted my back with a gentle touch. “Sorry, man,” he said to Jared. “I need to steal your lady for a few moments. This is her night, after all.” Jared nodded and shook Ernie’s hand, then kissed my cheek before Ernie whisked me away to the side-stage area.
Arthur took the stage and addressed the crowd, speaking in his heavy Italian accent. “Ladies and gentlemen, if I may have your attention! On behalf of the Los Sueños Private Club, please welcome the Chief Executive Officer of Soundwave Records, Aiden Chandler!” Arthur stepped aside as Aiden took his place at the mic. The room fell silent in the presence of this formidable, powerful man.
“Esteemed colleagues and honored guests! Thank you all for being here tonight to celebrate the launch of our newest singer. She hails from a small, midwestern town called Appaloosa Plains. She’s an especially talented singer songwriter, and I can’t wait to introduce her to you. Please, everyone give a warm, Starlight Shores welcome to Destiny Hill!”
Aiden’s introduction, though not out of the ordinary, made me nervous; I wished Jared was beside me to give me one last hug for inspiration. Instead, I said a quick, whispered prayer and stepped onto the stage. The band played the opening of my first single, the song I knew backward and forward, but didn’t really like. This was my real ‘fake it til you make it’ moment, for the successful launch of this song—and my ability to sell it as my own—would determine my future with Soundwave Records.
The first person I looked for was Jared. Once our eyes met, a wave of calm swept over me. I was singing for him, and only him. I trained my gaze on his face; he blew a kiss as I sang the first words of the first verse. I was on stage beginning my career as a singer at long last. It all seemed so surreal.
Though I was jittery, my voice didn’t betray me. Each note was crystal clear and on pitch. The spotlight focused on me and followed as I worked a very receptive crowd. It was Ernie’s decision to have me just sing on stage and not play my guitar. That was when I saw the genius of his plan. It allowed me to interact with the audience instead of standing behind a microphone playing my guitar. If I had any chance of selling this song to the masses, Ernie picked the right strategy to help me accomplish that goal.
Before I really wanted it to end, the song, and my moment in the spotlight, were over. An uproar of applause echoed from the crowd gathered around the stage; the only person I looked for was Jared. He stood center stage, beaming with immense pride, and mouthed the words, “You killed it!” Arthur returned to the stage, grinning widely, and gave me a hug.
“Destiny Hill! Wow,” he said, almost star struck. “Give her a round of well-deserved applause!” He escorted me offstage, where Ernie awaited me. Arthur continued to make announcements pertaining to the club and the remainder of the party. Ernie placed a kiss on my right cheek and pulled me into a warm, friendly hug.
“Destiny, you did exactly what I thought you’d do. You knocked their socks off!” Ernie gushed, heaping lavish praise on me. My eyes scanned the room for Jared. His opinion was the only one I really cared about, the only one that mattered.
“Jare!” I called into the crowd. Instead, Aiden appeared in front of me, wearing a wide smile.
“Destiny, I want to congratulate you on your live performance. You sold that mediocre song better than I expected.” I wasn’t sure if it was his stature, or his position, that made him such an imposing figure. He made me more than a little nervous.
“Thank you…?” I said, feeling a bit insulted. Did Aiden really think that was a compliment? I was about to speak again when he interrupted me.
“I hadn’t realized Ernie didn’t use a vocoder in production. That voice is all yours, eh?”
I nodded, trying hard to keep my cool. “Yes, it was one hundred percent me on the single. Ernie said he didn’t need to work the song very much, that the vocals were pure.”
“Well, if you follow this up with robust record sales, we’ll talk about producing your first studio album with a couple of your own songs.” Aiden seemed to enjoy making me squirm. “I wouldn’t get attached to that song Ernie sent over as a demo, though. It’s much too serious and brooding to be a big seller in this market. I think you’ll do much better singing peppy pop tunes with flashy dance numbers. Concertgoers want to see a show, not just a singer standing on stage. I mean, what you did was okay for tonight.” His harsh stare gave me the jitters. “I’m surprised Ernie hasn’t sent you for dance training yet. That would be my first step if I were managing your career.”
I’m thankful you’re NOT, was my first thought. I couldn’t wait for him to turn his attention away from me. “Well, I promise my original songs won’t disappoint you—” He interrupted me again. I was starting to not like Aiden Chandler very well, despite knowing what he could do for my career.
“We’ll see about your original songs. In the meantime, enjoy your party. You deserve it tonight. Tomorrow, we’re on the beat promoting your new song. You have a hectic schedule for the coming week. Ernie should have already given you an itinerary for the next few days. I need you on top of your game in the morning; you probably shouldn’t stay out long tonight.”
I nodded. “Gotcha.” My answers were increasingly terse; I clenched my jaws together, trying to keep my composure. If Aiden was attempting to push my buttons, he was succeeding. Rather than allow him to continue to bait me, I excused myself, continuing my fruitless search for Jared. I needed him now more than ever.
“Jare!” I shouted into the din, only to feel a strong tap on my shoulder. I spun around to his embrace, already waiting for me. I walked into his arms and breathed a sigh of relief. He held me to him for a moment. “Thank God you’re here,” I whispered.
“Are you okay, Des? You’re trembling like a leaf.”
“Yeah. I had a run-in with Aiden Chandler, and I’ll just say it wasn’t pleasant. I’m starting to truly dislike that man.”
“He comes off as rather pompous. I don’t blame you.” He kissed my forehead and held me tighter.
“So,” I said, trying to be nonchalant. “How was I?”
He loosened his hug and pulled back, peering into my eyes. “Oh my gosh, sweetheart. You are a total superstar.”
“I’m your superstar, Jare.”
He pulled me close and whispered into my ear. “I still can’t believe you’re all mine.”
“Believe it,” I whispered back. “Thank you.”
“For being here tonight. Thank you for being you, and for loving me even in my most unlovable moments. I owe you the world.”
His expression softened. “There is nowhere else in that world I’d rather be tonight, and with the most beautiful superstar in it. I love you so much.”
My eyes welled with happy tears. “I love you, too!”
The week following the debut party was a flurry of radio interviews, local entertainment show appearances, live performances in venues around town, all scheduled by Aiden to promote my song. I hadn’t slept well in days, and I was nearing my breaking point. If this was what fame was about, I was rethinking my life’s ambition. I’d barely been home in six days; Poppy must have wondered what happened to me.
It was almost nine o’clock when I pulled into my garage. I’d been out of the house since six that morning; I was exhausted. My phone was ringing when I walked through the garage door and into the kitchen. I ran for the handset that hung on the wall, nearly tripping over Poppy.
“Hello?” My voice was breathier than usual, having narrowly avoided plowing head-first into my kitchen counter, courtesy of my fluffy, feline roommate.
“That’s quite the greeting, Des,” the voice on the other end said. Jared laughed. “Are you that excited to hear from me?”
My lips formed a smile, and my voice softened to a low growl. “So what if I am?”
“That’s sexy as hell. I love when you talk to me like that.”
I needed to change the subject before we got carried away. I was frankly too tired for any flirty shenanigans with Jared. My voice dropped its sensual inflection. “So, what’s up?”
“You’re gonna do me like that? Really?”
“Oh, don’t be so coy. You know what your voice does to me.”
I giggled. Jared might be direct, but I loved to tease him. “I have no clue what you’re on about!” His frustrated groan came over the phone loud and clear, and it made me laugh harder.
“Okay! Uncle!” Jared joined me in laughter. “You’re such a tease.”
“Why, thank you!” Our laughter died down; he still hadn’t told me why he’d called. “So, again… what’s up?”
“I have a couple of days off. I thought I might spend them with my best girl.”
“You have my attention! What did you have in mind, Jare?”
“Oh, a few things. First, maybe dinner at the Tower, a little dancing at the club, and then back to your house for a nightcap?”
“Those sound like very specific plans.”
“What did you have in mind date-wise?”
“I don’t know. When are you free?”
“Tomorrow is wide open. Ernie makes sure I have one day a week to myself, and to be honest, I could use a day off.”
“I’ll pick you up at six. Wear something dazzling.” Jared blew kisses over the phone and hung up. This would be our first official romantic date since I quit my job at the coffeehouse months ago, one we were both aching to have.
The following evening, Jared was at the house at 5:45 and let himself in with the key I gave him. I heard his voice calling up the stairs, then frantic paws and a sharp meow thundering down the steps. Jared laughed at Poppy’s enthusiastic greeting.
“I’ll be right down!” I said. “You’re early! I wasn’t expecting you for another ten minutes.”
“It’s okay, Des. Are you decent?” I giggled at his question. There would be no uncomfortable repeat from the night of the party.
“Yes, I’m almost ready. Just grabbing my lip gloss to tuck into my purse, and I’m done!” The dress was one I’d gotten for publicity events. The bodice was strapless, encrusted with crystals, and an asymmetrical skirt. Though I wasn’t usually fond of black, this dress was the perfect style for the color. It was the first and only dress I owned that was tailored to fit me. I wore black, matte leather pumps, a pair of silk stockings, and a gold anklet I bought for myself as a treat. I knew Jared would love it. He watched as I descended the stairs, gawking at me like I was a beauty queen.
“Oh, Des,” he said. “You are stunning. I’m going to be the envy of every man in that restaurant tonight.”
“Well, I consider myself to be the luckiest woman in the Shores with you on my arm, Jare.”
“You… you don’t mean that. Do you, Des?” He gave me a bashful gaze, and then turned from me.
“Why wouldn’t I? Look at you! Blond, handsome, with beautiful eyes, and a heart of gold.” Jared slowly turned as red as my lipstick. “I know you’re not accustomed to compliments. Get used to it.” He held his arm out for me; I hooked my elbow under his. It felt good to have Jared this close.
“Shall we?” he asked.
“I’d love to.”
We walked to his car, an older model Mustang. He opened and held the door for me, offering his hand to assist me. He was always such a gentleman; I never could figure out why Jared didn’t date that much. His charm was abundant. He walked to his side, got in, and started the engine. “It’s not as fancy as I’d like, but she gets me where I need to go.” He took my hand and held it as he drove us to the restaurant on the strip.
Jared let the valet park the car; with confidence, he took my arm and led me inside the restaurant. “McMurphy,” he said, approaching the host table. “Six-thirty.”
The host nodded. “Your table is ready, sir. This way, please.” The place had changed little since I was there with Jason. The decor was the same as was the layout. He sat us near the fireplace, which burned regardless of the season. “Marcel will be your server this evening. Enjoy your visit.” The host handed the menu to Jared, turned, and left us sitting there.
“I’ve never been here,” he said, blushing. “This isn’t usually my kind of place.”
I smiled at him. “Mine, neither.”
“I’m surprised, Des. You’re constantly doing things like this with label execs, aren’t you? Surely, you’ve been here more than just once.”
I shook my head. “No, most of those things are held at the private club, which is also too snooty for my taste. Being here with you, though, is perfect.”
The corners of his mouth formed a smile. “I’m glad you think so.” He took my hand and kissed it, his eyes closed. “I’d thought so often of kissing you, never believing I had a chance. And tonight, that’s all I want to do.” When he opened his eyes, they met mine with a look of sheer love and adoration.
“I’d like that,” I whispered, blushing fiercely.
“It’s good to hear you say that, sweetheart.” He placed another kiss on my hand before letting it go. “What’s good here? You’ve been here before.”
“You forget, Jare, it was only once.” I shrugged. “Choose something you like. It’ll be okay.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” He picked up the menu board and perused it. “So, question.”
Jared sat up straight and raised his eyebrow. “Are you into that kind of thing?”
I laughed. “Not quite what I meant!”
“Oh bummer,” he said, sounding maybe a bit disappointed. His expression softened into a genuine, warm smile. “I’m kidding. I wanted to see your reaction. So, my question is… surf, or turf?”
My deadpan look made him chuckle. “Do what, now?”
He reached across the table to stroke my cheek. “I forget sometimes you were raised in a landlocked town. Do you like seafood?”
I’d only tasted fish one time in my life, and I wasn’t a big fan. “Not particularly.”
“Then you’re a turf girl. So am I.”
I raised my eyebrow at him. “You’re a turf girl?”
Jared snarled at me playfully and winked. We both laughed, then he handed the menu to me. “Let me know what looks good.”
The waiter appeared just then and introduced himself. “Hi folks,” he said in a cheery tone. “My name’s Marcel, and I’ll be your server tonight. What can I get you to drink?”
Jared had no questions about my wine preference. “A bottle of White Zin, please,” he said.
Marcel bowed toward Jared and winked at me. “As you wish, sir.” He left us alone; Jared reached for my hand, rubbing my fingers between his.
“A penny for your thoughts?” I said. His eyes never left mine, his gaze trained on my face.
“I think the waiter recognized you, Des. I saw his sly wink.”
“Psh. My song hasn’t been out for more than a week, and early impressions are, well… they’re not good. I doubt he even knows who I am.”
“Not good? Are you kidding? You’re the best singer in this market right now.”
I brushed my bangs out of my face and plopped my chin into my hands. “Well, the song wasn’t mine. I did the best I could with it, but it’s not… me. You know?”
“Why didn’t you record your song?”
I shrugged. “The label wanted a peppier song for my debut. I guess they’re not wrong, but recording someone else’s stuff just seemed so disingenuous. Apparently, it comes across that way on the single. Aiden, the big cheese at Soundwave, wants to see better sales and more airtime, or they won’t break even. You know what that means…”
Jared squeezed my hand. “Yeah, I know. I’m sorry, Des. Don’t worry, my dear heart. You’ll break through, eventually.”
“Can we talk about something else? I don’t want to be a downer on such a beautiful night.”
He brought my hand to his lips and placed a delicate kiss on my fingers. “Of course.” That was about the time Marcel showed up with the wine bottle. He popped the cork, poured two scant glasses of the blush liquid, and set the bottle on the table.
“Are you two ready to order?” he asked, looking at Jared in expectation.
“I-I…” Jared stuttered. “We haven’t really looked yet. I’m sorry.”
“No worries,” Marcel said. “I’ll give you a few more minutes, yes?”
Jared nodded. “That would be great, thank you.” He picked up the menu again and glanced at it. “What do you think? What’s your favorite meal?”
I bobbed my head from side to side. “One of my favorites was my daddy’s favorite, too. The steak tips are very good here, too.”
“Have you ever had lobster?”
“Aren’t those the things that look like giant, red bugs?”
Jared howled at my innocent question, wiping away tears from fits of hysterical laughter. “Yeah, that would be a lobster!”
“What’s so funny?” I wrinkled my nose in disgust. “And why in the world would you want to eat that?”
“I’ve just never heard anyone call them giant red bugs before. That was hilarious!”
I huffed at him, then cracked a smile and nodded in agreement. “Yeah, I guess it was kinda funny.”
“I think you’ll like lobster, even if you don’t care for fish.”
“Thank you, but I’ll stick with steak tips.” I shuddered.
“I’ll let you try a bite of mine. Please? You might be surprised.” His puppy dog eyes always got me, and I relented.
“Okay, okay, but only because you asked nicely. I don’t have to eat it more than once if I don’t like it.”
He smiled at me. “That’s the spirit!”
Jared ordered our dinners when Marcel returned; steak tips for me, and lobster Thermidor for him. He topped off our wine glasses and sipped from his, peering over my left shoulder and out the window into the park. I turned my head and followed his gaze, but I didn’t see what caught his interest. He jumped when I touched his hand.
“Is everything okay?”
He shook his head and smiled. “Yeah. I’m just thinking.”
He gave me a sexy, provocative half-smile. “Later. Do you have any idea what you’re in for tonight, Des?”
I blushed deep red, hoping no one was eavesdropping on our conversation. “I have an inkling.”
“Hold that thought for later and let me know.” He winked and gave me that same sexy grin.
The waiter brought our meals shortly afterward. Jared’s dinner—which I promised him I’d taste—looked like half of a giant red bug with some sort of stuffing. Mine looked delicious. Jared loaded a forkful of the stuffing with chunks of white meat in it.
“You promised, Des. Close your eyes and don’t think about it. Just enjoy the taste.” He waved the fork in front of my face. I had to admit, though, it smelled enticing.
“Here goes nothing!” I said, opened my mouth and squeezed my eyes shut. The first mouthful was luscious beyond anything I had imagined, and I loved it. “Oh, my gosh! That is amazing!”
Jared winked at me. “I hope to hear you say that later, too.” I reached across the table and smacked his arm gently.
“Not here!” I said, giggling.
The clock ticked away as we were chatting and flirting, lost in the atmosphere at the restaurant. Finally, Jared stood to stretch; while he was standing, he pulled me to my feet. “Are you ready to get out of here, baby?” he whispered into my ear. He nuzzled into my neck and breathed in. “How are you so damned beautiful? And how did I manage to catch you?”
I bit my lip. I had a feeling his answer wouldn’t be what I anticipated. “Where do we go from here? You mentioned dancing—”
“Screw dancing,” he said. “How about that nightcap?” I knew what he wanted and what he expected. It had been a long time since I’d been with a man, and I was ready.
“Yeah,” I said in a breathy whisper. “Take me home.”
Jared left the check on the table with more than ample payment and held his arm to me. “Shall we?”
I bit my lip and nodded. “Mmhmm.”
The valet delivered Jared’s car to the door and handed him the key. “Thank you,” he said, handing the man a generous tip. He let me into the passenger side, a flirty grin on his face.
“What?” I gave him a sweet smile and looked away from him.
“Nothing, Des. You keep looking at me like that, and it’s driving me crazy.”
“You make me blush, Jare.”
“Pink is a suitable color for you!” he teased.
“You think so?”
He tipped my chin upward and looked into my eyes. “Baby, I know so. Let’s get going.” He kissed my cheek before he closed the door and then walked to his side of the car. As he’d done on our way to the Tower that night, Jared held my hand while he drove.
He parked his car in the driveway and turned to me. “You looked beautiful tonight, Destiny. I don’t deserve you.”
I blushed and gave him a bashful smile. Jared seldom called me ‘Destiny.’ I was always ‘Des.’ “Thank you, Jared.”
I unlocked the door with him right behind me. Poppy must have been sleeping somewhere, because she was nowhere to be found. Without warning, Jared scooped me into his arms and kissed me with so much passion, I melted into him. This was what I wanted so much from him, the kiss I’d fantasized about so often. I closed my eyes and let him explore. Damn, he was a great kisser, too.
He pulled away from me, breathless. Jared set me on my feet and took my hand. “Come on,” he said, leading me up the stairs. At the top, we walked into my bedroom on the left; Jared closed the door behind us and pushed me back against it. One hand easily held mine above my head while we kissed, pressed up against the bedroom door. I sighed into the kiss; he deepened it, our tongues exploring each other.
I bit my lip when we pulled away. His fingers fumbled with the zipper on my dress; I felt the garment slide off my body and crumple around my ankles. Then Jared stopped for a moment, standing there staring at me in my unmentionables. What was he waiting for? He pulled back a little and looked away.
“Is there something wrong?” I asked, immediately feeling self-conscious.
He stroked my cheek and shook his head. “No.” His expression, however, said something quite the opposite.
“Do you want to go further?” I said.
There was hesitation in his expression. “Yeah. Yeah, I do…”
“It sounds like there’s a ‘but’ there.”
“N-No,” he stuttered. “No, I want this.” He sounded as though he was trying to persuade himself.
“You don’t sound very convincing. Maybe this will help?” I reached around to undo the hooks of my bra, knowing I was about to cross a line I wasn’t sure he wanted me to breach.
He pulled away from me fully and sat on my bed. “Give me a second? I need to think…” He stood again, walked into the bathroom, and closed the door. Seconds later, I heard a ‘thud’ against it.
“Jare?” I took the opportunity to rehook the closure of my bra. I sensed our romantic evening was finished. Seconds felt like years as I waited for Jared to emerge from the bathroom. I didn’t really know what to do. Should I get dressed? Put my pajamas on? Instead, I grabbed my robe and wrapped up in it, pondering where the night had gone sour. I couldn’t imagine what was wrong.
The door finally creaked open, and Jared stepped from the bathroom. His eyes were red and puffy, his face streaked with the evidence of his emotional state. I patted the spot on the bed next to me, but he recoiled.
“I don’t bite,” I said, trying my best to salvage the evening.
A faint smile made an appearance. “I know.”
“What’s bothering you? Come sit, and let’s talk, Jare.”
“It’s just that…” Jared said, hesitating, “I’ve wanted this night for so long, but now I’m not so sure it’s a great idea.”
“What do you mean?” My breath caught in my throat; my heart pounded in my chest, waiting for his words.
“Des, please believe me when I say I love you.” He sighed and lowered his eyes from mine. “I’m just not sure about all of this.”
“What are you saying, Jare?”
He shrugged, continuing to avoid eye contact with me. “I can’t explain it. But I can’t do this to you. I can’t subject you to my mess.” He paused and sighed again. “I’m sorry, Des, but this isn’t right.”
“You… you don’t really want me?” My words brought emotion; rivulets of salty tears rolled down my cheeks and dripped onto my skin. In an instant, Jared gouged a wound of utter devastation into my soul. My body trembled on the edge of heartbreak. Why was he doing this?
“It’s hard to explain. This just seems…”
“Seems what, Jare? You say you love me, but I’m not feeling it right now. Did I do something wrong?”
“No, it’s me, Des.” He kissed my forehead, and then turned away from me. “Believe me, it’s better this way,” he said, wringing his hands. “I should go.”
“No…” I fought the sobs that I felt building inside me. “Please, don’t go. Baby, don’t leave me, not like this.”
“I’ll call you. I’m so sorry…” were his last words to me. He stood, hurried down the stairs, and then out the front door. I heard his car start, and his tires laying down rubber on the street outside the house.
Heartbroken, I sat alone in my bedroom sobbing, terrified I’d just lost my love, and worse, the friendship I strove so fiercely to protect.
It had been three weeks since my date with Jared, and we hadn’t seen each other, much less spoken. He told me he’d call, but I didn’t think he would wait this long. Every day apart was another day I’d lost hope for us. The wait was sheer torture, the loneliness, unbearable.
Stephen had been absent from my life for most of the past three months, including worship team rehearsals and my label kick-off party. It was a relief when he texted, asking to meet at the pizzeria. I sent a text back confirming our date that night. There was some ground to make up with him; he’d been ridiculously patient with me and my scattered life. I hoped our friendship withstood the neglect, and I was a little nervous about seeing him.
His car wasn’t in the parking lot when I arrived, but I went inside anyway. Stephen sat in the quietest corner of the restaurant, not at our usual table by the stage. I walked up to him and greeted him.
“Hi Stephen,” I said. He didn’t even look at me. Was he so angry with me that he wouldn’t acknowledge me? “Um… hi?” I touched his shoulder, and he jumped a foot. His reaction puzzled me.
“Oh, hi,” he said. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you come in. You startled me.”
“Is there something wrong, Stephen?”
He tilted his head, turning partially away. “You could say that.”
I sat at the table with him; he immediately faced away. I deserved the scorn he was throwing my way, and I couldn’t blame him for being angry. “I’m sorry it’s been such a long time since we’ve talked. The distance between us is my fault, I know that. I continued my small talk, mindlessly chattering about my life and the crazy that now encompassed me. He continued to stare over my shoulder and out the window, not paying a lick of attention to a word I said. I reached for his hand and caught his eye. What was going on? “Stephen? Are you okay?”
I’d never seen him so downcast before. When he blinked, tears trickled down his face. “I’m sorry, Destiny. I should have picked a quieter place than here. I forgot how noisy it can be…” He fingered the napkin on the table, then shook his head and let out a deep sigh.
“What’s wrong, Stephen? You’re clearly not listening, and I don’t understand why you’re not talking to me. Are you that angry…”
He turned to look straight into my eyes; my words faded to nothing as his secret came into view. In his right ear, he wore a hearing aid. Now, I was really confused.
“I didn’t want you to find out like this…”
“I-I don’t understand. Find what out?”
He took my hands in his, rubbing my fingers with his thumb. “I guess I should start at the beginning, eh?” Stephen took a deep breath. “When I was a kid, I was gravely ill with a serious infection. They never determined the cause, but it was really unknown for a while if I’d pull through. Obviously, I survived the ordeal, but I had some nerve damage in my ears from the infection. At the time, I had no ill effects from it.”
I sat back in my chair. “This is a shock. I’m sorry, Stephen.”
He shook his head and broke eye contact. “It gets worse. Right after your audition, I came down with the flu, which is weird because it’s summer. But a high fever activated whatever remained in my ears. I woke up one morning not able to hear on the right side; it felt like having water in it. I thought nothing of it, but it never got better, even after I did.”
“What does this mean, exactly?”
“It turns out I have an autoimmune disorder that’s attacking my inner ear, Destiny. I will be totally deaf in a matter of months, and there’s no way to stop it. I won’t be able to live on my own anymore.” His face and his voice were riddled with emotion. “I’ve already lost my driving privileges until I learn…” Stephen sighed. “Somehow, I need to learn how to live my life without the ability to hear.”
His admission took my breath away. “Oh, Stephen…” Tears formed in my eyes, too. “I’m so sorry I haven’t been here for you when you’ve needed me the most!” My guilt multiplied tenfold. “I’ve been such a terrible friend.”
Stephen took my hands and squeezed them in his firm grip. “No, Destiny. You have nothing to be sorry for. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had, so please don’t feel you’ve been neglectful. I just wanted to meet you here because…” I watched his jaw clench as he fought tears. “I needed to say goodbye.”
“G-Goodbye?! No! Stephen, why?!”
“I’m moving back home to be with my family, Destiny. I need support while I adjust to my new life. Believe me, this is not what I want, but I have to do it. And it kills me…” Stephen was quickly losing his composure. “I won’t be able to hear your beautiful voice. I can’t follow your career the way I dreamed I would.” He stopped and wiped tears from his eyes. “I’d hoped we’d be together forever. It was a fantasy, because you’re so obviously in love with Jared. But a guy can hope; at least, I did. Now, everything I’ve desired in my life is lost.”
I couldn’t hold back the tears. “Oh, no! Stephen, you’re breaking my heart! I’m so sorry you’ve been dealt this really crummy hand.” I didn’t know how to approach the other elephant in the room; his feelings for me. A part of me always wondered what he’d be like as a partner, but I had never seriously considered it. We discussed nothing romantic between us, so his confession came from nowhere and blindsided me.
“This was a conversation I never believed I’d have with you. I guess I was naïve that way. I just didn’t want to believe it could happen, even though the possibility always existed.” Stephen took my hands again. “I’m sorry I dropped this bomb in your lap. I didn’t want to.”
We both openly wept, unable to console the other. “How long before you leave?”
“My mom and dad have been helping me to pack my apartment, and we’re leaving in the morning. I wanted to give us more time, but I couldn’t bear telling you this awful news. You don’t know how it pains me to walk away from you…” Stephen buried his face in his hands and cried. “I’m so sorry to dump this on you and then leave. I know it’s not fair.”
Though I wanted to be angry with him, I couldn’t. None of this was Stephen’s fault. “I wish we had more time together. I’m going to miss you so much.”
“It will be better this way. At least, that’s what my family tells me. They say I need to forget the life I lived here and embrace my new normal, when all I want to embrace is you.”
His words, like a dagger, stabbed my soul; I couldn’t handle it anymore. He stood and pulled me to my feet, wrapped his arms around me, and held me as we both wept. “I’m so sorry,” repeatedly left my mouth in between sobs. Everything about this was so unfair!
When we calmed enough, we sat and continued to talk. “So, how is Jared anyway?” he asked. I should have expected the question. Stephen couldn’t have known that Jared and I had broken up. But with his admission, I wasn’t sure I should tell him. He must have seen the conflict in my distraught expression. “What’s wrong, Destiny?”
My breath caught in my throat. What good could come from telling him that Jared and I were done? “Nothing. He’s fine.”
“He’s… fine. That’s not what I expected to hear. Is everything okay?”
I nodded, trying in vain to stifle even more tears. “Yeah.”
Stephen reached for my hand and squeezed my fingers in his grasp. “I’ve known you long enough to recognize a fib. Things aren’t okay, are they?”
Raw emotion wrapped its slithery tendrils around my throat, threatening to choke me. Breathe Destiny, I thought to myself. “No…”
“Destiny, just say it before I start guessing.”
“Are you sure? I can’t bear the thought of hurting you…” More tears came in abundance, rolling down my face in what felt like record numbers. My shoulders heaved with intense sorrow that hit like a one-two punch coming from two distinct directions.
“How could you possibly hurt me, sweetheart?” Stephen got flustered with my non-answers, so he started to guess. “Let me take a swing at it. He’s asked you to marry him?”
“Foolish man,” Stephen said under his breath. “He hasn’t asked you to marry him, but you want him to?”
“No. It’s nothing like that at all.”
Stephen wiped tears from my eyes, staring into them intensely. “Then what made you all upset?”
“Stephen, Jared and I…” I swallowed the enormous lump that worked its way from my gut into my throat. “W-We broke up.”
“Oh, my g—” Stephen’s face turned pale. I think he finally understood my hesitation in telling him. “Why, Destiny? What happened?”
“I-I don’t even know. One moment we were doing great, and then something just changed. He left with no explanation, and right now, I’m not even sure if we’re still friends. I’m devastated.”
Stephen touched my cheek with a gentle caress. “Oh, sweetheart, of course you are. Shame on him for hurting you like this.”
I sniffled. “I never should have jeopardized our friendship, Stephen. He’s gone for good. And now… now you’re leaving, too.” I was quickly losing my cool. Grief welled up inside me, threatening to explode in mournful sobs.
“I really don’t know what else to say, sweetheart. I’m so sorry.”
Stephen scooted into the seat next to me and wrapped his arms around me, saying everything right and making the coming ache so much worse. I cried for the time we’d lose, the potential relationship that would never get the chance to take root and blossom, and for the friends that would be gone from my life at a vulnerable time. Stephen couldn’t have been sweeter, stroking my hair and whispering words of comfort in my ear.
All too soon, he got a text from his dad saying they were in the parking lot. The moment I dreaded since his announcement two hours earlier was upon us. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Stephen—my best friend, my inspiration, and my courage. How would I survive the onslaught of fame without him? He stood and pulled me to my feet; we walked to the parking lot together, hand in hand.
Just before we stepped outside, in the restaurant’s foyer, Stephen wrapped his arms around me and went in for a kiss, one that was filled with longing and sadness, passion and desire, and love I never realized he felt. I stepped closer to him, ran my fingers through his thick, blond hair, and deepened the kiss. Our first, by cruel happenstance, would also be our last. I wanted it to last forever.
As he pulled away, he looked into my eyes. “I’m sorry, Destiny, but I couldn’t leave you without kissing you at least once.” He stroked my cheek with the back of his fingers. “You didn’t seem like you minded.”
I chewed on my lip. “Not one bit.” I placed a soft kiss on his cheek and took his hand again. “You know, Poppy is going to miss you.”
He smiled for the first time that evening. “Oh, is that so?” He winked at me, catching the meaning behind my words. “Well, I’ll miss her, too. She’s a character, and I’m so happy you have her.”
“It won’t be the same without you here, Stephen. I’ll miss you.”
“I’m going to miss you more than you realize, Destiny.” He opened the door for me and allowed me to pass through first. An older couple, who I assumed were Stephen’s parents, waited for him outside. He led me to them and gave a brief introduction.
“Dad, Mom, this is Destiny. Destiny, my parents, Doug and Lorraine Connor.”
Doug stepped forward to shake my hand. “Nice to meet you, Destiny. Stephen has told us so much about you.”
I laughed nervously. “All good, I hope!”
Lorraine gave me a warm smile. “Nothing but praise. You’re a lovely young lady, Destiny. I can see why Stephen speaks so highly of you, and why he loves you.”
I felt my cheeks flush a fiery red. “Thank you, Mrs. Connor.” She nodded at me and turned to Stephen.
“We need to go, honey. We have a long drive tomorrow.”
Doug nudged Lorraine toward the car. “Let them have their goodbyes, dear. Stephen, when you’re ready.” Stephen acknowledged his father as they both walked away. He wrapped me in one last tight hug.
“You don’t have to say anything, Destiny, but I need you to know—”
“Please don’t,” I begged him. “It will just make your leaving even harder.”
“Then I’ll tell you a different way.” He pressed his lips to mine one last time in a sweet, tender kiss. We were breathless when he pulled away from me. His hands cupped my face, stroking my cheek with his thumb. “I will write to you, Destiny. I will follow your career, and I will pray for you. Please don’t forget me. I know I’ll never forget you.”
His words tore my heart to shreds and left me bleeding raw anguish. I clenched my jaws together, praying I’d hold my composure until he and his family had gone. “I promise, Stephen, that I’ll never forget you.” He grasped my hand and held it before he started walking to the car. Distance broke our grip; I swallowed the enormous lump that seemed to live in my throat.
I watched my best friend get into his parents’ car, put on the bravest face I’ve ever seen him wear, and wave as they drove him away from me. First Jared, and now Stephen.
I was a total wreck.
One Week Later
I walked into Ernie’s office one morning, responding to a message on my voicemail; he never even looked up from his laptop. “Hey Des. Aiden left me a message for you.”
I sighed. “Yeah? What does it say?”
“Are you sure you want to know? I’m aware you’ve had a really rough month…”
“Ernie, just tell me. Rip the bandage off already.” I plopped down in the chair in front of his desk, cringing as I waited for the awful news I knew he had.
“If you insist.” He took a deep breath, held it a moment, and exhaled forcefully. “The stats are in for your single. I’m afraid they’re not very impressive.”
Just what I needed; more bad news. “How so?”
“Well, you never made the Top 100, and it’s already sliding down the charts. Sales are tepid, and airtime is scant.” He crumpled up the paper and threw it into his waste-paper basket with disgust. “I should have never let them talk you into recording that sugary pop tune. It just wasn’t you.”
“Well, not every song can be a chartbuster, right?”
“You know what this means, right Des?”
I slumped in my chair. “Yeah.”
“Look, don’t worry about a thing. I have you covered, and I’m keeping my promise to make you a star.”
“This is all sounds like a big mistake. I can’t even go back to the coffeehouse to work. Jared and I aren’t speaking.”
Ernie scratched his chin. “Well, it’s his loss, Des.”
“Mine, too. We were pretty close before I screwed things up.”
“That kind of thing takes two, you know.”
“I should have known better, Ernie. It isn’t good to mix friendship and romance. I cherished what we had, but I let my emotions deceive me and I fell in love with him. No,” I said, shaking my head. “This failure’s on me.”
“Well, don’t worry about needing the coffeehouse. You’re still MY client, even if Soundwave doesn’t want you. I’ll produce your next single myself if I need to. I’ve been wanting to get my label off the ground, anyway. This just forces my hand.”
“Thanks.” I stood. “Hey, do you mind if I take the rest of the day? I need some time to gather my thoughts.”
“Nah, go ahead. Pamper yourself today, but tomorrow? Tomorrow, we’re hitting the ground running. We’re going to record ‘Maybe It’s Better This Way,’ and we’re going to kill it in the country market. That’s where you’ll shine. I promise, Destiny, we’ll make this better.”
I desperately wanted to believe him, so I nodded and gave him a weak smile. “Yeah.”
“Studio time tomorrow. I have some buddies who play that owe me a favor or two. We’re going to make this work.”
“Okay, Ernie. I trust you.” I took my keys from my purse and turned to go. “Tomorrow morning, I’ll be here.”
“See you then, superstar.” He gave a ‘thumbs up’ as I walked through his office door.
Even though it was eleven in the morning, I went upstairs to bed as soon as I got home. Poppy, who had been lying on my bed, perked up when she saw me. I flopped on the vacant side of the bed and draped my body off the edge. Poppy pressed her cold, wet nose to mine and cooed at me. I don’t know how she knew it, but every time I’d been sad in the past month, she was right there with just the right thing to cheer me up.
She and I snuggled on the bed for a while as I let go of the emotions from the worst two months I’d had in a long time. She curled up next to my head and nuzzled her face into mine. I scratched her chin and smiled at this beautiful little soul.
“Thank you for being here, Poppy. I saved you, but I guess you’re saving me, too, aren’t you sweet girl?” She chirped at me and gave a raspy lick on my nose. I smiled, feeling more at ease than I’d felt since the party at the private club weeks ago. Poppy cuddled up next to me, purring and kneading my arm.
This was a crossroads I never expected, and one I couldn’t have anticipated. The awful launch of my career, losing my relationship with Jared and Stephen’s devastating news and departure from the Shores. And yet, Ernie reassured me that everything would work out if I would just trust his instincts. I had to decide if I would believe him and continue to pursue my dreams, or if I would tap out and accept what I’d been given.
I hadn’t picked up my guitar in weeks; it sat in the corner of my bedroom, waiting for me. I sat up and padded over to it, picked it up, and strummed the first chord of “Maybe It’s Better This Way.” Considering the pain I had, the song’s lyrics carried a whole new meaning, and a deeper sadness. The song was no longer just about Jeff and the breakup; it was now the story of my tragic love life. Inspired by this new revelation, I took my songbook from my nightstand and jotted down new chords, starting a brand new, more fitting arrangement.
It was time to introduce the world to the real Destiny Hill.
Up Next: Spooky Day Teaser
On Stage Set #1 by Kilhain
Sims 3 Modeli
Don’t Let Me Down – by Sea
Guitar Accessory by ModernLover
Tears as Makeup by Bill at Just Do It!
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