G2 Chapter Eight, Part One – Destiny’s Breakthrough

The weather had turned colder, the foliage at peak colors on the trees around the city. We were two weeks into preparation for recording “Maybe It’s Better This Way” under Ernie’s new label, Nova Records. I would be his groundbreaking artist. Ernie placed so much faith in my talent and songwriting skills; I was stressed out.

A temporary band was helping me to arrange the music for my new song. I’d lost count of when I last heard from Jared, so when his ringtone blared on my phone, it floored me. I hesitated to answer it, figuring maybe he had mis-dialed the number. 

Curiosity, however, got the better of me; on the fourth ring, I picked up Jared’s call to his surprised reaction. “Jare?”

“Oh, hey Des. I was gonna leave a voicemail, but—”

“Don’t worry about it. You have me now.” My heart, which previously occupied my chest, leapt into my throat.

“I need to see you.” His voice cracked, and his breath hitched. “Please, Des? I owe you some explanations.”

Yes, you do, I thought. You broke my heart, you jerk! “Yeah, I think I’d like that,” I said, going for the more civil approach.

“Pizza place, tomorrow night?”

I hadn’t been back to the pizza joint since Stephen left the Shores. That was our sacred place, our go-to hangout when we needed some silly time together, or I was working on a song and I wanted his input. “Um… yeah. Yeah, that’d be okay.” I really didn’t want to see Jared there, but he was making an effort to be cordial. I supposed accommodating him was the least I could do.

“Oh good, good. I’ll see you there?” His voice quivered. Was he nervous? He should’ve been. He put me through hell the night he walked out on me, and I was salty about it.

“Of course.” We both hung on the line waiting for the other to speak, but neither of us did. We were back to being super awkward together. Finally, I noticed Ernie’s disgruntled expression and waved to him. “I, um, I need to go. I’m at the studio and my band is waiting for me—”

“Oh, well then, don’t let me keep you. I’ll see you tomorrow night?”

“You will.” 

“Okay, good,” he said again. “Take care, Des.” 

“Yeah, you too.” I clicked the End button on my cell and slipped it back into my pocket.

Ernie gave me a stern look through the studio’s window and pointed at his watch. “We’re on a schedule here, Des.”

“I’m sorry, Ernie. That was Jared…” My voice cracked a little. “I know there’s no excuse for taking a personal call on your time, and I’m sor—”

He leaned forward and spoke into the mic. “Don’t worry about it. Are you patching things up?” I shrugged and mouthed the words, “I don’t know.” His concerned expression reappeared. “Do I need to go set him straight, Des, because I will. I can’t have you this scattered during an actual recording session.”

“No, I’m good. It will be interesting to see what he has to say for himself. I’m still angry with him.”

“I know you are. But I need you to focus on this song. Are you with me, Des?”

I shook out my limbs one at a time and hopped back and forth on light feet. “Yes, of course.” At least, that’s what my head believed. Despite everything, every beat of my heart hoped for reconciliation. Jared was all I thought about the rest of the day. 

*****

The following night, I drove to the pizza place alone to meet Jared. His Mustang was already in the parking lot when I arrived. He really didn’t know how to be late for anything. It was a trait I both admired and loathed. I checked my makeup in the vanity mirror of my convertible and fixed my hair. Ready or not, I thought, here I come. 

Jared sat at the same corner booth Stephen and I occupied during our last evening together. Already, I had bad vibes about how the evening would go. He stood when he saw me approach, wearing a painted-on smile. 

“Hi, Des,” he almost whispered. “It’s so good to see you.” He pulled me close and kissed my cheek. I closed my eyes, relishing the tenderness of his gesture. “I’ve missed you. No,” he said, his voice shaky and muddled with emotion. “I’ve missed us.” 

Seeing him again, especially when he looked so weak and vulnerable, brought back every emotion I’d fought since his phone call. The tears I’d been fighting came, despite my best efforts. “I never thought I’d hear you say that, Jare. I thought we were finished.” 

We sat at the table together. He poured sweet tea from a pitcher he’d ordered for us to share. “Well, you might not want me after you hear what I need to tell you.” Jared took a sip of tea and grimaced. He never liked sweet tea; I knew he’d ordered it for my benefit.

“What makes you say that?”

“I don’t know where to begin. There’s much I’m sure you won’t understand. I want to explain myself without scaring you away from me.” He bowed his head in apparent shame. I couldn’t imagine what he needed to say.

“I won’t judge you, Jare. We’ve known each other too long for that.”

“You say that now, Destiny. I’m under no delusions here. You will likely hate me when I’m done.”

“I could never hate you.” Frankly, I was shocked he’d think such a thing.

“We’ll see about that. You don’t know what I need to say.”

I didn’t know how else to convince him he was safe with me. “Why don’t you tell me, and I’ll let you know.”

Jared slid to the edge of the booth as if to stand. Instead of rising to his feet, he pulled up the left leg of his slacks, revealing a secure strap with an electric monitor attached to it. “This,” he whispered, “this is my dirty secret.”

I knew what it was, and why most people wore them. But this was Jared, the most principled, upstanding man I knew. What the hell?! “I-I don’t understand, Jare.”

“I’m not the man you think I am, Des. I’m a monster.”

“No! You’re Jared, the man who gave me a job and took care of me when Jeff left me. You’re the man who selflessly gave himself to help me fix up my house!” I cried when I said, “You’re the man I fell in love with… You’re no monster!”

“I’ve only shown you the part of me I wanted you to see. Deep down inside, I’m a dangerous man.”

I sniffled and shook my head. “I don’t believe you.”

“You need to see this…” His breath hitched; he reached down to the floor and pulled a satchel from under the table. Tucked inside, he had journals and books, much like what I carried with me. He reached in and brought out a thick notebook with newspaper clippings stuffed inside. “This will reveal the real Jared McMurphy, the one I never wanted you to see.” Jared set the notebook on the table and pushed it toward me. 

“You don’t have to do this,” I said, choking back tears. 

“Please, open it…” He folded his hands, his eyes averted downward. “Please, Des?”

I swallowed hard and took the notebook in my hand. Before I even opened it, a newspaper clipping slipped from the inside cover, one I couldn’t believe. Grisly photos of a young woman covered in bruises and blood, with open wounds on her face. Next to her photographs was Jared’s police mugshot, sporting his own significant injuries. The headline read:

Local Teen Faces Assault And Battery Charges

“Jared Anthony Pritchard, 19, son of Rhys Pritchard of Bridgeport, and Veronica McMurphy of Starlight Shores, was charged last evening with aggravated assault and battery…” 

What the…? No! My eyes skimmed further through the gruesome description of the crime scene. Though some key phrases stood out, “hair caked with blood” was the most horrifying. It was worse than reading a crime novel, because this was real life. I scanned further down toward the end of the article: 

“The victim, Alana Hensley, remains at Starlight Shores Memorial Hospital in critical, but stable condition…” 

I stared blankly at the article, not believing what I’d just read. My stomach felt sick, but something didn’t add up. This couldn’t really be Jared… could it? Surely, he wasn’t capable of such savagery. 

“That isn’t you, is it?! Jared, please tell me this isn’t true!”

He sighed, not making eye contact with me. “Alana and I were at her graduation party on the beach. She was a year younger than me, so I was already out of school. I’d gotten in with the wrong crowd, and once we graduated, things escalated. We were getting drunk every night and causing problems in town. There’s a lot of mischief to be had for a bunch of young men with no jobs and no responsibilities. The gang leader, Wes, had a rap sheet a mile long, but somehow I’d kept my nose clean.”

“You were in a gang?” It just kept getting worse.

He nodded, keeping his gaze from mine. “Alana was my high school sweetheart, and I loved her like no one else. Though we’d been together for years, we’d been engaged only a month or two. She never approved of me drinking and being with the guys, and she sure didn’t want me coming around her family when I was wasted. She invited me to her graduation party on the condition I’d show up sober. And I did, but that’s where the promise ended. I had a flask of whiskey hidden in my jacket that I drank in the first half-hour of her party.” 

“The booze had me feeling no pain, and I was looking for more when I found Alana and one of her classmates kissing behind the outbuilding on the beach. He was a much bigger guy, and I knew I couldn’t take him by myself drunk as I was, so I…” Jared’s breath caught in his throat. “I went after her instead. She was weaker and smaller than me, and I was rip-roaring hammered; I knew it was an easy fight. I don’t remember most of what happened, only that her father heard her screams and likely saved her life.” He stopped to wipe tears from his eyes. “I didn’t know my strength, Des. I could have easily killed her.”

His confessions took my breath away and made my blood run cold. How could he?! “I-I don’t know what to say.” Jared refused to make eye contact with me, which really made me feel no better as I sat there with him.

“Her dad came after me, threatening to kill me after I’d hurt Alana. My drunken state didn’t help my escape, and he caught me after a short pursuit. He gave me a concussion, hitting my head repeatedly against the concrete outbuilding. It felt like I was going to die, and I wouldn’t have cared if he had killed me. I figured it would be better than spending time in prison. Her father was arrested, too, and convicted of attempted second-degree murder. He’s still in a high-security prison in Strangeville, serving a twenty-year sentence, but he didn’t deserve that. He was simply protecting his only daughter, the one I almost killed.”

I shifted in my seat, growing more agitated as he spoke. He took another sip of tea and continued.

“My mom was pretty famous and well respected here in the Shores. They didn’t publish her stage name in the newspaper to protect her from the fallout. Her influence bought me a reduced sentence; I accepted a plea deal for fifteen years of house arrest instead of doing hard time. The decision was wildly unpopular, especially after her father’s conviction. Public outcry demanded justice for her dad, but none came. Her parents divorced right after his conviction. Alana’s mother moved her across the country, so she’d never have to deal with me again.”

“As for me, I’m stuck wearing this damned ankle bracelet for another few years. My mother retired in disgrace after my plea deal went public. She bought the coffeehouse in secret for me to manage, which I’ve been doing to rebuild my life. Mom’s my silent partner in the business. The ‘V’ in the name stands for Veronica. When my dad disowned me, I took her last name. I nearly ruined my life, you know. Mom’s been a big help to get my future back in order.”

“You definitely ruined Alana’s life,” I said through gritted teeth. “You almost killed her, and her father’s in prison for trying to save her life?! Yeah… you screwed her up big time.” I tried not to sound bitter, but given the bombshell he’d just dropped on me, it was a big ask. “Who is your mom?”

“You’ve probably heard her name. Roni Dey.”

Daddy had a few of her records, and I knew a bunch of her songs. I was very familiar with the name. “I have,” I said. There was an uncomfortable silence between us as I sat staring at the man I once loved, one I no longer knew. Who was this stranger sitting across from me? How could I have misjudged his character this badly? How could I have allowed him to get this dangerously close to me? After Austin and Jeff, how could I have accepted his lies so thoroughly and without questioning him? That baffled me most of all. 

“So, all those times we spent alone together, someone could have been listening to our conversations?” My mind raced to all the suggestive banter we’d shared, and the secrets I’d confided in him, ones I thought were between just the two of us. The realization made me queasy; suddenly, I was fighting the urge to throw up.

He shook his head. “No? Yes? Oh, hell, I don’t know, Des. I mean, in theory they could’ve. I’m not sure if anything you ever said ended up as part of my permanent record.” 

His words made my stomach churn like the seas in a violent storm. “I can’t believe you did this to me…”

“I don’t suppose saying that I’m sorry would help?”

I grumbled, struggling to keep my composure. “No, it wouldn’t.” I couldn’t even look at him.

We sat longer, not talking or even looking at one another, until he finally broke the silence. “Say something, Des. Tell me what you’re feeling.”

The trouble was, I was so furious, I could barely form an intelligible thought. I took a deep breath and exhaled with significant force. “I can’t believe I never suspected what a—”

“Bastard?” Jared interrupted me. 

“—dirty, despicable liar you are! You knew my past, and you lied to me anyway?!” I picked up my almost-full glass of sweet tea and threw it in his face. “I trusted you! I loved you, dammit! You believed it was okay to hide this from me?! How dare you?!”

“Please, Des, don’t feel that way—”

“Don’t you DARE tell me how to feel!” I spat back at him. “But it all makes sense now. Why you don’t date. Why you were SO hesitant to tell me how you felt about me. It had nothing to do with ethics, DID IT?!” I screamed at him. He cowered from me, my raised voice drawing unwanted attention from other restaurant patrons. “I gotta go.” I stood on unsteady legs, shaking so hard I thought I’d fall. Jared stood and caught my arm.

“Please, let’s finish talking this out? I need to apologize for everyth—”

I spun around and slapped him—surprising both of us—but it produced my desired result. Jared recoiled from me, holding his face; the agony and shock in his expression was palpable, but I didn’t care. This entire evening had been a train wreck of emotion for me. His feelings mattered little. 

“Don’t you touch me!” I growled. I collected my purse and car keys, turned to face him, and looked straight into his eyes. “You’re right, Jared. You ARE a monster. Never call me again.”

I turned on my heel and didn’t look back, rushing toward the door. My car was parked out close to the Hoi Polloi; I trudged through the parking lot on wobbly legs, fighting tears all the way there. When I finally reached my vehicle, I flopped into the driver’s seat and allowed my emotions to run rampant. Heart-wrenched sobs wracked my body, grieved not only by the permanent loss of a once-wanted relationship, but by the lies I’d once again swallowed hook, line and sinker.

I reached into my purse and retrieved my phone. Ernie got a badly misspelled, poorly formed one-line text informing him I needed tomorrow off. Then I scrolled through my contacts—there weren’t many, and now there was one fewer—until I found Stephen’s number. He wouldn’t hear me if I phoned him, but he could certainly read a text message. I tapped on his handsome face and opened my messaging app.

Hi Stephen, I know I shouldn’t be contacting you, but I really need a friend right now. Are you available to text? Please let me know. – Destiny.

I wiped tears from my face and started the car. Poppy waited for me at home. Even if Stephen wasn’t available, I knew somehow she would make me feel better. The drive home felt like an eternity, but eventually, I turned down my street and navigated to my little house, the one Jared helped me to fix up and decorate. 

As I had predicted, Poppy sat at the kitchen door waiting for my arrival back home. I set my purse and keys on the counter, bent down to pick her up, and grabbed my phone before I walked into the living room with Poppy in my arms. It had only been a few seconds after I settled down before my phone signaled a text message. I fumbled with it, only to be disappointed. 

Destiny, Stephen has gone to the academy for the next two weeks. I’ll let him know you messaged him when we speak, which should be a few days at the most. He’ll be happy to hear you’ve contacted him. He misses you so. Fondly, Lorraine Connor.

“Drat!” I said out loud and scratched Poppy’s chin. “I guess it’s just you and me, sweetheart.” I walked back to the kitchen door and locked it, turned out the lights and headed for my upstairs bedroom with Poppy at my heels. Every single thing in my house reminded me of Jared, and it made me hate him more. All the times I’d been with him here alone, when he could have hurt or taken advantage of me, made me physically ill. Regardless, I hadn’t felt this broken since Jeff and I split up. As I cried myself to sleep, I promised I’d never let another man get close to me, and I certainly wouldn’t give him the power to hurt me like Austin, Jeff, and Jared had done. No, Destiny, I thought, you’re going to die alone and miserable. 

It was my last thought before the merciful tug of sleep claimed me that night.


I stopped frequenting the Flying V coffeehouse, but I missed seeing Evie every morning. It was a sacrifice I needed to make, though we still saw each other a few times a month. I couldn’t stomach the thought of seeing Jared, or giving him the chance to worm his way back into my good graces. I was still too angry, and too disturbed, by our last meeting. 

Much to my surprise, Stephen never texted back when he returned home from the academy, and I wondered how he was doing. Ernie remained one of my few friends, but above all, he was my agent. Lucky for me, he was a confirmed bachelor with buddies of his own. His best friend, Mithun, got most of Ernie’s attention outside of the studio.

As the weeks passed, I immersed myself in my work. Ernie hired a permanent band—after two weeks of exhausting auditions—to record “Maybe It’s Better This Way” in the studio, and play at local gigs. I nailed the voice track in just a few takes. During the song’s production, Ernie showed me how to use the soundboard to enhance my voice, the instruments, and to add artistic elements into the song. He loved my new musical arrangement, and he was especially pleased with the band’s rendition of it. 

Three weeks after my last session in the studio, Ernie had the finished song in his possession. Although Soundwave Records was no longer interested in my career, Ernie still gave the finished song to Aiden Chandler to hear. We were together, preparing promotional materials for the song’s release, when Ernie got Aiden’s response. He threw his hands in the air and growled in frustration. I glanced toward him in time to see him bang his forehead gently on his desk.

“Why do I bother with that know-it-all, Des?” He closed his laptop hard and pushed away. “According to Chandler, I shouldn’t have wasted my time with that ‘crap song.’ Who the hell does he think he is?”

I shrugged. “I dunno, Ernie. He’s the CEO of Soundwave for a reason. But they also don’t dabble in the country market. We’ve got this.” I sounded unusually hopeful, a complete about-face. He was usually the unshakable, confident one of the two of us. “The song is amazing. Let’s just concentrate on mailing it to radio stations and getting some air time with it.”

He nodded his head and smiled at me. “Well, look at you! Your calm composure is just what I needed today, Des. Thank you.”

“What can I say? You’re rubbing off on me.” I side-glanced at him and giggled. 

“Where are we on the promo stuff? Do we have enough hard copies of that single on hand?” He walked to where I sat; a pile of envelopes addressed to every country station in the Mainland, copies of the single, and my promo portraits were stacked on the table.

“I’m getting low on photos, but other than that, there’s plenty to go around.” I plopped on the sofa and rested against the cushions. My back reminded me I’d been sitting in one position for too long. “When is the official release?”

“Five days,” Ernie said. “That gives the radio stations plenty of time to receive the materials and spin the tune. I have a good feeling about this.”

“I know we’re not doing a big party this time around. What’s our schedule look like for release week?” 

“Meh,” he grunted. “The morning show on local television is interested, so keep the release day morning available. I haven’t heard from any of the venues in town, not even from the private club where we had your party last time, which surprised me. It looked like the prop was into you.” 

I blushed. “Even if he was, I’m not interested.” Arthur Atwood was charming, but I didn’t need another man who would eventually destroy my heart. I wanted to accomplish my dreams on my own, without a man to “help” me.

“Well, leave the venues to me. I know for sure we can get you an audition at Verde Park. Trice is a good friend of mine, has tons of influence in town, and he owes me a favor.”

I wasn’t sure how I felt about being a charity case. “Yeah,” I said in half-hearted agreement, and pointed toward his desk. “Does that box have more promo photos?” 

“Yep!” Ernie said. “I was just getting ready to open it. I’ll run to the post office when we’re done stuffing envelopes. How many more?” 

The stack of empty manila envelopes stared at me. “This many.” I held my fingers open about half an inch. “You know, more hands make light work.” I patted the seat next to mine. “We could knock this out in about ten minutes.”

Ernie pulled the chair from in front of his desk, the box of photos planted on the seat. “Let’s get to work, then.”


The morning of my song’s release, we appeared on the local morning show. Breakfast In The Shores was seen not only in Starlight Shores, but the surrounding towns as well. The host, Grayson Adams, had been the anchor of the morning show for at least two decades and was well-respected and loved in the entertainment industry. He was known for his accurate ‘first impressions’ of a new artist in town, which was why I dreaded our appearance on the show that morning. 

Grayson Adams spoke with Ernie about the launch of Nova Records and little else. He remembered the abysmal failure that was “Love Is A Wave,” treating me as though I was simply Ernie’s eye-candy. At our previous appearance, he correctly foretold my first single’s demise. He wasn’t about to let me forget it, either. 

“So, you’re launching your new record label today with Miss Hill’s brand new single. That’s a gutsy move, Ernie, all things considered. But I suppose you’re the expert here, and she’s the ‘artist’ you chose.” Yes, he formed air quotes with his fingers as he uttered the word ‘artist’. “I wish you all the luck,” he said, then turned away from Ernie, looked into the camera and muttered, “because you’re going to need it.” He crossed his legs with an arrogant smirk. Grayson Adams was never wrong, and I was nervous as hell. Ernie took it all in stride, sitting back into his seat sporting his own smug expression.

“Destiny Hill is the next big thing in this town, Gray, or my name isn’t Ernie Gonzales.” He smiled at me on the stage setup, gave me a ‘thumbs up’—which I returned with my brightest smile—then he gestured to the host that we were ready to go.

“What should I call you then, Ernie?” Grayson Adams said, disdain dripping from his voice. “I jest!” He winked at the camera with a snide grin. “Let’s go now to Destiny Hill with her new single, ‘Maybe It’s Better This Way’.” He pointed in my direction; I watched the cameras pan toward us. It was showtime.

Screenshot-78

With his insincere introduction, the band played the first notes of the song, and my voice filled the studio. The emotion in the lyrics was still raw, but my voice was strong and clear. Ross’ soulful guitar solo midway through the song amped up the intensity, giving us the momentum to finish with a bang. The band nailed it, and so did I. I couldn’t have been more pleased with the performance. Better yet, the show’s pompous host gawked at us, slack-jawed and looking astounded. Who is wearing the smirk now, Mr. Snobby Pants?

After the performance, the mood on-set changed. Grayson Adams was suddenly interested in my life. Where was I born? Where have I been hiding in the city unnoticed for so long? He raved on and on about how the Shores needed fresh talent, and I was here for such a time as this. The more compliments he heaped on me, the more I blushed. Ernie sat on the couch listening to the interview, not shocked in the least.

When our segment was over, the producer invited us back into the green room for additional interviews. The evening news wanted to do a feature story about “the red-headed girl from Appaloosa Plains with the small town drawl, and the big voice”—their words, not mine. They wanted us to do another performance of the song for a weekend feature spot. A one-hour obligation turned into an all-day “Des Fest,” as Ernie called it. His limo brought me back home late that afternoon.

“Are you okay, Des?” he asked. “You’ve been quiet since we left the studio.”

“I’m overwhelmed.”

“You left them speechless on that show, Destiny. Chandler was dead wrong about you. I have an eye for talent that he doesn’t possess. Luckily, the television station recognized that, though they’d have been blind if they hadn’t.”

I rolled my eyes. “I was dreading today, Ernie. Grayson Adams was ready to sink my career before I even got started. He couldn’t have been more patronizing if he tried.”

“But you blew his socks off, turned them inside out, and put them back on his cocky feet with the first verse of your song. I’ve never seen a more profound paradigm shift. You realize, Des, that you’re the first artist ever to prove him wrong. This is a huge deal! You showed them who you really are, and they loved you.”

“Yeah. I guess I wasn’t expecting the fawning today. It took me by surprise. That didn’t happen with the first song.”

“You know why, don’t you?”

I shrugged. “It was a terrible song, that’s why.”

“No, Des,” he said. “The song itself wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t yours. The song you wrote tells a story, but not just any story. It portrays heartbreak, sadness, and loss. Those are themes everyone can relate to. Anyone who saw that performance, Destiny, felt the emotion you put into those words. They sensed it in the arrangement you wrote. Your songs have something to say, and people will want to hear it.”

I blushed. “You really think so?”

“Des, I know it. I expect big things for this song, so be ready with more for an album. I know you have a bunch.”

“Yes, I do. Only a few people have heard my best ones. My daddy…” I wiped a stray tear from my eye. “I was singing his favorite song when he took his last breath. I haven’t played it since Jeff and I broke up.”

Ernie grinned and slapped his knee. “That’s the one I want to hear! What’s the name of it?”

“I haven’t officially named it, but I’ve been calling it ‘It Hurts Both Ways’. I wrote it as a child for a friend. Jeff rewrote it as a duet, but I always liked it as a solo.”

“We can’t sit on this album. I’m going to need you in the studio with the band to work on arranging these songs. We’ll take a few days to gauge the single, but it’s back to work.” He took my hand and patted it. “I’m really proud of you, Destiny. You enchanted everyone today, and you’re going to turn some heads. I guarantee it.”

“I’m still surprised by everything. This was so unexpected, especially after ‘Love Is A Wave’.”

Ernie put his arm around my shoulder and hugged me. “Well, I’m not shocked at all. You just proved what I already knew; you’re a star. The world just hasn’t met you yet.”


The days following my appearance on the morning show were like a dream. People waved at me when I was around town, gathering around me for autographs and photos. The experience was a one-hundred-eighty degree turnaround from the first single we’d released. It was surreal.

Ernie picked me up in his limo for a meeting with Phil Trice, the proprietor at Verde Park. Even though my name was out in the city, I was still fearful of the crowd of bullies that hovered near the stage. Phil wasn’t always at the amphitheater, and it wasn’t his responsibility to monitor the park anyhow. His job was hiring acts to perform on stage at regular gigs, and to run competitive events called SimFest.

I was jittery when we left the limo, even with Ernie at my side. My only security with him beside me would be his name recognition, if that even mattered to the brute squad that patrolled the stage. He gave me a reassuring pat on the back as we walked through a heavy rime of hoarfrost on the grass.

The chief antagonist from years ago—a truly mediocre acrobat named Priscilla—approached Ernie when she saw me with him.

“What’s she doing here?” she said. Priscilla scowled at me with pure hatred. My skin formed goosebumps, and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I cowered before her, shrinking into myself; it angered me she still had this effect on me almost five years later.

Ernie ignored her caustic tone. “This is my client, Destiny Hill. We are both here to see Mr. Trice, so if you’d let us by—”

Priscilla stepped into Ernie’s path, snapping a wad of gum. “That baby is not welcome in our park!” she pointed to me, clearly noticing she intimidated the hell out of me. My discomfort only emboldened her. “We warned her not to return here.” She turned to me and spoke, glaring through my eyes, into my frightened soul. “How’s your guitar, little mouse? Oh, that’s right! It’s at the bottom of the lake, which is exactly where you’re going!” She looked over at the five burly guys that sat near the chess table on the left side of the stage and whistled for them.

I sidled up next to Ernie, trembling, as Priscilla’s henchmen approached us. I couldn’t believe I broke my promise to myself, having no desire to take a mid-December swim in the lake. Mostly, I couldn’t believe she was brazen enough to threaten me with him by my side; from the looks of things, they intended to make good on her threat. Though Ernie was a big man, surely he’d be no match for the brawny quintet. Against the odds, he put himself between me and my would-be attackers. He was usually unflappable, but the threat must have triggered his fight-or-flight response. I’d never seen him get angry as quickly as he did at that moment; he was utterly enraged.

“Enough!” Ernie growled. “This park is a public space, and Destiny has more right to be here than you, as she is a bigger deal than you’ll ever be. You want to know why no one hires you, Priscilla?” In stunned bewilderment, she stepped backward. Was that fear in her expression? I sure hoped so.

“Y-You know—?” Priscilla stammered, obviously ruffled.

Ernie continued his verbal attack. “Yes, I know who you are, you sorry excuse of a performer!” He took a step closer and got in her face. “Your act is tired and banal, doing the same handsprings and tumbles you’ve done since I was a kid. You’re an old has-been, Priscilla, and no one cares about you anymore.” Ouch! That had to hurt, I thought. Ernie could be savage when the circumstances warranted it. I was happy his fury wasn’t aimed at me!

“But… but…” she tried to protest. He was having none of it.

“If I hear that you or any of these punks have so much as looked at Destiny the wrong way, I’ll ensure your banishment from the park faster than you can say her name. I know what the park means to you, so think long and hard before you threaten her, or anyone else, again. Do we have an understanding, Priscilla?”

Priscilla kept her eyes focused on the ground, muttering under her breath. “Y-Yes sir, I understand, Mr. Gonzales.”

“Good.” Ernie turned to me and took my arm with a gentle grip. “Come on, Des. Phil is waiting for us.” I nodded and followed him, but inwardly, I was thrilled that Priscilla finally got her comeuppance.

The amphitheater at Verde Park was an outdoor venue; though the stage was covered from precipitation, the blustery weather and frigid temperatures in Starlight Shores would likely keep larger crowds from attending winter shows. The Shores wasn’t as numbingly cold as Appaloosa Plains was in the winter, but snow is still snow, and cold hinders outdoor activities that don’t revolve around winter sports. I doubted the public would come out for a December show, especially one that featured a relatively unknown act.

Phil had a warm office in an outbuilding just off the property, which was why he paid no attention to the goings-on at the stage. Ernie knocked on the door and gave me an encouraging pat.

“Ernie!” Phil, who I’d only met once at my Soundwave party, smiled warmly at me. “And Miss Hill, it’s nice to see you again.” He leaned closer to my ear and whispered, “I’m happy to see you with Ernie, honestly. Stick with him, and you’ll go places.”

I smiled back. “Thank you.”

The two men went a round of slapping each other on the back, followed by hearty chortling. “I’m glad you got her away from Chandler at Soundwave, Ern. She has too much talent to waste it there.” I was utterly stupefied. Soundwave Records, despite the character who ran it, was still the biggest, most successful record label in the Mainland. I supposed the disdain for Aiden Chandler ran deeper than I thought.

“We’re going to remind ol’ Chandler what a huge mistake he made, aren’t we, Des?” Ernie hugged my shoulder; I returned a humble grin. “So, when can we have her do a show? I know the weather won’t cooperate for a show at the amphitheater, but the city needs to hear this girl live. You have more connections than the telephone company. Surely, we can make this happen for her.”

Phil walked to the desk in his small office and invited us in. Ernie took a seat directly across from Phil, while I sat slightly off center. “I agree, and you’re in luck. I’m hosting a live Snowflake Day event at the Hoi Polloi on the twenty-third; the show will feature some of the newest, hottest talent around, and it’s already sold out. I’d love for Destiny to come and be part of it. The local network affiliates will film the national broadcast. This will get her name out there and into the stratosphere, don’t you think?”

Ernie’s face lit up. “That’s perfect!” He looked at me, trying to size up my feelings. Inside, I was ready to burst. A national broadcast?! “What do you think, Des?”

“I have plans to travel to Twinbrook for my birthday on the twentieth,” I said. “There’s family there I haven’t seen since my folks passed away. I will make sure, though, that I’m home in plenty of time.”

Phil wrinkled his nose. “An event of this magnitude needs to go without a hitch. I’m afraid rehearsals would require you to stay in Starlight Shores, Destiny.” My heart sank, but I’d already promised Jason and the Bradfords I’d visit. Aunt Sunny and Uncle Caleb were getting older. It might be one of my last chances to see them before they, too, were gone.

It seemed Ernie remembered our previous discussion about my requested vacation because he was right on top of it. “My mistake, Phil. She requested that time away before we signed her this year. I can’t back down on that. What’s important to her is important to me. Family always comes first.”

Phil eyed me with a friendly smile. “Don’t worry. This holiday show isn’t the only event coming up. They’re looking for entertainers for the annual New Year’s Eve show from Bridgeport. You wouldn’t have to travel there, as they can do a satellite broadcast. We can set her up at Mick’s, since that place has a decidedly country feel to it, and pack the place with New Year’s Eve partiers. The national broadcast will cut to her big song when she’s ready to sing it.”

New Year’s Eve? There wasn’t a soul in the Mainland that missed that broadcast every year. It was the official countdown show, featuring entertainment from around the globe while the world waited to bring in the new year. That show had the potential to vault me into the national—and possibly the international—spotlight. Just the thought of it made my stomach do full flip-flops. “Wow…” was all I squeaked out.

Ernie, however, was beaming. “I knew you’d take care of my girl here, Phil.” He looked at me—sheet white and feeling nauseated—and chuckled. “It looks like I might need to convince her, though. I know a gig like the New Year’s Eve party might be a bit much for her to consider without warming up to the thought. How about this?” Ernie sat back in his chair with his ankle resting on his knee. “Send me an email with the details, including compensation for her time, and we’ll get back to you by Friday.”

“Acceptable,” Phil said. “I’d love to stay and chat, but I’m meeting with Jesse about an upcoming SimFest that she wants me to help her host at MN8. I’ll have Gina email you everything you need. Deal?”

Both men stood; Ernie shook Phil’s outstretched hand. “Deal. Thanks for seeing us on such short notice.” He reached for my hand and helped me to my feet. “Come on, Des. Let’s grab some lunch. My treat, of course!”

After all Ernie had done for me, how could I say no? “Sure.”


My flight to Twinbrook left in two hours; I was running a bit late. Evie and her fiancé Trevor agreed to house-sit while I visited Jason and the Bradfords for my twenty-fourth birthday. She was the only person in town I trusted to care for Poppy in my absence. It would be the first time I’d left her alone since I rescued her, and my first time leaving Starlight Shores since Jeff and I parted ways. I desperately needed this time away.

I’d gotten Poppy a supply of her favorite treats, all the food she loved, and a few new toys for Evie and Trevor to use in play with her. I spent the day before cleaning and tidying everything, stocking the fridge with food for my house guests, and making sure everything was prepared.

Evangeline was reading the list of instructions I wrote out for her while I finished bringing my luggage downstairs. In my habitual manner of over packing, the suitcase I had was stuffed to the seams with warm clothes as though I was leaving for a month instead of a few days. Trevor jumped up to help me when he saw me struggling with it on the steps.

“Thanks, Trevor,” I said. “Someday, I’ll learn to pack lightly. Today isn’t that day!” The three of us broke out in giggles. “Thank you both for house sitting. I know I don’t have to worry about Poppy with you here.”

Evie walked to me and gave me a hug. “It’s our pleasure! We’ll have some good fun with her.” She looked around at the otherwise bare living room. “Aren’t you decorating for Snowflake Day this year?”

I shrugged. “I’m not sure. What’s the point if it’s just me and Poppy?” I had never been so utterly alone for the holidays. I certainly didn’t feel festive with the awful year I’d had.

“You know you’re always welcome at our apartment. It isn’t much, but it’s better than spending it alone,” Evie said.

“I know, and you’re sweet. I haven’t heard about that New Year’s Eve show yet. If I’m doing it, I’ll be working on Snowflake Day, anyway. I will let you know, though.” A horn sounded outside the house. “My cab is here, I guess.” I hugged Evie and Trevor one last time, and gave Poppy a scratch under her chin. “I’ll call when I get in tonight. Thanks again!”

“It’s our pleasure! Have a safe trip, and enjoy your family!” I took my suitcase and backpack and waved to my friends, who stood in the doorway of my house.

The short commuter flight to Twinbrook was only forty-five minutes from tarmac to tarmac, barely enough time to get comfortable. Jason waited for me at baggage claim, looking just as wonderful as he did the last time I saw him, albeit a bit more gray. I broke into a jog when I spotted him and squealed his name.

“Jason!” His muscular arms caught me in a hug. He kissed my cheek and pulled away from me.

“I can’t believe you’re here, Princess. You look amazing! City living agrees with you.”

“You haven’t changed a bit.” I kissed his cheek in return.

“Well,” he said, “I’m older and a lot more gray. But I’m trying to stay fit and young. Is it working?”

“It is! I see little difference. You look just as young as you ever have!” I gave him another hug.

“You’d better get your eyes checked!” he laughed. “Oh Destiny, it’s so good to have you here. I’ve really missed you!”

“Ditto!” I said. We walked to the baggage claim conveyor. There were only twenty of us on the flight, so it wouldn’t take long. Mine came off the plane quickly. Jason grabbed my bag, and we walked from the airport.

Twinbrook sat at a slightly higher elevation than did Starlight Shores, so the ground was already blanketed in at least a foot of snow, most of it fairly fresh. A lake sat in the center of town, which fed two smaller rivers leading out to the neighboring townships and villages. Jason’s house was right on the bayou, within the lake on a boggy islet that housed only seven homes. He had no problems navigating the snowy streets in town. His house, adorned with sparkling lights and festive decorations, was at the end of the dead-end road.

Jason took my suitcase from the back of his pickup and carried it into the house for me. From somewhere inside, I heard a faint dog bark. I assumed it was Kota.

“Welcome home,” he said, turning the key in the door and sliding it open. The barking became louder as I walked into Jason’s home. The first thing I noticed was a full evergreen tree, decorated for Snowflake Day, with several packages under it. As we walked further into the house, a distinct, citrusy aroma of cinnamon, cardamom and clove tickled my nose.

“It smells amazing in here, Jason,” I said. “What a lovely home.”

“There’s a better view in the back,” he said. “First things first, though.” He took my suitcase and carried it into a small room off the main living area. He swung the door open for me and let me step inside first. There was a rustic, four-poster bed with a feminine floral coverlet and silk draped over the posts. A dresser that resembled Mama and Daddy’s old furniture had random photographs on it, candles, and a vase of artificial pink roses that looked so real, I had to touch them.

“I decorated this for you when I found you in Starlight Shores,” Jason said, “hoping that someday you’d come visit me here.” Well, his confession melted my heart on the spot.

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“I’m so touched,” I whispered. That’s when I noticed the large photograph hanging on the wall. Uncle Caleb took it when I was a little girl; I sat perched atop Jason’s shoulders in the farmhouse back home, with Mama by his side. I remember the day perfectly; a happy, peaceful day filled with love and laughter. Her presence surrounded me in this space. It was the moment that I truly understood what Mama meant to him, and the realization of it broke my heart. I wiped tears away, overwhelmed by the ambience he had painstakingly created for me; he rubbed my back to comfort me.

“I thought it might have been a long time since you’d seen that photo, if you even remembered it at all. It’s one of my favorite memories of Appaloosa Plains.”

“I absolutely remember it. We’d just come home from the summer festival across the street. You bought the cotton candy that Mama had to wash out of my hair.” I giggled at the memory. “She swore she’d never buy it again, but that was the first treat Daddy—” I stopped short, speaking before I considered how mentioning him would affect Jason. “I’m sorry, Jason, I wasn’t thinking.”

He hugged my shoulders. “Hey, it’s okay. I made peace with everything years ago. I always hoped that some day, though, you’d call me Dad.”

Jason had presented me with a quandary. It was true he would have been my stepdad at some point had Daddy never returned home. I thought calling another man ‘Dad’ would feel like I was betraying his memory. But this was not simply another man asking it of me; it was Jason. It was as natural as the sun rising in the east, and setting in the west.

“You would really like that?”

“Destiny, I’d love nothing more. I’ve never had a daughter of my own. You’re as close as I ever got to having an actual family. I’ve always thought of you as mine anyway, even after I left the Plains. I guess,” he took a breath and sighed, “I never really got over losing you…”

I wrapped my arms around him and hugged him as tight as I could. “You never lost me, Dad.”

Well, that was it. With one simple word, I’d caught him unprepared. Jason’s body shook in my arms as I held him. I directed him toward the bed, where we both sat as he continued to weep. After a few minutes, he collected himself.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “You caught me off-guard. As much as I’ve longed to hear you say that, I never expected you actually would.”

“Don’t apologize. I know how much it means to you. Don’t be surprised if I slip up, though. You’ve only ever been Jason to me. It will take some getting used to, but I’d be honored to call you Dad.”

“Are you sure, sweetheart? I don’t want to be an affront to your father’s memory. I know how much you loved him.”

I acknowledged his statement with a nod. “That’s true. But I love you, too. I would never want to erase that part of my past. You were so important to both of us. You have to know how much she loved you.”

“I do, Destiny. I have so many regrets, though. There is much I’d change if I could go back. I know I made her life harder after your dad came home. All I could see was my future slipping away from me, and in my selfishness, I wanted to protect it at any cost. I never meant to hurt her. My only hope is that she forgave my selfishness and stupidity.”

I didn’t know for sure, but telling him my doubts would serve no purpose other than to further wound him. “She did. I’m sure of it. Mama missed you—”

A sharp bark interrupted our conversation; Jason stood and flashed a smile. “I forgot about Kota.” He took my hand and led me from the bedroom. “Come see the rest of the house. We got side-tracked, didn’t we?”

We walked back out into the main living area. There was a smaller chef’s kitchen, and just past it was a dining room with a beautiful craftsman table and chairs. The room flowed to the left, where the living room was situated, furnished with a comfortable sofa and matching living chairs, a stone fireplace, and a decent-sized television. But the show-stopper was the view outside the enormous picture windows.

The house sat directly on the water at the end of the cul-de-sac, meaning his house was surrounded on two sides, and partially the third, by water. With the newly fallen snow, the frozen lake, and evergreen trees enrobed with a white blanket, the scene outside was truly idyllic and peaceful.

He directed me outside to a staircase that led to the second floor. “I’ve been meaning to close this in, but I just haven’t gotten to it yet,” he explained as we climbed the steps. “Eventually, I’d like to make this a loft area. This is my bedroom suite, though the bathroom up here isn’t attached. It’s a long, cold walk in the middle of the night this time of year. I’ve thought about moving downstairs, but Kota loves it up here.” Jason opened his bedroom door to the most gorgeous Australian Shepherd I’ve ever seen. Kota was a blue merle with a stumpy tail, and the bluest eyes I’d ever seen on a dog. “Meet Dakota.”

I crouched to greet an affectionate dog whose whole body wagged when he was happy. He slobbered dog kisses all over my face after giving me the once-over sniff test. “Hi Kota!” I said, giving him pets and hugs. “He must smell Poppy,” I said to Jason. “She’s my rescue cat.”

Jason laughed. “You’re definitely your mother’s daughter. She was always taking special care of the barn cats when she thought I wasn’t looking.”

That was something I didn’t know or remember about Mama. “Really?”

“Yeah, there was this pretty little calico that was born to a female out there. I think if money hadn’t been so tight for her, she’d have brought that kitten inside for you. I’d have encouraged her, and even paid for it, if she’d only wanted it or said she did. I don’t know why Fran never brought her in, because she sure loved that little cat.”

I remembered the cat of which Jason spoke. I knew her as an aloof, but beautiful, mouser with white fur and splotches of brilliant red—almost the same color as my hair—and black smattered on her body. On her face was a black smudge over her right eye, and a smush of that self-same red on her chin. Aside from being striking, she was unapproachable and quite feral. That Mama would have tamed her came as a shock. “I remember her. Mama called her Patches.”

“Yep, she named her when the queen gave birth to her. Patches was always Fran’s favorite barn cat, even after she turned feral. I wish now I would have just brought her inside. It’s a shame you didn’t grow up with a pet.”

“Well,” I said, “we had Sweetie.”

“Yeah, but you can’t sit at night with a horse in your lap.” Jason snickered, watching me play with Kota. “He likes you.”

“He sure seems to!” Kota knocked me backward onto my butt and overtook me, covering me in slobbery dog kisses. “Okay, Kota, I’m done.” I tried to get up, but the oversized puppy insisted I stay on the floor.

“Kota!” Jason called to him, followed by a sharp whistle. The dog went immediately to Jason’s side and sat. “Good boy.”

“Wow, he’s very well trained!”

“He needs to be. Kota watches this house like a hawk, but he needs to follow simple commands when he gets too assertive with someone who is supposed to be here, like you.” Jason reached his hand to me. “Need a hand up?”

“Sure, Dad.” An ear-to-ear grin spread across his face.

We walked down the steps back to the main floor of the house. Together, we cooked a simple meal and sat at the dining room table to eat. I was pleasantly surprised when he took my hand and whispered a prayer before we ate. Mama’s influence on him even now astounded me.

After dinner, I excused myself to call Evie and check on Poppy. When I turned my phone on, I had a message from Ernie. I dialed my voice mail and listened:

Des, it’s Ernie. I just got confirmation from Trice that you’re in for the New Year’s Eve special. We’re booking your show at Mick’s as we speak, which means we will only have a few days to do rehearsals with the band. Let me know as soon as you come home from Twinbrook. We’ll have to be in the studio on Snowflake Day. No rest for the wicked.

I heard him laugh, and he continued.

Okay, call me whenever you can. I need to confirm this ASAP. Congratulations, Des. I told you I’m going to make you a star. I meant it, too. Talk soon.

I hung up the phone and squealed more loudly than I meant to. Jason came running to check on me.

“Are you okay, sweetheart?”

My huge smile gave me away. “I just got the best news!”

“Did you make your phone call yet?”

I wrinkled my nose. “No, not yet. But I had a voice mail from my agent.”

Jason cocked his head. “Agent? When did you hire an agent?”

It occurred to me I hadn’t said a word to Jason about my career. I looked at my watch and back at Jason. “What time do you head to bed these nights?”

Jason scoffed. “I’m a night owl. Always have been, which is why the army was so awful for me back in the day. I’m sensing you have a long story.”

“I do! I can’t wait to tell you, either, if you want to hear it tonight.”

“Let me put on some cocoa, and we can talk all night if you’d like.”

“How about lighting the fireplace? It can be like old times back in the Plains.”

Jason nodded. “Can you handle the fireplace, sweetheart?”

“Of course! I can build a pretty mean fire, if I say so myself!”

“Okay then! We’ll meet in the living room in about ten minutes.”

By the time Jason prepared the cocoa, I had the start of a toasty blaze going in the fireplace. He handed a steamy mug to me and sat on the sofa opposite me. Kota curled up by the hearth, obviously enjoying the warmth. I took a sip and closed my eyes; I recognized Mama’s cocoa recipe. For the short time they were together, Mama was forever ingrained within him.

“So, young lady, tell me all about your agent and your career. Have things gotten better since I was in the Shores?”

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Where did I start? “You could say that. I started attending a little chapel up in the western hills. It didn’t take long for me to join the worship team. Eventually, I was promoted to leader. The morning I debuted three new songs that I’d written, Ernie Gonzales was in the chapel. You know who he is, right?” 

A smile slowly pulled across his face. “Yes. Yes, I do. He’s a big name in entertainment. He’s your agent, sweetheart?!”

I nodded. “I guess he was there to see me, because someone told him about me. Long story short, he signed me after I nailed his audition.”

Jason’s face was beaming with pride. “Discovered at church, huh? I’m sensing there’s more to this story.”

I took another sip of cocoa and nodded. “That was only the beginning. I left the coffeehouse after Ernie took me on as a client; he sent my demo to Aiden Chandler at Soundwave Records…” I paused, watching his face.

Jason sat across from me, his mouth hanging wide open. “Soundwave?! Holy crap, Destiny! That’s amazing! Did you sign a contract with them?”

I wrinkled my nose. “Only for the first song; it was a cheesy pop tune called ‘Love Is A Wave’.”

“That was you?!”

“Yep. It flopped big time. But Ernie didn’t give up on me. I’ll give him credit for that. He wanted me to sing the songs I wrote, not a pop tune that Aiden made me record.”

“So, you’re Destiny Hill? Funny how I never made that connection.”

I took a sip of cocoa and smiled. “I am. You’ll never guess where I got the idea for the stage name.”

“Where?”

“Remember that big old dirt mound in the garden, the one Uncle Caleb made when you restructured the plot?”

“Mmhmm. I remember you, from early morning until dusk, playing on that hill…” Jason grinned. “Oh, I get it. Destiny’s hill. I remember Fran calling it that more than once.”

“Yes! It came to me while I was looking at photographs. I remember Mama being so happy I had a safe place to play, somewhere she could keep a close eye on me.” I hadn’t felt this close to her in years; it was almost as though she lived here with Jason at her side. Her presence was everywhere in his comfortable home.

“So, you have a record with your name on it. I’m so impressed!” He set his mug on the coffee table and moved to stand up. “Just a sec.” He went into a room he used for storage, and came back a few minutes later with an old guitar. “This was mine back in the day. It probably needs new strings, but see if you can’t make it sing. I’d be honored to have a live performance of your first single.”

I blushed a deep red. “You don’t want to hear that awful song, do you? I mean, it’s terrible.”

“Well, if not that one, sing one you wrote, Destiny.”

I picked up his old guitar and strummed it. I laughed, hearing the out-of-tune instrument. Using my voice and nothing more, I tuned the guitar as best I could to its proper pitch. Jason watched, fascinated. “That’s better!” I strummed it once more, playing the first chord of ‘Maybe It’s Better This Way’.

I watched Jason as I sang the song, unaware that his twenty-year-old heartache refreshed with every word that left my mouth. Halfway through the first chorus, I stopped playing and sat silent, deeply sorry I’d chosen to play that song. His shoulders heaved in sorrow, as though he’d lost her all over again. Destiny, you fool, I cursed myself under my breath. “Are you okay?” I whispered.

“You wrote that, Destiny?” he said, wiping tears from his face. I nodded in silence, grieved that I’d caused him such pain. “What caused that kind of emotion? It’s obvious those words came from a deeply personal place. The song is incredible.”

It was a topic I hoped to avoid, but it was inevitable my love life would eventually pop up. “Every man I’ve ever loved, aside from you and Daddy, has been an emotional wrecking ball. Remember my boss from the coffeehouse? He’s the latest in a string of guys who have broken my heart…”

Jason nodded, a solemn look on his face. “Do I need to go mess him up? Because I will, sweetheart. Just say the word.”

“No, it’s okay. Jared has enough problems of his own. He needs to make peace with the choices he’s made, and the things he’s done, but he’s going to do it without me. I’m afraid his depravity is beyond forgiveness, even for me.”

“Wow, Destiny. He really must have screwed up for you to say that.”

“He did.” A familiar lump of emotion rose in my throat. “He’s the worst kind of monster.”

Jason’s jaw clenched; I could see the irritation on his face as I spoke. “He didn’t hurt you, did he?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “But he nearly killed his ex-fiancée in a drunken rage. I couldn’t believe he was the same man I fell in love with. I want nothing more to do with him.”

“I understand. What an awful thing to hear from someone you loved.”

“I know. But I believed all of his lies without questioning. How could I have been so stupid, Dad?”

Jason scooted next to me and hugged my shoulders. “Love does funny things to people, Destiny. I’m relieved you’re not dating him anymore.”

“Never again. My blood ran cold hearing him confess why he beat her up.” I wiped the tears away I’d been trying to contain. “After all of this, my heart is still broken. I loved him for years before I even acknowledged it. It makes me question my judgment, because I suspected none of what he told me.”

“I’m so sorry, princess.” Jason placed a soft kiss on my right temple. “It’s a beautiful song, you know. I’m just sorry that you suffered from the pain that caused you to write it. I wish I could have protected you from it.”

“Well, they say pain causes growth. I could have chosen another song to sing for you, but we released that one a couple of weeks ago. It’s doing pretty well on the charts, too. We debuted at seventy on the top one hundred list, and it’s moving up. I’m pretty happy with it. If we break the top ten, it will have outperformed my highest expectations for it.”

“Have I told you how proud of you I am?”

I smiled at him and laid my head on his shoulder. “Yeah, you have.”

“Well, I’m going to say it again. I’m so proud of all you’ve accomplished under the most difficult circumstances. You’re more like your mother than you realize. You have her raw determination, Destiny. She was the strongest woman I ever knew until I found you again.” He took my hand and squeezed it in his iron grip. “I love you, Princess.”

I squeezed his hand in return, feeling every ounce of love and affection in his simple gesture. “I love you too, Dad.”

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Up Next: Chapter Eight, Part Two, Generation Two


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Spooky Day Teaser

— Destiny —

Ernie and I were in the studio preparing my new song for recording when his secretary, Kerry, brought the mail to him. Tucked inside the pile was an invitation to a Spooky Day masquerade ball in five days. Ernie was perpetually single, but the invitation included a “plus one.” Since I was closest to him in and out of the studio, he extended the invitation to me. 

At first, I wasn’t going to say yes. After all, I’d been put through the wringer with my love life, but I also knew Ernie wasn’t interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with me. We’d go as friends and nothing more. If nothing else, it was an excuse to dress up in a fancy gown, have my hair and makeup done, and have some fun for a change. Spending weeks in the studio was tiring for both of us. 

Ernie read the invitation out loud. “Dress is formal. Everyone must disguise themselves to the best of their ability, wear a masquerade mask of some sort, but,” he laughed and shook his head, “here’s the kicker; speaking is prohibited. The entire night is silent, excluding music, of course.” 

“Is this a normal thing for a masquerade ball, Ernie?”

“To be honest, Des, I don’t know. I’ve never been to one of these before.” 

“Who is throwing this shindig?” I cringed as soon as the word left my mouth. I really needed to stop talking like a hick.

Ernie chuckled at my pickled expression. “Oh, you’re going to love this.”

“Uh oh…” 

“Wanna take a guess?” 

I cringed. “Jeff?”

Ernie smirked. “No, he wouldn’t be caught dead in Starlight Shores. No, it’s none other than Aiden Chandler. At least we know he won’t be asking you to sing.” He gave me a deadpan stare; we both burst out into laughter.

“Wait… if this is a silent party, how do we communicate with other party goers?”

Ernie scanned the invite. “It… doesn’t really say. I guess we’ll find out together, eh?” 

I rolled my eyes. “I guess so.”

*****

The day of the party, I went to the salon to have my hair rinsed with a temporary black dye, my makeup done, and my nails filled. I stopped on my way home to pick up the gown and shoes I’d purchased for the ball, and then went home to prepare for my evening of music and silence. Poppy must not have recognized me, because she hissed and bristled her tail when I walked in the door.

“Poppy, it’s okay. It’s just me.” My voice and scent were familiar to her, so it didn’t take long for her to settle down. I trudged up the steps, noticing the time on the wall clock. Forty-five minutes was more than enough time before Ernie’s limo would arrive to retrieve me.

When I was ready, I walked down the stairs to wait for my ride. I checked my hair and makeup in the mirror before I slipped my mask over my eyes; a horn sounded outside at the end of my driveway. Ernie, like Jared, didn’t know how to be late for anything; I smiled as I said goodbye to Poppy, locked the front door, and walked into the chilly evening air to meet Ernie.

He was standing at the limo, waiting to help me in as I approached. I knew he didn’t really recognize me by the look on his face. “Who is this raven-haired beauty, and what have you done with my red-headed girl next door?”

I blushed fiercely at his compliment. “I guess my plan for total disguise worked!”

“Yeah, if I didn’t know I was at your house, Destiny, I wouldn’t have known it was you. Watch Chandler be taken with you, not knowing who you are.” 

“Psh,” I scoffed. “Even if he did, I’m not interested in that pompous jerk.” I wanted no one but Jared, if he was even still an option. Somehow, I doubted he was. 

We got into the limo together and rode to a mansion in the western hills belonging to Aiden Chandler. The outside architecture was ornate, but garish and overdone. He had spotlights outside the house, making it feel like the huge social event it was. I slipped the mask back onto my face before we walked from the car. 

“I’ll have to introduce us to the host at the door, Des, but let me talk. I’m hoping they’ll explain how communication is done tonight. Though I like the guy, Chandler’s an odd bird.”

“That’s a nice way to say he’s kooky,” I said. Ernie chuckled under his breath before he knocked on the mansion’s front door. A butler dressed in a well-tailored tuxedo answered our call. 

“Welcome, sir, and ma’am. This way, please.” He showed us into a vast foyer, minimally furnished and adorned with festive decor. An old coffin with cobwebs stood at the bottom of a curved staircase, alongside a skeleton dressed in a sexy maid outfit. If that wasn’t creepy, I didn’t know what was. 

We approached a table with a young lady awaiting our arrival. Before her were dozens of place cards and objects that looked like paper ping pong paddles. Each one was printed with a common phrase, but none of them asked questions that needed anything but a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. So that’s how we were to communicate with other ball attendees. It sounded like fun, and I was delighted Ernie asked me to attend with him. 

“Mr. Gonzales and guest, you’re at table three. Each one is marked. You may choose whichever seat is empty at your table. Once you leave this foyer, speaking is prohibited. Do you have any questions?” 

Ernie shook his head. “Just one. How many of these paddles do we need?” 

She gave Ernie a crooked smile. “You each only get one paddle. You’ll need to figure out how to get your message across to another guest if your paddle doesn’t ask the correct question.” 

He rolled his eyes. “This is going to be a pain in the a—”

“Don’t say it!” I said, giggling madly. “I think it will be fun.”

He sighed deeply and turned to me. “Shall we?” he said and offered his arm. 

I nodded in response. 

A six-piece stringed ensemble played festive music in a small alcove. Waiters roamed the grand hall with platters of champagne and hors d’oeuvres while other waitstaff walked around collecting dirty plates and glasses. 

I hadn’t been in the music business for very long, so I didn’t figure I’d know anyone there, even if we could speak to others. I felt shy and a little out of place in such a fancy home, and I silently wondered if I’d ever have a home like it someday. If I did, it wouldn’t be anywhere near this flashy and swanky. 

Ernie and I were together for the first half hour of the party when he found someone he recognized. He excused himself as best he could and left me standing alone. I took a stemmed flute of champagne from a passing waiter and decided to roam around and admire some of the artwork hanging around the hall. A mirror hung amongst the paintings; I gazed into it, stopped dead and stood there, my mouth hanging agape. I didn’t even recognize myself with black hair, crystal blue contact lenses in my eyes, and the masquerade mask. 

The musicians announced the end of their set and took a half-hour break. One of them, a man wearing a top hat and matching gray tuxedo with an ivory scarf, approached me. The musicians were bound to silence as well, except for the leader, who made announcements for Aiden as requested. It was a bit awkward trying to greet someone with no formal introduction. However, my country twang would likely be offputting for an opener, so I was thankful I didn’t have to open my mouth to speak.

I hadn’t looked at my paddle before that moment to find what phrase it had printed on it. On one side, it had a standard question; on the flip side, it had either “yes” or “no.” Mine asked for a dance, with a “yes” printed on the reverse. Soft music played from a wired system within the house. In the eerie quiet of the party, the music’s volume was still rather understated. I gave this gentleman a sheepish grin and showed him my sign. He smiled and nodded in return, placed his glass of champagne on the fireplace mantle and, taking my hand, led me to the dance floor.

On the small parcel of floor around which other guests congregated, the mystery man took me into his arms for a dance. Without speaking a word to one another, it was clear there was chemistry between us. I hadn’t felt anything like it before in my life, but the timing was terrible. Until he told me otherwise, Jared was still my boyfriend.

The soft, classical music was barely audible from speakers set into the ceiling. The mystery man pulled me closer still, his hand on the small of my back. In his arms, it felt like home, but nothing like I’d ever known before. There was comfort there, a warmth I’d been missing since I left Appaloosa Plains. I rested my head gently on his shoulder; he, in turn, rested his head next to mine. His natural, musky scent mixed with his cologne —a delicious woodsy, spicy fragrance— was heavenly on him. Daddy wore something similar on occasion, but I couldn’t remember it smelling quite like this.

We must have spent his entire break together, because when the band leader announced their return, he gestured a smile with a frustrated look. He pointed at the alcove, then his watch, and made a breaking motion with his hands, as though he was snapping something in two. Understanding him to mean that he wished to spend more time together at his next break, I nodded. He gave a ‘thumbs up’ of approval, turned to walk away, and tripped over a chair on his way back to the alcove. I couldn’t help but giggle, excited for the next moments we’d spend together.

Ernie caught up with me about ten minutes later, tugged my arm and pointed to a balcony just beyond a set of French doors. I nodded and followed him outside; the crisp, fresh air was invigorating. He closed the doors behind him and let out a sigh of relief. 

“I know we’re not supposed to talk, but I needed to let off some steam. Des, we need to get out of here. Chandler cornered me in the hallway on my way back from the restroom, and he really ticked me off. Do you mind if we get going?”

No! I thought. “What’s going on?”

“He wanted to talk about you, naturally, because he thinks I’m wasting my time with your music. I told him to mind his own damned business, but of course he won’t. Then he started asking about who I brought tonight, since he clearly didn’t recognize you. Apparently, Des, he was interested. He has a better chance of flying around the moon tonight! Who does he think he is, anyway?!”

My mind went back to the mystery man. If I didn’t see him again tonight, how would I ever know who he was? Ernie was my ride, so I was obligated to leave with him. “Yeah,” I said. “Whenever you’re ready, we can go.” I tried to hide my stinging disappointment. He must have seen it because he patted my back. 

“I saw you dancing with that violinist. You looked like you hit it off.” 

“Any idea who he is?”

“Nah. Chandler likely knows, but getting him to tell me might be a moot point. Let’s just get out of here. We should be at the studio in the morning anyway.” 

I glared at him. “Tomorrow’s Sunday, Ernie. I have church tomorrow morning.”

“Oh, right. Well, it’s a good thing we’re leaving early, isn’t it? We can’t have our little songbird all tired out!”

“It doesn’t matter,” I reminded him. “I stepped down as worship leader a month ago. I can’t keep up rehearsals, singing, song writing and regular attendance with my new schedule. Work, unfortunately, comes first.” I winked at him, a coy grin on my face.

Ernie laughed. “Whaddya mean ‘unfortunately’?!” I side-glanced at him and giggled. “Come on, Des. Let’s get out of here.”

The ride back to my house was quiet, and I spent the time wondering the big ‘what ifs.’ What if this man was the one I was supposed to meet? What if he felt the same about me? Or worse, what if he thinks I left early because I wasn’t interested? The limo dropped me off at the house; though it was pointless, I wished I had a way to get back into the party. I thanked Ernie for a fun evening, walked to the door and unlocked it. Poppy was nowhere to be found.

I dropped my keys into the bowl I kept on Mama’s old side table, kicked off my shoes, and locked the front door. Though we’d only just met, the thought of not seeing this mystery man again gnawed at me. “It’s just an infatuation,” I muttered under my breath as I slipped out of the gown and into my pajamas. I knelt beside my bed to pray, asking God to allow me to see this man at least one more time. My heart needed to know if what I felt with him was real. Would our paths ever cross again? I sincerely hoped so.


— Arthur —

My position as the proprietor at the swanky private club where I worked — and my father’s connections with the Starlight Shores symphony orchestra — sometimes brought opportunities I wouldn’t ordinarily be afforded. It was no surprise to me when Aiden Chandler — the CEO of Soundwave Records — called with a job proposal. He wanted the best six-piece string ensemble in the city to play at a Spooky Day masquerade ball at his mansion in the western hills. If perfection was what Mr. Chandler wanted, he didn’t need to look further than our group. The offer came with generous compensation; after consulting with the guys, I accepted with no hesitation.

The confirmation email arrived a few nights before the ball. I didn’t know Aiden Chandler very well; I worked at a private party the night Soundwave Records introduced a new, up-and-coming artist. That night had been my first and only personal contact with the man. Chandler was well known in town for his music business acumen and his quirky, but entertaining, gatherings at his lavish mansion. The Spooky Day masquerade was no exception. Each guest and employee — myself included — had two rules to follow; the first was to take reasonable care to conceal their true identity, and the second was to refrain from all verbal communication during the party. Only Chandler knew the reasons behind the odd rules, but they were acceptable.

The dress code was formal, so I borrowed one of my father’s many tuxedos. I needed something more suave than my normal performance attire. The one I chose had a top hat that coordinated, though I’d never seen Papà with it on his head. He retired from the orchestra a few years ago, so he seldom wore such finery anymore. On a lucky break, I found a mask at a local shop that coordinated with the tux. 

The night of the party, I drove my sports car to the Chandler mansion, where I was met with a valet. It was something I didn’t expect, being private property and all. I should have, though, seeing as Aiden Chandler was one of the richest men in all of Starlight Shores. I handed the keys to the attendant and walked inside the mansion carrying my violin.

Chandler met with the sextet as a group once we had all arrived. We had just an hour to gather and practice; since we played together regularly, we needed little time. He led us to a small alcove where he’d set up chairs and a microphone for Dave, the group leader, to make announcements.

Once Chandler walked away from us, Dave started to laugh. “This is the weirdest arrangement I’ve ever seen, gentlemen. Who throws a party where there’s no talking?” 

“I know,” Ben said in agreement. “I guess this Chandler guy is eccentric, to say the least.”

“What are we playing tonight? Are we sticking with our original pieces, Dave?” I asked. I pulled the bow and violin from its case and tuned it. The acoustics in the hall were fantastic.

“That’s a yes on the originals, Arthur. We have about half an hour before we need to be set up. Let’s run through some of the shorter ones, just to make sure we’re on the same page.”

There was a certain advantage to having a set group of musicians that always played together. The biggest perk was knowing no matter what the circumstances, we’d be a good fit. We knew each other’s habits, play styles, and quirks. Master cellist Dave was the most outspoken and acted as the group’s leader. Ben, a brilliant cellist in his own right, was the shy one. Lee, one of two viola players, only participated in the group when we needed a sextet. Warren and I played the violin. Rounding out the group was our second viola player, Harry.

Ten minutes before they opened the doors to guests, Chandler dropped by to check everything one last time. He pointed at Dave as he approached.

“Do you have the script for the ball?” he said to Dave.

“Um, yes sir. I understand I’m the only one permitted to speak?” 

Chandler nodded, narrowing his glare at the rest of us. “That is correct, but only to make announcements that are predetermined, and to announce a break. During your breaks, your musicians must not speak to the guests, though they may interact with them. There are six conversation paddles for you. You only get one each, so choose your questions carefully. Any concerns or issues?”

“Um, no sir. W-We understand the rules and are prepared to obey them.” Dave, with good reason, stuttered when talking to our host; Aiden Chandler was an imposing, intimidating chap. 

“Good man,” Chandler said. “We open the doors in five. Begin your first set when you’re ready.”

We all settled down into our seats in the alcove, ready to play the screwiest gig we’d ever worked. The music was nothing famous or well-known, but original pieces we’d composed and practiced together. Guests filed into the great hall where we played, occupying tables that accommodated six guests each.

During one of the movements in our second piece, I noticed a familiar face. One could not mistake Ernesto Gonzales even with a mask. My eyes immediately went to the woman accompanying him; to my great disappointment, she was not the red-headed charmer I’d met twice before. Ernie’s newest client, Destiny Hill, was definitely on my radar. The woman by his side, with jet black hair, a burnt orange, fitted gown, and sparkling blue eyes, was certainly not her. Yet, something drew me to the mysterious lady like a moth to a flame. I couldn’t explain why if I tried. Finally, Warren’s gentle nudge returned my attention to our music. I, however, had a plan for our first break.

Dave called our pause in sets about an hour into the party. By the time I got a paddle, the rest of the guys had already picked them over. My paddle said, “Can I get you a drink?” on one side, and “No” on the other. I suddenly understood why they left it for me. No matter, though. I was determined to connect with the woman who had held my interest since I first spotted her. 

A waiter walked by with a tray of champagne flutes and offered one to me. I nodded my appreciation and took one. This particular vintage was beautifully dry and refreshing on the palate. Feeling confident, I strolled over to where the lovely, dark-haired lady stood. She already had a glass of champagne in her fingers when I approached, so my paddle would render me useless if I depended upon it alone. Perhaps I had flustered her as I walked to her; she smiled at me, her cheeks blushing lightly. 

This was actually when speaking would have been helpful. I wanted to know everything about the beautiful creature standing in front of me. Imagine my delight when she lifted the paddle she held, asking me for a dance. I nodded and placed my nearly empty champagne glass on the fireplace mantle. I took her hand and led her to the dance floor, miniscule as it was. 

Other party guests stood around in awkward silence. Music piped in from a built-in sound system was barely audible even in the quiet of the hall. It might not have been our stringed sextet playing, but the muted melody was still sufficient for a dance. She trembled when I held her close to me, but I couldn’t perceive if it was excitement or dread that caused it. Her perfume, floral and slightly musky, was heady and intoxicating. My hand slipped down to the small of her back, pulling her closer. I couldn’t get enough of her.

I held her as we swayed to the background music, wishing for the moment to last forever. She was so soft and delicate; she melted my heart when she rested her head on my shoulder. I interpreted that as a sign of being comfortable with me. Mine rested near hers, returning the gesture. 

Way too soon, Dave stepped back in front of the mic and announced another music set; that was my cue to go, though I could have held her all night long. I longed to kiss her, but I knew I shouldn’t. With regret, I pulled away from her before I did something so forward, I might get slapped for it. Instead, I tried to communicate the best I could that I’d love to see her on my next break. She giggled at my hand gestures, but I think she understood. I turned to walk away, and tripped over a chair that I swore wasn’t there moments before. This woman had me so flustered and feeling giddy, and I didn’t even know her name. Suddenly, I couldn’t wait for my next break. 

Our next set ran much longer than the first; every new arrangement made me more anxious to see the lovely lady I’d desired to hold again. In my distracted daze, I missed a cue and a couple of measures and cringed at the blatant error. Dave glared at me; I shrugged my shoulders and continued on as though nothing had happened. The guests were none the wiser, not even detecting the mistakes. Perhaps we were simply ambient background noise and nothing more. 

Dave finally announced the end of our set. I placed my violin back into its case and ventured off, sans paddle, on a mission to find the lovely young lady I’d met earlier. A brief visual search turned up empty. Finding her without the privilege of speech was a bit more daunting than I’d hoped. 

I searched high and low, making three circuits around the ground floor of the house when I gave up hope of finding her, at least for now. Ernie had been there, and I knew she had accompanied him. I just needed to hope that they weren’t romantically involved, though I suspected they weren’t. I made a mental note to contact Ernesto Gonzales the first thing on Monday morning. Who was this bewitching, enchanting lady? I had to know, and I was prepared to stop at nothing to find her, with or without his help.

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Up Next: Chapter Eight, Part One, Generation Two


Pose Codes

Lenina90’s Moondance

*****

Photo Credit

Halloween Background by QuinceCreative at Pixabay

Special thanks to Chris for putting the finishing touches on my cover photo. I’m so grateful to you for all you’ve done for this blog. You’re my unsung hero.


Content not listed here is documented on the Custom Content page. Custom content and poses are not my property and are used in compliance with the TOUs.

 

G2 Chapter Seven – The Crucible

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.

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“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.”

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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.”

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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.

“So…”

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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“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 what?”

“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?” 

“Like what?” 

“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.”

“Mmhmm.” 

“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. 

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“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.” 

“Hit me.” 

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.”

“About…?” 

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?”

“No.”

“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.”

“Hold me?”

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.

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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.”

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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.”

“Still?”

“Yeah.”

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.

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G2 Chapter Six – Opportunity Knocks

Fourteen Months Later

Summer in the city was so much different from what it was back home in the Plains. In my youth, it meant playing outside in the dirt pile just on the border of Mama’s garden. To a girl of four, it sat like a mountain. Funny that as I grew, the “mountain” shrunk, but it was never small enough to be considered anything less than a hill.

I recall it clearly, as though the conversation was just yesterday instead of nineteen years ago. 

“What do you think, Desi?” Mama said. “I thought you’d like to play on it while I work in the garden.”

I remember being so excited. A place to play with my toy horses and dolls. It was the perfect combination of dirt, sand, and grass torn up and taken root in splotchy patches all over the mound. “I play here?” I asked.

“I made it for you, sweet pea,” she said. “It’s your hill. It’s Destiny’s hill.”

“Wow!” my four-year-old self squealed. “My hill! Desi hill!” I couldn’t get my toys outside fast enough. 

I spent entire summers soaking in the bathtub after a day’s play, covered head to toe in dirt and silt. Who needed the beach when I had Destiny’s hill in my own backyard? The memory made me smile, sitting at the desk of the biggest, most successful talent agent in town; Ernesto Gonzales. 

“Have you decided on a stage name Destiny?” he asked.

I nodded, a broad grin on my face. “I have.”

*****

Two Months Before

Following Daddy’s timely advice, I began singing around town. Wherever people gathered, I played for tips, but I avoided the park like the plague. Each time I’d been there for a festival, the same group of bullies dominated the front stage area at Verde Park. I had no desire for a repeat performance.

Leading worship at the chapel became a regular thing. When Tanya and her husband discovered they were expecting their first child, she stepped down as worship leader and appointed me in her place. I didn’t feel worthy of such a responsibility, but it gave me the opportunity to use some ‌songs I’d written as a teenager and compose new ones to sing. 

The Saturday evening before I would debut my first original songs, Stephen and I sat at our favorite pizzeria, combing through each musical arrangement for flaws. Though we couldn’t change much—as we’d rehearsed the songs for months—I still wanted to make sure they were perfect. We sat at our usual table near the karaoke stage, nibbling on pizza and sipping sweet tea.

“What are you so worried about, Destiny? The songs are fantastic, and the congregation will love them. I guarantee it.” Stephen patted my hand and smiled. “I know you’re anxious. Worship leaders use new music all the time.”

“But they don’t write their own stuff, Stephen. This is all my original work. What if they flop?” 

“Would you relax?” he said with a chuckle. “There is a reason Tanya promoted you to worship leader, Destiny. Besides, Pastor Tim adores you. He credits you with the chapel’s growth, you know.”

I blushed as red as the checkered cloth on the table. “You flatter me, sir.” 

“Nope. There’s nothing insincere about my compliments. You deserve everything you’ve achieved since you’ve been attending the chapel.”

Stephen poured another sweet tea for me from the pitcher and topped off his glass. As he set it down, the karaoke jockey called for the next singer. “Destiny. Well, that’s a pretty name. Where’s Destiny?”

Screenshot-168 I looked at Stephen like a deer in bright headlights. “What did you do?” His sly grin said everything.

“I snuck your name in while you were fretting over the songs. I thought it would do you good to show off a little.” 

“Thanks… Thanks a lot.” I glared at him as I stood. “I’m Destiny,” I announced. 

“Come on up, darlin’,” the KJ said. “You’re going to sing Katie Price’s ‘Baby, One More Time?’”

I nodded, then shot a dirty look at Stephen. “Sure…?” I shrugged. In my peripheral vision, he was laughing his head off. I gritted my teeth as I took the microphone. 

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I didn’t even need to watch the lyrics on the screen. I’d sung this song so often, the words rolled right off my tongue, in tune and with faultless pitch. Even I had to admit I killed it. When the song was over, everyone in the restaurant was on their feet cheering my name. Stephen sat at our table, beaming with pride. I waved, gave a sheepish grin to the crowd, and took my seat at our table. 

“I didn’t expect that,” I said. My cheeks once again matched the red in the checkered linens on the table. But inside, I was about to burst at the seams. It felt so good; no, it felt euphoric. I was flying on cloud nine in my ‌own ‌little world when Stephen’s gentle nudge on my shoulder brought me out of the stratosphere.

“Destiny!” He couldn’t contain his contagious laughter. “What do I keep telling you? You’re going to get noticed someday if you keep singing in public.” 

I pointed at the ceiling and shifted my gaze upward. “From your mouth to His ears, Stephen.” 

“Amen!”

*****

That night, I barely slept at all. Poppy was restless—I imagined she was reactive to my nervous energy—and her fidgeting didn’t help my nerves one bit. Every hour that passed was another opportunity to find fault with the songs we’d sing later that morning. I was moments away from scrapping the whole thing when my alarm sounded. 

“Alright, I’m up,” I growled at the clock, as though it were a sentient being instead of an inanimate object. Poppy didn’t stir as I flopped out of bed and stumbled toward the bathroom to shower. 

The warm water felt good, so I stood there longer than I should have, singing and warming up my voice. The acoustics in my bathroom were incredible; I could almost set up a recording studio in it. 

I wrapped up in my robe and walked back to the bedroom. Poppy was awake and grooming herself; when she saw me, she trilled and jumped down to rub against my ankles. “Is it breakfast time, sweetheart?” I bent down to scratch her head. My question was answered with loud meows and my resulting laughter. 

I walked down the steps with Poppy at my heels, her trills and cute little mews breaking the early morning silence. She waited, weaving through my legs impatiently, while I opened a can of food for her and spooned it into her bowl. While I prepared her breakfast, I started the coffeemaker, too. My first cup was brewed by the time Poppy’s meal was ready. I placed her bowl on the floor and padded into the living room to sit by the barren fireplace. 

Outside, the weather was blustery. I knew the forecast called for rain overnight, and Mother Nature didn’t disappoint. There was thunder in the distance, likely a storm coming in off the coast. I was happy I’d gotten my shower in before the lightning arrived. Poppy jumped onto the loveseat and took her place on my lap while I sipped my coffee. 

After my last mouthful, I plodded back upstairs to dress for church. My closet was filled with my clothes and some of Mama’s old dresses. I picked through the wardrobe, searching until I found an outfit that Mama wore to church years ago. The ensemble was perfect; a blue skirt with a leather belt and a matching sweater. She and I wore the same size, which was quite handy. Her pretty clothes were hardly used, some of them still with tags on them. At home, Mama almost always wore a pair of jeans and a shirt with her boots. 

The outfit lay on my bed while I sat at my makeup table. A smoky blue color shaded my eyes, with gray eyeliner, a cool color blush on my cheeks, and a warm, coral lip tint. Poppy sat on the floor watching with great interest until a moth in the window caught her attention. I pulled my hair back into a ponytail and secured it with a pink scrunchy. A few shorter strands of hair formed bangs. I wrinkled my nose as I tried in vain to tuck them into my hairstyle. No, Destiny, I thought. It will not happen today. Before I left the bedroom, I took Daddy’s prayer book from my nightstand and slipped it under my arm. 

My purse and keys sat on the side table near the door, so on my way downstairs, I stowed the book inside my bag. My song journal already stuck out of it; I really needed a bigger purse. I made the rounds to make sure everything was turned off and out of Poppy’s reach before I left her alone for the morning. She’d nap while I was gone, and then greet me at the door when I came home. If everything went like I imagined it would, I’d need her to cheer me up. 

The car sat in the driveway, slightly crooked. I wasn’t even drinking last night, and that’s how I parked it? “Maybe I should have had a glass of wine,” I muttered under my breath. I might have slept better, too. I opened the door and hopped into the driver’s seat. The engine fired with the turn of my key; I shifted into reverse and backed out into the street, headed toward the church in the western hills of Starlight Shores. 

Fifteen minutes later, I parked the car in the lot behind the church and walked through the back entrance. Just inside, another door led me upstairs to an all-purpose room the church used for just about everything. Stephen was on the sofa reading his prayer book when I opened the door. His bright smile put my jittery heart at ease like nothing else could have. He stood and walked to me, wrapped me in a hug, and kissed my cheek.

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“You look like you’re scared to death,” he said and hugged me tighter. “I promise you, everything will be fine.” 

Though Stephen and I had reviewed the songs until we were bleary-eyed, I doubted them. It was an enormous leap of faith to trust my instinct and his encouragement. It was too late to change the song list. Everything was ready to go, except for me; I was a nervous wreck.

“You’re as cool as a cucumber. Meanwhile, I feel sick.” I wiped my clammy hands on Mama’s skirt. “Are you sure those songs are good enough?”

He squinted at me and cocked his head. “I wish you’d have just a little more self-confidence, Destiny. You’re so much better than you give yourself credit for.”

“Thank you for your faith in me, Stephen. You’re the only reason I haven’t scrapped everything. I trust your opinion.” 

Stephen took my hand and squeezed it. “My opinions are solid gold. And so are you.”

One by one, other members of the worship team entered the common room, each of them giving me a pep talk and telling me how excited they were to play the new songs. Unexpectedly, Pastor Tim opened the door, wearing a wide grin. He seldom involved himself with the worship team; he spent most of his time in the chapel, meeting and greeting churchgoers downstairs. 

“Destiny,” he said, “I’ve been hearing great things about the musical selection for this week. I understand they’re your original songs? Stephen tells me they’re amazing.” 

I blushed and hid my face in my hands. “What you’ve heard is true, but I’ve been having doubts about—”

“Well, don’t. Church attendance is up twenty-five percent since you’ve become worship leader, Destiny. We might need to add a second service if we don’t stop growing! I’ve watched you blossom every week. Your ability to touch people with your voice is a gift from above, and I’m so happy you’re blessing us with it.” Pastor Tim hugged me and then stepped back. “I know you’ll succeed out there today.”

“Thank you,” I whispered with humble gratitude. He gathered the worship team around me; all of them laid hands on me while Pastor Tim prayed for us. 

“You’ve got this, Destiny. Make me proud.” He patted my shoulder once more and gave me a ‘thumbs up’ as he walked from the common room.  

Stephen and I walked together down the steps on the right side of the stage. The musicians filed in and descended the stairs that would lead them onto a riser behind the main stage. Stephen, a guitarist/vocalist named Frank, Tanya, Jorge, and I, would all be on the main stage. Everyone followed my lead; on my signal, we moved together into the packed auditorium. 

Behind us on the back wall sat two monitors that would display the song lyrics for the congregation to follow along. I noticed the first song was ready for us ahead of our arrival on stage. Darren sat at his drum set and watched for my signal. He tapped out four beats on his sticks, and the band played the first notes of the songs. It’s go time, I thought. Fake it till you make it.

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I couldn’t watch the audience for the first few lines of the first song. My eyes were closed while I concentrated on the words I knew by heart. When we reached the chorus, I noticed the congregation singing along with us. My heart soared! They loved the music! Stephen, that wonderful, lovable scoundrel, was right again. As usual, I was worried about nothing.

After services were over, a man—I guessed he was a little older than me—approached me. I recognized him immediately, though I didn’t recall seeing him in the sanctuary. It was Ernesto Gonzales, the biggest talent agent in town! A serene smile wore on his face as he drew near.

“Well, well,” he said, stepping onto the stage. “The rumors are absolutely true, I see.” 

“I beg your pardon?” I looked around to see if anyone else was near. 

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“I heard the buzz around town; a young lady of extraordinary talent who sings at the chapel in the western hills. I had to come see it for myself.” He reached for my hand to shake it, then chuckled at my bewildered expression. “Ernesto Gonzales. And you are?”

“Destiny Farmer.” His grip was firm, almost painful. My heart pounded in my chest, and my mouth suddenly felt like a desert. “I know who you are, Mr. Gonzales.”

“Destiny, I’m going to get right to the point. You’re an amazing entertainer, not only with your voice, but in how you command your audience. Anyone can sing well, in my opinion. But not everyone has what I call the ‘It Factor’. You have loads of potential. Would you be interested in doing a formal audition at the studio this week?”

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I couldn’t believe my ears. What?! “I-I’d love to!” I cringed right after I said it. The last thing I wanted was to sound desperate. “I mean, I’d be honored.”

He snickered and handed me his business card. “Give my office a call to schedule it whenever it’s convenient for you.”

It was difficult to contain my excitement, but I tamped it down long enough to speak. “Thank you, Mr. Gonzales.”

“Please, call me Ernie. We’ll be on a first name basis once we’re working together.”

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I acknowledged his request with a simple nod. “Ernie it is.” We shook hands one last time before he left me standing in front of the chapel, dumbfounded.

Stephen watched the exchange from a few feet away, and he couldn’t wait to hear what had transpired. He walked toward me with a huge grin on his face. 

“Was that who I think it was, Destiny?” 

I played dumb, just to be coy and puckish. “That depends. Who do you think it was?” 

“Ernie Gonzales is my first guess.” 

“Great guess!” I laughed. “He wants to see me this week for an audition, Stephen. He gave me his card!” I flashed Ernie’s card in front of Stephen’s eyes; he plucked it from my fingers and perused it. 

“Impressive! I know people who would kill to get their hands on one of these business cards.” He watched as I swallowed hard, then he winked. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep you safe.” He held the card over my head. I laughed while I jumped for it, snatching it back from his grasp.

“Gee, thanks!” He held his arms open for a hug; mine wrapped around him. Stephen stood strong and held me to him.

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“See? I told you!” he playfully teased me. “I’m so happy for you, Destiny. No one I know deserves this chance more than you do.” Stephen set me down on my feet. I hadn’t even realized I was hanging off of him.

“Thank you.” My thoughts went directly to Mama and Daddy; I wiped away the few tears that pooled and threatened to trickle down my face.

Stephen noticed, looking into my eyes. “Why are you sad? This is such an exciting time for you!”

“I wish my daddy and mama were here for this moment. We all wanted it so much.”

“That’s understandable. But I can assure you, Destiny, that they’ve never been prouder of you.” Stephen planted another kiss on my cheek. “Just like I am.” 

My face flushed a deep red. “Thank you, Stephen. You’ve had faith in me when I had none. I hope you know how special you are to me.”

“Of course, and you’re just as special to me, too. Why don’t we go to lunch to celebrate? My treat.”

How could I say no to that? “I’d love to.”


The weather was cooler than usual the next morning; the overcast skies remained from the previous day, trapping the dark, dank feeling in the city beneath the gray clouds. My alarm clock woke me at 4:00 AM. Poppy was already awake, ready to say good morning with her customary head butt and a sandpaper kiss on my nose. I never minded her grooming me, but a raspy lick on my face first thing in the morning was just the encouragement I needed to slip out from under the covers.

“Good morning, Poppy,” I said to her and scratched her chin. Her head nuzzled into my hand, trying to get the maximum amount of attention before I stood. She flopped over onto her back and bared her tummy for me to pet. Funny, she was the first cat I’d ever met that didn’t mind a belly rub. Her rumbly purrs always set the mood for a happy day.

I walked into the bathroom and ran the water for a shower. Though the warmth of the shower felt amazing, I stayed only as long as I needed, then stepped out onto the bath mat. I grabbed my plush robe and tied it around my waist, then gave my teeth a quick brush, gathered my wet hair into a ponytail, and turned out the light.

Poppy escorted me down the steps, talking to me the entire way. How did I ever survive without her company? I filled her bowl with kibble, prepared cereal for myself, and we sat together eating breakfast, albeit hers was served on the floor. I’d have my coffee at the shop when I arrived, which reminded me—I needed to tell Jared my news about Ernie. What would he think? I wasn’t sure, especially if it threatened my job at the coffeehouse.

If the weather had been clearer and less drizzly, I’d have walked to work. But I’d already taken a shower; I surely didn’t need another, colder one. I picked Poppy up and cuddled her, gave her a kiss on the head, and put her down at my feet. 

“Watch the place while I’m gone,” I said, as though she could understand me. I knew she’d go upstairs and watch the world outside the window from her perch, and fall asleep in the first sunbeam that found its way through the cloudy skies that morning. “See you soon, little one.” I grabbed my car keys and my purse and opened the door that led to the garage. 

Jared was already at the coffeehouse when I turned my key in the door. I swear he lived there‌. “Good morning!” I greeted him. “I thought you were coming in later?”

“Evie asked to switch shifts with me last night. Something with her mom.” He shrugged. “Who knows?”

“Oh.” 

He studied my face. “Is something wrong, Des?” 

I exhaled a deep sigh. “Yes, and no. It’s nothing.” 

He held in his hand the coffee drink he had crafted and walked to a nearby table; he pulled the chair out, turned it around backward and sat, patting the seat next to him. “Whatever it is doesn’t seem like ‘nothing’. What’s on your mind?” I sat at the table, my hands folded in front of me, mostly to keep them out of my hair. I still struggled with that nervous tic; it drove me crazy most of the time.

“Something happened at the chapel yesterday. I’m not sure what you’ll think of it.” 

“It couldn’t be that bad. I mean, it’s church after all. Just tell me.” 

“You know Ernie Gonzales, right?” 

He nodded and took a sip of his coffee. “Of course. What about him?” 

I took a deep breath and exhaled. “He was at the chapel yesterday, Jare.”

I watched as a smile swept across his face. “And…?” 

“He was there to see me. Apparently, there’s some scuttlebutt around town about some young lady of so-called extraordinary talent who sings at the chapel in the hills.” 

“Des, I’m dying over here. What did he say?!”

“Well, he wants me to do a formal audition some day this week…” I cringed, waiting with my eyes squeezed shut for Jared’s grunt of disapproval. Through one peeking eye, I caught his glowing smile.

“That’s fantastic news! I’m so happy for you!” His reaction was unexpected, though I wasn’t sure why. I knew how he felt about me, and that he always had my best interests at heart.

“Really?”

“Of course! I know how much you’ve wanted that break. Maybe this time, you’ll catch it.” He took my hand and squeezed it. “When does he want to see you?”

“Well, he said when it’s convenient for me, but I’m on the schedule all week.” I wrapped a strand of hair from my ponytail around my finger and flicked it. Nervous tic-1, Destiny-0. 

“Mondays are usually busiest, so probably not today. But any other day this week, we can work schedules around so you can get out of here.”

“I don’t want to be an inconvenience, Jare. I mean, you still have a business to run. Are you certain?”

“Yes, I’m positive. Go audition. You’ll excel there, just like you have here. But I’ll miss you.”

“I haven’t resigned yet!” I laughed. “You won’t get rid of me that easily, either. This isn’t a sure thing, you know. It’s just an audition.” Jared nodded, but had a weird, almost sad expression. “I’ll call on break and set up my appointment. Then I’ll let you know when I go.”

“Fair enough,” Jared said, glancing at his watch. “Are you ready for the morning rush?”

My gaze shifted to the waiting throng of people outside the door. “As ready as I’m going to be. Let ‘em in!”

At break time, I made a caramel macchiato and sat in the back room, my phone clutched in my hand. With this call, my life could change forever. Was I truly ready to grab the reins and take the ride of a lifetime? I dialed the number into my phone and pressed Send. A friendly voice answered my call.

“Gonzales Talent Agency, this is Kerry.”

“Hi Kerry, my name is Destiny—”

“Ooh!” she exclaimed. “Mr. Gonzales wanted me to let him know when you called. Just a moment.” The phone went silent, and then the music on hold played. Thirty seconds later, Ernie’s voice was on the other end of the phone. 

“Destiny! I’m so happy to hear from you. Look, I know your time is valuable, so I’ll get right to my point. I’ve reserved thirty minutes of studio time for you to sing your best song. It could be anything you’re comfortable singing. Now is your time to shine. How does 2:00 PM today sound?”

“I don’t mean to be trouble, but today doesn’t work for my schedule. I’m currently employed at the Flying V, and I’m working until close tonight.” 

There was a silence on the other end of the phone. Ernie cleared his throat. “You know, that’s not a problem. When’s better for you?”

“Let’s shoot for Wednesday around 3:00 PM. Is that suitable?” Giving Jared more than a day’s notice would certainly help him ‌cover my absence.

“Wednesday it is!”

“Do I need to bring—”

“Nope!” Ernie said, interrupting my question. “Just bring yourself and that perfect voice. We have instruments if you need them, or you can sing a cappella.”

“If you have an acoustic guitar, that would be great,” I said.

“I will arrange it.” Though I knew where his office was located, he rattled off the address of the building. “We’re on the twenty-first floor. You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you, Ernie. I’ll see you on Wednesday—” The call cut off in the middle of speaking, and without a proper end. It was odd, but Ernie seemed a bit on the eccentric side. I had a weird feeling I’d need to adjust to his quirks, and that was okay with me.

I washed my hands and walked back out behind the counter. “You’re okay to take a break if you’d like, Jare.” Instead of leaving, he followed me out to the coffee machine.

“So?! How’d it go? Come on! I need info! You’re not being very forthcoming!” Jared stood with his arms crossed, feigning indignation. The expression he wore made me giggle. 

“Patience!” I mock scolded him. “Good things come to those who wait.”

He groaned, rubbing his face with his hands. “Don’t make me fire you.” 

“Psh,” I scoffed. “You need me too much to fire me.” 

“Don’t test me!” Jared crossed his arms and tapped his foot, pretending to be annoyed.

“Okay, okay!” I laughed. “Wednesday, three o’clock. Is that okay?”

His demeanor softened. “Thank you for giving me some time to finesse the schedule. Maybe I won’t have to work an OC.” He meant an open to close—a fourteen-hour shift—something Jared had done way too many times. The long hours were what he called an occupational hazard. 

“That’s why I did it on Wednesday.”

“Evie owes me a big favor after today.” Jared sighed and shrugged his shoulders. “I need a vacation, Des, likely before Ernie takes my star employee. Wouldn’t you think so?”

I cringed. There it was; the pain my departure would cause. I knew it would come out eventually and drape a scratchy burlap shawl of guilt over my shoulders. “I don’t have to go to that audition, you know.”

“Yes, you do! Don’t worry about me. Besides, you and I will always be friends. You said so yourself, right?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Then don’t make me drag you kicking and screaming to that audition!” 

That made me laugh out loud.


Wednesday Afternoon

“I’m here, Des,” Evie called out, walking through the coffeehouse’s front door. “Go knock ‘em dead.” She caught me in the dining room wiping down tables; I looked at the wall clock. Noon?

“You’re… early.” 

“Jared and I decided you should go get ready for your audition at home.” She waved as she walked back to the break room; Jared stood behind the counter, beaming.

“When were you going to tell me this?” I teased, standing with my hands on my hips.

“Now…?” He laughed; I threw at him the rag I had in my hand and giggled. 

“You’re being way too cooperative, you know that, right?”

“Oh, don’t worry, Des. I intend to fight for you when the time comes.” He chuckled, but looked away. “I know it’s a fight I’m going to lose, but I won’t stand in your way, either. No one deserves this opportunity more than you. You realize that, right?”

I blushed a fiery red and nodded. “Thanks, Jare. I’ll come back later and let you know what happens.” 

“Psh,” he huffed. “Take the day and relax. I’m expecting your resignation tomorrow, anyway.” 

I took his hand and pulled him closer to me. “Hey… you’re not getting rid of me that fast. And even if I don’t work here, that means nothing for us.” I reached up to caress his cheek, staring into his hazel eyes. “Nothing.”

He gulped a breath; I never noticed he wasn’t breathing. “You promise?” 

With a gentle smile, I nodded. “You have my solemn vow.” I gave him a quick hug and a peck. “Thank you for letting me do this. I owe you one.” 

In an instant, Jared’s gloomy expression fell away, replaced with mischief and a bright grin. “Yes, you do!” We both laughed, but we realized, too, that the audition would change things. “You’re in my prayers, Des. Break a leg.” 

Why his statement brought tears, I couldn’t say. But I took his hand and squeezed it, unable to speak beyond the lump in my throat. No more words needed to be said. Instead, I flashed him a “thumbs up,” grabbed my purse, and left the coffeehouse.

At home, I jumped into the shower to wash the coffee aroma from my hair. Poppy sat on the toilet waiting for me to emerge from the stall. I opened the door and grabbed the towel that hung on the hook; Poppy trilled and rubbed her fur on my wet skin, followed by her raspy tongue on my leg. I giggled and hopped away from her. 

“I think I can dry myself, thank you!” I said, laughing. She reached up to my hand, begging for a chin scratch. And I, like a total sucker, obliged her. I sure loved that little cat.

I primped, applying makeup and styling my hair. I decided on an elegant updo, something I didn’t normally do with my hair. With enough hair spray, mousse, and the patience of a saint, I achieved my desired look. 

I raided my closet, looking for an appropriate dress. This was the most important audition of my life; I needed to look my best. Half my closet lay on my bed when I found one that Mama used to wear. Yes! I thought. This is the one. 

The dress was just below my knees, not unlike the bulk of Mama’s pretty things. The pattern was a green floral with a self-same patterned belt around the midsection. It fit me beautifully, as though it had been made just for me. It slipped on over my head, covering the lingerie that I normally wore under my gown. I stepped in front of the full-length mirror that once sat in Mama and Daddy’s bedroom and admired the reflection I saw.

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“Good enough, I guess,” I whispered. One last fix with my hair, and reapplication of lip gloss, and I was ready to go.

Poppy met me at the bottom of the stairs, wending her way through my steps. She had a keen sense of awareness, always knowing when I had something going on. I stooped to pet her head, grabbed my keys, and slung my purse over my shoulder. 

“I’ll be home before you know it, sweet girl. Wish me luck!” 

The car was in the driveway, so I walked out the front door and locked it behind me. With shaky hands, I opened the door and slumped into my seat behind the wheel. If ever I needed Daddy to show up in a big way, it was now. I started the engine and let it idle while I folded my hands, my eyes lifted to the heavens.

This is it, Daddy, the day we’ve all waited for. It’s “my make it or break it” moment, and I need you with me. Everything we’ve wanted comes down to this audition. I hope I continue to make you proud of me. I love you and Mama so much.

While I had my mind in the right place, I whispered a quiet prayer. Suddenly, I wished Stephen was with me for moral support. 

Twenty minutes later, I parked in the lot behind the building where Ernie’s office was located. I double-checked his business card and the address on the building. “Yep, this is it,” I said to myself. I took a deep breath and opened the car door. 

The building’s lobby was luxurious; marble floors, textured paint on the walls, and brass light fixtures hung from the ceiling. In front of the elevator, a young man sat behind a desk. He stood when I approached him.

“You’re here to see Mr. Gonzales?” he asked. I nodded, about to speak, when he opened the elevator door for me. “He is waiting for you. Top floor, Miss Farmer.”

“Thank you…?” The recognition flustered me. I stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for the highest floor; twenty-one. I spent the entire ride talking myself up, trying to shake off the inevitable nerves.

Moments later, the elevator opened into a lobby, decorated in warm tones and contemporary furniture. A lady sat at the desk just outside an office door; I assumed it was Ernie’s office. She looked up from her computer when the elevator opened, smiling at me. 

“You must be Destiny. Have a seat. I’ll let Mr. Gonzales know you’ve arrived.” I couldn’t believe the personal attention I was getting here. Was Ernie really that impressed? I sat by the window and observed the city from the twenty-first floor. I was so lost in daydreams that Ernie startled me. HIs booming voice made me jump a foot.

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“Destiny! There you are!” He was genuinely happy to see me sitting there. He walked to where I sat and gave my hand a vigorous shake. I stood and blushed.

“Hi, Ernie,” I squeaked out, my mouth suddenly dry. 

“Come on in.” He walked to his office door and held it open, allowing me to pass through. “Superstars first!” he said with a chuckle, and then turned to his secretary. “She is my next ‘big thing’, Kerry, mark my words. Please hold my calls.”

She gave him a smile and winked at me. “If Ernie says it, it must be true! Welcome aboard, Destiny.” Kerry waved as I stepped through the door into Ernie’s office.

I wasn’t sure what I expected his office to look like, but it was nothing like what I’d imagined. Instead of wood paneling on the walls, there were light bricks, a couple of gold albums, and posters of their current clients. He directed me to have a seat at his desk; when I turned around, I glimpsed at an enormous poster. What the…? Ernie must have seen my distraught expression.

“Is there something wrong, Destiny?” 

“Did you sign…?” I pointed at the poster on the wall—The Rock J Experience. I couldn’t bring myself to finish my question. Wherever I went, there was Jeff with that pompous smirk!

Ernie laughed. “Oh, them. No, no, I haven’t been able to hook ol’ hardnose Jeffery Dean, despite my best efforts. Something about having ‘bad blood’ in the Shores. Personally, I think he is headed for a fall. He’s one cocky S.O.B.” I couldn’t wipe the smirk off my face, delighted someone else shared my opinion. “Enough about them. Let’s talk about Destiny. Where are you from? I know it’s not around here with that drawl.”

Argh! This accent, I swear, is going to be the death of me! I swallowed the renewed anxiety his comment brought, cleared my throat, and wrung my hands in my lap out of Ernie’s view. “I’m from a small town called Appaloosa Plains. It’s about two hours by airplane, a little south and west of here. Ever heard of it?” 

Ernie shook his head. “No, I haven’t. How small of a town is it?” 

“Its population was about five hundred when I left years ago. I can’t imagine it’s gotten much bigger. The township is mostly agricultural, except for the military base where my daddy was stationed all his life. My folks owned the farm where my mother was born; she was a third generation farmer.”

He crossed his arms and sat back in the chair. “Interesting! So, farm life wasn’t for you, huh?” I was about to speak when he continued. “What brings you to Starlight Shores, my dear? Why not Bridgeport?”

I smiled, thinking of Daddy and Mama. “I’ve wanted to sing since I was a little girl, and living in Starlight Shores has been my dream from my earliest memories. My folks did the best they could to encourage me, but their livelihood was back on the farm. My mother couldn’t leave the Plains and her birthright.”

Ernie scratched his chin. “So from a tender age, you’ve desired fame and fortune?” 

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“No,” I said. “It’s much more than that. Money has never impressed me, and fame can be fickle. Understand, Ernie, that music is my one true passion. I want to sing because I can’t envision myself doing anything else. I desire to make a difference, to affect people on an emotional level.”

He folded his arms across his chest and leaned back in his chair. “That is probably the best answer I’ve ever gotten from a potential client, Destiny. It’s pure, almost altruistic. So, do you sing mostly covers of other musicians’ material?”

“I write my own songs and music. Every song I sing in public, though, is a cover. I don’t want to sing my original songs until I can record them myself.”

“I understand the songs you sang at the chapel were your originals. Is that true? I’d never heard church music like that before.” 

I nodded and smiled. “They were. I am always writing songs, including the three that debuted on Sunday. My friend helps me to tweak them until they’re almost perfect.” I blushed and looked away. “I was nervous they’d flop, to be honest. With new material, you never know how it’s going to go.” 

Ernie nodded in agreement. “I have to admit, it takes guts to debut one new song in church, let alone three of them. They were astounding, Destiny. The crowd obviously loved them, too.”

“Thank you.” I didn’t know what else to say. Compliments always flustered me. Ernie seemed to sense this and changed subjects with his next question.

“Do you have any siblings? What was life like for a young Destiny Farmer? Tell me about your folks.”

I paused a moment, thinking of how to begin. “I’m an only child. My mama and daddy waited a long time to have me, so when I was born, I was their miracle. Mama worked the farm and ran a produce stand at the farmer’s market every year. Daddy was in the army and retired after his final deployment. Appaloosa Plains was really a great place to grow up, but it wasn’t where I wanted to spend my life. I’m more like my father in that respect. We had a shared case of wanderlust.”

“I can tell by your expression that you are close to them. Are they still in your life?”

“No,” I said. “They both passed away after my eighteenth birthday. I’ve been on my own since.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that, Destiny. You’re obviously resilient and mature beyond your years.”

“Thank you, Ernie. It was rough for a few years. But I know what I want, now more than ever. It’s time for me to pursue my dreams.”

“I agree with you. You’ve told me all I really need to know about you.” He stood and motioned toward a different door. “It’s time for me to meet the real Destiny Farmer. Are you ready?” 

I swallowed all my fear and apprehension. On shaky legs, I stood with him. “I’ve never been more ready for anything in my life.” Just keep repeating that in your head until you believe it, Des, I thought. 

Ernie showed me into his personal recording studio. It was nothing like what I expected. This was cozy and warm, with rugs, fly cases, music stands, and assorted instruments behind a wall of windows. The control room sat adjacent. 

He opened the door to the studio, allowing me to enter first. “There is a headset you can use here.” He reached up and retrieved it, handed it to me, and smiled. “Do you need anything else to be comfortable?” 

I gawked around the room with wide eyes. My surroundings here made me feel immediately at ease. “No, this is wonderful. Thank you.” He gave me a ‘thumbs up’, walked into the control room, and settled down behind the soundboard.

His voice boomed over the speaker inside the studio. “Can you hear me okay?” he asked. I nodded and picked up the guitar, put the strap around my neck, and checked the tuning on it. “Strum your guitar and let me see how the sound comes through on your end.” I did as he asked, and then his voice came back. “Sounds great! Whenever you’re ready, Destiny.” 

I plucked the guitar strings, playing the opening tune for “Maybe It’s Better This Way.” I was certain Ernie would love it. Every little sound in the room echoed in the headset; my nervous breathing aside, it sounded amazing.

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The acoustic arrangement of the song was simple but effective; it allowed me to showcase the lyrics and my voice. I drew from the hurt I felt the night I wrote it and let the emotion pour from my soul. My voice quivered on the last chorus; the guitar’s final chord reverberated through the studio until it faded to quiet. I sniffled and then looked at Ernie’s beaming face on the other side of the glass.

“Holy hell, Destiny. That was… did you write that one yourself? You were incredible.”

Hearing his compliments made me feel shy. “I did.” 

“I recorded this session to make a demo. I have connections in the recording industry here in town. Do you mind if I talk to my buddy over at Soundwave Records? He needs to hear this as soon as possible.”

Soundwave Records was the biggest name in the music business. I was dumbstruck. “Um… yeah,” was all I could mutter. A fog settled around the edges of my vision; at once, I felt lightheaded and dizzy. I had to get the guitar off my neck before I passed out and damaged it. 

Ernie noticed me teetering and sprinted to my side. A folding chair sat along the wall; in seconds, he had it ready for me. I sat on the chair and waited for the room to stop spinning. Did he really say he wanted Soundwave Records to hear my song? 

“Are you okay? Do you need some water?” I nodded my head, thinking that a sip might help calm the butterflies in my stomach. He left the studio and returned moments later with a bottle of water. He twisted the cap open and handed it to me. “There, maybe that will help?” 

“Thank you,” I whispered. “It should.” I sipped the water for a few minutes until everything settled down. “I’m sorry. Normally, I don’t feel faint like this. I don’t know what happened.” 

Ernie chuckled. “It’s okay. The studio gets stuffy. I need to get some better air circulation in here. I meant what I said, though. My buddy needs to hear this demo, and the sooner, the better. Are you okay with me doing that?” 

I nodded. “Yes, of course.”

“What inspired the song? Who could have caused that kind of emotion?” 

I gave him a sheepish smile. “None other than ‘hardnose Jeffery Dean’. We were engaged once upon a time. That song brought me some closure, but he was the inspiration behind it.”

Ernie nodded his head and laughed. “So, when Dean said he had bad blood in the Shores, he was talking about you?” I cringed and nodded. 

“I guess…? Our split wasn’t exactly amicable.” I wrung my hands while I sat. “I-I shouldn’t be speaking of him. It’s just that—”

“Don’t worry about it. For one, I asked, and second, what is said in this studio stays between us. No one will judge you, because no one will know.”

“Thank you, Ernie. I’ve never spoken about Jeff in public, and I don’t intend to start.” 

“You’re a wise young lady, Destiny. He’s so pompous, he won’t need anyone to slag him. He’ll be his own downfall given enough time.” Ernie motioned for me to stand, which I did. “Let’s go listen to your demo. You can have my seat in the control room.”

I was blown away by the quality of the recording Ernie had made, but I wasn’t sure why it shocked me. The studio, though comfortable and quaint, was still top-of-the-line. He toyed with the soundboard during the playback, changing effects and boosting my voice. Though I was familiar with soundboards, this one was miles different from the ones I used back home. It was overwhelming.

“There is so much I can do with this song, Destiny, but it doesn’t really need much tweaking. The quality of your vocals is astounding. Have you had formal voice training, or is that raw talent?” 

“I’ve had no training at all. What you hear is natural.” 

“Yeah, there’s no doubt in my mind. I’m going to make you a star.” He stood, and I did, too. “Let’s get you signed on here. We can start recording this song for your first single within the week.”

I swallowed ‌harder than I wanted to. “I’m still working for Jared McMurphy at the Flying V. Do I need to resign there first? He usually requires two weeks’ notice.” My jaw clenched, trying not to be so obvious.

Ernie smiled at me. “I can see it will be tough to walk away from your job, Destiny. If he requires two weeks’ notice, then I can allow that. From the time we record, to its eventual release, will be about six weeks. I’ll need you to consider something, though. You will need a stage name, because let’s face it. ‘Destiny Farmer’ won’t sell records, and I mean no offense to you or your family.”

I nodded, though I hated the idea of being anyone other than myself. “What would you suggest?” 

Ernie bobbed his head from side to side. “I think your stage name should be a part of you; you will have it for your entire career. So think about situations from your past. What was important to you?”

I bit my lip and sighed. “I’m drawing a blank.” 

“There’s no hurry. We have a few weeks to figure everything out before we go public with your first single. I’ll let you know when we’re getting close to a deadline.” 

“Thank you,” I said. “I’ll think of something.”

The rest of my visit was contracts and paperwork, and when I was finally done, it was already dark outside. Ernie walked me to my car, and I drove home, exhausted but hopeful. Poppy greeted me at the door when I opened it, just as I expected her to do.

“Hi, Poppy,” I whispered to her. “Are you hungry, or do you just want attention?” I walked to her food bowl, which was still half-full. The water bowl was filled and fresh, so it must have been my attention that she needed. I walked to the loveseat in the formal living room and sat; Poppy joined me immediately and curled up in my lap. 

“Things are gonna change soon, sweetheart,” I said as I stroked her fur. “I hope stardom is everything I wish it to be.” A sudden wave of emotion swept over me. It was happy, sad, and excited all at once, but it brought tears and a lump in my throat. I remembered Jared’s words from that morning. “I’m expecting your resignation tomorrow.” The memory brought more tears and a sense of dread, knowing I was going to cause Jared pain. I didn’t want to do it. 

I skipped dinner and walked up the steps to my bedroom with Poppy right behind me. Though I should have called Stephen, I wasn’t up for more conversation, except for the one I’d have with Daddy. I changed into my pajamas and washed up. 

Kneeling beside the bed, I closed my eyes and clasped my hands together. I had Daddy’s prayer book on the bed between my elbows as I relaxed and spoke in whispers to him.

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Daddy, it’s me. I finally did it! The biggest talent agent in the Shores took me on as a client today, and he was so impressed with my voice and my song. I wish that you and Mama could be here to celebrate this moment with me. I miss you both so much. There is something I’m struggling with, Daddy. Ernie wants me to take a stage name because he doesn’t believe I will sell records without it. I don’t know what to do. What should I pick? I’m so lost without your advice.

Everything else is okay in my life, but it’s going to be hard telling Jared that I’m leaving the coffeehouse. I’m not looking forward to tomorrow morning. I know I have to do it, because I’ll never achieve my dreams if I don’t take this leap of faith. Daddy, Ernie says he’s going to make me a star. I know I’m ready; I just wish you were here. Going to sleep now. I love you. I miss you. We’ll be together again someday.

Poppy waited patiently for me to snuggle into bed so she could assume her position on the pillow next to my head. The deep rumbles in her chest were so soothing, and so welcomed. It didn’t take long for her to lull me to sleep.


I didn’t see Jared at the coffeehouse the next day until my shift was almost over. I was stocking coffee beans into bins behind the counter when he walked in. He had a huge smile on his face when he saw me; he rushed to my side to help. It was obvious he had a question for me. 

“Hi Jare.” I couldn’t hear him over the rattle of beans flowing into the containers, but I saw his lips moving. “What?” I asked when the last beans settled.

“I said, how did it go yesterday?” He stood expectantly with his hands planted on his hips. Jared was too cute when he wanted information. “This has been killing me.” 

Me too, I thought. “It went okay,” I lied. “You know, the recording and stuff. I had a lot of fun.”

“You haven’t answered my question, Des. What did Ernie say?” 

I wiped my hands on my apron. “He signed me. And, he’s taking my song to the head of Soundwave Records…” I waited for the twinge of hurt on Jared’s face. Much to my surprise, none came.

“Destiny! You did it!” He hugged me so tight, I almost couldn’t breathe. “Tell me everything!”

“Well, I sang the song I wrote about Jeff, and I guess he liked it. I’ll be in the studio recording it in a couple of weeks, and that will be my first single.” 

Jared cocked his head. “A couple of weeks? Why so long?” 

I blushed. “You, silly. I know your policy is two weeks’ notice. I wanted to give you enough time to find someone else.” 

“My gosh, Des! I don’t care about the two weeks! What if we consider today your last day? Would that free you up to record your song? I can have your ending paycheck tomorrow.” 

My heart broke. I wasn’t counting on him being so willing to let me walk away. “So soon?” 

Jared’s face softened when he noticed my expression. We were close enough that he saw right through me. “You don’t want to leave here, do you?”

His question caused an immediate, emotional reaction. I shook my head and tried to swallow the lump that seemed to live there. “No, I don’t. But I know I have to if I want to chase my dreams.” 

He hugged me again and placed a soft kiss on my forehead. “Des, I was preparing my heart and mind for this. I knew the second Ernie wanted to see you, he would take you away from me. But I wanted to run something by you, you know, as my assistant manager.” 

“What’s that, Jare?” 

He smiled and brushed my too-long bangs out of my eyes. “I’ve been thinking about this day and the eventuality, even when you weren’t looking for a music career. What do you think about me promoting Evie to assistant manager? I won’t do it without your say so.”

I nodded with a gentle grin. “I think that’s a great idea. Evie deserves the promotion. She’s almost as dedicated as I am.” 

Jared blushed and looked away. “She’ll never be you, Des, just so you know. And I’m going to miss you like crazy.” 

I placed my trembling hand on his chest; my breath caught in my throat. “I’m always here. Whenever you need me, I’m here. Nothing will ever change that.”

He nodded in acknowledgement, then called Evangeline back into the break room. When she appeared, Jared and I stood side by side with grins on our faces. She crept in with her shoulders hunched. “What? Am I in trouble?”

Jared looked at me for assurance, and I nodded my approval. “Evie, Destiny is leaving us. Today is her last day, and that leaves me with a problem. I hope you can help remedy it.”

Evie looked at Jared and then at me. “You aced your audition, didn’t you?!”

It was a mixed bag of emotions. Thrilled because I was pursuing what I truly wanted, but devastated that I had to leave my best friends behind. “I signed a contract with Ernie Gonzales yesterday. My first single will be on the radio in a matter of weeks.” I cringed, waiting for the shriek of joy from Evie’s mouth. Almost on cue, she emitted a piercing howl. 

“Oh my gosh, Des! Congratulations!” She hugged me in between excited jumps. Evie always made me laugh. 

“Thank you!” I giggled. Jared nudged my arm with his elbow, wanting me to make the bigger announcement. “Since I’ll be gone, that leaves the assistant manager position open. Jared and I were hoping you’d take it.”

If I thought her shriek was loud the first time, she amplified it twice on the second go around. “Are you serious? Jared?!”

Jared nodded. “If you want it, the position is yours.”

Evangeline nodded slightly with a beaming smile. “I won’t let either of you down! I promise!” She sidled up to me and nudged my arm. “You know, this gives you freedom to date him,” she whispered in my ear. “He really loves you.” We shared a knowing look, and then she left the two of us alone.

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Jared took my hands in his. “I guess this is it.”

“Mmhmm. But you know where I live. Mi casa es tu casa.” 

He gazed into my increasingly watery eyes before he spoke, choosing every word carefully. “I know. It doesn’t stop the ache, though. Not having you here with me every day…” Jared’s voice faded to nothingness. 

“Are you okay?”

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“Yeah,” he said. His body language, however, said just the opposite. “Go.” He wrapped me in a hug and kissed my cheek. “Go be a star, Des, and when you reach the top, remember who loves you most.”

I wiped a tear from my eyes. “There was never a doubt, Jare.” I mouthed the words, “I love you, too,” to him. I couldn’t take another minute of goodbye. One last thumbs up to Evie; I blew a kiss to Jared and left as an employee at the coffeehouse for the last time.


The next few weeks were a flurry of activity. Each morning, I stopped at the Flying V for my coffee. Jared and I sat and chatted when he had the time, which wasn’t often. For the first few weeks, I welcomed the familiarity of the coffeehouse. It was as though I hadn’t really left. 

Ernie’s friend at Soundwave Records signed a contract for my first single, with the option to take me on full-time, contingent on record sales. The only catch was not recording “Maybe It’s Better This Way” as my first single. The label wanted a livelier, more upbeat song to break into the market. Being new in the business, I agreed, but only with Ernie’s encouragement. I took the demo of my first single home with me and learned it.  

That studio, though it had all the newest technology and the best equipment, wasn’t nearly as comfortable as Ernie’s personal one. They had musicians on standby, waiting for me. I spent the entire first week working with them on the song’s arrangement. When we had it perfect, we rehearsed the song together until it was flawless. 

Ernie produced the single and taught me how to use the studio’s sound board, though it would take more than a few times to learn it. Everything was so over-the-top fancy and complex. When he played back the raw recording, I’ll admit I cried, still in utter shock that everything was happening so fast. It sounded so professional; I didn’t believe it was my voice singing it. 

Every night, after a full day’s work in the studio, I drove home and almost collapsed into bed. I hadn’t seen Stephen in weeks, and if I didn’t stop at the coffeehouse every morning, I wouldn’t have seen Jared or Evie, either. Before I slept every night, I still talked to Daddy, asking his advice for things that perplexed me.

With a week to go before my single was released, Ernie and I were up against a deadline to decide on my stage name. I was still no closer to figuring it out. I got up earlier than usual that morning and headed to the coffeehouse. It was my time to relax and concentrate before heading to the studio. 

Jared was there that morning with Evie and a new guy I didn’t recognize. Jared’s face lit up when I walked through the door, like it did every morning. I sat at the corner booth in the back of the cafe with my laptop open, looking through pictures I had on it. Jared came over and sat across from me. 

“What are you looking at this morning, Des?” he asked. “I brought your favorite. My treat.” 

I blushed with a shy smile. “You didn’t have to do that, but thank you.” I turned my laptop around to show him. “These are pictures of me when I was little.” I pointed to a photo Jason had taken. “There’s Mama and me on that old dirt mound in our backyard.” 

“I didn’t realize how much you look like your mother, Des. She was beautiful, too. The more I learn about Appaloosa Plains, the more enthralled I am with it. What’s the significance of the dirt mound?” 

I smiled at the warm memory. “Our neighbor, Caleb, plowed our field every year, but when we started having problems with the plants, he suggested ‌Mama bring in some top soil to replenish what the constant planting had depleted. He dug about four inches of soil off the top before they brought in the fill dirt, so that mound was the product of the restructure. Jason and Mama worked so hard in the garden that year, and she had a bumper crop of everything. They piled all of that dirt for me to play on it. Mama said it was ‘Destiny’s hill’…” A light bulb went off inside my brain; I smacked my forehead with the heel of my hand. “That’s it!”

Jared gave me the most confused look. “Am I missing something?”

“I can’t tell you until I make it official, but you’ll be the first to know!” I took my last sip of coffee, closed my laptop, and stuck it back inside the backpack I carried. “Thank you for the inspiration!” I gave him a quick peck on the cheek and slung my backpack over my shoulder. “I promise I’ll call you tonight!” Jared still sat at the booth, looking bewildered, when I ran to my car. 

Ernie was already in his office when I greeted Kerry. “He’s in,” she said, still nursing her first cup of coffee. I walked right in and sat at his desk, grinning like a Cheshire cat. 

“Good morning, Destiny,” Ernie said. “Is there something wrong?” 

“Nope!”

“Something right?” 

“You could say that, yes.” 

He sat down and stirred the coffee he had in his hand. “Color me intrigued! So, what’s going on?”

“You know how I’ve been trying to figure out what my stage name should be?”

“Yes, I do. Have you decided on a stage name Destiny?” he asked.

I nodded, a broad grin on my face. “I have.” The anticipation was killing me, but I drew it out another moment before the big reveal.

“Well?” 

I took my laptop from my backpack and opened the photo I’d showed Jared back at the coffeehouse. “This is me when I was about three, maybe four years old, sitting on this big old mound of dirt, the one Mama made for me. She told me it was ‘Destiny’s hill’.” I breathed a content sigh. “Ernie, I want to be known as Destiny Hill. When I saw the photo this morning, I knew it was my only choice.”

A smile broke on Ernie’s face. “Destiny Hill it is, then.”

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Up Next: Chapter Seven, Generation Two


Pose Credits:

Mod The Sims
Audrey – A Modeling Pose Set by k2m1too
Pomp And Circumstance by Heaven

Poses By Bee
Casual Sitting Poses
Conversation Poses Set 2
Cuddle Sad Pose Pack
Death And Dying Set 1
Homecoming
Worship – Adult

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Animation Pack with Guitar by Daisy Sermech Studios
Live Guitar/Singing by Toys of Dukeness
Romance Poses 2 by Danjaley

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Custom Content:

Around The Sims 3
Blooming Room 4to3 Conversion
Cargeaux Kitchen 4to3 Conversion
Checkered Cloth Pattern
Church Set
Eco Café
Ernie’s Business Card (Anneke’s Bag Set)
Exhibition & Museum Shop
Guitar Player’s Den
Headset
Pizzeria Set
Recording Studio Set

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Cruise Ship Picture by Kris Elizabeth Sims


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I appreciate your comments and feedback. Thank you SO much for reading!
-Wendy

G2 Chapter Five – Surprises, Stickiness, and Sea Scallops

Six Months Later

It had been fifteen months since Jeff and I broke up. Though I still thought of him and remembered with fondness the times we shared, I noticed the wound on my heart had healed. The vacancy his absence created in my life was slowly filling up with new interests, new friends, and different pursuits.

While unpacking what seemed a myriad of boxes settling into my new home, I discovered treasures I’d long forgotten. Mama’s recipe box—index cards covered with handwritten recipes, and the accompanying stains—was among my favorite finds. I spent weeks recreating some of the food she made ‌I loved. As I did, I made slight changes to some of the recipes, adding a new seasoning I’d discovered, or using a new technique I’d learned. I kept Mama’s original handwritten ones, but I bought new cards and added my creations to the box, too. One day, I pondered, my daughter or son may well be doing the same thing I’m doing with Mama’s recipes now. The thought of it made me smile. 

As I grew in my renewed faith, I started really reading through Daddy’s prayer book. Having something of his that was so deeply personal brought me back to his memory when I held it. I’d discovered little notes, and even doodles Daddy had made in the margins. Most times, they were idle thoughts and scribbles pertaining to his specific prayers, or his words of wisdom about faith, family and friendship. The worn leather cover smelled like the aftershave I remember him splashing on in the morning; the spicy, woodsy scent kept him closer to me in heart and mind. Little did I know that cover had another gift to give me. I just hadn’t discovered it yet.

Though an outsider would have thought me crazy—some days I would think their observations correct—I spoke with Daddy every night before I slept. I talked about my day, how my life was going, and, most importantly, I renewed the promises I made to him and Mama. When I’d told him everything I wanted to say, I ended my conversation with the same words; “I love you, I miss you, I’ll see you again someday.”

After Aunt Jenny’s letter saved my life, we reconnected via letters and phone calls. I was always so excited to see a letter from her in my mailbox; she had a knack of saying exactly what I needed to hear, and when I needed it most. In return, I’d send song lyrics and poems I’d written, some recipes I’d found that had been Grandma Farmer’s, or a snip or two of wisdom from Daddy’s prayer book. Her feedback on song lyrics helped me to polish them into much better versions, and while chatting on the phone, she’d hum the tune she envisioned to accompany the words. That was when I discovered my singing talent likely came from the Farmer side; Aunt Jenny had a beautiful voice. Mama couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. That isn’t to say she didn’t try, God bless her.

Jared was thrilled to have me back at the coffeehouse, so much so that he promoted me to assistant manager within my first week back. He was horrified to learn about the shady operation at Sing-A-Gram, but relieved that I left it in my past. My promotion brought a steady and decent income, plus the tips I earned on each shift. Yes, the position had longer hours and more responsibility, but I was honored to work with some of my best friends. I truly loved the atmosphere and closeness we had there at the Flying V.

I discovered, quite by accident, a chapel in the western hills of Starlight Shores and started attending. Walking into church that first Sunday felt like being home again. The pastor, Tim Cross, had the same vision as I did growing up in that little chapel back home. He was very approachable, as was the entire congregation; everyone I met was friendly, welcoming, and forgiving. Given the lifestyle I had just left, their unconditional acceptance amazed me. There was no judgment, only grace and warmth. 

I never realized how many believers lived in Starlight Shores until I found the chapel. Many of them were younger and, like me, career-minded and driven. A few of them had tried, without success, to break into the music business. When talented singers and musicians like them could fail, I realized how stacked the odds were against me. It didn’t matter, because my desire for fame, fortune, and everything that went with it faded away. What remained was a kinder, more compassionate version of me. I learned to love myself in a healthy way. I was someone everyone wanted to be with instead of the horrible person Jeff accurately described during our last fight.

It wasn’t long before I joined the choir at church and sang with them. There were only eight of us who would put in the time that the obligation required. Though everyone was friendly, I developed a strong, close friendship with a man my age named Stephen. He was one of many talented singers denied their opportunity for a music career. It was his failure that cemented my decision to abandon the dream that had brought me to the city almost three years before. We found closeness in our shared interests, though there was no romantic spark between us. I considered Stephen a male version of Polly.

The worship leader, Tanya, encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and lead worship. This would be my first time performing for anyone, with the spotlight on me, since I quit my job at Sing-A-Gram. Given my background at the chapel back home, I should have been comfortable with it. In reality, I was scared half to death. I wasn’t worthy to stand center stage after what I’d done. Stephen, however, had such faith in me, I agreed to it. In every way, he was a stunningly handsome man; blond hair, killer brown eyes that hid behind his dorky nerd glasses, a perpetual five o’clock shadow, with a tall, slender build. His wit was sharp and sometimes dry, but he always made me laugh. 

Stephen’s face lit up when he saw me walk through the door. He greeted me with a hug and a quick peck on the cheek. “There you are! I’m happy to see you didn’t chicken out!”

I chuckled at his wording; I might have been nervous, but I was no chicken. “Good morning, Stephen!” I wrapped my arms around him and returned the kiss. “You’re the one who should lead this morning. I’m not nearly as talented as you.”

Stephen huffed at me. “Nonsense! You’re a fine singer. I wish you would recognize that, Destiny.”

Well, I did. But after making terrible decisions for so long, my overall confidence took a tremendous hit. “Thank you.” We walked together into the green room; the room itself served multiple purposes, equipped with a full kitchen, sofa, makeup tables, and a coffee machine. I walked to the mirror to check my hair and makeup. “I can’t believe how nervous I am,” I said and held out my shaking hands. “This is unreal.” 

“Once you’re up there, it will all come back to you,” Stephen said. “I’ve seen you in ‘the zone’. It’s a sight to behold.”

“Oh, come on. I’m no better than everyone else here.” I shrugged and heaved a deep sigh. “I’ve been in some shady places in my past, Stephen. I don’t deserve to be on stage, much less leading worship.”

“I beg to differ.” He hugged my shoulders and placed a tender kiss on my forehead. “It doesn’t matter where you’ve been. It only matters where you’re going; I see you going places, Destiny.”

“I gave up that dream already.”

“But you shouldn’t have. Maybe you’ll find your dream when you aren’t seeking it. That’s how it usually goes.”

How did he get to be so wise at twenty-two? “You’re probably right. But I’m not counting on it.”

“Never count on anything, but be prepared to embrace your destiny.” He gave me a slight smile. “Why did your parents name you Destiny, anyway?”

I knew we didn’t have the time for the full story. The cliff-notes version would have to do. “I was their miracle baby, their legacy. My mama’s destiny.” As I spoke, Tanya flickered the lights; our time was short before the start of service. “The next time we catch supper together, I’ll tell you the long version.”

“It’s a date!” he said with a smile. “Are you ready? You’re going to crush this today.”

“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.” He took my hand and squeezed it, kissed my cheek again, then led me to the door.

“Break a leg, Destiny.”

“Thank you.” I swallowed what remained of my confidence.

We walked into the sanctuary together. I took the lead spot, up front and center stage, with Stephen behind me on my left side, and Tanya, who was also a lead vocalist, behind me to my right. The others filled in around us. The band was poised and ready to play, and it was time to go. My mouth was dry, and I prayed that my first notes wouldn’t be raspy. I bit my tongue and made my mouth water a bit. There wasn’t much, but it was just enough to swallow before I sang the first words of a song I knew by heart.

My hand wrapped around the microphone, holding onto it for dear life. My heart was pounding in my chest. One last deep breath to soothe my anxious soul. The band played, and with the first words, I discovered ‌Stephen was right all along. I was ready for this, and I was at ease for the first time in years. What I had feared all at once felt natural. I could almost sense Daddy and Mama smiling down at me. The nervousness faded, and I was unstoppable, singing my heart out in worship.

When services were over, Stephen was the first person to approach me. He wore an ear-to-ear grin, his arms held open wide. 

“You did a fantastic job, Destiny!” he said. “I knew you’d hit a grand slam home run this morning.”

A what? I didn’t know what that even meant, but I was too embarrassed to ask him. “Thank you! It happened just like you said, Stephen. As soon as I started singing, I was home.” 

“I hate to be the one to say I told you so, but I told you so!” I nudged his arm with my shoulder and laughed along with him. Such a lovable brat. 

“I know, I know,” I giggled. “I’m glad you were right.” 

“Me too.” He glanced at his wristwatch. “Do you have plans this afternoon?” 

I shook my head and wrinkled my nose. “Nope. What do you have in mind?” 

“Let’s go for lunch. My treat. You know, to celebrate your victory today.” 

“Psh,” I said. 

“Don’t doubt me, Destiny. You’re going to get noticed one of these days. Talent like yours is begging to be seen.”

I tried not to roll my eyes. “You’re being much too kind.”

“Oh, stop!” Stephen scolded me playfully. “Just shush and let me take you for lunch. You can tell me the story of your name.” 

“Okay, you win.” He held his arm for me, and I entwined mine with his. Together, we left the chapel, headed for the diner on the strip.


The next morning, Jared was already at the coffeehouse when I turned my key in the door. He wasn’t scheduled until that afternoon, so his presence there was unexpected. He waved at me as I locked the door behind me.

“Good morning, Des,” he said. 

“Good morning, Jare. Aren’t you a bit early for your shift?” 

He nodded while he finished preparing his coffee. “Yeah, Evie is sick today. I’m covering her shift, and mine, too. I wish I could clone you.” 

I giggled at the suggestion. If only Daddy could have heard that. He and Mama always said they were glad I wasn’t a twin; they thought the world couldn’t handle two of me. “Well, if you need me to stay past my shift, let me know.” 

Jared started making another coffee drink. He already had his coffee, so I assumed he was making one for me. “I will, thanks. I need to find someone to fill your old spot. No one wants to wait tables at a coffeehouse, I guess.”

Though I could relate, I also couldn’t imagine working anywhere else. The coffeehouse wasn’t a career, but it paid the bills and allowed me to save a little every check. “Some struggling star will come in someday looking for work, just like I did.”

“I sure hope you’re right, Des. I wasn’t kidding when I said I wanted to clone you.” He handed the paper cup to me; the beverage contained within was hot and foamy perfection! “I made your favorite.”

“Thank you, but you didn’t have to.” 

“I know, but I wanted to.”

My first sip of coffee was smooth and sweet. “Are you busy this weekend, Jare?” 

He paused for a moment while stirring his coffee. “I don’t think so. What’s up?” 

“I have my last bunch of drywall coming to finish the living room, and I was wondering if you’d come help?” 

“For you, Des, I’d do anything.” His smile, though familiar, seemed different as the words left his mouth. “I know Sunday is good for you, right?” 

I nodded. “Mmhmm. After church, of course. Maybe about noon? With the two of us, it shouldn’t take but a few hours. I’ll treat you to supper afterward, too.”

“It’s a date,” he said. A customer knocked on the door and pointed at his watch, drawing Jared’s attention. “Oh, shoot!” He jumped up and ran for the door. That was the end of our casual conversation. 

Right after the lunch rush, I was cleaning tables in the dining room. I volunteered to stay on and help Jared after my regular shift. It was a long day, but as the assistant manager, Jared expected me to put in extra hours when he needed me. We didn’t normally have much foot traffic in the early afternoon, but a group of people walked in, laughing and chattering. 

“Have a seat wherever you’d like,” I said when I greeted them. “I’ll be with you in just a moment.” 

A big concert was scheduled at the Hoi Polloi that evening, a classic rock and roll band on a reunion tour. I overheard the conversation at the table; the group was attending the concert and staying in town for a few days. Tourism was good for Starlight Shores. It helped bring revenue into shops that catered to working class folks like me, and not the snooty, ritzy restaurants and nightclubs that littered the Los Sueños Strip.

I nodded at Jared, letting him know I’d take the table of concert-goers. He continued to wipe down the counters and clean the coffee presses. I grabbed my pad from my apron pocket, but I wasn’t sure why. I didn’t need to write the orders. While I waited for the group to decide, I glanced at their faces. All six of them were men, maybe Aunt Jenny’s age, some a bit younger. 

Each of them ordered a coffee drink and a pastry from the case. As I was jotting their orders onto my notepad, I noticed one man staring at me. Suddenly, I regretted my decision to take this table; his relentless glower made me very uncomfortable.

“I’ll have your orders in a few moments,” I said and walked away. Jared must have noticed my troubled expression, because he was right there to question me.

“Are you having problems with that six-top?” 

I shook my head and turned my attention away from them. “Not a problem, but one of them is just staring at me. It’s a little awkward.” Jared cast his gaze in their direction, noticed the guy still fixated on me, and nodded once.

“Hmm, I see that. I’ll watch them,” he said while I prepared their coffee. I nodded in appreciation.

Jared retrieved the food items, and we carried the order to the table together. I knew why he insisted on helping me; he didn’t want a situation in his coffeehouse involving his friend.

I placed the orders on the table in front of them, one at a time. The table was long, and I couldn’t reach everyone from where I stood, so I walked to the other side, away from Jared. I leaned in front of the man who’d been watching my every move. His eyes moved from the table up to my name tag as I placed his espresso down in front of him. Jared walked to where I stood, anticipating trouble.

“Well, I’ll be…” the man finally said. “I can’t believe my eyes.” His voice quivered a bit. “If you aren’t just the spitting image of your mother.”

The hair on my neck stood on end. How did he know Mama? “I beg your pardon?” 

“You have to be her,” he said, his eyes not shifting despite Jared standing right there. “The hair, the eyes, the accent. Your name.”

My name? Okay, this is just creepy! I looked at his face, searching for something, anything, that would give me a clue about this mystery man—nothing. “I’m sorry. I don’t know who you are.”

In my peripheral vision, I saw Jared standing at the ready to protect me if I needed it. The man smiled at me and winked. “I used to call you ‘munchkin’. Maybe that will help?”

I squinted my eyes and looked closer. It couldn’t be… “Jason?” 

“You do remember!” he said with a cheerful smile. “Destiny, you look so much like your mother, it’s astonishing!” He stood and hugged me; I couldn’t believe it. Mama’s one-time boyfriend… Jason Matthews. 

I blushed. Being told I looked like Mama was a tremendous compliment. “Thank you. How have you been—” 

“Who is this pretty little lady?” One of his friends interrupted me, eyed me, and licked his lips. Jason shot a scowl at his leering friend, shaking his head.

“Remember me telling you about Fran, Will?” The friend nodded while Jason spoke. “This is her daughter, Destiny. She would have been my step-daughter in much different circumstances.”

“Oh, is she that red-headed hot mama you was talkin’ about…? Damn, Jason, how many years ago was that now?”

Red-headed hot mama? Is he kidding me? Jason saw my angry expression and interceded. “Cool it, Will. That’s her mother you’re talking about.” He turned to me. “How is she, by the way? How’s your dad?” 

With his question, my heart sank, though I should have expected it. I took a deep breath. “They’re both… gone.” 

Jason embraced me again and held me to his chest. “Oh, Destiny, I’m so sorry. What happened?” 

“Daddy had lymphoma. Mama died of cancer, too. I just don’t know what kind hers was. She passed away ‌suddenly…” I blinked back tears and swallowed the growing lump in my throat. “I still miss them so much.” 

Jason’s arms squeezed me tighter. “Well, of course you do.” He released me from his grip and looked into my eyes. “We’re in town for a few days after tonight’s concert. Please let me take you for dinner, so we can catch up?” 

Nodding, I smiled. “I’d really love that.”

That was about the time Jared spoke up. “Is everything okay here, Des?”

“It’s fine, Jare. This is my mama’s ex-boyfriend, Jason. And Jason, my boss, Jared.”

They didn’t do more than exchange a passing glance, each suspicious of the other. Jared finally decided to be the bigger man and extended his hand for a shake. “Nice to meet you, Jason.” 

“The honor is mine. You should know this little princess is important to me, even if I didn’t marry her mother.” His gentle hand on my shoulders was comforting, like a piece of ancient history reborn. “I never forgot you, munchkin. What are you doing in the city, anyway? I didn’t think you’d ever leave Appaloosa Plains.” 

“It’s a long story. I’ll tell you at supper.” 

Jason smiled and hugged my shoulders before sitting down again. “I can’t wait, Destiny.”

“Me, too.”


Two Nights Later

I gave Jason my address before he left the coffeehouse that day. He showed up at my front door dressed in a custom-tailored tuxedo, holding a bouquet of beautiful pink roses. 

“Hello, Princess!” he said. Pink roses were Mama’s favorite. His sweet gesture wasn’t lost on me. 

“Come in!” I greeted him and swung the door open. He handed the bouquet to me once he was inside. He shivered as the house’s warmth enveloped him. “It isn’t much, but it’s home.” Though it wasn’t perfect, the house looked miles better than it did when I moved in last year. With the last batch of materials, and Jared’s help to install everything this coming weekend, the house would be finished. Only the floors and painting would remain. 

Jason looked around and gawked at the furniture. I know he had to recognize some of it; the loveseat and end tables were ones he and Mama had purchased together. “What a lovely home you have, Destiny. Your folks would be so proud of you!”

I was in the kitchen fussing with the flowers. “Thank you! I’ve come a long way since they passed away. Sometimes I can’t believe all I’ve been through.” I placed the last rose in the vase, took the baby’s breath that remained in the paper, and arranged it so it looked pretty. “Where are you living now?”

“I’m back in Twinbrook. I bought a house and fixed it up, and I’m living there with my Aussie shepherd, Kota. It’s just me and him, two guys playing bachelor.” He held his arm for me. “Shall we?”

I nodded with a smile. “Of course!”

Despite my determination to not wear the gown Jeff had given me, I decided to that night. In reality, I had nothing else that was appropriate to wear. Fancy dresses and gowns weren’t exactly a priority for a girl working in a coffeehouse.

A ritzy new restaurant on the Los Sueños strip had opened up a few months before; that was where Jason decided we should spend some time getting reacquainted. It wasn’t exclusive, but it was more than I could afford, except for special occasions.

Jason guided me down the icy sidewalk to his rental car. I almost stopped in my tracks when I saw it; a shiny black Camaro, just like the yellow one Jeff had at school. He held the door for me and helped me in without incident, and then walked to the driver’s side. 

Ten minutes later, Jason pulled up in front of the restaurant—a bistro called The Tower—and allowed the valet to park the car. He led me inside the front door with a proud expression on his face. “I’ve heard only good things about this place,” he said as we stood at the host podium. “Matthews, six o’clock.” 

“Ah, yes Mr. Matthews. This way, please.” The host ushered us into the dining room and sat us near the window overlooking the park. “Your server, Kimberly, will be with you in just a moment.” The host spoke with an accent I didn’t recognize. It certainly was not from the mainland.

“Thank you,” Jason said, then turned his attention to me. He pulled the chair from under the table and held it for me while I sat. “Do you indulge in adult beverages from time to time, Destiny?”

“I haven’t in a while, but I wouldn’t mind a glass of semi-sweet wine.” 

Jason walked to the chair to my left and sat. “That sounds good. So, tell me how you came to live in the biggest little city in the north?”

“You remember the Bradfords, right?”

“Funny you should mention them. I haven’t seen them in a long time, but Sunny and Caleb still live in Twinbrook with Junior and Lisa. Sunny still makes award-winning pies and cakes for the fair. I always see them covered in ribbons and awards. She and Caleb have always been very kind to me.” 

“The last time I saw them was at Mama and Daddy’s funeral. They traveled all the way back home to pay their respects. I’d sure love to see them again, before they’re gone, too.” 

“Maybe someday you can drive over the pass to visit. I’d love that.” The server stopped at the table and introduced herself; Jason ordered a bottle of red moscato. “So, you were saying about the Bradfords?”

“Oh, yes! Well, Maya sang to me when she took care of me. She and Sunny encouraged me to sing, and I found out I was rather good at it. A long story short, I wanted to move here and become a singer. It’s a dream I’ve had since I was a little girl, and now, a dream abandoned. I have my degree in fine arts, though there isn’t much here I can do with it. Maybe I’ll take courses at the local college, because I don’t intend to work at the coffeehouse forever.”

“A singer? Really?” Jason smiled at me. “I bet you’re a fantastic singer, too.” 

I blushed. “If my success here is a sign, then no.”

“So, do you have a boyfriend? What about that dude from the coffee shop? He looks like he’s sweet for you.”

“Jared?” I laughed. “No, he’s my boss. I was engaged to the frontman of The Rock J Experience for a couple of years. We met in college, but it didn’t work out.”

“Bah,” he sneered. “That group is trash, anyway. What on Earth did you see in a grunge singer?”

“He swept me off my feet,” I said. “He was there after Mama and Daddy passed away, and he took care of me. At one point, I didn’t think I could live without him. I’ve found, though, I’m thriving on my own.” Kimberly returned to the table with the chilled wine, opened it, and poured two glasses; the half-full bottle of wine went into an ice bucket, then she walked away.

Jason picked up his glass of wine and swirled it. “This is a wonderful vintage. Flowery with notes of berry. Sweet, but not cloying.” We clinked our glasses together for a toast. “To you, Destiny. What a lovely young lady you’ve grown up to be, and I’m proud of you.”

I blushed again. “Cheers!”

“There’s no one you’re dating? I find that hard to believe.” 

“Nope. I have a few close friends here, but no boyfriends. It’s okay, though. I’d been attached to someone since I was sixteen. It feels good to be single for a while. A little lonely sometimes, but I’m busy with work and worship team practice.” I took a sip of wine. Jason was right; it was slightly sweet and refreshing, and I liked it. “What about you? Where did you go after you left the Plains? Do you have a special someone?” 

Jason sipped his glass of wine. “Well, you likely don’t remember the circumstances of how or why I left. You were so little. But when I left, I traveled around for a bit, like a drifter. I didn’t stay in one place too long, but I ended up in Twinbrook a year or so later. I found a good deal there on a small bachelor pad and fixed it up.” 

He took the last sip of his glass and set it down on the table. His expression and tone of voice were suddenly downcast. “Fran had a choice to make, and I ultimately drew the short stick. Your dad’s return home, while good for you and your mother, ruined my life.” Jason looked away, I guessed, to compose himself. A tear welled in his eyes; his pain was still palpable after all these years. “I never dated anyone after your mother, Destiny. She was my one true love, and it hurt like hell to have her slip through my fingers. Now, she’s gone forever.”

His voice quivered when he spoke of Mama. Jason was not a topic of discussion between Mama and Daddy, so I never learned the truth of his sudden departure. I didn’t realize Jason had been so hurt, and I felt bad for him. “I’m sorry. I can’t imagine.”

He took a deep breath and exhaled with a soft sigh. “Oh, it’s okay. Pain lessens over time, and gradually I accepted the reality of her choice. I have survived for seventeen years without her. You’re still here, though. I’m so glad we’ve reconnected, Destiny.”

“I am, too.”

Jason ordered meals for both of us; blackened Mahi for himself, and steak tips for me. We ate while we sat and reminisced. I had so much to tell him. Just one night of visiting would never be enough. But we talked, laughed, and yes, cried a little together. I had so much fun with him, I hated for the night to ‌end. 

It was almost midnight when he pulled up in front of the house. “I really loved spending time with you again, Destiny,” Jason said, and placed a soft kiss on my forehead. “This isn’t the last time we’ll see each other, I hope. I’m only two hours away if you ever need anything.”

I leaned toward him to give him a hug. “It would be so much fun driving to Twinbrook to see you and the Bradfords.”

“Anytime, munchkin,” he said with affection. “I love you, Destiny.” 

It was no surprise to discover I still loved him, too. He could have been my stepdad, after all. “I love you, too, Jason. Let’s not be strangers.”

“You bet.” He got out of the car and helped me out, walked me up the icy sidewalk, and got me inside the house. “Remember, just call me if you need anything at all. I’ll be here.” 

“I will.” I kissed his cheek and hugged him again. “Thank you for supper, and for all the fun times. I missed you.” 

He nodded. “I missed you, too. I’ll see you soon.” Jason turned to walk to his car. I stood in the front door and waved while I watched him get in, start the midnight black Camaro, and drive away.


That Saturday, the hardware store in town delivered the last batch of materials I’d need to finish the living room; it was the only room in the house that still needed major repairs. Electrical work had all been done, and the insulation was placed; all it needed was the drywall, crown molding, primer, and paint. All the supplies I’d ordered were placed into the garage for me. This was a job I would be happy to see finished, and I was fairly proud of myself for coming in under budget by doing most of the work myself, only hiring contractors for the tasks I couldn’t do or that required licensed work.

The next afternoon after church, I was in the garage inventorying supplies when I heard Jared knock loudly on the door, and yell “anyone home?” 

“I’m out in the garage, Jare! Come on in!” I shouted.

Jared’s footsteps made their way into the kitchen, where I heard the refrigerator door open and close, and then the sound of a heavy bucket on the concrete floor. “Hey, Des, I put some wine in the fridge for later and I brought the tools we need.”

“Oh, thanks, Jare.” I said as I opened the door between the garage and the kitchen and placed a paint can in front of it as a doorstop. “All the other stuff we need is out in the garage. Would you mind giving me a hand carrying in the drywall?”

“Your wish is my command,” he replied and flourished as we walked back out into the garage. Jared positioned himself on one end of a drywall sheet and had me at the other end. “Now, lift it with both hands from the bottom edge, Des,” he gently instructed, “and we can carry it in easier.” With Jared walking backwards, we carried the sheet into the living room with ease. The other ones were just as quick to tote into our work area.

The two of us labored side-by-side, Jared giving me pointers on the fine art of hanging drywall. He showed me how to match up the seams and put the screws in the right places while he finished with the seam tape, corner guards and mud; his steady, experienced hands, and his cool temperament, did a much better job than I ever could have. By the time we had the last piece in place, the sun was setting in the western sky.

Jared collected the tools he had brought as I swept the floor, drywall dust swirling in the long, orange sunbeams coming through the windows. We looked at one another and laughed; we were both ghosts, sweaty and—except for where our goggles and face masks had been—covered with that self-same white dust. 

“I never knew putting up walls was such dusty work,” I said, pulling my hair out of the ponytail I had worn all day and shaking more residue out of it. Jared seemed mesmerized, staring at me as the hair fell down around my shoulders. I poked him in the shoulder, waking him from his trance. “Earth to Jared, Earth to Jared…”

“Huh? Oh, yeah, sorry ‘bout that, Des. Yeah, yeah, it’s dusty work, but it’ll be even worse when I start sanding.”

“Oh, joy.” I replied, my eyes rolling back in my head. “You, uh, okay, Jare? You were kind of zoning out there…”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m, uh, fine. I was just thinking about— you know, never mind…” his voice faded to silence. As we walked into the kitchen, he ran his fingers through his hair, knocking out the excess dust. “Hey, do you mind if I use the extra shower upstairs? I’d love to clean up before we eat.”

“Um, yeah. You know where the towels are. Help yourself.” I grabbed my laptop and plopped on a nearby chair. “What are you in the mood for, Jare? Where should I order from?”

“Let me get dinner, Des. My treat.”

“But I promised—”

“I know what you promised. Just let me, okay?”

I huffed, feigning indignation. “Okay. If you insist.” I put my laptop on the kitchen counter and started walking toward the stairs. “I’m going to hop in the shower, too. Meet you back down here?” Jared nodded, his gaze meeting mine.

“It’s a date,” he grinned as we started up the steps.

About forty-five minutes later, I walked downstairs; it was mostly dark save for the light in the kitchen and a soft, orange glow coming from the living room. “Jare? Jared?” I called out, thinking he may still have been upstairs. I walked into the living room to find a thick blanket spread on the floor in front of the fireplace, now filled with a nice, roaring fire. A bucket from the garage sat on the floor, filled with snow and a wine bottle, wine glasses and a set of candles burning nearby completed the scene. How cozy, I thought to myself. Almost… oh no—romantic? The thought struck me and I felt a sudden knot form in my stomach. But… this… this was Jared, my friend, my boss. Surely, he wasn’t interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with me, especially with his strict ethics policy. It must be in my head. Right?

Right?!

“Well, you certainly look less dusty than you did an hour ago,” Jared said with a smile, stepping into the living room from the kitchen. 

“I’m sure I do. Man, that dust goes everywhere, doesn’t it?” I answered with a bright, cheerful grin, trying to fight back the growing nervousness I was feeling. We had both changed into clean, casual clothing; I had on a pair of loose yoga pants and a tank with my cozy slippers. I felt underdressed, and suddenly wished I had thrown on a sweater or cover up, but I didn’t think being around Jared in only a tank top would feel so… awkward. Jared was wearing some dressy sweats, an “A” shirt, and a zippered hoodie. His feet were bare, a brave undertaking considering the floor was concrete and the temperature outside was freezing.

“I feel so much better,” I said to Jared, attempting to ignore anything in the scenario that could be considered ‘romantic,’ yet my heart was racing like crazy. Act cool, Destiny. Breathe. All in my imagination…

“Dinner’s in the oven,” Jared said, seemingly oblivious to my inner turmoil. “I made something at home last night and snuck it into the fridge when I got here.” He smiled sheepishly. “It’ll be a little while. I just put it in a few minutes ago.” 

“Ooooo!! Bachelor cooking!! What did you make?” 

“Lasagna. It’s my Nana’s recipe. One of the first things I learned to cook, being a bachelor and all. My Mom always called it ‘Love Me Lasagna’ because it’s so good, it makes people fall in love.” He winked and smiled. The knot from my stomach made its way up to my throat. I gulped, hard, and hoped he didn’t notice. “We have some time to kill; would you like a glass of wine?” He gestured towards the blanket and the fireplace. 

“Sure, Jare, that sounds… great.” I tried to sound as enthusiastic as I could. “This is such a cozy little setup,” I continued as we walked toward the blanket. “You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble.”

“No trouble at all, Des. I thought we just might have a little pre-housewarming housewarming.” He smiled and sat down on the blanket, patting a spot near the fireplace across from him. “Come sit.” Was he being truthful about the “housewarming” comment, I wondered, or had he seen that the scenario made me nervous as hell and was now just backpedaling? 

I took a seat on the blanket and inhaled a deep breath, trying to pretend I wasn’t flustered. Any romantic overtones—real or imagined—aside, the flicker and warmth of the fire generated sweet memories of home, making me forget the surroundings and the feelings that accompanied. Jared noticed my dreamy expression and returned his own charming smile.

“Hope you don’t frown on screw cap wine,” he grinned as he opened the bottle.

“No worries, Jare. I don’t even have a corkscrew yet!” I joked back. He picked up one glass and tipped the bottle; I could tell it was a red wine from the darkness as he poured it. He handed the glass to me. I swirled it gently, letting my mind drift as I watched the firelight play off the spinning liquid. 

“A penny for your thoughts,” he said, picking up his own glass and taking a sip. 

“Oh. The fire reminds me of home. It’s the first time this fireplace has been used since I’ve lived here. I haven’t really had one since I left Appaloosa Plains.”

“Tell me about Appaloosa Plains, Des. What was it like?” 

“It’s about as small a town as you can imagine. Only about five hundred lived there, so we all knew each other. It’s mostly agricultural, but there were some other industries as well, mostly to serve the Army base where Daddy was stationed all his life. We lived on a farm with a half-acre garden plot. It’s amazing how much produce Mama and Daddy grew in such a limited space, and how it sustained us through some pretty harsh times.”

“So you were born and raised there, right? And your parents, I imagine, lived there all their lives, too? Married for forty years, I believe you told me one time. So where does that Jason guy from the shop come into the picture?”

“Jason… yeah, that’s a little complicated. Daddy served in the big war; he deployed when I was maybe a couple of years old. The Army declared him dead after his plane went down during a botched mission and they couldn’t find him, or a body, during recon. He survived, though, and wound up living in a little village not too far from the crash site. Shows you how hard the Army looked for him, yes? It’s a much longer story than I’m telling, but in short, during the time Mama thought he was dead—about eighteen months—she met and dated Jason. The two of them hit it off and fell in love. Then, Daddy came home.” 

My thoughts drifted back to the conversation I’d had with Jason and how much he’d been hurt. “Mama had to choose between her soulmate, and the man who loved and supported her when her life was crumbling; she loved them both. It was an impossible decision, because she knew the one she rejected would be devastated. Mama didn’t enjoy wounding people she loved.”

Jared sat his wineglass on the floor behind him and leaned back on his hands. “I would’ve loved talking to your dad about his travels. I’m a bit of a history buff, particularly military history, but I sure don’t recall reading about that story.” 

“I don’t think it was the kind of story the military wanted in the history books,” I smiled, then took another sip of the wine. It differed from anything I’d had; slightly dry, but not cottony, and I found I enjoyed it. It had just enough kick to give me a warm feeling inside. “Daddy had much to talk about, that’s for sure. Not everything was good, but he still found something uplifting in every tale he told. He was a man of incredible faith.” Jared studied my face intensely as I talked about home, his attention riveted by my words.

“This is the first time we’ve really talked about your hometown, Des. I’m so intrigued. Appaloosa Plains sounds like it was a great place to grow up. Me? I was born and raised here in ‘fabulous’ Starlight Shores. It might seem like an exciting place to the outside world, but nothing exciting has ever happened to me here.” 

“Nothing? Really? Nothing? Come on, something fun must have happened in your life. I bet you played football or basketball or something in school and drove the girls crazy, didn’t you? Don’t be shy, tell me about your girlfriends. After all, you know all about Jeff.”

Jared blushed and broke eye contact with me, but not before I saw—something—dance across his face. “Me? A high school jock? Nope, not at all. The only extracurricular stuff I was involved in was the Chess Club. Didn’t do much dating in high school.” He paused for a moment. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think I did ANY dating in high school. I didn’t really have my first ‘girlfriend’ until the summer after graduation, and that was ten years ago. I’m not really a ‘ladies’ man’, Des, and certainly not what most women call attractive.”

“Oh, I don’t think that’s true, Jare. You’re a cutie pie! I know I would’ve dated you—” Did I just say that out loud? It was the worst thing I could have uttered.

Despite the darkness in the room, save for the firelight, I saw Jared blush a deep shade of red. “Well, thank you, Des. I think, outside of my aunts, that’s the first time anyone’s ever called me ‘cute’.”

My mind raced for an appropriate reply. I didn’t want to lead him on. “You’re welcome,” was all I could stutter. We sat in silence and stared at each other for what felt like an eternity. I took a long sip of wine, hoping a slight buzz would break the awkwardness. 

“I-I’m gonna go check on the lasagna,” Jared said, getting up from the blanket, definitely ending the tension. He stood, straightened his pants, then walked into the kitchen. I sat on the blanket, my face buried in my hands. What the heck was I doing? What did I want? The line between friend, boyfriend, and boss seemed to get blurrier by the moment. I took another hit of the wine, a gulp this time as opposed to a sip. I got up off the blanket and padded towards the kitchen. 

“It sure smells good,” I called to him. No answer. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead; I was unsure if it was the fireplace, the wine, or the situation that made me feel warm. “Jare…?”

He popped in front of me as I entered the kitchen, his face still ‌red. Had I embarrassed him that much? “Sorry, I had my head in the oven. Had to get the tin foil off so it could finish heating. I hope it tastes as good as it smells.” His answers conveyed no apparent discomfort.

“Jare…” I said with hesitation.

“Des…?” My name on his lips came quickly, with anticipation and maybe a bit of longing. Or was I hearing only what I wanted to hear? 

“I’m sorry if I made things awkward. I didn’t me—”

“Look, don’t worry. I’m not used to compliments, and I never know what to think. It isn’t you.” 

I bit my lip. “I just don’t want things to be weird between us, seeing as we work together. You know?” 

Jared nodded. “That’s one of the biggest disadvantages of owning that shop. Anyone I meet ‌I might have feelings for, I won’t pursue. I’ve let a few special ladies slip through my fingers, not that I ever had a chance with you, anyway.” 

My heart fluttered. Did I hear him right? “What?” 

“Huh?” he said. 

“What did you just say?” 

“Which part?” I wasn’t sure if he didn’t realize what he’d said, or if he was playing dumb.

“The part about letting women slip through your fingers.” 

“Oh, that. Yeah, I never had a chance with them, anyway. I don’t know why I even get my hopes up anymore. It isn’t as though I ever find, or deserve, something good.” His statements were self-deprecating, something I recognized in him as insecurity. “Why, Des? What did you think I said?” 

I shook my head. Perhaps I misunderstood him. “Nothing. It was nothing.” 

“You know, I cherish what we have together.”

“What is it we have, Jare?” I hung on his every word, not sure what I wanted to hear.

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. So much hung on his reply. “We’re friends. Close friends, Destiny, and nothing more.” There was melancholy in his expression, in his voice. He meant me, after all.

I reached for his hand; his fingers closed around mine as he squeezed his eyes shut. It was as though he knew my next words already, and he was bracing for them. “You can count on my friendship, Jared. I’ll always be here for you.”

There was a brief wince of pain on his face. “Thanks, Des.” He poured another glass of wine from the bottle and offered to fill mine, too. “Our friendship means much more to me than a night of passion. I want nothing to change with us… you know?”

“I do.” I took another sip of wine. “What would I do without you, Jare? You have been the one constant in my life since I’ve lived in the Shores. Please don’t underestimate how much I need you.”

“I need you, too. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”

Now I was the one blushing.

An hour later, supper was ready. Jared made himself right at home in my kitchen, and I was glad he did, too. He was at the house so often, it felt right to see him here. Everything smelled good. I couldn’t wait to try it.

We both sat on the blanket by the fire; in my lap, I had a plate of the best lasagna I’ve ever tasted. Jared took my hand in his. “Do you want to pray, Des? I don’t mind.” 

It was the first time he’d ever suggested it; I was touched beyond measure. “I’d love it, Jare.” He bowed his head with me as I whispered a short, simple blessing over us. 

When it was time for him to leave, Jared left the lasagna for me to enjoy. He’d been there all day, and we both had to work at the coffeehouse the next morning. I walked him to the door. Though supper was friendly, there was still awkward tension between us. 

“Thank you for all your help today,” I said. “I couldn’t have done it without you.” 

“As always, it was my pleasure.” He took my hands in his and looked into my eyes. “Thank you for your company, Des.” He leaned forward and kissed my forehead. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.” 

My eyes closed, relishing the tenderness of the moment. I almost hated to see him go. “Yes, you will.”

“Goodnight.” Jared stood at the door, hesitating. Please go? I thought. Please go before I do something stupid… Finally, he twisted the knob. The door swung open; with it came an icy blast, and a sense of profound relief.

“Goodnight, Jare.” He gave a half-wave; I stood in the doorway, watching him walk down the sidewalk to his car.

I hated when my emotions played with me, when they made me believe I wanted something I really didn’t. The door closed, and I leaned against it, so confused. I growled a frustrated groan which echoed through the entire house. Two and a half years in Starlight Shores, and I was still alone. 

The fireplace had long since burned out. I turned the lights out in the kitchen, plodded up the steps to my bedroom, and collapsed on the bed. I was so lonely it made me ache, but I was sure I didn’t want a boyfriend. At least, not yet. I kicked my slippers off my feet, pulled the covers up over my head, and wept until I fell asleep.


A few nights later, I dragged myself into the house after a double shift at the coffeehouse. I was dog tired, and all I wanted was to sleep. My shoes came off at the door, then I trudged up the steps to my bedroom. On the way, I turned on the television, which hung on the only free wall upstairs. 

The entertainment news from Bridgeport blared from the set while I undressed for bed. It was just noise until I heard the name Jeffery Dean; that caught my undivided attention. I sprinted from my bedroom and collapsed in Daddy’s old recliner, dumbstruck by the image on the screen, and the news anchor’s report:

Breaking news. Jeffery Dean, frontman for the popular grunge band, The Rock J Experience, is engaged to his longtime girlfriend and Experience bassist, Valerie Jennings. The couple, shown here in Bridgeport last weekend, finished their year-long nationwide tour with Acidic Tides last November. A June wedding is planned in Dean’s hometown of Sunset Valley…

I turned the television off, slumped over in the chair. Longtime girlfriend? Valerie?! Was she the real reason behind our break up? No… it couldn’t be! I felt the ache in my chest, the sensation of suffocating, when I realized I wasn’t breathing. A sharp inhalation broke the stark silence the television had created. Tears streamed down my face, but I wasn’t sure why. Jeff and I had separated well over a year ago. I shouldn’t still hurt like this, should I? All this pain certainly wasn’t helping the loneliness.

My phone rang and startled me; Stephen’s number was on the Caller ID. Drat! I was supposed to meet him for supper. I took a deep breath and answered the phone. 

“Hello?” Despite trying to hide my trembling voice, it came through with my greeting.

“Hi, Destiny! Are we still on for—” His normally friendly and peppy greeting was replaced with concern and care. “What’s the matter, sweetheart? Have you been crying?”

Stephen was always so shrewd. “Guilty. Have you seen the news from Bridgeport?”

“No, I haven’t. What’s wrong?”

“It’s Jeff…” Even though it was Stephen, I still couldn’t tell him without tears. “He’s getting married. I just saw it on television.”

“I’m so sorry, Destiny. What can I do to help?” 

I sniffled into the phone. “Can I take a raincheck for supper tonight, Stephen? I’m sorry.” 

“Maybe you shouldn’t be alone tonight, sweetheart. Let me come pick you up, and we’ll go for dinner as we planned. Please?”

“Are you sure? I don’t want to ruin your evening, too.” 

“Of course, I’m sure, Destiny. That’s what friends are for.”

“Give me about twenty minutes? I need to get cleaned up a bit.” As much as I didn’t feel like being social, maybe Stephen was right.

“I’ll just let myself in,” he said. I gave him a key to the house after I locked myself out one nightmarish evening. It was an event I didn’t care to repeat.

“Sounds good,” I replied and hung up the phone.

Forty minutes later, I walked down my stairs to Stephen’s bright, friendly smile. “You’re late,” he teased. “But the wait was worth it. You look beautiful.” 

I blushed. “Thank you.” He took my hand and led me from the house to his car.

He drove us to a small, informal restaurant off the Los Sueños strip near the Hoi Polloi. We had been there many times before; it was one of the few places in town where folks could relax without celebrities hanging around. 

The restaurant was a quaint Italian pizzeria decorated in rustic tones, red checkered tablecloths, sheer white window linens, and terrazzo tiles on the floor. There was a separate lounge with a karaoke stage, and a bar stocked with liquor and beer on tap. In the middle of the dining room, a small dance floor sat. Though there were few customers there that night, during the weekend, the lines to get in stretched around the building. It was a very trendy hangout among the working-class residents of Starlight Shores. 

The host sat us at a small table near the window overlooking the Hoi Polloi. The waiter, a young man who introduced himself as Cyrus, took our drink order—sweet tea for me, and a pop for Stephen—and left us to peruse the menu. He smiled at me and took my hand. 

“So, tell me, what had you so upset? I know it involved that self-important sea scallop.”

That self-important sea scallop? I giggled a little more than I should have, much to Stephen’s delight. His refusal to address Jeff by his name often brought unique, humorous, and sometimes colorful descriptions of him. “Well, you know the history I have with Jeff. It isn’t like I wanted him to be alone forever; I should be happy he’s found someone new. But he said he’d never be involved with another woman after what I did to him.”

“What YOU did to HIM? Oh please. Sweetheart, if anyone suffered in that relationship, it was you. He seems like he’s doing just fine.”

“That’s what he told me. Looking back, I think it was more a guilt trip than anything else.” Stephen nodded in agreement. “So, I should backtrack a bit to the part where he had a female band member, but he neglected to tell me about her. I learned about her on his graduation day. I was so angry.” 

“Rightfully so, in my honest opinion. Why didn’t he mention her, do you think?” 

I sighed. “Well, seeing how they’re engaged to be married now, I think it’s pretty obvious he was playing me long before we broke up. I see now how our marriage would have ended, and it wouldn’t have been pretty. Almost everything he accused me of doing, he was doing to me.”

“Ah yes, projection. Destiny, the scallop sounds like a grade A narcissist—” The waiter interrupted him. Cyrus placed our drinks on the table and waited for our food order, but neither of us had peeked at the menu, much less decided. “Can we have a few more minutes?” Stephen asked.

“Take your time, sir. I’ll be back to check on you shortly.” Cyrus bowed and walked away.

Stephen turned his attention back to me. “I know it hurts you to realize that idiot is moving on. But maybe it’s better this way.” 

A light bulb lit in my head with his utterance of those words. “Maybe it’s better this way…” I repeated, deep in thought. 

Stephen recognized the look on my face. “I just gave you an idea, didn’t I?” 

“You did. I need to write this down before it’s gone.” I pulled my journal from my purse—I always had one with me for such an occasion—but I couldn’t find my pen, of course. Drat! I feverishly looked through my bag for a pen and discovered one hiding in the depths of the black abyss. “Found it!” I declared, holding the slender, silver trophy in my hand.

I spent the next ten minutes writing the words to a song. They poured out of my soul and into my notebook with so little effort. When I was finished, I could barely read the chicken scratch—I’d apparently inherited Daddy’s atrocious penmanship—but my thoughts were there, saved until I could get home. Stephen read the words as I wrote them, nodding his approval. 

“Where did THAT come from?” he asked, wearing a grin. “That is sheer brilliance!” 

“That was your inspiration,” I said. “Thank you.”

*****

The next morning, the temperature was freezing outside. My breath puffed from my mouth in steamy plumes as I opened the coffee shop to begin my shift. That was when I noticed her; a skinny, dirty little cat meowed and caught my attention. She walked to me and rubbed against my ankles. I reached down to pet her; for a stray cat, she was friendly but obviously neglected and starving.

“Hello there,” I said to her. “You look like you could stand to eat, little one.” I reached down to pick her up. She didn’t fight me at all. “You poor little thing.” She purred as I carried her into the employee break room. Jared came in two minutes later. 

“I see you’ve met Poppy,” he said. “She’s been hanging around the shop for the last couple of days. I’ve been giving her some of the food that doesn’t sell. She seems to like the orange poppyseed muffins, which is why I started calling her Poppy. I can’t bring her home because my landlord won’t allow a pet. It breaks my heart.” 

“You’ve named her, Jare?” I brought a saucer down from the cabinet and filled it with some cream. I knew dairy wasn’t the best food for her, but it sure beat a poppyseed muffin. “It sounds like you’re already attached.”

He reached to scratch the cat’s head. “Well, I hate to see her in such terrible shape. Sometimes, I really dislike people. Who does that to an animal?”

The cat lapped at the milk I set down for her, purring all the while. I never got attached to the barn cats we had on the farm back home, but this cat was different. She had obviously been someone’s pet—a cat used to being cared for and loved—not a feral barn mouser. That she’d been neglected for this long tugged at my heartstrings. “She needs a suitable home, someone to love and care for her. Maybe I’ll bring her home with me today, since you can’t take her. I could sure use some company, too.”

Jared smiled. “I agree, and I think it’s a great idea.” 

Mama told me frequently about a barn cat she had as a child, one that used to sleep on her bed in the winter. Snugglebugg, as Mama named her, was more a pet than a barn cat, one that she spoke of often with fondness. I always wondered why she never took in a pet from the tamer barn cats. Perhaps she had too much to worry about with keeping the farm out of the red. At least in the barn, the cats had their fill of small vermin, and never went hungry. 

Poppy was on my mind as I worked my shift that morning. We let her out back into the fenced yard behind the coffeehouse, since the county ordinance prohibited her being inside. I had an old beach blanket in my car’s trunk. I lined a box with it and set it by the door for her as a temporary shelter. When my shift was over, Poppy was outside the door, pawing at it and yowling. Seeing her like that confirmed I was making the right decision. I hung my apron up in the break room and collected my purse. 

“Are you bringing Poppy home, Des?” Jared sat sipping a cup of coffee, keeping an eye out for Evangeline. She and a new hire would work the afternoon-to-close shift.

I nodded. “Mmhmm. First, a stop at the vet, and then the pet store. I need some things for her before I bring her home.” She rubbed against my ankles again, mewing. “You poor little thing,” I said as I scooped her up into my arms. She snuggled close to me, curled up inside my winter jacket. “Let’s go home.” 

The vet determined ‌Poppy was twelve to thirteen years old, about two pounds underweight with an upper respiratory infection. Dr. Hughes said that although she was ‌scrawny, her condition wasn’t dire. He gave her a shot of antibiotics, some subcutaneous fluid, and worm medication, just to be on the safe side. I’d bring her back at a later time for a normal exam and shots. At the pet store, I bought a new litter box, two different kinds of food, toys, and a warm, fluffy bed. She slept tucked inside my jacket while I walked around the store, shopping for the things I needed. 

How this poor cat survived outside in the harsh winter weather was beyond me, but she wouldn’t have to brave sub-zero temperatures and be hungry anymore. I talked to her while I opened a can of food, and she returned the conversation in meows and trills. She finally got to eat an appropriate meal instead of scraps that Jared fed her from the coffeehouse. Poppy devoured everything I gave her and drank a long time from the bowl I filled with fresh water. 

It took no time at all to fall in love with this sweet, affectionate little cat. Someone’s loss was definitely my gain. The living room was chilly, so I lit a fire in the hearth, and then sat in Daddy’s old recliner. Poppy took her place in my lap, settling down to bathe herself. She walked onto my chest and curled up there. We dozed off together in the early evening, curled up like old friends.


By spring, Poppy had filled out; her coat looked shiny and healthy, and her ribs weren’t visible anymore. She had energy like a young cat and was extremely friendly. And though she’d spent a good amount of time outside, she seemed to prefer the indoors. In every way, Poppy was content, and frankly, so was I.

Having Poppy to care for filled a need I didn’t realize I had; her constant companionship. And though I wasn’t ready for another romantic relationship, I was lonely. Friends couldn’t fill the void that Poppy did. She slept on my bed every night, greeted me at the door when I came home from work, and listened to my troubles without judgment. I needed Poppy, and she needed me.

I sat on the floor in the living room, enjoying the cool breeze from an open window. Poppy played with a toy nearby while I strummed my guitar. A knock sounded at the door; I was expecting Stephen to stop by.

“Come in!” I called out. Stephen stepped inside, greeted by my furry welcoming committee.

“Hi Poppy,” he said, reaching down to scratch her head. “Are you taking good care of our girl?” 

I smiled. “She is.” Her musical trills always warmed my heart; she was too darned cute. I set my guitar on its stand and stood up for a hug. “You’re just in time! I’m almost done with this song.” 

“Is this the one you started writing at the pizza place?” 

I nodded with a smile. “I think it could be a hit for someone.” 

“What about you? Why don’t you record it, Destiny?”

“I can’t afford studio time on a barista’s salary, Stephen. But believe me, I’d love to.” 

“What if I could make that happen? I know a few people in high places.” 

I felt uneasy, and I started making excuses. “I… I don’t have a band, or anything like that.”

“Why not do an acoustic demo? That’s all the rage these days. Everyone is remaking their big hits as acoustics.”

While what he said was true, those artists actually had established careers. No one outside the coffeehouse knew my name. “I-I don’t know…”

He put his hands on my shoulders and looked straight into my eyes. “What are you waiting for? Destiny, the world needs to hear you. You’re much more talented than you give yourself credit for, and that’s the biggest waste.”

I shook my head and stepped away from him. “I will not record it, Stephen, but I’d still like for you to hear it. The musical arrangement is almost finished, and I’d like your opinion.”

“Of course.” He came in and sat on the loveseat; Poppy jumped into his lap and settled down, demanding his attention. Stephen was all too happy to oblige her. I pulled up a chair, took my guitar, and settled down to play.

“This is still a work in progress, but the lyrics are finished. The name is Maybe It’s Better This Way.” A smile crossed Stephen’s face.

He stroked Poppy’s fur while I plucked the strings on the guitar, playing the opening of my new song. I got through the first verse and the chorus and stopped. In my peripheral vision, I noticed ‌Stephen had his eyes closed, his jaw clenched, and I detected the slightest sniffle as he choked back tears. 

“What do you think?” 

His eyes opened; the tears he’d been trying to hold dripped down his cheek. He wiped them away and tried to collect himself. Apparently, the song had hit a raw nerve, but it was just the reaction I’d hoped for. Finally, he shook his head and took a breath. 

“That song is so moving, Destiny. If you were trying to convey heartache and despair, you killed it.” 

A smile pulled across my face. “That’s exactly what I was trying to say.”

“Mission accomplished.”

“This song came from a deeply personal place. In a way, it’s helped to bring some needed closure.”

“Are you certain you don’t want to record that song, Destiny? It could be your first big hit.” 

I shrugged my shoulders. “It will be a hit for someone. I doubt it will be me, though. I gave up that dream, remember?”

“I’m telling you Destiny, you are going to be discovered. I don’t know when, and I don’t know where. But someday, the stars will align, and you’ll become one of them.” 

For months, I told myself I’d be content being a songwriter, making other people famous with my lyrics and allowing other vocalists to live my dream. But Stephen’s encouragement was reigniting a passion I thought had died—the longing I’d moved to the city to satiate.

That night, as I knelt beside my bed, I talked to Daddy like I did almost every night. This time, it felt different. I needed a sign, something that would tell me what to do. 

Daddy, I know you’ve heard my new song. I wish so much that you were here to tell me what you think, which direction I should go. I’m not content working at the coffeehouse, even though it’s a reliable income. Daddy, I want more. I want to pursue my childhood dreams. But it’s so hard here, I don’t know what to do. Please send me a sign that you hear me. You were always so wise, and I’d love your advice. I’ll wait for your timing, because I know you’ll send the answer I need. I will love you and Mama forever. Please tell her I said hi.

As I set his prayer book on my nightstand, an old, tattered piece of paper fell from its pages. I don’t know where it came from; I thought I’d been through that book cover to cover. The paper looked like it had been torn from a book, perhaps part of a journal. Maybe this was the missing page from his travel journal Mama always wondered about? With trembling hands, I reached for the paper and unfolded it. 

I don’t know how long I’ve been living in the village, about two to three months, by my best guess. My leg is still painful to bear weight, but I suppose it’s as good as it’s going to get. And as much I love it here, I’m desperate for home. I hunger for your arms around me, darling Frannie. I long to hear our daughter’s voice say, “Daddy,” one more time. Every day, I wrestle with making the journey home, because I know it will be on foot should I ever attempt it. I don’t look forward to it; the physical pain would be excruciating. Not having you and Destiny in my life, however, would be more than my aching heart could bear.

I have written most of this journal to you, sweetheart. Allow me, for a moment, to talk to our precious baby girl?

My breath caught in my throat, and goosebumps rose ‌on my skin. My hands went from a slight tremble to a full shake. I swallowed hard and continued to read.

Destiny, my sweet princess, how I miss your little voice and giggles. I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again, or watch you grow into the beautiful young woman I know you’ll become. So, if I never make it home, there are a few things I want to tell you.

If you’re like your mama, you’ll have a tender heart, sacrificing yourself for those you love and cherish. You’ll be a hard worker, and you’ll succeed in anything you do. Your family, friends, and everyone around you will gravitate toward you, much like they do with your mama. Her never-say-die attitude will be yours. You’ll be loved so deeply, you will never fail. I would be happy to see this come to pass for you.

But if you’re anything like your old man, you’ll want to do big things with your life. You won’t be content to stay in one place for long, and your dreams will be larger than life. I want to encourage you, Destiny, to do the things you dream of, because you know you’ll never be happy with anything less. Reach for the stars, my baby girl, and become one of them. 

A lone, salty tear dripped from my eyes and splattered on the note I held in my hand. How could he have known all those years ago what my ambitions would be? Wasn’t this the exact thing Stephen had told me? An eerie chill swept across my body; I wiped the droplet from the page and continued to read his words.

Finally, stay true to your faith, because if your mama raises you well, you will be a woman of great faith, just like her. Pray often, and love deeply. Follow the narrow path set before you, and He will never let you down. Put your trust in Him, and He will guide you. It is because of His grace and mercy that I still live. 

If my circumstances keep me from returning home, I hope you’ll forgive me. Know, Destiny, that I will never forget you. You and your mama will be forever in my heart, and always on my mind. Be well and do good in your life. I will see you again someday. If not while we live, then in heaven. I will love you and your mama forever. 

Hugs and kisses,

Daddy.

This was not the first time I’d gotten confirmation that I needed from Daddy, but it was the first time it had happened so quickly. So quickly, in fact, that I sat in stunned disbelief for a moment. His words were the warm hug I yearned for, and the gentle encouragement I sought. Peaceful tranquility washed over me; I knew exactly what path I should take. I wiped tears from my eyes, looked toward the heavens, and whispered to him, “thank you, Daddy.

I climbed into bed and pulled the blanket up to my chin. Poppy, who had been waiting for me to settle down, jumped onto the bed and rubbed her face on mine—her nightly ritual—before she bedded down on my pillow each night. I reached to scratch her head; she returned a trill and a content mew. 

“Sleep well, my sweet Poppy,” I whispered in the night’s stillness. “I love you.”

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Up Next: Chapter Six, Generation Two


Poppy’s story—her rescue from the cold, wintry streets of Starlight Shores—was inspired by Twiggy’s rescue story from “Balam Says” on Instagram. Twiggy, in her short time with her adoptive family, stole the hearts (mine and Chris’ included!) of thousands of followers. She crossed the Rainbow Bridge on March 9th after she suffered complications from Feline Leukemia Virus. Her legacy is one of love and hope, and it’s in her honor that we have the opportunity to help the Balam Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit. The Balam Foundation works to help impoverished communities with cat and dog sterilization programs, rehabilitation of wild cats, and other animal causes. If you don’t already follow Balam Says on IG, please check out Balam and Co., and the witty, wonderful, and compassionate Phaedra Barratt, cat mom and caretaker. If you are interested in supporting the Balam Foundation, you may do so here: The Balam Foundation.

Thank you for considering your donation!


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I’m Still Here!

Hello everyone!

I just wanted to let you all know that I’m still here, alive and kicking, and working on editing my latest chapter of the Legacy to publish. Hopefully, I’ll finish this soon, and get back on track.

Our year of challenges has continued, though not as badly as we started out. My hubby continues to have health struggles, but I think we’re on the right path to healing now. He’s had surgery on his foot, and he’s required much more of my time and attention. As it should, family comes first, and the blog… well, it loses out in situations like this. I’ve been struggling with increased pain issues since recovering from COVID, too. We’re quite the pair!

There are some exciting plans for the next five to six chapters in the works, so I hope you’ll stay tuned as we develop new storylines and revisit old ones from the original Gen Two text. I’m going to admit something I seldom do as a writer; I’ve had a terrible writer’s block since February, since Chapter Four was published. Five has been slow going, so Chris is dedicating some time to help me polish it into the story I want it to be. We’ll see some of Destiny’s character being developed in her narration, and a surprise I don’t want to give away until the chapter is released; I’m very excited about it! 

Now, I realize the Chapter Five teaser has been out for a while. I know I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I’m pretty picky about what I’m writing, and how it looks before it’s published. Content won’t go live until I’m at least 95% happy with it (there is always room for improvement!) so my chapters are slower than I’d like. Please bear with me just a little while longer? The wait will be worth it.

Summer brings warm weather, fun activities, and weddings! Oh, but who? (You already know!) Stay tuned!

G2 Chapter Five – Teaser

Six Months Later

A big concert was scheduled at the Hoi Polloi that evening, a classic rock and roll band on a reunion tour. I overheard the conversation at the table; the group was attending the concert and staying in town for a few days. Tourism was good for Starlight Shores. It helped bring revenue into shops that catered to working class folks like me, and not the snooty, ritzy restaurants and nightclubs that littered the Los Sueños Strip.

I nodded at Jared, letting him know that I’d take the table of concert-goers. He continued to wipe down the counters and clean the coffee presses. I grabbed my pad from my apron pocket, but I wasn’t sure why. I didn’t need to write the orders. While I waited for the group to decide, I glanced at their faces. All six of them were men, maybe Aunt Jenny’s age or close to it. 

Each of them ordered a coffee drink and a pastry from the case. As I was jotting their orders onto my notepad, I noticed one man staring at me. I was regretting my decision to take this table; his relentless stare was making me very uncomfortable.

“I’ll have your orders in a few moments,” I said and walked away. Jared must have noticed my troubled expression, because he was right there to question me.

“Are you having problems with that six-top?” 

I shook my head and turned my attention away from them. “Not a problem, but one of them is just staring at me. It’s a little awkward.”

“I’ll keep an eye on them,” he said while I prepared their coffee. I only nodded in acknowledgment.

To be continued…

Find out the rest of the story soon!


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Thank you for reading

G2 Chapter Four – The Aftermath

Author’s Note: This chapter contains adult situations and language. Reader discretion is advised.


Three Days Later

I curled into the fetal position, laying on the bed in the swanky hotel penthouse Jeff reserved for our special weekend together. Since Saturday—the day that my life fell to pieces—I wallowed in my self-inflicted misery. The scene played in my memory when I closed my eyes to sleep; each repetition ripped the bandage off the gaping, but not quite fatal, wound.

Our last moments together before the fateful phone call were so loving and tender. We had hopes that our first child was conceived from the love we made; now, that possibility invaded my thoughts. What if he had succeeded? A baby now, without its father, would be the end of my non-existent singing career. Every outcome of that scenario ended badly for me and a child. How would I raise it alone? And more importantly, how would I afford it? I could barely survive on my own. I couldn’t let myself think about it.

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My phone laid next to me on the bed, blaring the alarm I had set to remind me I had a flight to catch. Without blinking, I reached for it and turned it off. My arms wrapped around my chest to help ease the ache; it wasn’t working. When I squeezed my eyes shut, I could still see Jeff’s angry expression. I could still hear the heartbreak in his resentful words. Another tear rolled down my cheek and soaked into the already damp duvet. Is it possible to cry too much?

I dragged myself with a painful groan off the bed and into the shower. The water was as hot as I could tolerate, and I cried again in the steam. I needed to pull myself together. The last bit of soap rinsed from my hair, I turned the water off and stood there, dripping more than just the droplets from my shower. I reached for the towel and wrapped it around my long, red hair.

There wasn’t much to pack. One small carry-on suitcase only had my pajamas removed from it. The outfit I’d worn on the airplane still laid on the bed in a crumpled heap. Since changing clothes on Saturday night, I hadn’t been dressed again.

My taxi would arrive at 10:30 AM to bring me to the airport in Bridgeport. I had twenty minutes to finish packing and collect myself. My phone illuminated with the reminder; Jeff’s happy face smiled in the background. Seeing him felt like a sucker punch in the gut. With just minutes to spare, I left the suite with my suitcase and backpack. The garment bag containing the gown still hung where Jeff left it. I couldn’t bear to bring it home, and I knew the hotel would return it to him.

Jeff texted with information about my return flight before he left for his tour on Sunday evening. My fare home, which he had prepaid, waited at the ticket counter for me to pick up. I hoped he hadn’t rescinded that, too. I approached the ticket agent with my identification in my hand.

“Farmer,” I said. “There’s a ticket waiting for me.” I placed my ID on the counter and slid it toward her.

She typed my information into the computer, cocked her head, and smiled. “Destiny, right?”

“Mmhmm.”

“I have your ticket here.” She paused and shook her head with a confused expression. I felt my body tense. What had Jeff done now? “I’ve never seen this type of code on a fare before. Excuse me for a moment?”

What choice did I really have? “Sure.” With my answer, she stepped away from her computer terminal. I wondered if I could reach my investment contact at an odd time, and if he would release funds, should I need them. It would be just like Jeff to cancel my ticket.

I had waited about five minutes when she returned with a smile. “I’m sorry about the delay. You’re all set.”

“What was the problem?”

“The ticket was downgraded from first class to coach. I had never seen that code before. We usually see upgrades, not downgrades.” She handed the paper ticket to me with a friendly, but apprehensive, smile.

“Thank you.” I wasn’t about to complain. Jeff could have made my day even more difficult. I was thankful he didn’t. I checked my case and slung my backpack over my shoulder.

The walk to the gate seemed long. It could have been because I was anxious about my return home. Trying to contain my emotion was sapping my strength. I just wanted to curl up in bed and cry. Instead, I was walking through an airport, returning to the only home in the Shores I’d known. The first, and only home Jeff and I shared. The home I’d need to vacate within the month. Not to mention, I had to make a phone call I dreaded. Aunt Jenny and Uncle Paul planned to attend the wedding. The news of our breakup would be excruciating to tell her.

The airline called my row for boarding after first class. My seat was in the back of the plane near the lavatory, and in front of the engine. Thanks, Jeff, I thought to myself. This would be a noisy ride home. Passengers filed into the seats in front of mine; I prayed no one would claim the seat next to me. I wanted nothing more than to be alone.

It seemed my prayer would be answered, but at the last moment, a chubby, older man hurried down the aisle, checking his ticket. Oh no, I thought. Not here! Sure enough, he stopped at my row, pushed his glasses up onto his nose, and plopped himself down next to me. He smiled and extended a hand. I wasn’t really interested in pleasantries, but I took his hand, anyway.

“I’m Gus.”

“Destiny,” I said with a feeble shake. I turned my attention back outside the window.

“Where are you headed?” he asked. Perhaps the question was innocent, just small talk. I wasn’t in the mood.

“Starlight Shores.”

“Me too!” Oh goody.

“Look,” I said, “I would like to be left alone. It’s not you…” There was that miserable glob of emotion in my throat again. “Please…” He watched a tear fall from my eyes and soak into my sweater.

“No offense taken, Destiny.” He turned away from me; I immediately felt guilty.

“I’m sorry, Gus. It’s just that—”

“You don’t need to explain. We’re just strangers on an airplane. It’s okay.”

Whew! “Thanks for understanding.” He shrugged and nodded my way, busying himself with a newspaper. I plugged my earbuds into my music player and tuned out of the world, if only for a couple of hours.

*****

The flight felt as though we’d been in the air for a day instead of two hours. Gus said nothing more to me during the flight and left without incident. I gathered my backpack and stood, waiting my turn to exit the plane.

I needed a cab back into the city; a part of me wished that I’d run into Arthur again. My bag was the last off the plane, of course. I grabbed it and walked toward the throng of waiting cabs outside baggage claim. A young man approached me. “Where are you going, Miss?”

“Starlight Shores,” I said.

“I’ll take you.” He grabbed my case and stowed it in the trunk, opened the door for me, and held it while I got in.

He drove thirty minutes back into the city and stopped outside the highrise building where I lived. Things were so different than they were when I left on Saturday morning. I was so lost in thought, I didn’t hear the driver when he told me the fare.

“Miss?”

“Oh,” I said with a sheepish grin. “I’m sorry. How much do I owe you?” 

“Twenty-five.” I peeled off two twenties and placed them into his hand.

“Keep the change as a tip.”

“Are you sure, Miss?”

I nodded. “Mmhmm. Before you go, can I ask you a question?”

He nodded with hesitation. “Yeah…”

“Do you know an Arthur…” My mind skipped. I forgot his last name! “I mean, is there an Arthur that drives for your company?”

He shook his head. “Not to my knowledge, no.” Drat!

“Okay, thank you.” It was worth a try. I took my case and pulled it inside the door.

On the nineteenth floor, Tiffany stood waiting for the elevator. She was the last person I needed to encounter. She must have noticed I was out of sorts, because she couldn’t help herself.

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“What’s eatin’ you, Ginger Snap?”

“Leave me alone,” I grumbled. I no sooner had my key in the lock when her hand was on the door, holding it shut.

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“What does that man see in you? You’re always so nasty.”

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“Last warning, Tiffany. Leave me alone.”

“Ooh!” she taunted me. “What are you gonna do? Cry? Call the cops?”

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I turned around and advanced toward her, pinning her against her apartment door. “I told you to leave me alone!” I growled through my teeth at her. My fist was clenched, and I was hot. I might have been shorter and weaker, but one more jab from her would have lit my fuse.

“Alright, alright. Geez, you’re a bitch, Destiny.” She pushed me away and walked toward the elevator. I took the opportunity to go inside and locked the door behind me.

The first thing I saw staring back at me from the living room wall was the huge portrait Jeff and I had taken for our engagement announcements. We looked so happy and so in love, I wouldn’t have thought anything could destroy it. But I did. The grief hit me like a sledgehammer; I ran to my bedroom, collapsed onto my bed, and bawled until I fell asleep.


I allowed myself an extra day off work to recover from the disaster. Jared understood when I told him there was a family emergency. Sitting in the penthouse’s living room, on the loveseat I brought from home, I held my phone in my grip. Aunt Jenny’s phone number was dialed in. All I had to do was press Send. Why couldn’t I do it? Why was life so difficult for me? And then I remembered… It’s my own damn fault.

I took a breath as my finger hovered over the call button. Whether it was a muscle tic, or I actually meant to press it, was a mystery. The phone rang twice before Aunt Jenny’s musical voice answered.

“Hi Desi!” she said. “Are you getting excited about next Saturday?”

“Hi Aunt Jenny,” my voice trembled. There was so much turmoil in my soul, from the old nickname to my awful news. I wanted to crawl into bed and sleep until my birthday. “I have something to tell you.”

There was silence on the other end of the phone for a moment. “Is everything okay, Destiny?”

My heart pounded in my chest; I sniffled back tears that wanted to escape. “No.”

I heard the concern in her voice. “What’s wrong? Is Jeff okay?”

“I don’t know.” That was the truth. I assumed he wasn’t, though. “The wedding is off. Jeff and I broke up…” My voice faded to ragged sobs. Through the tears, I heard Aunt Jenny’s quivering voice.

“What happened? You two were perfect for each other.”

“It’s my fault. He had life-changing news, and I ruined it.”

“I don’t understand, Destiny. What was his news? How did you ruin things?”

Her questions sought only to find answers. To me, they ripped open the wounds that had only superficially closed. I couldn’t hold the emotion back any longer. I sobbed on the phone with the only aunt I knew, the only family I had that remained. While I wept, her soft whispers of comfort came through the phone over hundreds of miles; it felt as though she was right there with me, ready to hug me as I cried. I heard a question in the background, and a ‘shh’ sound in reply, along with the words, ‘The wedding is off.’ That didn’t help.

What seemed an eternity later, I collected myself enough to speak. “Jeff brought me to Bridgeport this weekend to tell me his news. We were going to have supper together at a fancy restaurant. He wanted me to know his band landed a recording contract. But before we got to supper, his agent called.” I took a deep breath and held it. “They’re on tour with Acidic Tides, as of Monday.”

Aunt Jenny was very aware of my troubles in Starlight Shores, so she understood the impact his news had on me. Or so I thought. “Well, that sounds like a good thing…? Isn’t it, Desi?”

“It is…” For Jeff, I thought. I couldn’t believe the jealousy that still invaded my thoughts. I resented him, and I had no right to do so. “He told me we needed to postpone the wedding indefinitely. At the moment, Daddy’s temper took over what Mama’s tender heart meant to say. I was jealous of his instant success after I’ve spent the last year struggling.”

“That doesn’t sound like you, Destiny. Jealousy and anger are grave transgressions.”

I sniffled into the phone. “I know. It gets worse.”

“I’m listening.”

I took a deep breath and exhaled every bit of air from my lungs. What was I waiting for? “Jeff didn’t understand why I was so angry. Looking back, I’m not sure, either. But then I…” The emotion welled up in my eyes again; a tear rolled down my cheek and splattered onto my leg. “I screamed at him, Aunt Jenny.”

“What did you say?”

“I told him…” Breathe, Destiny. “I said I hated him.”

Aunt Jenny’s shocked gasp on the other end of the phone brought more tears. With her reaction, I was reminded how badly I’d screwed up my life. I wasn’t prepared for her next words.

“How disappointing, Desi. You were not raised to hate.”

I wanted to hang up the phone and throw it against the wall. But her words pricked at my heart; I knew she was right. “Mama and Daddy would be so disappointed in me, wouldn’t they?”

She hesitated, stumbling over her words. I don’t think she wanted to saddle me with more guilt or pain. “Oh, sweet pea, I don’t think you could ever disappoint your mama and daddy.”

You’re letting me off the hook? I thought. “You really think so?”

“I’m certain of it.” She switched back into comfort mode. “You must be heartbroken.”

To say I was heartbroken didn’t quite cut it. “I am devastated, Aunt Jenny. He was my soulmate.”

“Did he give you the chance to explain how you felt?”

I shook my head, as though she could see me. “No. I tried to apologize, but he wouldn’t hear it.”

“I can understand why he was hurt, but he didn’t give you the opportunity to make amends? That isn’t right, either. Couples fight, but in the end, they try to work out differences. It sounds to me, Desi, that Jeff wasn’t ready for the long-term commitment of marriage, especially with his career taking off.”

I hadn’t stopped to consider the possibility Aunt Jenny had presented. Maybe Jeff was looking for a way out, and I presented him with the perfect opening. “Maybe you’re right.”

“I think I am, Desi. There were other reasons behind his quick departure. If he loved you as much as he claimed, he’d have given you the chance to explain yourself.”

For the first time since Saturday, I felt better. “Thank you, Aunt Jenny. You make sense.”

“You’re welcome, kiddo. I’m always here if you need me, okay?”

“Okay. I love you and Uncle Paul so much. I’m sorry I won’t get to see you, though.”

“Maybe we’ll get a chance to come visit you soon. I’d love to see your new home.”

“I’d really like that.”

“I would too, Desi. We will talk soon, sweetheart.”

Again, I nodded my head as though she could see me. I really needed to stop doing that. “That sounds good.” We said our goodbyes and hung up the phone.


Two Days Later

The house I first considered when I moved to Starlight Shores over a year ago was still on the market. Its price had been reduced, and the listing changed to “as-is.” This was my chance to get a great deal on the home I wanted, one that was close to everything I needed.

I walked up to the door and knocked. Though the frame was bent and the door wasn’t plumb, the outside looked kept up with fresh paint and younger plants. However, that’s where the curbside appeal ended.

The real estate agent, a lady named Rochelle Watson, greeted me at the front door. A heavy aroma of decay and neglect assaulted my nose the moment I stepped inside. It took my breath away. The walls desperately needed new sheetrock, primer and paint, and I thought it couldn’t have hurt for someone to brush the cobwebs out of the corners. The floors were dirty and worn throughout the first level. In the kitchen were older, worn wooden cabinets, ancient appliances and countertops soiled with heavy dirt. I almost turned around and left, but I already loved the floor plan. Everything else could be fixed.

“You must be Destiny!” she said, her hand extended for a shake. “I’m Rochelle.”

“I am, and it’s nice to meet you, Rochelle.” I continued to look around at the house’s interior. Whoever lived here last did nothing to maintain it; its condition was revolting. “This is in really rough shape.”

“The owner had some problems come up and couldn’t spare the money on improvements. The price reflects its ‘as-is’ condition.” Rochelle ushered me into the kitchen. “They’re willing to give two thousand toward the appliances.”

I said nothing, taking mental notes on everything it needed, and how much it would cost to bring it up to my standards. Two things were certain; the appliance allowance wouldn’t pay for one new appliance, much less all of them, and the owners wanted WAY too much for this junk heap.

She led me on a tour of the house, covering every room on both floors. Though the second floor wasn’t nearly as bad, overall, it needed extensive repairs. “What do you think of it, Miss Farmer?” she asked.

The house was perfect for my needs, even if it was run down and musty. The location was ideal, close to work and the park. Once I got back on my feet, I could really sink some TLC into this fixer-upper. “It’s all the home I need. It’s just me for now.” I tapped my fingers on the kitchen counter. “I like it.”

Rochelle nodded, then continued her sales pitch as though the house was in perfect shape. “You can’t go wrong with this one, Miss Farmer. The central location will make it very convenient for you. You’re close to the park, the coffeehouse, and the Sing-A-Gram HQ is not far away.”

“What’s the list price again?”

The agent looked at her paperwork. “One hundred thirty thousand.”

This was where Jeff’s sage wisdom would come in handy. “I’ll offer one hundred even.”

“But Miss Farmer, homes are selling much higher than this everywhere else, and I can guarantee you that this property will—”

“Please don’t patronize me. I’ve researched this property extensively. I know it’s been on the market for over a year. It obviously needs work, which I’m willing to do myself. I’ve offered a generous price for it, considering all it requires.” I ran my hands over the hardwood carved fireplace. “Just because I sound like backwoods, it doesn’t mean I’m ignorant.”

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“Are you certain you’re only twenty years old?” Rochelle asked me. The look on her face was priceless.

I nodded. “I was valedictorian of my graduating class.”

“Oh, nice!” she said. “High School?”

I nodded again. “College, too.”

“Um, did you say ‘college too’?”

“Yes ma’am,” I said. “I graduated last spring with my BA in fine arts. Top of my class.”

“At nineteen?” Rochelle looked a little more than incredulous.

“Yes. At nineteen. I will be twenty-one in a few weeks.”

“You’ll be a force to contend with in this town, Destiny.”

“I haven’t found that to be true yet, but things can change!” I wanted to switch the subject back to the task at hand. “So, one hundred even is my offer. I’ll be ready with a counteroffer if I need it. I suspect I won’t.”

Rochelle jotted numbers down on a preprinted form. “Who is your lender, so I can send the paperwork?”

“I won’t be using a lender. This is a cash purchase.”

“Pardon me for being so forward, but where does an almost twenty-one-year-old woman get that kind of money?”

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I sat down on the ratty old loveseat in the living room. “Ms. Watson, my folks passed away almost three years ago and left the family estate to me. It had little acreage, but there was a sizable barn on the property with two stalls for horses and a greenhouse. Being in a rural town, a property like theirs was a turnkey investment for a young family just starting out, if they wanted to put in the time and effort to run a farm like Mama and Daddy did, that is. Me? Well, I never felt the call of being a farmer, despite my last name. My desires run bigger. Their farm sold for an acceptable price, which affords me my choice of starter homes here in the Shores. They saved and sacrificed my entire life to give me this chance. It’s a sacrifice I won’t take for granted, and I’m going to, as my daddy told me, ‘grab the world by the horns and give it hell’.”

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“Your parents must have been extraordinary, and so are you.” When I stood, she held her hand to me. “Let’s get this offer ready to submit to the seller. It would surprise me if they turned it down. Let’s face it, we’re trying to put lipstick on a pig here.” The comment made me belly laugh. She wasn’t kidding, either. “They’re motivated to offload this house.”

“That sounds like a great idea.”

*****

Two weeks later, Rochelle and I sat in the title company’s office and signed the papers to close on my new home. I couldn’t have been happier to get the purchase completed. It left me with just a week to move from the penthouse. Jared, Evangeline and her boyfriend, Trevor, helped me move in one evening. I discovered how little I had brought with me from Appaloosa Plains when we placed everything in the new house. What overcrowded the penthouse got lost in the square footage of my new home.

I spent a couple of nights cleaning the penthouse after I moved out. I was elbow deep in cleaning chemicals when I heard the front door open. “Tiffany, you’re not welcomed here!” I shouted out. My voice echoed through the empty apartment.

“Hello, Destiny,” a familiar, seemingly disembodied voice said. I spun around, and my heart fell through the floor.

Jeff.

“I… um…” I didn’t know what to say to him. I had the apartment for another couple of days. “I thought I’d clean it. You know…”

“I’m actually glad I caught you here—”

“I’ll go.” I turned to take my cleaning supplies when he grabbed my wrist.

“Des—”

“Don’t, Jeff. Let’s not say things we’ll regret later. OK?”

“I didn’t come to pick a fight with you. You left something in Bridgeport. I was hoping to return it in person.”

My heart pounded. I wasn’t sure I could handle seeing the item he intended to return. “Not the gown—”

“What am I going to do with it, Des? It’s fitted to you.”

“Please, no…” I felt the emotion returning. Seeing Jeff was difficult enough. Knowing he had the gown with him was more than I could take. “I will never wear it again.”

“If you do, fine. And if you don’t, fine; I don’t care. But I don’t need it anymore, and I’m not bringing it back home with me.”

“What did you hope to accomplish, Jeff? You made it clear that we’re done.”

“We are. But this is yours.” He handed me the dress, still in the garment bag. “I have no need for it.”

“Give it to your next girlfriend,” I said. I tried not to sound cold, but that’s not how it came out of my mouth. His hurt scowl triggered more emotional agony. “I’m sorry.”

“I don’t have a girlfriend. That will never happen again. Thanks to you, I’ll spend my life alone.”

“How’s the tour going?” I had to change the subject. It was killing me inside.

“The Experience is wildly popular. Everyone loves us.”

“I’m happy for you.” I hoped it sounded genuine. 

“Stop lying to me, Des. I know my success is eating you alive.”

“No, it’s not—” My emotions were getting the better of me.

“I see it on your face. I don’t even know why you asked. You really don’t care.”

That’s where you’re wrong! “I do care, Jeff. And I still love you.”

“I wish you hadn’t said that. I can’t reciprocate it. I won’t. I’m sorry.”

“I know it does nothing to say I’m sorry—”

“You’re right.” He stepped back and left the dress hanging on the door. “I need to go. I didn’t come to fight with you. My attorney will be here to walk through in a couple of days.” Before he left, he turned around and looked into my eyes. “Goodbye, Destiny.”

All the healing from the past month without him was undone by his last words. I sank to my knees in the empty living room and wept.


Four days after my twenty-first birthday, which I spent alone, I reapplied at the Sing-A-Gram company on the western Los Sueños strip. Based on my resume alone, they agreed to see me in the office the following day. The same man, Russ, did my interview. He greeted me in the lobby and showed me back to his office. Everything looked the same.

“Miss Farmer, I remember you,” he said, extending his hand for a shake. “You’ve decided to try your hand with Sing-A-Gram. You’ve made a wise move for your career.”

“Thank you for seeing me,” I said. “I’ve had a rough time by myself, so I’m hoping this will help me get my name into the city.”

“We will do everything we can to help you on your way.” He fiddled with my application, I supposed, perusing my work history since my arrival in the Shores. “You’re still working at the Flying V?”

I nodded. “Yes.”

“You’ll need to resign from that position before we can assign you to jobs within the city. That represents a conflict of interest with the proprietor.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “I will turn in my resignation tomorrow.”

Russ nodded his head. “There are two different costumes you’ll be required to wear. For most jobs, the standard singing telegram outfit will suffice. Some customers, however, will request a more risque performance. You’ll have a separate costume more suited for those types of jobs.”

“What will I be required to do?” I was almost afraid to know the answer.

“Do you know how to pole dance, Destiny?”

Pole dance? “Um, no.”

“Don’t worry. It’s an easy skill to attain. We have a three-day class you’ll take, and you should be ready by the end. Tawny is a skilled teacher.”

What was I getting myself into? I wondered. “Anything else I should know?”

“How comfortable are you with partial nudity?” Russ asked. I sat and stared at him like a deer in the headlights of an oncoming car. He must have read my face, because he chuckled. “I’m guessing you’ve never done a striptease before. We’ll train you on that, too.”

“Are you certain this is necessary to get noticed, Russ? I mean, this seems a little over the top—”

“Miss Farmer, every singer in Starlight Shores pays their dues. The Sing-A-Gram is the fastest way to get yourself into the public eye. As I told you two years ago, you could choose to sign with an agent, but they can be expensive for someone who is just starting out. Or you can go it alone. That route is never recommended.”

I sighed. Everything about this gig seemed dicey, but I was a desperate woman. Eighteen months in the Shores, and I was no closer to being on stage than I was when I first arrived. “Okay,” I said. “Sign me up.”

“You’ve made a smart choice, Miss Farmer. I would recommend just using your first name. The name ‘Destiny’ is tailormade for a job like this one.”

If you say so, I thought. “Okay.”

*****

I was horrified to discover what pole dancing really entailed. No wonder it was an easy skill to attain. But I’d already resigned at the coffeehouse, much to Jared’s dismay. I was committed to making this job work to my benefit.

I worked extra hard to learn and master the dance moves I’d need for the night jobs. For the first three weeks at Sing-A-Gram, I was assigned to daytime work. Each time I sang for a client, I left my card with them, hoping for return business.

The first evening job I had was for a wealthy executive in town. I dressed in my costume, pulled my hair up into a ponytail, and gazed at my reflection in the mirror. I almost didn’t recognize myself. Who was I? I wondered.

Since the job site was poorly lit, I applied my makeup a little heavier than usual. My lipstick was a dark, blood red, which matched the satin material of my bodysuit. It had a deep, plunging neckline and it hugged every curve, leaving nothing to imagination. It almost looked like something I’d have worn in the bedroom for Jeff. Instead, I was leaving my house wearing it. I must have been out of my mind.

The job was on the twenty-sixth floor of a high-rise office building in downtown Starlight Shores. The temperature was frigid that night, so I stood in the building’s entryway for a few moments to warm up before taking the elevator. There was no one around; every business in the building was closed for the evening.

After taking a deep breath, I pressed the button for the elevator. I was confident in my ability to do the job I was hired to do, or so I thought. I wasn’t prepared for what awaited me in that office building.

The elevator opened up right inside the office. An older man, who looked to be in his late fifties, sat at the desk. He stood when I approached. “You must be Destiny,” he said. The man wasted no time, taking my hand in his and placing a delicate kiss on it. “You are stunningly beautiful. Just what I needed on a lonely, snowy night like this.”

I blushed and took one step backward. “Thank you.” My mind raced with everything I’d learned. Would I mess up the dance moves? Would I remember my script? I was worried about all the wrong things. “So, what is your pleasure tonight?” I asked, keeping to my script.

The man leered at me, licked his lips, and took a step toward me. “You are, honey.” Before I realized what was going on, he’d embraced me close to him and kissed me. I was certain THAT was not on the list of approved services. He released me, then took my hand in his. “Come with me.”

Every warning bell sounded in my head. “No, thank you,” I said, walking backward.

“I won’t hurt you, Destiny. Please? I hear you have a beautiful voice.”

“What is it you want, Mister…?”

“Fournier. Leonard Fournier.”

“Okay. What do you want, Mister Fournier?”

He took my hand again and tugged at me. “Come back to my office with me.”

My duty was to please my customer. But there were limits to what I would do, job or no job. “I’d rather not.”

“I promise I will not hurt you. Destiny, you’re my employee tonight. You’re compelled to obey me.”

Against my better judgment, I followed Leonard Fournier into his office. It was then I recognized the logo on the wall. Binder Clips Center?! “Wait…”

He wore an amused look on his face. “Yes, Destiny. I own the stadium. I understand you are the most talented young lady on staff at Sing-A-Gram.”

I blushed again, but his statement made me feel no better. “Again, Mister Fournier, what is it you want from me?” I knew I was in a precarious position. I couldn’t say no to him and keep my job. On the other hand, I had personal limits. How far was I willing to go? The very thought of it scared me silly.

He patted the seat next to him on the leather sofa where he sat. “My wife is out of town, Destiny, and I’m a lonely man in need of companionship tonight.” He put his arm around my shoulder. “I wanted the best singer in town, you know, to cheer me up.”

I stayed on script and in character, though I was no actress. I hoped my nerves would stay in check. The perspiration beaded on my forehead. My mouth was dry as sawdust. “What song would you like to hear?”

“What is your favorite song, Destiny? I want you to sing it for me, a cappella.” He leaned back on the sofa and stared at me.

“It Hurts Both Ways,” I blurted out. It was the name I gave to Daddy’s favorite song, the one I promised myself I wouldn’t sing anywhere until I recorded it.

“Who sings that one, Destiny? I have never heard of it.” Leonard ran his finger down the side of my face. This man was old enough to be my daddy. I was determined I’d never let him take advantage of me.

“It’s an original.” I winced and bit my tongue a little harder than I intended.

“I’d rather hear you sing something popular. Let me gauge your talent for myself.”

Though I was relieved he didn’t want to hear my original composition, I felt no better. “How about Katie Price’s big hit?”

I saw him wrinkle his nose. “If you must…”

I slowed my breathing and concentrated on the words to my favorite song. I hummed the first note in my head, then began to sing. The tune was spot-on; the lyrics came easy. I sang the whole first verse of the song when I noticed his unrelenting stare.

“Dance, Destiny. Show off your moves.” I knew what he meant, but I didn’t want to do it.

“Please, Mister Fournier…” Maybe by appealing to his human side, instead of the lustful man that sat in front of me, I could eke some grace out of him.

“Dance, Destiny. Dance like your job depends on it, because it does.”

The funny thing about exotic dancing I learned that night. Doing it in front of co-workers wasn’t difficult. But performing for the owner of the biggest show venue in town is a whole other thing. I walked to him, moved my body, and performed the dance moves I’d been taught. I closed my eyes, wanting to be anywhere else but in that room with him. He pulled me closer and kissed me again. “Strip for me, Destiny. Let me see that gorgeous, twenty-one-year-old body.”

I felt fear rise in my throat. It was something I’d rehearsed dozens of times without the striptease, though I knew the dance moves by heart. My skirt came off first, revealing my blood red bodysuit. My hips gyrated to music I heard only in my head. Mr. Fournier reached for the clasp on the back of my suit and, with the flick of his finger, he had it undone. One more move would cause the costume to slide down my body, exposing me.

Instinctively, my arms crossed over my chest, hiding from him anything he could have seen. “I’m sorry,” I cried, “I can’t do this.” I grabbed my coat and ran from the office and into the waiting area. His heavy footsteps were behind me. This can’t be happening! I thought. In a panic, I ran for the elevator door and pressed the ‘Down’ button. The door opened, and I stepped inside. I stood inside the lift, pressing the button for the first floor repeatedly until the door closed. He missed it by a second.

Safely in the building’s lobby, I ran to my car just outside the door. My hands shook with fear and shame fumbling with the lock. When I finally got it open, I flopped into the seat and locked my door. That was the moment I vowed to never take another night job. I wish I’d stuck to the promise I made that night. I would have saved myself considerable pain.


Six Months Later

Summer festivities were bustling in the Shores with the start of concert season. A multi-band event would play at the Binder Clips Center mid-summer. The tickets sold out in minutes; every band that would headline was well-known and very popular. Even if I wanted tickets to a rock concert, I couldn’t have gotten them.

Russ called me into the office the night of the concert. He wanted to discuss a job opportunity, one he said I would be wise to accept.

“Destiny, I have a rather large client performing at the Clips Center, and they want my best talent for a birthday party tonight after the show. You’re it. If you agree, I can assure you a bonus and a raise, assuming my client is pleased with your performance.”

I was excited. Maybe this would be my ticket to the big time. “I’d be honored.”

“They’ve requested an exotic dancer/singer for a birthday party. I don’t know who the guest of honor is, as they have kept everything on the down-low. Just remember your script, and for goodness’ sake, please don’t disappoint this client. They are my biggest account. I’m counting on you, Destiny.”

“I won’t let you down, Russ. You have my word.” He gave me a winning smile as I turned to leave his office. I would prepare for the party at the Sing-A-Gram headquarters, then drive to the Clips Center from there. My costume—a skin-tight, baby pink satin bodysuit with a fluffy bunny tail, and a set of rabbit ears I’d wear in my hair—was freshly dry cleaned and in my wardrobe. I applied a sheer base of scented powder on my skin. It helped to put my costume on with little struggle.

I gawked at my reflection in the mirror, dressed and made up. You really need to find a new job! I told myself. But the night contracts paid more than daytime jobs, so I tolerated it. I dabbed a glob of gloss onto my lips and straightened the costume before I walked to my car.

The lights emanating from the Clips Center were brilliant, almost as though the sun appeared overhead. Outside, I could hear the band onstage playing their set of rock music. It really wasn’t my cup of tea, but a job is a job. I parked my little car in the lot and walked to the side entrance.

A man dressed in a security uniform answered the door. “Can I help you?” 

He caught me putting the headband into my hair; I gave him a sheepish smile. “I’m with Sing-A-Gram. I’m working the birthday party tonight.”

He pulled a penlight from his pocket, grabbed the paper tacked to a clipboard, and checked. “Destiny, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

He pointed down the hall backstage. “Go down this hallway to the second right. Take the elevator to the second floor, then it’s the first door on your left.”

I smiled at him. “Thank you!”

His eyes scanned my costume; a crooked smile crossed his lips. “Break a leg, sweet thing.”

I ignored his comment and hurried down the hallway, following his directions. Second right, up to the second floor, and first door on the left. Inside the room, I could hear sounds of laughter and talking. I gave myself a quick pep talk, then knocked. The door opened a crack, and someone peeked out.

“You must be the entertainment,” she said. “The birthday boy doesn’t know you’re coming, but we’re going to walk him out blindfolded. When he sits down, we yell ‘Surprise!’, then you start your routine. Okay?”

I nodded. “I usually begin turned away from the crowd. Will that be a problem?”

She giggled with glee. “Oh, that will be perfect! He’s going to love this.” She tucked her head back inside the room, awaiting the ‘okay’ from the crowd. There was an uproar, and then a thumbs up. It was ‘go time’.

She guided me into the room, and everyone got quiet. It was a little odd, but I thought nothing of it. I took my place on the stage they had set up, ready to sing my opening line on her command. A commotion started behind me; I could almost feel the excitement in the room. I knew it would be a night to remember.

Boy, was that an understatement.

They situated the guest of honor, still wearing a blindfold, in a seat that was front and center in the room. I heard the go signal, took the mic, and spoke in the most sultry voice I could muster. After the first verse of the song, I turned around. My client sat spellbound by my voice, still blindfolded, until my first note of the chorus. When our eyes met, I froze, and I heard his audible gasp.

Jeff? What the…?!

I couldn’t stop the performance I had been paid handsomely to do, so I swallowed every bit of emotion that welled up within me. I closed my eyes and pretended, if only for a moment, that it was just Jeff and me back at the penthouse, and I was doing my level best to lure him into my bed. But when I opened them again, the only expression I saw was one of disgust and disappointment.

A young brunette woman bounded out from the back room, all smiles and giggles. She ran to Jeff and sat in his lap, confused by the look on his face. She whispered to him, and he shrugged in return. I tried not to think about it as I continued my act.

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I danced up to Jeff, winked at the young woman with him, and she giggled, left his side and went to sit with the group. Part of my paid routine was a lap dance, something I had only done once before. That it was Jeff should have made me more comfortable with it. Instead, I was nervous and felt more than a little dirty.

When I finished, he took my wrist and yanked my body down close to him. “I need to talk to you,” he said. His words were forceful and harsh. Suddenly, I was cotton-mouthed and I couldn’t sing the rest of my number. None of that seemed to matter to the crowd, who were cheering my name in a drunken clamor. Jeff’s hands on mine were firm as he pulled me from the crowd to a quiet backroom.

Though he’d never been rough with me before, he pushed me into a chair. His actions had every hallmark of a jealous boyfriend, without the boyfriend part. Jeff paced the floor without saying a word, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little frightened.

As he had done during our last fight in Bridgeport, his face displayed every emotion he felt. Anger was the one he expressed, and he did so right in my face. His breath reeked of stale beer and spirits. I suspected he might have been drunk.

“What the HELL was that, Des?! I mean, you tell me you hate me, and then you come on to me like a cat in heat?! Is this what you’re doing now?”

“I don’t see how my life is your business! You ended our relationship almost a year ago!” I spat back. “The last I remembered, I was on my own here!”

He knelt in front of me, took my hands, and wiped tears from his eyes. “Are you so jealous of me, Des, that you’re willing to sell yourself to find success?” Ouch.

“I-I…” I didn’t have an answer for him; the tears in his eyes confused me. Does he still have feelings for me? I wondered. “I don’t know—” He stood as I spoke, interrupting me.

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“How can you NOT know?” Jeff looked down his nose at me, wearing an angry scowl on his face. “I don’t even know who you are anymore! I’m so happy I dodged a bullet by breaking our engagement. You’re disgusting.”

His words ripped open old wounds, ones I thought had healed long ago. I sat in the chair, breathless and stunned by his hateful words. This must have been what I sounded like to him the day of our fight. Tears flooded my eyes and ran down my face. “I’m not jealous…” I whispered under my breath.

“Then what is it?”

I shrugged. “I’m tired of struggling, Jeff. You walked into fame and money so easily, and here I am, two years later, still trying to make my way…” It was then the awful realization hit me. I WAS jealous of him, and bitterly so.

“Be glad your folks aren’t alive to see you now, Des. I bet they wouldn’t be so proud to see you selling your body, and your soul, to the lowest bidder—”

My hand connected hard with his cheek. With shock and horror, my hands covered my face. My mouth opened to verbalize an apology; only an unintelligible squeak left my lips. Jeff said nothing. He only turned around and left me in the room, weeping bitter tears.


The Next Morning

An overnight letter arrived at the house with a familiar return address on it. I was excited to see it; the envelope bore Aunt Jenny’s beautiful penmanship. I signed for the letter and ran back inside and to my bedroom to read it. I opened the inside envelope, which bore her handwriting. It only said, “To Destiny” on the outside. My finger slipped under the flap and opened it.

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Dear Desi,

There are some things I need to tell you, but I never could say them in person. I hope you will understand and take these things to heart, with the love and affection they are meant to convey.

I got the strangest phone call tonight from Jeff. I couldn’t imagine what he wanted, knowing how he left you almost a year ago. But he had some things to tell me, things he was concerned about. It’s clear he still has feelings for you, and those feelings led him to call me tonight after his birthday party.

Is it really true, Destiny, that you’re working as an exotic dancer? You’re walking down a dark road, sweetheart. It is a life you will have a difficult time escaping if you continue down this path. I know you don’t see it now, because you’re so rooted in it. I pray that you see where you’re headed before it’s too late.

Desi, I never wanted to burden you with more pain than you already have, but I can’t leave my words unspoken. Sweet pea, you’ve lost your way. You’ve forgotten where you’ve come from, and where you’re going.

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I fell backward onto the bed, the letter still gripped in my fingers. I couldn’t believe what I was reading…

The truth is, Destiny, your mama and daddy would have loved you no matter what. But I believe, if they could see what you’re doing, they wouldn’t like it. You’ve gone somewhere they never wanted you to go, and you’ve become a woman you weren’t created to be. And yes, I believe they would be disappointed in the path you’ve chosen to take.

There IS good news, though. You don’t have to stay on the path that leads to destruction. Return to your roots, seek the wisdom that’s written in the prayer book your father gave you, and get back to attending services. You know in your heart that the answers you seek lie there, Destiny.

I wish your Daddy and Mama could be there to see you realize your life’s dream. Know that they will be watching over you and cheering you on. Always remember that you are so loved. Remember the promises you made to your mama and daddy. Never forget where you’re from, and how you got where you are. Be true to yourself and your family, Destiny, and you will never fail.

All my love,

Aunt Jenny

I crumpled the letter and threw it at the wall, crying bitter tears. Who was she to tell me which path was right and wrong? But her words repeated in my mind, convicting me letter by letter. The prayer book Daddy had given me was tucked into the nightstand next to the pistol I kept there. I opened the drawer and removed the book I hadn’t touched—much less read—in the years since his death.

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Its brown leather cover was worn from use; the pages inside bore Daddy’s notes and insights. Inside the front cover, his words were written with his own hand:

Destiny, take this with you. Read it often and let its wisdom guide you. Never forget where you’re from, and to whom you belong. Remember whose daughter you are. I love you more than words can tell you. Love, Daddy.

My fingers traced the letters he’d written on the page; a single, salty teardrop splattered on the thin paper. I knelt by my bed, my hands clasped together, and I talked to Daddy for the first time in a long time.

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I’m sorry for how I’ve acted, for what I’ve become. And I know, Daddy, I have disappointed you and Mama. I’ve lost my way, and I’ve forgotten my promise. But I swear to you now, from this day forward, I will do nothing if it doesn’t bring honor to our family name. I will work harder than ever to make you proud of me, Daddy. And if I never accomplish what I’ve set out to achieve, then let it be said that I took my last breath bringing glory to you and Mama. I will love you until the end of time.

I climbed up into bed with Daddy’s book still in my hands. I let the book fall open to a non-specific page and read the first thing that I saw.

“You will always harvest exactly what you plant. Bitter seeds will produce anguish and pain, while good seeds make an abundant harvest.”

It was almost as though Daddy was right there with me, speaking the words I read in his book. A chill ran down the length of my spine; my skin rose in goosebumps. I took a deep breath and exhaled. A peaceful calm washed over me, a serenity I hadn’t felt in a long time. My eyes welled with tears. “Thank you, Daddy. I hear you, loud and clear.”

*****

That afternoon, I walked into Russ’ office at the Sing-A-Gram headquarters. I didn’t even knock.  He sat behind his desk looking none too pleased with my performance the evening before. He looked as though he was ready to speak, but I put my hand up to stop him.

“Russ, I know what you’re going to say. I can’t continue my employment here. I’m so sorry—”

He never looked up from his desk. “Our client called me this morning about your subpar performance last night. It took some sweet talking, but I managed to keep the account.”

“That’s good,” I said. Did he even hear me?

“All of this said, Destiny, you are still the most talented young lady I have on staff. I can overlook your performance… this time. But you’re on probation for six months, and you’ll need to take more dance classes—”

Well, he answered that question. “Russ, I can’t do this anymore.”

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He finally lifted his eyes to meet mine. “I’m not accepting a resignation. I need you on staff.”

“Then I won’t resign,” I said. “I quit, effective now.”

“What about your singing career? You’ll be finished before you begin if you leave now.”

“That’s a chance I’m willing to take. I can’t continue to sell my soul for a quick buck and a little notoriety. I’m sorry.”

“You will be,” Russ said, almost as a warning. “You’ll go nowhere without us.”

“Then so be it.” I turned on my heel and walked away.

“Destiny, wait!” Russ called out. I kept going and never looked back.

My next stop was the Flying V coffeehouse. On my way inside, I grabbed the “Help Wanted” sign that hung in the window and brought it with me. Jared’s wide grin greeted me as I walked through the door. “It’s so good to see you!” he said.

“Hi Jared. I am hoping you still need someone to fill this position.” The sign I held in my fingers waved as I held it out. “I just quit my job at the Sing-A-Gram.”

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“I could hug you!” he said. “I haven’t been able to fill your position with someone trustworthy and hardworking.”

A smile crossed my face. “I’d love to come back, if you’ll have me.”

“When can you start? I could use you now.”

“Now is good.”

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Next Up: Chapter Five, Generation Two


Pose Credits:

Blogspot
Anger – 10 Poses by Zhippidy at Zhippidy Poses
Everyday TS3 by IMHO at Sims3IMHO
With Love by Lenina90 at Simaitseems

Mod The Sims
Bully by Spladoum
Dirty by Spladoum
Pomp and Circumstance by Heaven
Reading Pose Pack by Kurineko
Wake Up Pose Pack by JuBa_0oº

Poses By Bee
Casual Sitting Poses
Conversation Poses Set 1
Conversation/Emotion Poses Set 2
Don’t Die – Updated
Emotions/Body Language 2
Travel Poses 2

Tumblr
Romantic Couple Pose Pack by Lexi at Simetria Sims
Sitting Poses by EchoSims

*****

Custom Content:

Around The Sims 3
Bible (Destiny’s Prayer Book)
Decrepitude
Eco Cafe Set
Medicine Bottle
Modern Art Cafe
Museum & Exhibition Shop (Russ’ Nameplate)
Notebook
Pen
Phone Decor Item

Blogspot
Sunny’s Love Letters & Envelopes by ShakespearesSunshyne at Secrets Of The Six Killers

Lover’s Lab
Destiny’s Bunny Costume by JoshQ

Mod The Sims 3
Beer Bottles by Spladoum (Included with pose pack)
Book by Kurineko (Included with pose pack)

Poses By Bee
Suitcase (Hosted by Bee)

The Sims Resource
Destiny’s Ponytail Hairstyle by SkySims
Jeff’s Tux (Cover Photo) by Lady Dane
Living Grace Rug by Ung999
Pointe Shoes by Shushilda
Rover Office Set by NynaeveDesigns

Tumblr
Bunny Ears by Trae-lia
Smoking Ashtray by the77Sim3

Content not listed here is documented on the Custom Content page. Custom content and poses are not my property and are used in compliance with the TOUs.

 

G2 Chapter Three – Destiny’s Big Mistake

Two Months Later

I’d been unsettled since the debacle in Sunset Valley with Jeff’s family. My hurried departure created more problems than I’d cleared up. I thought of talking Jeff into eloping in Starlight Shores. That would solve a lot of problems.

A phone call early on a Monday morning, my only day off in three weeks, woke me. The exchange was local, but I couldn’t imagine who was calling me. My list of friends in the Shores was short; Jared, my boss, and Evangeline, a co-worker. I rolled over and answered the call on the third ring.

“Hello?” 

“Is this Destiny Farmer?” 

“It is…” I said with hesitation. 

“Miss Farmer, this is Marta at the Bridal Boutique on the Los Sueños strip. We have a package waiting for you. From the invoice, it appears to be a wedding gown. If you require adjustments, our on-staff seamstress will be delighted to alter it for you.” 

Well, if this wasn’t the oddest phone call ever. “I’ll be down later to settle it. Are you in the shop across from the Flying V?” 

“That’s us!” Marta said with a smile in her voice. “We’re open until four this afternoon.” 

“Thank you.” I pressed End on the phone and flopped back into bed. I guess that settles my wedding gown problem.

After a shower and a quick breakfast, I hopped into the car and drove the short distance to the boutique. A bell on the door rang when I swung it open. An auburn-haired lady stood to greet me. 

“You must be Destiny! The gentleman on the phone said to lookout for a gorgeous redhead.”

“I am,” I said and blushed. 

“I’m Marta. We spoke on the phone this morning. I’ll get the gown for you!” 

I nodded. “Thank you.” 

She returned a few minutes later with a package, boxed up and ready to open. “Here it is! There’s no indication of the contents. We’ll find out together!” Marta removed the dress to reveal the form-fitting gown Audrey preferred, in the off-white shade I despised. 

I stood staring at the gown, marked with a ‘Paid’ tag, in utter disbelief. “Oh, it’s that one…” I muttered. 

“Is there something wrong?” 

I gave a deep sigh. “I guess this happens when I leave my decisions to someone else.” 

Marta cocked her head. “I’m sure I don’t understand.”

“My future mother-in-law liked this dress when I was up there a couple of months ago. However, this dress wasn’t the one I liked. She sent it in off-white to assert herself.” An assertion I didn’t much appreciate, either. “I can’t imagine Audrey would have paid for it. Do you know who did?” 

She shook her head. “The invoice only says, ‘J Dean’.”

“That’s what I figured.” Jeff’s generosity knew no boundaries. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall for that discussion with his mother.

“Since you’re here, let’s see how it fits and check for needed adjustments.” She didn’t give me a choice; Marta ushered me back to the fitting room.

Getting undressed in front of strangers was becoming a habit, it seemed. Marta looked unfazed as I stepped out of my blue jeans and pulled my sweater up over my head. She had me step into the gown and shimmied it up around my hips. It fit the same as it did in Sunset Valley. The flare of the skirt around the knees was missing, however. 

“It’s very plain,” I said. “I’m not fond of this in off-white.” 

Marta fussed with the skirt, the waistline and the bodice. “It just needs a crinoline, or I can install a bit of tulle to make it flare. It’s not a problem.”

I pulled my necklace from under the dress and set it on the fabric. Not even diamonds and gold could dress this thing up. I hoped the bridesmaids’ dresses Audrey chose were more colorful. Then I had a crazy, devious idea. “Is it possible to change this for the winter white tone I saw in Sunset Valley?” 

“It’s likely I could, yes. Why did she send it in off-white, do you think?”

I rolled my eyes. “Because I’m not a ‘good girl’, according to my future mother-in-law. She seems to think I should be punished. Joke’s on her, though, if I show up at the wedding in white.”

“Psh, people don’t wait for marriage anymore. That’s so archaic!” Marta said, and though I disagreed with her, I let it slide. “If you desire to wear white at your wedding, my dear, then we will make sure you have a white gown.” 

“The white is more striking, but nothing could save this gown. It’s dreadfully plain.” My hands smoothed the fabric over my body. I wrinkled my nose and shook my head. “I wish this would have been the satin gown instead. It was much prettier.” The satin dress was about as close as I could have gotten to my dream gown. I couldn’t have afforded that one, either.

Marta moved in closer to me, placed her lips next to my ear, and whispered to me, “This gown is gorgeous on the right person. You’re the right person.” She backed away and straightened my posture. “I’ll call you at the same number when the white one comes in. Deal?”

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“Mmhmm. But hang onto this one, just in case the white isn’t available.” I’m not sure why I told her that. It sounded like something Audrey would do. I’d learned to not underestimate a vengeful woman with boatloads of money at her disposal. She’d win hands down every time.

“I can do that!” She slipped the gown back down over my hips, and I stepped out of it. “By the way, who is ‘J Dean’?”

“That’s my fiancé, Jeff. I haven’t seen him for a couple of weeks. We were supposed to meet in Sunset Valley for his spring break. The spat with his family stopped all of that.”

Marta hung the gown back on its hanger and fixed it. “Far be it from me to stick my nose where it doesn’t belong…” she said. Very tricky! Fishing for an answer. I chuckled under my breath.

“It’s that whole ‘good girl’ thing. They humiliated me at the supper table when I was there. I said some unfortunate things, and I can’t face them again. Not yet, anyway.” 

“Well, I doubt they’ll be angry for long, Destiny. You’re much too personable to dislike.” 

“My future mother-in-law might disagree with you.” 

“Well, then it’s her loss! Besides, you’re marrying her son, not her!” Marta smiled and flung open the curtain as I slipped my sweater over my head. 

I ignored her comment. With Audrey’s attempts to control me from a thousand miles away, it was apparent I’d be marrying Jeff’s whole family. “So, a week for the white gown?” 

“Yep! I have your number handy, so I’ll just jot it into your customer file. Someone will call you when we have it.” 

“Thank you,” I said. I left the shop wearing a Cheshire cat grin. Destiny-1, Audrey-0.


Ten Days Later

I woke up in a cold sweat, nauseated beyond measure. On unsteady feet, I ran to the bathroom; I just made it before I vomited into the toilet. It was my third morning in a row of feeling terrible. 

Though I wasn’t ready to stand, I made my way to the sink to splash some cool water on my face. I still felt queasy. My reflection in the mirror was almost unrecognizable. I grabbed my towel to pat my face dry when the nausea hit without warning, causing me to get sick on the floor. Just what I needed was a lengthy, disgusting cleanup when I was already ill. 

An hour later, I crawled back to bed feeling weak and exhausted. This would be my third consecutive day calling out sick. Jared would not be pleased, and neither would my meager bank account. I dialed his cell phone, hoping to reach him before he left for the coffeehouse. 

“This is Jared,” he said. The background noise suggested that he was en route to the coffeehouse. Drat!

“Jared,” I croaked out. “This is Destiny…” I begged myself to not hurl. It was a battle I was losing fast.

“Well, you don’t sound good. I already know why you’re calling. Take the day and rest.” 

“I think I have food poisoning or something.” Though Jared couldn’t see me, I shrugged anyway. “I’m sorry.” 

“Don’t be. Just get better, okay?” 

As I was apt to do, I nodded, assuming he could see me. “Thanks. I’ll try to make it tomorrow.” 

“If you’re sick, you can’t work with food. It’s okay, I promise. You’ll have a job when you’re well.” 

A half-smile crossed my face, along with another wave of nausea. “I gotta go!” I said, hung up the phone, and ran for the bathroom. Puking was getting old. 

After a shower a couple of hours later, I was feeling better. I was resting on the loveseat in the living room when my phone rang. It was Jeff’s cell number.

“Hi Jeff,” I croaked out. Was that really my voice? I sounded like I’d eaten ten pounds of gravel.

“Hi babyluv. Are you still sick?”

I groaned in pain. Every muscle hurt from my head to my toes. “Yes. I’m tired of barfing.” 

Jeff muttered something under his breath, but I couldn’t make out what he’d said. “Des, is there any chance at all you could be—” He stopped short.

“Be what?” 

“Pregnant.”

My heart stopped for a moment. Pregnant?! “Uh…” Please no!

“Oh my gosh, Des! Can you get a test? A lot would change if you’re pregnant.”

“What would it change? We’re still getting married, aren’t we?” 

“It might change the when and where. I mean, I still need to graduate, but I’ll be coming to the Shores after grad if you’re pregnant, and we’ll buy a bigger house together.” 

I remembered with clarity the burning handprint Barb left on my face. “No. I mean, I don’t think I’m pregnant. And you will not move here. Barb made it very clear—”

“Oh, screw Barb, honey. If you’re pregnant, you and the baby will need me. Are you getting a test, Des?” 

I chuckled at his hopefulness. “I guess I’ll have to go get one now, huh?” 

“You think?”

“Okay, okay,” I said, laughing. “I hope I don’t barf in my car.”

“In my nightstand, there are a few candies, Des. I keep peppermints near the bed for when I have a dry mouth. Take them and suck on them. Maybe that will dull the queasiness so you can grab a pregnancy test.”

He sure was persistent. “Okay, Jeff. You win. I just need to slip my boots on, and I’m out the door.”

“Be careful in the snow, babyluv.”

“I will. I’ll call you when I’m back home. We’ll do this together.”

“It’s a date! Talk to you soon.” 

“Yes, you will. I love you, Jeff.” He sounded so excited, I almost hoped I was pregnant. For a moment, at least. A baby now would be disastrous for my non-existent singing career. 

“I love you, too. Our lives could change today. I can’t wait!”

We ended the phone call so I could drive to the corner store, which was a short five-minute trip from the penthouse. The snow that had fallen just days before had already melted. The trek wouldn’t be as treacherous as I thought.

While I was at the store, I grabbed another bag of mints for Jeff to replace the ones I’d taken from his nightstand. With just a pregnancy test, a bag of mints, and a sports drink, the cashier eyed me, smiled, and winked at me. 

“Congratulations,” he said.

“Oh, I’m not pregnant. I’m just doing the test to satisfy my fiancé.” I didn’t feel pregnant, so I decided I wasn’t. The clerk nodded, likely thankful I wasn’t his girlfriend. We completed the sale; I thanked him and walked back to the car. The drive home was quick and uneventful. I parked the car in the garage and pressed the button for the elevator. 

Tiffany, the annoying neighbor across the hall, entered the elevator on the first floor. She eyed me, grabbed the sack I held, and removed the contents. She held the pregnancy test over her head, out of my reach. The amusement she wore on her face was obvious. I was in no mood for her games.

“So, that hottie boyfriend of yours got you in trouble, eh? I hope he sticks around, but he won’t. I wonder what your kid’s gonna look like?” She kept babbling while she fiddled with the box, which I snatched from her while it was within my grasp. 

“My life is none of your business. I’d appreciate it if you kept your nose out.” She could keep the mints if she wanted them. But that test was mine. 

“Well, well! Aren’t we being bitchy today?” She sneered at me. “You’re preggers, hillbilly. That, or you’re naturally bitchy.” She shoved me back against the elevator wall and got in my face. “Let’s get one thing straight, you redneck hick. I don’t want to hear your pathetic urchin bawling at two in the morning. So find a way to muzzle it, or I’ll file noise complaints!” She threw the bag at me, which still had Jeff’s mints inside, and hit me in the forehead. I bent to retrieve it from the floor when the elevator stopped with a jerk. The sudden motion nauseated me. Without warning, I vomited on her coat and shoes.

“I’m sorry!” I held back another wave and scrambled towards the door. She stood in the elevator, looking exasperated and covered in peppermint-scented puke. I locked the door behind me and ran to the bathroom to vomit again.

Ten minutes later, I felt a little better. I opened a mint and laid on the loveseat, waiting for my stomach to settle. My cell phone rang with a familiar tone. 

“Hi, Jeff,” I said, and then snickered. “Don’t be surprised if the super calls you about the elevator needing to be cleaned.” 

“That doesn’t sound good. What happened, Des?” 

“Tiffany got into the elevator and started picking on me. Long story short, I barfed on her. I couldn’t help it, though.” Jeff howled on the other end of the line, and I giggled, too. 

“I hope you ruined her day,” he said, gasping for breath.

“Oh, I’m sure I did. I won’t say she had it coming, but she took the bag with the test in it. After she finished threatening me about the baby, she threw the bag at me. I bent to pick it up, and the elevator stopped short. It made me sick. Jeff, I couldn’t help it.”

“I’ll happily pay that fine!” He continued to laugh. “How did she threaten you? She won’t do that when I’m around you.” 

“She doesn’t want to hear a baby crying at two in the morning.” I wished Jeff could hear my eyes rolling.

“We won’t have to worry about that, honey. Before the baby comes, we’ll have a house in the western hills.” 

“What’s so great about the western hills?” It wasn’t the first time he’d talked about relocating there.

“Again, prime location. That neighborhood sits in the mountain foothills, making it desirable for the well-to-do crowd. There are some properties along the shore that are nice. One is on the market now. I have my eye out, just in case.”

“You’re on the ball,” I said. The paper sack crinkled in my hands as I reached for another peppermint. “I replaced your candies, by the way. That’s what I was picking up when I got sick.”

“You have the test then?”

Once again, I nodded. “Mmhmm. Do you want me to go take it now, or should I wait?”

“What do you think, Des?”

“I’m going.” I stood and walked to the bathroom next to my bedroom, listening to Jeff chatter about a baby. He was so excited. My feelings were more mixed. I was too young to start a family.

Jeff stayed on the phone with me, listening to everything I was doing. He’d heard worse, but I was shy about peeing while I talked to him. He must have sensed it, because he excused himself for a moment, giving me the break I needed to do the test. I had it finished and capped before he returned. 

“Did you get it done, babyluv?”

“Yes. Now we just wait five minutes.” 

“How late are you? Your period, I mean.” 

I hadn’t thought about it. My period came when it came. I never paid that close attention to it. “I don’t know if I am.”

“Really? I thought all women kept religious track of that thing and shared it with their girlfriends!”

“Not this one.” I guess I needed to find more female friends. Polly and I came of age together, and we never spoke of it once. I didn’t realize menstrual cycles were a common topic of discussion among mature women. Interesting. While he chattered on the other end, I read the box’s instructions. I was looking for a single blue line, but hoping for two, for Jeff’s sake. He seemed genuinely thrilled.

Much like I had in the hours before Jeff’s proposal, I fantasized about our first child together. Would I be a mama before I was a wife? I was trying to remember why I had an issue with it when I heard Jeff’s voice calling my name.

“Des!” 

“Huh?” His voice roused me from my daydream. “I’m sorry. I was lost in thought.”

“It’s been six minutes. Why am I still waiting?!” His voice teased with excitement and anticipation. 

I laughed at his impatience. “Okay, okay!” I picked up the test and took the cover between my fingers. “Are you ready?”

“I was ready an hour ago, Des. You’re killing me here.” 

Nodding—as though he could see me—I snickered again. “Here goes nothing!” My hands gave the cover a gentle tug. Please be two lines…

My eyes popped open, ready for whatever news the test would reveal. It took moments for my eyes to focus and my brain to accept the reality.

One blue line. Oh no… 

My breath hitched in my throat, and tears of bitter disappointment stung my eyes. Jeff heard my emotion and misinterpreted it. “Des,” he said, “we’re going to be okay. We’ll elope in the Shores when I graduate, and everything will work out—”

A single sob wracked my body. If I was praying for a negative test, why did it hurt so badly? “Jeff,” I said with a trembling voice, “I’m not pregnant.”

He sighed in disappointment, and then I heard his soft, loving words in my ear. “I’m so sorry, babyluv.”

“I’m sorry, too, Jeff.”

“Someday, this will seem like a blip on the radar. I can’t wait to see that first positive test with you, sweetheart.”

“Me too.” Tears were coming fast. “I wish you were here right now.”

“Me too, Des. I miss you so much, it hurts.” 

“One day closer to our forever and always,” I squeaked out. Damned tears.

“One day closer,” he said in agreement. “I love you.”

Those words brought more emotion. “I love you back. Jeff, I gotta go. I feel sick again.” That was a lie, unless being heartsick counted. I only wanted to cry.

“Feel better, sweetheart. I’ll talk to you soon.” 

“Yeah.” We disconnected the call. I got up from the loveseat, walked into my bedroom, and flopped onto the bed, heartbroken.

*****

Three days later, I was still nauseated. My doctor did a blood test to check for an earlier pregnancy than the at-home test would detect. While we waited for the results, I sat at home sipping ginger ale and sucking on Jeff’s peppermints. I’d need to replace the bag if the nausea didn’t abate soon.

On the fourth day, I returned to work at the coffeehouse. All the time I’d taken was unpaid sick time. I couldn’t afford to sit out one more day, despite Jeff’s assurance that I wouldn’t starve to death. He said I was his responsibility. I wrinkled my nose at his inference that I couldn’t care for myself. In this case, however, I wouldn’t fight him.

I was still weak, so I took breaks more often than I should have. On one break, my phone alerted me to two new voice messages. I recognized the numbers; one was the bridal shop across the street from work, the other, my doctor’s office. I dialed my voicemail and listened.

Miss Farmer, this is Paula at Doctor White’s office. She wanted me to inform you the pregnancy test was negative. If you are still having nausea and vomiting, please call our office for an appointment. Thank you.

Great. It felt like insult on top of injury. I hoped the call from the bridal shop brought better news.

Destiny, this is Marta at the Bridal Boutique. I’m sorry to tell you I couldn’t get the dress you wanted in winter white. I checked every supplier I have, and each time I got the same answer. Let’s schedule you so I can get the off-white one fitted to you. I’ll see you soon.

Why was I not surprised? I hadn’t seen Audrey since January, and she was still getting on my last nerve. She was the only thing about Jeff that gave me pause about marrying into his family. I was finding out how petty and vindictive she really was.

Jared’s soft tap on my shoulder brought me back to reality. “Are you okay, Destiny?” 

I wiped tears from my eyes. “Yeah. I’m just disappointed. The gown I was hoping for wasn’t available in white.” I left out the news regarding the pregnancy test. Jared didn’t need the details.

He pulled a chair out, sat down, and patted the one next to him. “Your wedding dress?” 

“Yeah. Jeff’s mother is manipulating it, I’m afraid. It’s a popular gown. Why isn’t it available in white? I don’t get it.”

Jared laughed. “It isn’t scarlet red, is it?”

“No,” I said and snickered. “I suppose I should be happy it’s only off white.” 

“It can always be worse,” he said with a smile.


Graduation Week

I stared at my closet, searching for a suitable dress for Jeff’s graduation ceremony. He would be honored for his musical achievements with his grunge band, The Rock J Experience. Though he was a musician first, he somehow became the frontman of his band. Their music wasn’t my style, but Jeff was a talented musician and vocalist. 

The rest of my bag was packed and ready to go. I was stuck on this one item I needed. I had a dress in mind, but I couldn’t find it. In the back of my head, I could hear Jeff’s teasing about packing my entire wardrobe. Today, he’d be close to correct, too.

The intercom rang from downstairs; it was my ride to the airport. I spoke into the voice panel, letting him know I’d be right down. What I’d already packed would have to do. I grabbed my backpack, the one suitcase, and locked the door behind me as I left. 

I was excited about returning to campus. After Jeff’s graduation, I’d have no reason to return. The driver, who waited patiently for me at the sidewalk, put my suitcase into the trunk. 

“Airport, please.”

“Yes, Ma’am. Which terminal?”

I checked my ticket. “Terminal A, please.”

“I’ll get you there safe and sound!” the driver said, a smile in his voice as he took obvious pride in his vocation. “I’ve given rides to lots of folks, ma’am, but I’ve not heard an accent like yours before. Mind if I ask where you’re from?” He started the cab’s engine and shifted into drive, the cab lurching forward onto the Los Sueños strip.

“Appaloosa Plains. I’ve only been in the city for a year.” 

“It’s a unique accent; it makes you stand out from everyone else around here.”

I was pretty sure he was flirting with me, and I felt my cheeks flush. “Thank you. Few people like it,” I replied.

He glanced at me in the rear-view mirror with a wink and a brief smile. “That’s their problem, isn’t it?”

“Well said. You’re awfully wise for a cabbie, Mister…?” I left my question hanging, wondering if he’d tell me his name.

“Atwood. Arthur Atwood at your service!” he announced. “And whom do I have the pleasure of driving today?” He peered back up at me via the mirror. His eyes were a penetrating blue, and his hair color nearly matched his skin tone. His accent was not local, either.

“Destiny. Destiny Farmer,” I said.

“Nice to meet you, Destiny Farmer. What brings you to our fair city? Or, perhaps, more correctly, why are you leaving it?” The cab stopped at a light next to the Hoi Polloi Center, a stadium and concert venue close to the city limits.

“Well, I’ve wanted to be a singer since I was a little girl. Living in the Shores is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. As for leaving it, well, I’m going to meet my fiancé. He’s graduating from Sim State University on Thursday. I’m so proud of him.”

“Ahh! That explains the rock on your finger, then!” Arthur chuckled. “All the good ones are taken! So—are you any good?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Singing. You said you wished to be a singer. Are you any good?”

I shrugged. “If my success in the city is any indication of my talent, I’d say no.”

“Why not belt out a note or two? Show off a little! Let me judge for myself…”

Oh, I don’t think so! I thought to myself. “Here?”

“Why not, ragazza?”

Ra-whatta? “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

Arthur chuckled. “It’s my native language. It means, ‘girl.’ I’m from Monte Vista.”

“Where is that?” 

“A small town in coastal Italy. I remember little about it, but my papà spoke only Italian in our home. My sister and I are bilingual.” 

I didn’t know what to say. I noticed the diamond and gold band he wore, and wondered why a married man was flirting with me. Or perhaps I was just imagining that.

“You got quiet, ragazza,” he said, breaking an awkward silence. “Was it something I did? Do you not appreciate de Italian man?” he joked, speaking in an Italian caricature. 

That got a chuckle out of me. 

“Oh, I appreciate the Italian man,” I joked back, trying to replicate his accent, “but I don’t know if the Italian man’s wife would appreciate what a flirt he is…”

That comment garnered a huge laugh from Arthur, far louder than I expected, but very infectious as it made me giggle, too. 

“Oh, bella ragazza giovane, all Italian men flirt! It’s just a part of who we are! As for my wife, e, sì, lei non approverebbe, but she and I don’t see eye-to-eye these days. I’m an aspiring musician, like you with your singing, but she thinks I’ve played around long enough, and it’s time to get a ‘real’ job.” He slapped the cab’s steering wheel with the heel of his hand.

I had no idea what to say to him as a follow up—I understood little of what he’d uttered—so I just fiddled with my hair, a nervous tic I picked up from Mama. I turned the conversation back to music. “How come you’re not in Bridgeport? I hear musicians go there to start their careers.” 

“Papà had business in Starlight Shores, so we immigrated here when I was a boy. I’d give anything to make a name for myself without his influence or help. Not to brag, but I’m a bit of a prodigy. I mastered Papà’s violin at four years old. I know I’m meant for more than existing here and working mediocre jobs. What will success look like? I don’t know.”

I knew his pain intimately. “This resonates more than you realize.”

“And what are you doing that is not your dream, Destiny Farmer?”

“I’m a barista at the Flying V Coffeehouse on the strip. There were some problems at the park—” I stopped short on purpose. I didn’t know Arthur from anyone.

“Ah, yes, the park. Every starving artist gets bullied there at least once. It’s almost a rite of passage into stardom.” Arthur mentioned it casually. To me, it was a much more traumatic memory.

“The mob attacked and threatened me; they took my guitar and destroyed it. They made it abundantly clear that I would be next if I went back.” I shuddered at the memory, which felt like yesterday. “As far as I know, it’s still in the pond broken into bits.”

Now Arthur was silent. “I’m sorry. I know not what to say, Destiny. The people at the park have never been aggressive towards me. That must have been horrifying.”

“It was. I’ve given up pursuing my career until after our wedding in October. I’ll be almost twenty-one then, and I can sign with Sing-A-Gram.”

We were at a stoplight on the outskirts of town; he turned and looked straight at me. “You’re only twenty years old? Wow! You carry yourself as a much older person,” he said, his voice filled with genuine amazement. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if he complimented or insulted me. 

“Thank you…?” 

He gave a hearty chuckle. “It was a compliment, ragazza. Many, MANY girls—women—your age are immature and flighty, but you’re grounded and definitely know what you want.”

“I’ve been through a lot more than most women my age, Arthur. Both my parents passed away when I was only eighteen years old. I’ve been on my own since, but I’ve learned a lot.”

“I’m sorry to hear. My papà is getting older; I’m blessed he is still with me. My mamma stayed in Italy with my oldest brother. Since we left, I haven’t seen them. I don’t remember her.”

I couldn’t imagine growing up without a mother. “That must have been tough.”

Arthur shrugged his shoulders. “Papà always had someone around to care for me and my sister. He was what they call a playboy, living the life of a musician. He was always on the road, a new lady on his arm every week.”

“Is that—the life you desire?” I couldn’t help myself. Maybe this was what Jeff desired, but couldn’t reveal.

“Oh, no, not at all. Fame and the money would be nice; I don’t wish to be a playboy. Papà can have that.”

The cab veered off the highway onto the exit ramp. We were minutes away from the airport. It was the fastest ride I’d ever taken. I grabbed my backpack so I could fish out my plane ticket. “We’re here already?”

“Sì,” he said. “I enjoyed talking with you, Destiny Farmer.” 

“And I with you, Arthur Atwood.”

He pulled up to the terminal and exited the cab, opened my door, and held his hand to me. This was new and rather unconventional. “Allow me.” I blushed and placed my hand into his. 

“Thank you.” 

“It was my pleasure, ma’am.” He flourished, placing a small kiss on the back of my hand. He then retrieved my case from the trunk and placed it on the sidewalk. “Would you mind if I—” he said, and then stopped. “No, never mind.”

“What, Arthur?”

“I was going to ask you for your phone number. It would be nice to talk to someone else from time to time who isn’t living their dream…”

I shook my head. “That’s not a great idea, Arthur, I’m sorry. My fiancé is protective of me, and I don’t want to cause problems.”

“I understand,” he said. He bowed to me as I stepped up onto the sidewalk that led into the airport. “I wish you luck on your marriage and your dreams. Perhaps the fates will be kind enough to allow our paths to cross again someday.” 

“I hope so,” I lied. No, I don’t, I thought to myself. He was charming and very handsome. But Arthur, the cab driver, was not my type.

*****

At the airport near campus, Jeff greeted me at my gate with a rose and a kiss. I wrapped my arms around him and kissed him back. How I missed him! 

“Hi Jeff,” I said. “It’s so good to see you!”

“We aren’t going back to the dorm, Des. I moved out early so we could have some privacy before Mom and Dad arrive on Wednesday night.”

“Privacy is always good.” I kissed him again and took his hand.

“You’ve gotten more beautiful since I saw you last.” 

That was usually his tell. I laughed when I nodded at him. He gave me a sly wink as we walked toward baggage claim. 

The hotel he booked was a few miles from the airport, and forty minutes off-campus. It wasn’t extravagant, but comfortable and homey. Painted in pastels—which honestly looked out of place in a northern town—the room had contemporary furniture in light stains, brass fixtures, and Damask bed linens. Instead of having wall-to-wall carpeting, the floor was finished with wood laminate. 

“I thought of you when I chose this one, Des. I wanted you to feel at home.” 

“Thank you, Jeff. You didn’t have to cater to me, you know.”

“I never have to do anything.” He was undressing me with his eyes.

I walked to where he stood and gave him a passionate kiss. “Let’s not wait another moment.”


The next day, I met Jeff’s band members, all of them graduating with Jeff on Thursday. That was my first surprise on this trip. The bass player was a beautiful blonde girl named Valerie. Why didn’t he tell me about her? I swallowed hard when I shook her hand. 

“So you’re Jeff’s girl!” she said. “Pleasure to meet you!”

I felt insecure. “Nice to meet you, too.” 

“He talks about you ALL the time!” She acted as though we’d known each other all our lives. “I can’t wait to get to know you better.” Valerie had an annoying, twittery laugh reminiscent of a girl almost half her age. I suddenly understood what Arthur meant.

“Funny, he has said nothing about you.” I wasn’t happy that he waited until now to spring this on me. How did he expect I’d feel? 

“Well, don’t worry about Jeff. He adores you. You’re so lucky!”

“Excuse me a moment,” I said and walked to the ladies’ room. Inside, I paced back and forth, angry that he said nothing about Valerie. I heard the others gathering outside while I stewed. What was I so worried about, anyway? I was confident that Jeff loved only me.

I fixed my hair and splashed some water on my face, patted it dry, and walked from the restroom. Jeff stood there with a smile brighter than the sun. “There’s my babyluv!” he said, beaming. I walked into his arms and held him close, ashamed of myself that I’d gotten bitter. “Are you okay?” he whispered into my ear.

Nodding, I answered him. “Yeah, I was just a little surprised by Valerie. You never mentioned you had a female bassist.” 

“I didn’t?” When I shook my head, he held me closer. “Oh, honey, I’m sorry. I thought I had.” 

“It’s okay.”

“No, it isn’t, Des. I want you to trust me and I never want to give you a reason to doubt—”

“Break it up!” Vic said as he walked into the studio. “You need to get a room, Jeff.” 

“Got one. What’s your point?” he said back. “Come, babyluv. Sing with us.”

It was the first time Jeff had invited me to sing with him and his band, and I was excited. “What are we playing?”

“I have a surprise for you, Des.” His face softened as he directed the band members to play. Imagine my shock when it was Daddy’s favorite song, the one I’d written years before. How did he know it? He took my hand and pulled me to the microphone. “Sing with me, sweetheart.”

His arrangement of the song was beautiful, the first time I’d ever heard it with full musical accompaniment. He’d rewritten the vocals as a duet; it was better than my original song. Jeff handed the sheet music to me and sang his part first.

Our voices blended together; his voice sang in harmony with mine, and it sounded so perfect, so melodic. Every part of the song was flawless. By the time the band finished, I was a mess, weeping with joy. What a beautiful gift Jeff and his band had given me!

Jeff leaned close and whispered into my ear. “I hope you don’t mind that I arranged this. I have the full song written with this arrangement, but you don’t have to use my lyrics. Yours are miles better than mine, anyway.” 

“No, you did a fantastic job on that song, Jeff. It’s…” My voice caught in my throat again. “I love it.” 

“Good. I was going to wait until our wedding, but I couldn’t.”

“I’m happy you didn’t. Are you going to record it? You should.” 

Jeff shook his head and scowled. “We’re not stealing your daddy’s favorite song, Des. I arranged it for you to take back to the Shores with you. I want you to have your first break. We all think this song is your ticket to the big time.” 

Jeff had rendered me speechless many times before, but never had he given me a gift of this magnitude. Granted, it was my song, but his adjustments made it so much better. “I think we should record this together, Jeff, when you get to the Shores next month.” 

He pulled away from me, his eyes shifted away from mine. “That’s the thing, Des. I’m not going to the Shores with you. Not yet, anyway.” And there it was: surprise number two.

My eyes filled with tears. “You’re… what?”

“I’m sorry, Des. I didn’t know how else to tell you. The band is starting out in Bridgeport.”

“What about us?”

“I’ll fly as often as I can to see you, I promise. Des, we will make this work. You have my word.”

First Valerie, and now Bridgeport. I was almost afraid to see Audrey and Julian on Wednesday night. “I believe you,” was what I told him. In my heart, it felt like déjà vu.


Five Months Later

“Des, what are you doing this weekend?” Jeff’s voice was louder and happier than usual. 

“I have Saturday off, then I work nine straight days at the coffeehouse. My final gown fitting is Tuesday.” The wedding was two weeks away.

“So, you need to be back in the Shores by Tuesday?”

I laughed. “That’s what you got from what I said?” 

“I can’t help it. I have some exciting news, and I want to do it up right, Des. You’re coming to Bridgeport to meet me.”

“You’re going to get me fired, Jeff.” 

“Nonsense, babyluv. Besides, you’re almost my wife. You won’t have to work at the coffee shop much longer.”

“You have a point, I guess. I like my job, though.” It wasn’t helping me further on the road to stardom, but it paid the bills. Barely.

“I’ll send the private jet for you on Saturday morning. I’ll have a hotel room, and you’ll come right here.” He ignored what I’d said about my job. “Then on Saturday night, we’re going to the most exclusive restaurant in Bridgeport.”

“What kind of news do you have, Jeff?”

“Oh Des, it’s life-changing! I can’t wait to tell you!”

“I guess I’ll let Jared know I’ll be back to work on Wednesday.” He would not be happy with me. I presumed he allowed me so much leniency because I was his star employee, though, more time off wouldn’t please him.

“I promise you, babyluv, it will all be worth it.”

“I can’t wait to see you.” For that reason alone, the trip would be more than worth it.

“We’ll meet on Saturday morning. I love you, Destiny.” 

“I love you, too.”

*****

Saturday Morning

Jeff’s private jet met me at the Shores’ municipal airport early on Saturday morning. I had one bag and a garment bag which held the ivory gown he bought for me in Sunset Valley. I half expected Jeff to be on the jet waiting for me, but I would make this trip alone. 

“Good morning, Miss Destiny,” his personal assistant, Brooke, greeted me. “Mister Jeff is looking forward to seeing you. The flight will depart shortly; our airtime is almost two hours.”

“Thank you, Brooke.” I sat back in the posh leather seat and buckled myself into it. My backpack was in the seat next to mine. I reached into it and grabbed my notebook. The music to the song I wrote for our wedding was almost finished; I planned to sing it to Jeff during the reception. There were a few more parts to compose, and I’d mail the finished arrangement to his band members. We had just one rehearsal before the wedding. I hoped everything would go off without a hitch.

Two hours passed in what felt like the blink of an eye, but the time was productive. In my hands, I held the completed music score and lyrics for my song, and I was excited. It was a gift that Jeff would never forget, and one he’d cherish. Brooke let me know we were close to landing, so I stashed the notebook back into my backpack.

The jet taxied to a black stretch limousine waiting for my arrival. I walked down the steps to the tarmac to see Jeff’s smiling face waiting for me. I picked up my pace; by the time I reached the bottom step, I was running to meet him. 

“Hi babyluv!” he said, picking me up and kissing me. “I’ve missed you.” 

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“I missed you, too,” I said back, enjoying the feel of his arms around me. It had been too long since I’d seen him. 

“Oh, Des, you’re going to love tonight. I promise.” His blue eyes sparkled with mischief, something at which he excelled. “But no hints, so don’t try to pull anything from me!”

“Now, would I do that?” I glanced at him, a smile on my face.

Jeff kissed my nose. “You would, and I’ve seen you do it!”

The limousine brought us to a hotel with an elegant penthouse on top of the highest skyscraper in Bridgeport. The view was incredible. From the rooftop platform, we could see the city in its entirety. He wrapped his arms around me, pointing out all the landmarks and interesting facts about each of them. It was clear he was thriving in Bridgeport. Who was I to ask him to leave it?

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“What do you think, babyluv? Isn’t this exquisite?” 

“Jeff, it’s gorgeous.”

He pointed toward the bridge that went to the hills. “All the affluent people live there, Des. We’ll have a home up there someday.”

I was much less impressed with money than he was. We could live in a one-bedroom house and it wouldn’t matter, as long as we were together. “Are you going to let me in on your big secret?”

“In good time, sweetheart. What did you bring to wear tonight?” 

“I only have one gown, silly.” I kissed him and stuck my hands in his back pockets. His surprised expression was priceless. 

“You shouldn’t have done that,” he teased playfully. 

“And why not?” 

“Because now I need you.” He looked with longing, leaned in, and whispered. “Let’s go make a baby, Des.”

I bit my bottom lip. “He’s going to look like you.”

A few hours later, we were wrapped up in each other, engaged in sweet pillow talk, when his phone rang. He picked up his cell and looked at it. “I have to take this, Des. It’s my agent.” He got up and walked out into the suite’s main living area. I took my time getting dressed, a fresh, sweet memory in the back of my mind. I sure loved that man.

Twenty minutes later, he walked back into the bedroom, dressed and looking conflicted. He grabbed hold of me and held me to his chest; his grip was almost too tight. “What’s wrong, Jeff?”

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He loosened his grasp and pulled away. “I’m not sure how to break this to you, sweetheart.” 

“I don’t know what you mean.” 

“You’re here because I have life-changing news for you, and I wanted to tell you tonight at dinner. But I’m afraid that won’t happen, babyluv. I have this room until Wednesday. You can stay here until you need to return to the Shores.” He pulled his suitcase from the closet and plopped it on the bed. “I’m sorry.”

A sense of dread settled into the pit of my stomach. “Why are you leaving before supper, Jeff? What’s going on?” 

He sat me on the bed and kneeled in front of me. With my hands in his, he looked into my eyes. “Des, we have to postpone the wedding indefinitely.”

“What?! Why?”

“That’s what I was going to tell you at dinner, babyluv.” He kissed my fingers, reached up, then brushed a lock of hair from my face. “Destiny, the Experience has a record contract, and now a nationwide tour beginning next week. We’re opening for Acidic Tides. This is huge, babyluv.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A record deal? A nationwide tour? “How long have you known about this?” I tried so hard not to sound bitter, but venom dripped from my words. “I can’t believe you said yes to a tour. You have plans! What about me? Where do I fit into your schedule, Jeff? I have felt like an afterthought since January! First it was Valerie, then telling me you’re coming here instead of to the Shores with me. Now you’ve gotten your big break, and you’re going on tour without me?”

“You’re acting like I planned this, Des! I didn’t know about the tour until the phone call! I can’t turn down this kind of opportunity. This is great news for us! Isn’t this everything we wanted?”

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“It’s everything YOU wanted!” I screamed at him. “Meanwhile, I’m still struggling to find my feet in the Shores.” I knew he didn’t realize how bad things were for me in Starlight Shores. He was about to find out. “I can barely afford to live there, Jeff. I’ve lost weight because I can’t afford food! Jared is generous and gives me what doesn’t sell at the end of my shifts. I don’t remember the last time I bought anything just for me. Me! Where is MY chance, Jeff? Where is MY good luck?” I pushed him away. “When is it MY turn to feel what it’s like to catch a freaking break?!”

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Jeff stood with me, tears in his eyes. I was so furious, I couldn’t see the pain he wore, the complete shock of hearing me rant about HIS good fortune, which would have been ours. “I don’t understand why you’re so angry,” he said, almost whispering. Then, I doubled down on stupid and screamed the one thing I wish I’d never uttered, the three words that changed my life forever:

“I HATE YOU!” I spat.

By the time it had escaped my mouth, the wrecking ball had already ravaged his heart, and it was much too late to stuff the toothpaste back into the tube. I didn’t even mean the words that left my mouth. I sputtered them in a moment of total jealous insanity. Jeff’s face displayed a thousand different emotions as I watched in silent agony; pain, hurt, heartbreak, devastation, disbelief, and finally anger. His rage was more than warranted. I sank to my knees to beg his forgiveness; just as I opened my mouth to speak, he tore into me like a hound dog on an old bone.

“Jeff, I—”

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“Shut it, Destiny. You know something? I didn’t need your selfish diatribe when I was out of my mind with worry about having to tell you about postponing OUR special day. You and me. But it was never ‘us’ with you, was it? Our life together has always been about you, hasn’t it? You expected ME to move to the Shores to be with you. You never ONCE offered to come here! Why is that, Des? Because you’re a narcissistic, entitled, self-centered little bitch, that’s why!”

“No! No, Jeff, that’s not it—” He pulled me to my feet and looked into my eyes. With all his strength, he pinned me against the wall.

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“Oh, I’m not even close to finished with you yet. My family welcomed you into their home, not once, but twice, and you spat in their faces the last time you were there. My sister told me what an ungrateful little shrew you are, but I didn’t want to believe her. Mom was convinced all you wanted was my money. But it’s worse than that, isn’t it, Destiny? You suck the life out of everyone around you. Is that why that guy you were with in Appaloosa Plains left you, and why your best friend ditched you? Maybe it wasn’t his fault after all! Maybe you ripped his heart to ribbons like you just did to mine!” 

“No! I didn’t mean it, Jeff, I swear! I don’t hate you, babe! I love you so much—”

“No, you don’t. You never did. I was such a fool. You’re a monster, Des. My mother was right about you all along. I was too blinded by love to see what you really are.” He started throwing his clothing into the suitcase he plopped onto the bed. I’d never seen him so angry. He was justified, too. 

“No, I’m not a monster!! Oh, please, Jeff. Please don’t leave me… I’ll die without you.” 

“You should have thought of that before you started your jealous tirade! We’re done.” He held his hand out. “My ring. I’m going to need that back.”

My fist clenched around the diamond ring I’d grown accustomed to feeling on my finger, the one I didn’t want to return. Returning the ring was an admission that we were finished, and I couldn’t let myself accept it. “No! Please, Jeff, I’m begging you—”

“Don’t make me pry it from your fingers. I’m not leaving without it, and I am leaving you. I’ll be generous and give you a month to be out of my penthouse. My attorney will ensure that you leave without incident. I don’t care where you go, but you’re done freeloading off of me. Leave your car keys on the counter when you move out.” 

He finished packing his clothing into his case and almost flung it from the bed while I watched in stunned disbelief. “Stay here until Tuesday if you want, but don’t you dare come back. Forget my phone number. I promise you, I will forget yours.” He chose every word he spoke for its maximum impact, each one intended to inflict the most pain possible. 

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“Please, don’t go. Let’s work this out, Jeff. I’m so sorry!” My words were increasingly desperate. Jeff took me by the wrist and drove me to my knees. He caught my left hand and forced the ring from it, stripping from me any hope I had that we could fix what I had so recklessly destroyed. Then he ripped from his neck the chain I’d given him for Snowflake Day and threw it at me. I knew what was coming next. His fingers wrapped around my gold and diamond necklace. With a sharp pull, it broke away; the chain slithered across my skin like a golden snake. He slipped both into his pocket.

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“Saying you’re sorry isn’t going to cut it, not this time. What you’ve done is unforgivable, Destiny.” He dialed his phone—I assumed he was calling for his limo—then looked back at me with that haunting pain on his face. “I loved you. I treated you like my queen, and this is how you repaid me? I won’t allow another woman to do what you’ve done to me. Have a good life, Destiny. Goodbye.” He flung the door open almost off its hinges and slammed it with the same intensity, his last farewell still ringing in my ears. Before his angry footsteps left the suite, I heard his cries of anguish and devastation. What had I done?

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I hadn’t been in Bridgeport long enough to unpack my suitcase, but my vacation weekend was already over. I sat on the floor in emotional agony, weeping uncontrolled sobs. Everything I had known in the past three years was suddenly gone, including the love of my life. It wasn’t until Jeff told me goodbye that I realized how deeply I loved him, and how much, unfortunately, I took him and his love for granted. I assumed he would wait for my boat to dock, and for my career to take flight, and that he would be content riding my coattails. I never considered that he was more talented than I, and that he would walk into success more easily than I ever dreamed possible. Even then, crying in the suite’s bedroom, I wallowed in jealousy and envy, and I loathed myself for it. 

In two seconds, with the utterance of three simple, careless words, I’d upended my future and ruined Jeff’s spectacular surprise. I threw away everything I loved and burned my life down to the ground. Never again would I hear his voice calling me ‘babyluv’. Never again would we make love on a whim, then hold each other until we fell asleep. I would never again look into his blue eyes and hear from his lips, “I love you, Destiny.” 

I was shattered to my core.

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Up Next: Chapter Four, Generation Two


Pose Credits:

Bangsain
Lover’s Poses

Mod The Sims
On Display (modeling poses) by k2m1too
Bully by Spladoum

Poses By Bee
Adult Argument
Attack! Pose Pack
Couple Poses #2
Family Photo 1-14 and 19-21

Severinka Sims 3
Broken Heart by Addie

Sims 3 Modeli
Don’t Let Me Down by Sea

Tumblr
Agony by Annon-in-Gelydh

You Name It, I’ll Pose It
Request 12 by Blams

*****

Custom Content:

Around The Sims 3
Wedding Shop

Severinka Sims 3
Celtic Snake Pendant

The Sims Cars
Private Jet

The Sims Resource
Wedding Dress by BEO Creations
Jeff’s Hair by Cazy
Destiny’s Hair by WingsSims

The Sims 3 Exchange
St Georges Airport

Content not listed here is documented on the Custom Content page. Custom content and poses are not my property and are used in compliance with the TOUs.


G2 Chapter Two – Dashed Dreams, Deception, and Doormat Destiny

This chapter contains adult situations and language. Reader discretion is advised.


Two Weeks Later

I’d sacrificed and saved enough money to buy a new outfit for performances, one that I’d planned to wear at the park. Though I’d gone back several times, Grant never again said hello. I guess I creeped him out. That was okay, though. I creeped myself out that day, too. 

My morning was free, so I got dolled up in my new dress to try my hand at the park. I took my time primping, taking special care to do my hair and makeup. My new dress, which I wore with a pair of lace leggings, was just above my knee. It was a black, sleek, long-sleeved sweater dress, perfect for the upcoming cold season.

I noticed the nip in the air as I took the elevator to the parking garage. The weather was turning, along with the leaves on the trees that lined the park’s border. My breath puffed from my mouth in a plume of steam. Yep, it’s officially fall. 

I parked my car at the coffeehouse, took my guitar from the trunk, and walked the hundred yards to the stage. The regulars weren’t out front. Yes! My guitar case was open and at my feet. I didn’t want to sing Daddy’s favorite song, but I had others that were just as good! I tuned my guitar and put the strap around my neck. 

Three songs in, an older woman approached me, dressed in a leotard and ballet slippers. She was one of the regulars; a mediocre acrobat whose routine I’d seen a few times. Trust me, I’d seen much better than her act. She was snapping a wad of foul-smelling gum, which she breathed into my face.

“Who are YOU?” she demanded, a long, bony finger poked into my chest. “You don’t belong out here.” 

I stopped what I was doing and extended my hand as a kind gesture. “Destiny Farmer. I’m new to town, and—” 

“You gotta earn the right to perform here, little girl.” She ran her hand through a mop of black, over-processed hair. I’m surprised a bunch of it didn’t break off in her fingers. “Newbies get the side stage, or up by the johns.” She pointed behind her to the public restroom outbuilding. 

I stood tall and took a deep breath. “You know, this is a public park. I believe I may stand wherever I want.” I crossed my arms in front of my body for effect. 

“You wanna play that game? Fine. You’ll find out the hard way how we play in the Shores.” 

“What does THAT mean?” I was probably too indignant for my own good.

“Keep encroaching on our turf up front, little baby,” she snarled. “You’ll find out real quick what it means.” She turned on her heel and left.

Now, I’d be lying if I said she didn’t rattle me. I recalled Grant’s words. “Be careful, Destiny. They’re ruthless.” I closed my eyes to fight the tears, the doubts, when I saw Daddy’s face, clear as day. “The world is yours for the taking. Grab it by the horns, baby girl, and give ‘em hell.” I could still see him saying that to me, as though it was yesterday. 

Even more determined, I grabbed my guitar and strummed the first note of another song. From the corner of my eye, I saw my antagonist chatting with a group of people, then pointing my way. I did a quick headcount of the group; they were fifteen strong against a nineteen-year-old, one-hundred-ten pound girl. I swallowed a mouthful of bile that crept into my throat as they approached. Aw, hell no!

Three young guys approached first. All of them wore scowls on their faces, ready to pick a fight. But instead of engaging me, they started booing and heckling me. I tuned them out and played louder, trying to sing over the commotion they were intent on creating.

Three more people walked over. There were five guys and a young girl causing trouble. One more woman strolled over to where they stood, but I recognized her; my neighbor across the hall. She took two gigantic steps toward me, grabbed the neck of my guitar, and whispered into my ear. 

“If I see your boyfriend again, I will steal him from you. And I’ll show him everything he’s missing, being with your sorry ass. Are you pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down?” Her left hand still held the guitar’s neck, her right hand flicked the tip of my nose. I swallowed another mouthful of bile. I was in way over my head.

“You know what?” I said. “This spot is all yours.” I took the guitar strap from around my neck, placed it into the case, and closed it up. “But if any of you touch me, I will press charges.” 

“If we touch you, you won’t know what hit you.” The tallest, heaviest guy stood with his fists clenched. “Leave here. You won’t come back if you’re smart. Next time, this will be you.” He ripped my guitar case from my hands and threw it at someone else. I watched, helpless, as they took my beloved guitar from its case and smashed it, taking turns at destroying it. I sank to my knees, retching from fear. 

Scraps of wood and wire were all that remained of my beautiful acoustic guitar when they threw it into the pond, spit on me, and left me shaken to my core. I ran to my car, got in, and spun the tires as I left.

Jeff would be in class, but I didn’t care. The mob at the park scared the hell out of me, and I needed him. The phone rang until it went to voicemail. My shaky, heavy drawl mixed with tears left a message that would be sure to panic him:

Jeff, call me. I was assaulted at the park, and I need you.

Though I knew my neighbor was at the park downtown, I backed into the elevator. I pressed the button for the nineteenth floor, praying it went straight up to the penthouse. I was lucky; the elevator seldom made that trip in one shot.

With shaky hands, I slipped my key into the lock on the front door, turned it, and stepped inside. Finally safe in my sanctuary, I fell against the door and slid down, heaving uncontrolled sobs.

*****

The light in the apartment was dim and purple, signifying the sun setting in the western sky. Jeff never called me back, which was odd considering the message I’d left for him. I faded in and out of sleep for hours, never truly resting. Each time my eyes closed, I saw them smashing my beloved guitar to bits. My arms wrapped around Angaloo, trying to self-soothe. It wasn’t working.

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I didn’t hear the front door open, the quiet footsteps in the living room, nor did I hear the latch clicking on the bedroom door. My back was turned away from it, and I was fighting sleep.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Jeff whispered as he laid down next to me, his arms encircled me and held me tight. “I’m here. You’re safe.” 

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I didn’t ask why he was there; I already knew. The tears I was weary of crying came fast. My body shook in his arms while he held me. His sweet kisses and comforting words whispered into my ear helped to calm my frazzled nerves more than anything else could have.

We laid together in bed until the room was in pitch darkness. Jeff never loosened his grip on me. I took a deep breath and sighed. One last sob echoed in the room. “I didn’t expect you to come running here to save me, but I’m happy you did,” I whispered.

“Have you been here all day, babyluv?”

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I nodded and sniffled. “Yeah. This is where I’m keeping Daddy’s pistol. I was praying I wouldn’t need it.”

He pulled back and looked at me. “You have a gun?”

“Mmhmm. Daddy taught me to shoot it. We did target practice together.”

“Do you have your permit yet?”

“Not yet, no. I shouldn’t have the gun out, but I dug it out of his lockbox this morning when I got home and set it on the nightstand.”

He nodded his head, then kissed me. “What happened at the park, Des? I want to hear everything.”

I explained the morning’s events in excruciating detail, the way they’d replayed in my head all day. His body stiffened, and his muscles tensed up when I told him about my guitar. It was the first guitar I’d ever owned, and now it sat in ruins at the bottom of the pond at Verde Park. 

“We’re going back there tomorrow. And you will point out the brutes that threatened a nineteen-year-old girl. If I have to fight each one of them, they’re going to learn to leave you alone.” 

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I shook my head. “No! I won’t go back to the park. I can’t…” I couldn’t take a chance my neighbor meant what she’d said about Jeff, nor did I want him fighting them. They were all bigger than both of us, and I feared they’d kill him.

He took my hands and kissed them. “Please come back to campus with me for a few days, Des? You’ll calm down a bit, and I’ll figure out how to protect you.”

“I can’t just take time from my job, Jeff. I’m a new hire there.” 

“How much do you make? I’ll pay your salary while you’re with me.” 

“That’s not really the point. I need to make my own way here.”

“Please, sweetheart? I’ll feel better knowing you’re safe until I figure this out.”

I considered his proffer. Even if it meant sleeping on the floor in his dorm, I loved the idea of being with him again. “I’ll pack light, I promise.”

Jeff laughed. He knew how difficult keeping that promise would be for me. “I’ll hold you to that!”


Two Months Later

After the incident at the park, I resigned myself to waiting tables at the coffeehouse until after our wedding. With my guitar gone, performing around town for tips was out of the question; a replacement would cost money that I just didn’t have. Sing-A-Gram was out of reach until my next birthday. There was only one talent agency in town, and they weren’t seeking additional clients. It wasn’t my year.

I’d worked a double shift at the coffeehouse, on my feet for fourteen hours, and I was tired. I didn’t feel like decorating the penthouse for Snowflake Day. My birthday was days away, and the holiday right behind it. How I longed for the family I missed, and my soon-to-be family in Sunset Valley. The trip up north wasn’t in my budget this year; I wasn’t looking forward to spending my birthday or the holidays alone.

Jeff had been out on winter break for two weeks already. His last holiday as a single man would be with his family and friends. He explained he was saving money for a spectacular honeymoon; bringing me there at his expense was not workable, and I understood. We were planning a fall wedding in Sunset Valley, outdoors, at his family’s mansion. I was scheduled to fly there in January to find my wedding gown, courtesy of Jeff’s mother Audrey. Despite my desire to have a small, intimate ceremony, it was turning into the social event of the year.

A co-worker had given me a basket of bath items during the Snowflake Day party at the coffeehouse, a gift I was planning on taking full advantage of when I got home. A soak in lavender-scented bath beads was just what I needed to unwind and relax. I trudged through the front door, locking it behind me, and set my keys and purse on the counter. 

I walked to the master bathroom and plugged the bathtub, ran the water a little warmer than I found comfortable, and threw a handful of beads into the cascading water. My towel and robe were in the bedroom; I grabbed both and walked back to the tub to turn off the faucet. The first step into the tub made me shiver, though the ambient air temperature wasn’t chilly. The water was hot enough to sting my skin as I sank into the bubbles; a sigh of relief hissed from my mouth.

I’d been humming some holiday songs to myself when I thought I heard a bang inside the penthouse. I sat straight up in the tub, my ears perked up. “Hello?” I called out. “Hello? Is someone there?” It occurred to me how stupid I must have sounded. If a burglar was in the penthouse, he wouldn’t likely answer me, anyway.

I got up and reached for my robe, wrapped it around me, and walked to my nightstand, where I kept Daddy’s old pistol. No one should be in the building without a code or call; that made me feel no better. “Hello?” I called out again. I stood behind my closed bedroom door, the gun in my hand. A deep breath and a step forward, I opened the door and lunged through it. 

“Well, hello Annie Oakley,” Jeff said with a grin, his arms open wide and ready to hold me. Boy, was he a sight for sore eyes!

“Jeff?!” I set the gun on the side table next to the loveseat and ran to him. “What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to surprise you for the holiday and your birthday, sweetheart. That was quite the welcome!”

“I wasn’t expecting you. You startled me!” I stepped into his embrace and kissed him. His fingers caught my robe and pulled it open. 

He chuckled and then licked his lips. “Well, my view just improved!” His hands slipped inside, resting on my skin, caressing me as he held me close. “This is an invitation I can’t resist.”

“Well, not now,” I laughed. “I was in the bathtub, and I’d kinda like to finish up. I had a long day at work.”

“Mmm, that’s why you’re so warm and smell so pretty.” He kissed me again. “I still need to grab my suitcase from my rental car, and I’ll be back upstairs. Don’t point a gun at me this time, okay?” he said, laughing.

“You’re just no fun!” I teased him. “You know where I’ll be.” 

The water was a more comfortable temperature when I slid back into the bath. I let what remained of the bubbles surround me; it felt good, so I closed my eyes and let my body float in the tub. 

A few minutes later, the bathroom door flung open; Jeff stood there with an odd look on his face. “Who is the really pushy chick with jet black hair and brown eyes?” He’d just described my very annoying neighbor. 

“Ah yes, you’ve met Tiffany. She’s the one who threatened at the park to take you from me.”

He wiped a pale shade of lipstick off his mouth. “Yeah, we’ve met. Is she always that rude and obnoxious?”

“She told me you’d fall in love with her, and that I should be cognizant of that fact. I think she’s a few bricks shy of a load, to be truthful.” His horrified expression, and the remainders of lipstick on his skin, said all I needed to know. “Did she really kiss you?!”

“Oh my gosh, Des. I’ve never met anyone like her before. She’s crazy, that one.” He sat on the toilet, lid down, and reached for a towel. “You don’t have to worry about me, baby. I only have eyes for you.” He was thorough, rubbing every trace of her lip stain off his skin.

I smiled at him. “I knew that already, Jeff. She got under my skin the first time, but I realized she’s nuts.”

“Would you care for some company in the shower when you’re done soaking?” He winked at me. That would be a first; we’d been together just once. “I could get all the spots you can’t reach.”

“You know how to make me stretch my boundaries,” I said with a snicker. “Sure.”

*****

Jeff had brought groceries to make supper for us that night. Though the penthouse was roomy, the kitchen lacked space. He worked it like a professional chef, using every inch of counter to its fullest potential. When everything was in the oven, we joined forces to clean up.

“How did you plan on decorating? Do we need a tree? I think we should get a fresh one.” He uncorked a bottle of White Zinfandel and poured some into Mama’s vintage wine glasses. Handing me one, he raised his for a toast. “To us, Des. Our last holiday as an unmarried couple.”

“Cheers!” I said and sipped. This stuff was tasty and sweet, so much better than the usual dry, cottony-mouthed stuff he bought. “I was thinking of a fresh tree.” He sat on the loveseat and held his arms open for me to cuddle with him. “Mama and Daddy’s ornaments are in the crawlspace above the second bedroom. I was going to bring them down tomorrow. It’s my only day off this week.” 

“Do you work on your birthday? I was hoping to take you out somewhere fancy.”

I nodded. “Yeah, I told Jared I’d work the early shift. We should be okay by suppertime, though.” I took another sip of wine; it was delightful! “What did you have in mind?”

He nuzzled his face into my neck and kissed it. “I’m not telling you! That would ruin the surprise, silly.” 

“At least give me a hint?”

“You’ll need your gown.” Well, that narrowed it down to almost every restaurant in town.

“Not helpful!”

“Sorry, sweetheart, that’s all I got.” His fingers traced the muscles in my right arm, down to my waist. “Damn, you’re still so beautiful.” 

“You must feel frisky tonight.” When wasn’t he, really?

“You don’t miss a trick, do you?”

“Not usually.” I snuggled backward into his arms and then turned my head toward him for a kiss. “Yes.”

“Yes, what?”

“Yes, I’ll go to bed with you tonight.” I kissed him again with much more passion.

“I didn’t ask—” he groaned.

“You don’t have to.”


We spent my birthday together, just the two of us. He took me to an exclusive restaurant in town, one of the oldest on the Los Sueños Strip. It was the first time I’d been inside such a swanky, posh, five-star restaurant like that one. The one in Bridgeport was elegant and refined, but this one looked like a million dollars. 

On Snowflake Day morning, Jeff woke up first. I didn’t feel him slip from the bedroom, but I smelled fresh coffee wafting in from the kitchen, and the aroma of bacon sizzling on the stove. The air was chilly, and I was wearing no clothes when I put my feet on the floor.

Jeff heard me awake and walked to the bedroom with a cup of coffee for me, prepared just how I loved it. “Good morning, sugarplum,” he said with a wink. “Did you sleep well?” 

“Mmhmm. Thank you for the coffee.” I put on my robe. In reality, it didn’t matter what I wore or didn’t wear. No one could see into our penthouse on the nineteenth floor.

“You’re welcome.” He leaned in for a kiss and then lingered there. “Are you hungry, Des?”

“I could eat,” I said. Breakfast smelled delicious. 

“The bacon is almost done. I’ll make eggs for you however you’d like, and your favorite whole grain toast.” He took my hands and led me out to the living room. The pile of gifts under the tree shocked me. I felt like a little girl!

“Jeff!” I set my coffee down on the counter and covered my face with my hands. “What did you do?”

“Wouldn’t you love to know?” He taunted me. “It’s been so hard keeping this secret.”

“Where did it all come from? You came in with nothing but your bag.”

“That’s true. I got busy while you were working.” His blue eyes sparkled. 

“I…” My eyes welled with tears. I had nothing for him. His visit was unplanned, and money was tight. “You caught me off guard, Jeff. I have nothing—”

He took my hands, his expression so full of love that I couldn’t comprehend why he adored me so much. “Don’t worry about it, Des. I have everything I need and want.”

“I worry about it, Jeff. You give me so much, and I seldom reciprocate. I should shower you with gifts and all—”

He placed his finger on my lips with a gentle ‘shh’. “Des, since we’ve been together, you’ve had one trial after another. You take everything in stride and you never miss a beat. I know you’re struggling here, that your bills are high. There is no reason for you to be facing difficulty when you’re under my roof. You’re my responsibility, babyluv. And I won’t let you neglect things you want because your needs are a burden.” He kissed me, a tender caress on my cheek. “Let me spoil you, because I love you.”

He wiped away my tears of joy as he explained the gifts. I still felt guilty, but when I was able, I’d make it up to him tenfold. “Thank you.” 

One last sweet kiss and he stood. “Breakfast is ready.” 

We worked in the kitchen together to finish up cooking eggs and toast, then sat at the small dinette table he’d bought for the space I had. Keeping Daddy’s tradition of praying for our meal, Jeff whispered a short blessing over us and our day together. He wasn’t a believer like me, which made his gesture more special.

The dishes sat in the sink while we relaxed on the loveseat, staring at the pile of gifts under the tree. Each one of them had my name on it. Without realizing it, Jeff had triggered fantastic childhood memories for me; I dabbed my eyes and sniffled.

“Are you alright?” 

“Yeah. It makes me nostalgic to see this. I haven’t had gifts like this since I was a girl.”

“There’s one or two I brought from home from Mom and Dad. The rest are from me, sweetheart. Happy Snowflake Day.” 

I wrapped my arms around him, holding him close. “Happy Snowflake Day, my sweet love,” I whispered into his ear.

Jeff sat on the floor in front of the tree, picking out presents for me to open. One by one, I opened his generous gifts; he saved one in particular, it seemed, for last. He held it behind his back and acted innocent. My interest was piqued, but I expected none of what he’d done. It could wait if that’s what he wanted. 

I pretended he didn’t have something hidden behind him. “I’m getting more coffee. Would you like a refill?” I asked.

He nodded. “Yeah, as long as you’re getting it, I’ll have one.” Jeff stood and stretched. “Nature calls. I’ll be right back.” I nodded and kept preparing the cups of coffee.

He was back in the living room faster than I could finish. I carried the mugs to him, retaking my place on the loveseat. The gift he’d been hiding now sat on the coffee table; a coy grin pulled across his face.

“Thank you for everything,” I said, taking a sip of my coffee. 

“I saved the special one for last, babyluv.” He placed the gift he’d held back onto the table. “This one is from me.”

Funny, he’d say it like that. The gifts were all from him, but I humored him. “Okay.” He watched me tear the paper, open the box, and my countenance fell. A guitar strap, a new capo, and nylon strings?! Was this his idea of a joke? “I-I don’t understand…” I couldn’t decide if I was bitter or sad. My guitar was long gone. 

“You will need those things, Des.”

“Maybe eventually. I haven’t been able to replace it yet, Jeff. And I don’t see how this is—” As I spoke my increasingly biting words, he leaned back to retrieve one last gift from inside the guest room. My hands trembled with emotion as he handed the box to me.

“I love you, Destiny,” he whispered. “Open it, babyluv. I can’t wait to see your face.” 

I knew what the box held; its unmistakable shape gave away the contents. I didn’t know the specifics, but I couldn’t wait to find out. I tore the paper from the box, clamping my jaws together so I wouldn’t cry. Jeff fidgeted, watching me reveal the one gift he knew I’d treasure for the rest of my life. My fingers removed the tape on the box and then slid it open. 

“Oh, my…” I set the box down on my lap and wept. My shoulders heaved as I cried. Jeff moved to the seat next to me and held me. It wasn’t any old acoustic guitar, but an Ovation guitar. This was not a cheap instrument; I’d had my eye on one of those at the music store downtown. It would have taken me over a year to afford one, maybe longer.

“Do you like it, babyluv?”

I couldn’t speak. All I could do was nod. My fingers plucked at the strings. The tone was vibrant and full—even with the standard strings—like no guitar I’d ever played before. He saw how emotional I was, how much I loved and appreciated this beautiful gift. He pulled my hair away from my shoulders and gathered it in his hands. 

“That was the big one,” he whispered into my ear. “I have had that picked out since the assault. It was specially ordered and shipped to the store here for you. This guitar is meant for stage performance, Des. It will be the perfect accompaniment to your angelic voice.” 

His sweet words, his tender love, rendered me speechless. I set the guitar back into the box and wrapped myself around him. “Oh, how I love you, Jeff.” I sniffled in his ear. “Thank you.”

“You just made my holiday, Destiny. You’re all I’ve ever wanted.”


Three Weeks Later

I’d only been to Sunset Valley once, and never without Jeff. It would be an interesting week. My music player was loaded with Katie Price songs, plugged into my ears as I settled into my first-class seat. The flight attendant took my drink order before we even taxied to the runway. 

Twenty minutes later, the plane was headed due north to Sunset Valley for an almost two-hour flight. I had a lot of inspiration for songs, so I sat with my notebook in my hand and a pen tucked into my ponytail. Before I got off this silver bullet, I hoped to have a couple of decent songs written. Jeff promised me we’d make a demo together during his spring break.

The attendant surprised me what seemed like five minutes later, asking for my drink cup and trash items. “We’re twenty minutes from the airport,” she informed me. I looked at the blank page in my notebook. So much for creativity.

“Thank you,” I said in return. I took one last mouthful of ice and threw my drink cup into the open bag she held. I returned my notebook to my backpack and slipped it under my seat. The landscape below us was a beautiful, wintry white. Snow fell at a decent clip, the flakes melting on contact with the airplane and patterning down the windows as water droplets. 

I watched outside for the rest of the flight. We landed as though we floated down on a cloud, despite the blustery weather. I supposed it snowed so often up here that the pilots and ground crews were used to the inclement conditions. The jet taxied to the gate, where I hoped Jeff’s mother, Audrey, waited for my arrival.

My eyes scanned the terminal as I walked down the jetway. I could see no familiar faces as I made my way off the airplane. I had no desire to drive in the snow in an unfamiliar city. Please be downstairs at baggage claim, I thought to myself. 

Audrey stood close to the bottom of the stairwell that led from the terminal into the baggage claim area. She held a sign that said, “Destiny,” on it; the sweet gesture made me smile. I picked up my pace and walked to where she stood.

“Welcome home, Destiny Grace!” she beamed. I laughed; she insisted Grace was my middle name. Nothing would convince her otherwise.

“Hi Audrey!” I hugged her. It was great that we got along well. It would make the week much less awkward for me. 

“How was your flight, dear?” She pulled away from the hug and planted a smooch on my right cheek. “You look stunning! I see the city agrees with you!”

If she only knew. “Thank you! I won’t lie. Things have been tough in Starlight Shores. It’s not as easy as I imagined it would be.” 

She patted my shoulder. “Maybe you should consider going with Jeff to Bridgeport, dear. His band is coming together!”

Bridgeport? “As far as I know, he’s thinking about the Shores with me after he graduates.”

Audrey shook her head. “Oh, no dear. Jeffery wants to perform in Bridgeport. His band is very popular at Sim State, and his prospects in the city look better than average.”

Why was I hearing about Jeff’s band from his mother? “Hmm. I thought it was only Jeff and Vic?” 

“It was, dear. But Jeffery met two talented musicians up there. They have an incredible sound.” Audrey spoke with obvious pride. But her information left me with more questions than answers.

“I see.”

“Destiny? You act as though you’re hearing this for the first time. Didn’t Jeffery tell you about his band, dear?” 

I shook my head. “No. He’s never told me.”

“Well, I’m sorry. I feel like I’ve let out a secret.”

“It’s okay, Audrey. You don’t need to apologize to me.” Jeff might, though, I thought.

The baggage carousel started up, bringing luggage from our flight into the claim area. Mine was one of the first ones off. I collected it, and together we walked to her expensive luxury car.

Audrey pulled up outside a new, bigger mansion. “I hope you don’t mind our remodeling dust, Destiny. Jeff bought this at the start of his winter break. We just finished moving into it. Julian and Jeff are going to refurbish and sell it. Then when Julian retires next January, we’re going to move to Barnacle Bay. The cold is too much here.” 

I nodded. “I understand.” She opened the trunk of her car; I took my bag and pulled it to the entryway of the mansion.

This house had a different character. Instead of fine linens and fancy furniture, it had a craftsman feel to it. Rustic, wooden paneling covered the walls on the entire bottom floor with exposed beams on the ceilings. The floors were worn with shoddy-looking carpet. It was ten steps backward for a family used to luxury.

“Your room is upstairs, Destiny. Jeff wanted you to be comfortable here, so he decorated it for you himself.” She led me up a narrow staircase, hidden in a hallway off the kitchen. The stairs opened to a vast living area with a fireplace, average-looking furniture, and a clunky old television set. “The house will be finished well before your wedding in October.” 

I gawked at the house’s interior. Everything was different from the older mansion; it was more relaxed and comfortable than the posh home they left behind. She stopped at the door to my room and opened it. “Here it is. Please make yourself at home.”

I stepped inside to find a four-poster bed with a silk scarf wrapped around a wooden canopy. A coordinating down comforter adorned what I assumed would be a top-of-the-line mattress and sateen linens. On a solid wood dresser, a bouquet of fresh red roses awaited me. I’d come to expect Jeff’s loving attention to detail. 

“This is beautiful!” I said. “Thank you.”

“We’re meeting Ana at the dress shop in the morning. Though there are several shops in town, Ana’s place can get any dress you desire. We’ll be shopping at her store first.” 

“That sounds good. I liked Ana.” Her style was eclectic, but I supposed with Dragon Valley to the north, it wasn’t uncommon for this area.

“Why don’t you get unpacked and come join me in the kitchen when you’re finished? We can talk over a glass of Chardonnay.” 

“Sure.” I didn’t care for Chardonnay, but it was okay. I knew I’d need to develop a tolerance for things, and people, I found distasteful.

*****

After supper, I was alone in my bedroom when I heard a knock. “Who is it?”

“It’s Barb.” Barbie was Jeff’s snooty twin sister. We’d gotten off on the wrong foot the last time I was here. Time to mend fences, I supposed.

“Come in.” I sat up on my bed and set my notebook down as Barb walked into the room. The last time I saw her, she had almost platinum blonde hair. Now, it was colored a cerulean blue, shaved to her scalp on the bottom, and longer on top. It looked ridiculous on her. “How are you?” I asked. I tried to sound sincere, but Barb was the last person I needed to see.

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“Look, I’m not interested in pleasantries,” she snapped. “I want to make sure you don’t interfere with Jeff’s plans after graduation. What are your intentions with him?” 

I swallowed a bit harder than I wanted to. “I don’t see where that’s any of your business.” Yikes. Did those words escape my mouth?

“Well, when it’s MY brother you’re going to be hitched to, you bet it’s my business. I won’t allow you to hold him back. He has such great potential, and you… well, you don’t.” 

“Excuse me!” That ticked me off. I stood from the bed and held my position. “You don’t know a thing about me, Barb. How do you know I don’t have potential?”

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“I didn’t until you just admitted it, hillbilly.”

Ooh! “That’s not what I said. You’re twisting my words!” 

“If you ruin his shot, I will be your worst nightmare.” Her icy blue-gray eyes pierced through me, as though she could see into my soul. It was disturbing.

“What makes you think I want to ruin anything for Jeff? I love him.”

“Well, I know you’ve got him wrapped around your finger, and I know he will do anything for you, including wasting his untapped potential in Starlight Shores. You know he needs to be in Bridgeport, and yet you’d lure him away.” Barb stood her ground, her hands on her hips and an angry snarl on her face. Her scrawny lips exaggerated her expression; she resembled a bulldog with a snaggletooth. It was all I could do to keep from laughing at her.

“You realize Jeff is a grown man with his own free will, don’t you?” I twirled a length of hair around my finger. “If he wants to come to Starlight Shores, that’s his choice.” 

“You’re asking too much of him! Since we were toddlers, he’s wanted this. I’ll be damned if I let some two-bit rube take his dreams away!”

“It’s not your decision—” I said until Barb cut me off with a backhand across my cheek.

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The impact caught me by surprise and knocked me off my feet. I sat on the floor, stunned; a hot, crimson handprint burned my face. 

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She looked horrified at what she’d done. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“Please leave me alone,” I croaked out. She stood there, watching to see what I would do. I needed her to leave before I lost my cool and cried in front of her. The last thing I needed was to show weakness. “Get out!” I stood and pointed toward the door.

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“I’m going.” She turned on her heel to leave. “Please, don’t tell Jeff? He will beat me into a pulp.”

“I won’t,” I lied. He was the first person I was calling. I couldn’t believe she came into my room and assaulted me, first with words, and then with a physical attack. Barbara said nothing more before she left my bedroom.

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Jeff would be back in his dorm unless he had a gathering with his band. I dialed his familiar number, expecting the answering machine. His cheerful voice surprised me.

“Hey, babyluv,” he said. “How’s things up north?” 

“I wish I could say they’re good.”

“What’s wrong? Is Mom treating you well?” 

I sighed. “Your mom is wonderful. Your sister is another story.”

Jeff huffed on the other end, as though he expected my words. “What did she do this time?”

“Well, for one, she came into my room and picked a fight. And then she backhanded me.” 

The line was silent; I thought the call had dropped. “She’s a dead woman,” Jeff said with obvious anger in his voice. “My sister has no right to touch you.”

“She surprised me, that’s for sure. I promised her I wouldn’t tell you. I lied to her.”

“Good! Oh Des, I’m sorry you’re having problems with her. I’ll fix it.” 

“I can fight my own battles. She just caught me off-guard.”

“Consider it handled, babyluv. I’ll call her tonight.”

“Thank you, but you don’t need to. I can take care of myself.” 

“She’s my sister, sweetheart. We have a history.”

“If you insist.” I wrestled with bringing up what Audrey had mentioned about his band. Should I open a potential can of worms? Mama’s words repeated in my head. “Desi, once you say something, you can’t take it back.” Wise advice, Mama. 

“Is everything else okay?”

I bit my tongue. “Yeah, I’m just tired.”

“You’re sure, Des? I want you to be comfortable in my home.” 

“I’m sure. Listen, don’t worry about Barb. I’ll just be the bigger person and forget it happened.”

I could tell he wasn’t okay with my decision, because he huffed again. “Call me if she gets out of hand, Des. I’ll talk her straight.”

“Okay, that’s a deal. I love you.” 

“I love you more. Goodnight, my sweet princess.” 

“Goodnight.” I pressed End on my phone, feeling better about my exchange with Barb. It was late, so I changed into my pajamas and whispered a prayer before I got into bed, wishing for Jeff’s company. I fell asleep with him on my mind.


The next morning, we left the house early to make our nine o’clock appointment with Ana. I dressed in a warm peach sweater, blue jeans and my old, trusty cowboy boots, my hair in a ponytail. Though it wasn’t snowing that morning, the temperatures were below zero. The wind went right through my jacket and chilled me to the bone. I couldn’t wait to get inside somewhere. 

Audrey escorted me into the shop and to the front desk. “This is only the first bunch of plans we need to cement before you leave here next week, Destiny Grace. We need to pick out invitations, flowers, bridesmaid dresses, food and entertainment, and the decorations for the mansion.”

I took a deep breath. “Well, let’s concentrate on the dress today. I’m pretty overwhelmed with all this planning stuff.” 

Her expression eased, and she gave a warm smile. “Just enjoy yourself, Destiny. This is the fun part.” She rang the bell on the desk, calling Ana’s name.

Ana peeked her head out from behind the backroom door. “I’ll be right there, Audrey,” she said. “I’m gathering the gowns you wanted to see.” 

Audrey looked pleased. She walked to the mirrored platform and gestured for me to follow her. We sat together, waiting for Ana’s appearance. 

“Hi Destiny!” Ana greeted me, struggling with an armful of white tulle and satin. “Let me set these down… here.” She opened the dressing room door and set the dresses on the rack within. “It’s good to see you again! Do you still have that adorable southern accent?” 

Ugh. It’s not southern! I thought to myself. “Yes, I do. It’s not a real big selling point in Starlight Shores for my singing career.”

Ana waved her hand. “Psh! Don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do. It’s up to you to sell yourself.” She gave me a quick hug. “Promote yourself in a city that size. You can do it! I have all the faith in you.”

“Based on… what exactly?” Now I was intrigued.

“Jeff tells me you have the voice of an angel. That won’t go unnoticed for long, Destiny. There isn’t much true talent anywhere. You need to find your niche, and go for gold.” Ana sized me up. “Still a size three?” 

“One,” I said. “I’ve lost a few pesky pounds.” Ana rolled her eyes. I could tell what she was thinking.

“So you weigh ninety pounds soaking wet now?” She gave me a mischievous grin.

“No, still one-ten. Not wet.” I winked back at her.

“Lucky girl!” She walked to the dressing room and pulled out a white satin gown. It was beautiful. “Let’s try this one first. I think it will look gorgeous on you. It’s a three, but this style runs a bit on the smaller side.”

“Okay!” Together, we walked to the dressing room. She unzipped the back of the gown, which hid a zipper behind tiny, white buttons in mother-of-pearl. The bodice was done with lace and tulle; the skirt was constructed of satin with lace appliques throughout. It reminded me of a fairy tale wedding dress, and I loved it right from the start. “This one is stunning,” I said.

“I agree! Let’s get this contraption on your beautiful self and show Miss Audrey.” I pulled my sweater over my head to Ana’s laughter. “We’re going to need a whole new set of sexy lingerie! That part is my specialty!”

I blushed a deep red, though I should have been used to her quirks. The dress slipped over my head, a perfect fit despite it being a size three. My hands smoothed the fabric over my body as she zipped the back. The gown had no train attached, but it didn’t matter to me. She helped me gather the ample skirt as we walked to the platform. Audrey sat forward in her chair, studying the fit and form of the dress. 

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“That looks lovely on you, Destiny,” Audrey said. “What do you think, Ana?” 

Ana fussed with the dress in back. “I think it’s perfect!” 

“What do you think, Destiny? You’ll knock his socks off in that dress.” Audrey continued her penetrating stare.

“I love it.” I turned around to see myself in this beautiful gown. The fit and the style were perfect. Where is Mama when I need her opinion? “I know I shouldn’t take the first one I try on, though.” 

“That’s true,” Ana said in agreement. “I have quite a few here for you to try, and you’re my only client scheduled until late afternoon. We have all day.”

“Let’s see the next one,” Audrey said. “We’ll keep that one on the short list.” 

Ana nodded and gathered the skirt. Together, we walked back to the dressing room. She helped me out of the gown, and I stood there in my unmentionables while she unwrapped the next dress. This one looked to be form-fitting. Not my style, but I’d try it for Audrey’s sake. Ana slipped it over my head; she fastened a series of hooks to close the back. 

The gown was a stark, winter white made from a fabric I’d never seen before, let alone wore. The lace detail was intricate, and I’ll admit the dress was pretty. Had it been crafted from a softer material, it would have been slinky, hugging every curve of my body. The skirt flared at the bottom, starting at the knee. We walked to the platform; Audrey stood and walked to me.

“Destiny, this looks gorgeous on you! It’s elegant and understated. It makes you look like a movie star.” She hugged me and stood right behind me. “I’m favoring this one.” 

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I looked at every angle in the mirror, checking out the fit. It wasn’t what I liked, but it was beautiful just the same. “You think so?” I asked. 

“Oh, absolutely, dear!” Audrey turned to Ana. “Do you have this one in an off-white?” 

“Off-white?” I said.

“You’d have to be dead to resist Jeffery for so long, Destiny. I know you’re not a ‘good girl’. Sure, we like to keep up appearances, but let’s be honest—” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. How could she possibly know that?!

Ana looked at my face, twisted in utter humiliation, and clicked her tongue. “Every bride deserves to wear white at her wedding, Audrey. No matter what.” She leaned forward and hugged me. “I have your back,” she whispered. I wanted to crawl under the rug and stay there.

*****

When we returned home from the train wreck dress appointment, I excused myself to my room. I was fuming about Audrey’s accusations, but more so about the wording she used. I’m not a ‘good girl’?! What the heck did THAT mean? Well, I knew what it meant. And I believed Audrey liked me. I think Jeff was the only one in his family who did.

The supper hour came, and the house smelled good. I almost declined having supper with the family. But to salvage the day, I joined them. The thought of Jeff’s dad, Julian, being my sole ally in the family, when it was he who didn’t care for me to start, amused me. However, I wasn’t counting on my assumption being true.

Audrey cooked a beautiful meal, likely big enough to feed three times as many people. We all sat together with no prayer spoken before supper. I needed to accept that Jeff came from a family of non-believers. 

Barb sat across from me; Audrey and Julian opposite one another at the table’s head. Barb was quiet and reserved until the discussion turned to the dress disaster.

“Barbie, we need you to come with us to the next dress fitting. Destiny could use your fashion sense.” Audrey gazed at me with a crooked smile. Was she kidding? Barb’s sense of style was no style at all. Whatever she wore never coordinated. I thought Audrey was losing her marbles.

“Why would I want to help her? She’s going to ruin Jeff.” Barb swiveled her head toward her father. “Why are you letting this wedding take place, Pa?” 

Julian looked over his glasses at me. “She’s suitable.”

“She isn’t a ‘good girl’, Julian,” Audrey stated, her slender fingers forming air quotes.  

“Well, that’s surprising.” He looked right into my eyes. “Aren’t your parents believers? You must be a disappointment to them.”

I am a pretty tolerant person, and I’ve always been taught to turn the other cheek. Mama, despite being red-headed, was always even-tempered, and I could never remember her and Daddy disagreeing, never mind fighting. And most times, I was like Mama. 

But Daddy had a wild streak and a case of wanderlust until his retirement. He’d uttered more than a few salty words, though they were never directed at Mama. Daddy could trade barbs with the best of them, and his temper often got him into trouble.

Today, I was my daddy’s daughter—a red-headed spitfire raised to stand up for myself. “Doormat Destiny” ceased to exist at that moment. The Dean family awakened a hornet’s nest, and I was hot and ready to sting.

“What did you just say to me?” I spat back at Julian. 

“Your parents must be so disappointed—”

Did he really just repeat that? Doesn’t he know what rhetorical means? “Let’s get one thing straight, Mr. Dean. My parents adored me, and I, them. They were very proud of me, and they would be to this day, especially with everything I’ve endured since they passed away two years ago. So don’t you ever, EVER, tell me my parents would be disappointed in me!”

Audrey gave me a surprised look. “Where is all this coming from?” 

“Don’t. You. DARE!” I snarled. “You started this!”

“Isn’t what I say true?” Audrey doubled down. 

“What Jeffery and I do in our private time is NONE of your business! Do you understand me?”

“Chill out, hillbilly,” Barb stood and raised her voice. “We don’t disrespect our elders in this family! You’re such an ungrateful little bitch after Mom invited you into our home! You should be ashamed of yourself.”

That was the end of my civility. Barb’s words struck the match that lit my fuse. My daddy’s temper took over as salty words poured from my mouth. What I had said was a mystery; I was too angry to care. When I got up from the table, I kicked my chair so hard that it almost fell over. I was shaking like a leaf while I walked up to my bedroom. My first phone call was to the local cab company. I needed a ride to the airport.

No one appeared to smooth things over. I had my case packed in record time. I walked down the front stairway with my pride intact and the future of my engagement with Jeff hanging in the balance. The cab was there minutes after I called for them. I didn’t say goodbye when I walked from Jeff’s mansion.

“Airport, please,” I said as the cab driver placed my bag in the trunk. My hands still shook opening the back seat of the car. I dialed Jeff’s number after I climbed inside.

“Hi babyluv!” His cheery voice greeted me. But when I heard him, my voice quivered. My breath caught in my throat, and a sob choked me. “Des? What’s wrong?”

“I’m on my way back to the Shores. Things got ugly, and I lost my temper.”

“What? Why, Des? What happened?”

“We were having supper together, and your mom suggested to Barb that she come with us on our next dress shopping trip. Barb was her usual miserable self, but your parents said some pretty awful things to me. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I guess they don’t like me after all, Jeff.”

“That doesn’t seem right, Des. Mom adores you! She was looking forward to spending time with you.”

“Does she know we were intimate, Jeff? Did you tell her?”

Silence. I thought the call had disconnected. “No. My personal life isn’t their business. They don’t care what I do, anyway.”

“Well, my virginity, or lack thereof, was up for discussion at supper. Your dad implied my parents would be ashamed of me…” Just repeating the words angered me again. How DARE he?

More silence, and then a distraught sigh. “Oh, babyluv, I’m so sorry. I promise to make it up to you.”

Talking to Jeff, I wept in the back seat of the cab. “I can’t go back there. That bridge burned down to the nubs.”

“Let me talk to Mom, and we’ll get this all straightened out. I promise. Don’t fly out angry, sweetheart. Just sit tight, okay?” 

“I’m sorry. I need to get back home.” Though he couldn’t see me, I shook my head. “I can’t face them again.”

“I can’t talk you into staying there?” 

“Why, Jeff? So they can insult me some more? I can’t let them talk to me this way. I’m no fool.”

“Oh Des, I understand,” he said. Finally.

“Do you mind if I use some of the renovation funds to change my flight? I’ll replace it when I can.”

“Use whatever you need, sweetheart. Don’t worry about replacing it. I’ll just replenish it in the morning.”

His gentle tone was just what I needed to ease my anxiety. “I wish you were here. Jeff, I need you.”

“I was going to fly home this weekend to surprise you. Maybe I’ll change my destination and come to the Shores instead.”

“I would love that.” 

“I know you would.” That made me laugh.

“We’re pulling up at the airport terminal, Jeff. I’ll call you when I’m home safe.”

“Okay, Des. Remember, I love you.”

“I love you, too.”


— Jeff — 

Destiny’s phone call that night was a shocker. Mom never gave me any sign that she didn’t like my sweet fiancée. So when she hung up the phone, Mom’s number back at the house was the first one I dialed.

“Jeffy!” 

“What did you do, Mom?”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Why did Destiny call me all upset? What did you do to her?”

“Oh.” Mom didn’t answer me right away. What was she waiting for? Her delay was just making me angrier. “Well, you know, Jeffery, that girl… she’s not right for you.”

“It doesn’t matter what you say, Mom. We’re getting married, with or without your blessing.”

“Do what you want, Jeffery. It’s your life, but think long and hard about it. She has a hot temper, and she is very disrespectful!”

Well, that didn’t sound right. Destiny wouldn’t insult anyone, not even the ones who bullied her at the park. “I don’t believe she’s capable of disrespect.”

“Until it’s YOU she’s fighting with, Jeff. I don’t trust a girl with red hair. They’re flighty and devious.”

Mom was making me angry. “Hair color has nothing to do with temperament. Des is sweet as they come!”

“How does she get along with her folks? I can’t imagine they’re very proud of her now.”

“You realize her parents died, right? Both of them, within 24 hours of each other. You can’t imagine how close she was to them, and how much she misses them.”

“Well, that’s not healthy, either, Jeffy. A girl shouldn’t be so close to her mother. It’s not right.”

Mom was just talking in circles. “Are you quite done?”

“I’m telling you, Jeff. She’s not the person you think. When she’s with you, maybe she’s different. When she’s by herself, she’s a monster.”

“I’m sure you did nothing to provoke her…” Could she hear the sarcasm in my voice? I hoped so, because I knew differently.

“Why would I do that, Jeff? You’re my son. Why would I lie to you? She has plenty of reasons to lie, like saving face or making your family look bad.” I heard Dad chattering with her in the background; I couldn’t make out their conversation in its entirety, but what I heard seemed to mesh with Mom’s account. Why would Destiny lie to me?

“Maybe she’s after your money. She wouldn’t be the first little minx to target you, Jeff.”

Impossible! It couldn’t be true. “No. Destiny doesn’t care about the money.”

“Isn’t she from a poor family?”

“She is. What’s your point?”

“When you shower her with gifts and spoil her, don’t you think she will come to expect that? Try withholding money and see how she reacts. I bet you’ll see her for what she really is, Jeff. Please, be careful.”

“I trust her.” 

“Maybe you shouldn’t. That’s all I’m saying.” 

I huffed in frustration. “Look, Mom. I need to go. I have to get up early.” It was a lie. I needed some time to process my feelings and everything Mom had thrown at me. It was overwhelming.

“OK, Jeffery. We love you, son.” 

“Yeah.” I hung up the phone, cursing under my breath. My brain was working overtime, trying to figure out what had gone on, who was telling me the truth. I took Mom’s advice and tested Destiny. A quick phone call later, the credit card she used for emergencies was frozen. According to the bank, she hadn’t attempted using her bank card yet. I knew she would try when she got to the airport. Her reaction would tell me who was telling the truth—Destiny or Mom.

As expected, the phone rang twenty minutes later. I acted cool when I answered her call.

“Hi, babyluv!” I said.

“Is there something wrong, Jeff? The airline declined my card!”

“It should be okay,” I lied. “What did they tell you?” 

“They didn’t give me a reason, just that the card was declined.” I heard her put her hand over the phone, and she mumbled to someone. “They won’t give the card back! What’s going on, Jeff? How am I going to get home?!” 

Her reaction was just what Mom had predicted. “Don’t you have your money from the house?” I tried to be smooth and helpful, but she was growing more agitated. 

“I have no access to that now! It’s all tied up in investments. You know that!” she huffed and cursed, something I’d never heard her do before. “What am I going to do? I don’t really want to sleep in the airport!”

Thanks to me, she was in a tight spot. I wasn’t expecting her reaction. I thought she would have handled it like she did every other crisis she’d been given. “Let me call the bank and see what’s up. Can I call you back?” 

“I guess.” Her voice cracked. “Please hurry? I’ve had a rough day.” 

I heard the emotion in her quivering voice. Now I felt terrible for testing her, but Mom was right. “I’ll put you on hold, Des. Just a sec.” One more phone call to the bank, and her privileges were restored. As a precaution, I called the airport in Sunset Valley, determined who had kept her card, and told them it was a misunderstanding. The agent assured me he would return the card to Destiny. Sure, it would cost me a few hundred dollars, but she would get home safe and sound. The experiment revealed what I needed to know, and it was depressing as hell. 

Mom had done the unthinkable; she planted the first seed of doubt into my head about Destiny. 

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Up Next: Chapter Three, Generation Two


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