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?”
“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.
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.”
“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.
“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?”
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.”
“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.”
Up Next: Chapter Eight, Part Two, Generation Two
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