I looked out the airplane window as we descended on our final approach into Starlight Shores. I took a deep breath and rested my head against the window. If moving to the big city was my heart’s desire, why did it feel so wrong? The overhead speaker crackled the flight attendant’s request to return trays and seats to their closed and upright positions.
I took one last sip of my pop and, with it, a mouthful of ice to suck on. If I’d learned one thing about flying, it was that the air was especially dry in the cabin. I’d also learned that Jeff, my fiancé, spoiled me with first-class accommodations when we traveled together; I wasn’t as fortunate on this flight.
My mind was a thousand miles away in a northern city called Sunset Valley. My sweetheart lived there in a mansion nestled into the foothills. In a week, he’d be returning to Sim State University for his senior year. What would happen with our relationship after his graduation was still a mystery.
I turned my attention back toward the world outside the aircraft’s window. The bright lights of Starlight Shores twinkled below, making it appear as the sky on the darkest night back home. Located a hundred miles from the nearest big city, the rural township of Appaloosa Plains was about as backwoods as one could get. Those of us who lived there loved the sense of community that came from knowing our neighbors. We all went to the same school, shopped at the same market, attended the same chapel. We all spoke with the same country accent. There was comfort in our small town camaraderie.
Our home on Pomona Promenade was a modest farmhouse which sat across the street from the festival grounds. The carnival ran for just a few weeks each season, with shows scheduled year-round in the town’s newer concert stage. Absent the lights from the fair, an occasional concert, or the full moon, the sky was black as coal and dotted with a billion stars. When I gazed upon the city below me, this was what I thought about. The resemblance was striking.
I sensed the pressure change in the cabin; my ears plugged up as they did every time I flew. I sound like a world traveler, but trust me, I’m not. I’ve only visited two other places besides home; Sunset Valley, where Jeff lived, and Sim State University. I recently graduated from college, before I sold Mama’s farmhouse estate and moved to the city. My heart, however, remained in Sunset Valley with the man I loved.
Moments later, the jet’s tires touched down on the runway. The reverse thrust of the engines was deafening. I reached under my seat and retrieved my backpack. I owed Jeff a text message when we landed. My fingers fumbled inside my bag, searching, without the benefit of sight, for my cell phone. Judging by what my hands found, I had nine wallets in there. The phone, however, was nowhere to be found. Great.
The plane taxied to the gate and stopped. When I stood, I spotted the cell tucked inside the seatback pocket. Had I not seen it sitting there, it would have been a costly mistake. I picked it up and switched off ‘Airplane Mode’. A few moments later, I had the signal I needed to type a quick, efficient message to Jeff:
Hi, Jeff. I just landed in the Shores after a smooth flight. Will call you once I’m settled. I love you.
With my phone tucked into my shorts pocket and my backpack slung over my shoulder, I was ready to get off this silver bullet and stretch out on a bed.
I woke up this morning as a homeowner, the sole heir of my mama and daddy’s estate. His sister, my Aunt Jenny, stood by my side through every step of selling the family home. Was it heartbreaking? Absolutely. But as much as it saddened me to sell the house that had been in Mama’s family for three generations, the idea of existing there, tending the farm and scraping by year after year pained me more.
When I left Aunt Jenny and Uncle Paul, I knew I’d never see them again. They promised to take a vacation in memory of my parents; it would be the honeymoon Mama and Daddy could never afford. Daddy served in the Army for over thirty years and retired after his final deployment. Mama stayed home and carried on her family tradition, working hard and living off the land. It was a life I couldn’t envision for myself. I inherited Daddy’s wanderlust, much to Mama’s distaste.
I rented a luggage trolley and headed to baggage claim. There were two cases to retrieve; a larger one contained most of my wardrobe, and it was stuffed. The other contained sentimental items I wanted with me. Angaloo—the worn, stuffed kangaroo Daddy gave to me for my second birthday—was in the smaller case. I couldn’t be without my little buddy when I would need nostalgic reminders of home.
Both suitcases were on the luggage carousel; I grabbed them and placed them on the cart. Outside, a throng of taxis waited for fares. One driver approached me and asked where I was going.
“Starlight Shores,” I said.
“I’ll take you.” He took the larger case and dropped it into the trunk of a newer car. I put the smaller case into the back seat with me.
It was about twenty minutes from the airport before we saw signs that welcomed us to the city. I dozed in the back seat; the driver hit a pothole and woke me. “Welcome To Starlight Shores—The City That Never Sleeps!” was emblazoned in bold, charcoal black letters. I was tickled to see Katie Price smiling on the billboard.
The driver chattered while I contemplated the advertisement. Katie’s familiar face brought back fond memories of home. It was she who gave me a chance to sing on stage back home. She was my favorite singer.
Another twenty minutes later, we pulled up in front of a seedy-looking motel. There was no WAY this was the motel I booked when I bought my airline ticket. I checked the reservation on my phone. Drat! I rolled my eyes in disgust.
“Is this it?” I asked, just in case.
“Yes’m.” He turned around and huffed a mouthful of stale, rancid coffee breath in my face. The stench turned my stomach in an instant. Oof…
“Is there a place a little less… dirty?” I hoped I was up to date on my shots. It looked like a disease-ridden rathole.
“There’s a bed-and-breakfast on the beach, but they’re full up this time of year, Miss. Last weekend of summer and all.” He turned forward and gripped the steering wheel. “Are you gettin’ out here?”
I sighed. “Yeah, I reckon so.” I cringed as the words left my mouth. Could you sound any more like a hick? I thought. The driver hopped out of the car; he had the trunk opened and the suitcase on the sidewalk before I unbuckled my seatbelt. He stood with his hand out, waiting for his fare. I paid him and included a modest tip, thanked him, and hauled my bags into the lobby of this… whatever it was.
A bell on the door signaled my arrival; a head popped up from behind the counter. He looked to be my age, perhaps older. “Can I help you?” He asked, snapping a wad of gum.
“Yes. I have a room reserved. Farmer.” I thought I saw him smirk before he looked away from me. He muttered something under his breath. I barely heard him say, “That figures.” I already didn’t like him. “Pardon?” I asked, knowing full well what he’d said. Would he own it? I doubted it.
He turned around with a stupid, almost snarky grin on his face. “Uhm, nothing, Miss.” He handed me a registration card to complete; I had my driver’s license and bank card on the counter. It wasn’t until the form asked for an address that I realized I was homeless. I jotted down Jeff’s address in Sunset Valley. His palatial mansion was the closest thing I had to home.
The young man picked up the registration form and my driver’s license. He cocked his head at me with an obvious question pending. “Aren’t you a bit young to be alone in a city like this…” he glanced at the license and then at the card, “… uhm, Destiny?” It never occurred to me that the difference in addresses would raise a red flag. “Where are your parents? Did you run away from home?” He snapped his gum and chawed it like a cow chews on her cud, speaking to me with condescension.
Perhaps his questions were valid, but his tone irked me. I searched his uniform for a name tag; one hung catawampus on the corner of his lapel. His name was scribbled on it with an indelible marker: Brendan. “My folks have both passed away. And I’ll have you know, Brendan, that I’m a recent graduate from Sim State! I’m not too young to be here alone!” If Jeff had accompanied me into the city, he’d have never gotten this much grief from the clerk. Then again, if Jeff was here, I wouldn’t be in a ratty motel. “Look. I’m tired, and I’ve had a long, stressful day. Can I get my key so I can sleep? Please?”
He gave me a sheepish, almost embarrassed smile. “Yes, of course. I’m sorry. You don’t look old enough to be a college graduate. And where are you from, anyway? I’ve never heard a drawl as thick as yours?”
“Appaloosa Plains. I spent the first seventeen years of my life there.” That lump of emotion rose in my throat again. It had been there so often, I thought about charging it rent.
“Where is that?”
I grew weary of his continued unnecessary interrogation. “Key? Please don’t make me ask you again.” I held out my hand in expectation.
“Of course. Enjoy your stay in Starlight Shores, Destiny.” He placed the key on the counter with a crooked smile. I growled under my breath. Brendan was getting on my very last nerve.
“My stay? This is my new home. I’m gonna make it big!” I flashed my most confident smile. “Everyone will know my name soon. You can count on it.”
Brendan laughed at me and shook his head. “Not with that accent, you won’t. Unless you’re an exotic dancer. Then your voice doesn’t matter.”
“Ooh!” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I was positive it was not complimentary. I snatched the key from the counter, took my bags, and stormed from the lobby. His chortling echoed in my ears as I stomped away.
There weren’t that many rooms in the motel, so finding the one that matched my key number was easy. The opened door greeted me with a most unpleasant miasma of stale smoke, alcohol, and mildew. I swung my head back outside, took one more breath of fresh air, then walked into the room. I fumbled for the light switch I figured would be on the wall near the door, but I found none.
Once my eyes adjusted to the room’s dim light, I walked to the nightstand and switched on the lamp. The bulb lit, revealing the furnishings and environment inside. Despite the stench, everything looked clean. Overall, it was acceptable, but a far cry from the beautiful hotel where Jeff and I spent the night last winter break.
I slipped my phone from my pocket and dialed Jeff’s number. On the second ring, he answered it.
“Hi babyluv. You’re settled? How was your day?”
“Hi Jeff! No problems with the closing. Aunt Jenny and Uncle Paul are going to take the vacation I asked them to take. The flight was pleasant, but nothing like first class. You’ve spoiled me, you realize that? I’m used to luxury now.”
“Guilty as charged!” He laughed. “Where are you staying now? How is it?”
“This motel is just… dumpy. I think it has rates by the hour, and it reeks. Everything looks clean. I’m hoping it really is. I can’t stay here while I find a house, though. What a rathole!”
“Let me see what I can do, sweetheart. I don’t have connections in the Shores, but I might come up with something.” He paused for a moment. “I miss you, Des. I’m going crazy here without you.”
My voice caught in my throat. “I’m tired of crying, Jeff. Are you sure you wanted me to come here? I can live with you on campus until you graduate. I’m sure I can wait tables there as well as I can here.”
“Yes, Des. Stay in the Shores, at least for a few months. There’s more opportunity for you. And who knows? Maybe I’ll join you there after I graduate. My band is falling apart. Jerry won’t wait for me. Bob is… well, he isn’t going back this semester. I guess he flunked.”
Those two guys were half of Jeff’s band prospects. “Ouch. Well, what about Vic?”
“So far, so good there. But half of my band is gone. I’m keeping feelers out, but if we don’t find someone by grad, I’ll look when I get to the Shores with you.”
“You’re certain about coming here?”
“Well, it’s not set in stone, but I’ll do what I have to do. Now that we’re apart, I’m finding out how much I miss you.”
That was an understatement. “I can’t believe how much I miss you.” My diamond engagement ring sparkled, even in the room’s low light. It never failed to dazzle me. “When’s the first chance you’ll have to visit?”
“After midterms. I have a full schedule for this term. But I have a surprise for you.”
I sat up on the bed. I loved his surprises. “What is it?”
“Wouldn’t you love to know?” His voice was mischievous. He lived to tease me, and he excelled at it, too.
“I would! But I’m guessing the answer is no.”
“You would be correct!” he said, taunting me. “Trust me, Des. You’re going to love it.”
“I know I will.” I yawned into the phone. “Ugh. I have a lot to do tomorrow.”
“What’s going on tomorrow?”
“Well, I need to find a car. It can’t be an expensive one, but I’ll need it sooner than later. And I need to find a better place to camp out while I’m looking for a house.”
“Give me a day or two on the housing, Des. I might work something out for you. I can’t have you living in a rathole when I can help.”
Jeff was still intent on spoiling me, I supposed. There was never any talking him out of it. “Okay. I won’t argue it out with you.”
I heard the smile in his voice. “You’d better not! I love spoiling you, more so when I can’t be with you.” There was the sound of shuffling papers in the background. “You ended up at that motel in Starlight Shores that you booked when you bought your plane tickets, right?”
“You’ll see. Listen, sweetheart, I have to go, and I’m sure you’re exhausted. Call me tomorrow. I’ll try to have something worked out for you by then.”
“Thanks, Jeff. We’ll talk tomorrow.” I blew a kiss over a thousand miles. “I love you.”
“And I love you, babyluv. Sweet dreams.”
“Sweet dreams.” I reluctantly pressed the End button on my cell.
A loud knock on my door awakened me the next morning. I glanced at the clock on the nightstand. “Eight o’clock?!” I said out loud. I got out of bed and stumbled to the door. A man holding a package and a clipboard stood there, awaiting me.
“Can I help you?”
“Are you Destiny Farmer?” He checked his clipboard and then looked back at me.
“I am…” I said with hesitation. What could he possibly want with me?
“Please sign here.” He handed me the clipboard and pointed toward an arrow. My name was printed with a blank spot for my signature. I scribbled my name on it and handed it back; he gave me the package he held in his hand. “Have a good day, Miss.”
“Thank you,” I said and closed the door. The return address was from a business in town. I didn’t recognize the name or the type of establishment. I walked back to the bed with the parcel in my hands. There was nothing to slice open the tape, but I reached for the room key. Maybe, with its jagged teeth, it would work. I hoped so.
Inside the box was a smaller box and an envelope with my name on it. The envelope was marked with the words, “Read this first!” I slid my finger under the flap and opened it, removed the hand-written letter, and read it:
I’m sorry I couldn’t be there to help with your day-to-day tasks and getting settled. I hope this will take some of the burden from you. Open the box now. I love you, honey.
I sat on the bed a little harder than I wanted, picked up the box, and eased it open. The two halves fell apart in my hands to reveal a car key. He didn’t… Oh, but he did. A note was tied to the key:
In the parking lot, a shiny red convertible is yours. I love you more than anything, Des.
P.S. This isn’t my surprise!
It didn’t matter to me I’d likely wake him with my phone call; I was calling him anyway. My anxious heart was aching for him as the phone rang. I was trying to choke back tears when I heard his cheerful voice on the other end of the line.
“Good morning, princess.”
I attempted to speak, but emotion took my words from me. My sniffles, however, came across loud and clear. “Good morning, Jeff,” I finally squeaked out. “I can’t believe you did that.”
He chuckled in the background, obvious joy in his voice. “Consider it a housewarming gift.”
“Housewarming? Babe, I don’t even have a house!” It was the first time I could remember calling him something other than ‘Jeff’.
“Babe, huh?” His merry laughter brightened my spirits. “I think I like that! But it took you long enough to come up with it.”
“I don’t know how to thank you. I don’t deserve everything you do for me.”
“How do you like it?” With his question, I realized I hadn’t even looked out the door to find it. I hopped up and ran to the door. The car was a brand I didn’t recognize; cherry red with a black cloth top. It was the only car like it in the parking lot; that had to be it. “Des?” His voice brought me back down from the cloud I occupied. How I loved that man.
“Jeff, I’m speechless. It’s beautiful.” I wiped my eyes on the corner of my shirt. “Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome, babyluv. It makes me feel better knowing you have reliable transportation. I’ll feel even better when you’re out of that rathole, too. I’m working on it. Check out of there, and I’ll have something better by sundown. I promise.”
A single sob escaped my throat, though I’d been containing the rest. Jeff’s generosity and love never ceased to amaze me. “Okay. I trust you.”
“Good! I have some things to do today, but call me later, maybe around lunchtime? By then, I should have an answer for you.
I smiled. “I will. And Jeff?”
“I love you so much.”
“I love you, too, Destiny. We’ll talk later.” He blew a kiss and hung up the phone.
First things first. Check out time was ten o’clock, which left me about ninety minutes to get my act together and get out. At least I had a car to leave my bags in while I investigated Sing-A-Gram and scouted out some properties. I knew nothing of Starlight Shores. During breakfast, I’d do some research.
A quick shower later, I was dressed and had everything packed up. I carried the two bags to the car and opened the trunk. Porsche? What kind of car was that? It didn’t matter. It was cute, and I couldn’t wait to drive it. Both bags fit into the trunk with room to spare.
My ‘friend’ from the previous evening, Brendan, was not there when I checked out. An older lady, maybe Maya’s age, worked behind the counter. She was bleach blonde, thin as a rail, and had almost artificially blue eyes; her name tag read ‘Pilar’.
“Good morning,” she said. “Checking out?”
I nodded my head. “Mmhmm. Farmer, room 11.”
She looked through the file folder and located my ticket. “You’re all set.” Pilar took the room key from me. I knew for certain I hadn’t paid for the room ahead of time; I never signed a card slip. “Is something wrong?” she asked, noticing my confused expression.
“I haven’t paid—”
“Someone called in this morning and paid your balance due. You’re a lucky woman. Not everyone in this town has a secret benefactor.”
A smile pulled across my face. “That would be my fiancé. He couldn’t be with me, so this is his way of taking care of me.”
“Like I said, you’re a lucky woman. Have a pleasant day.” I supposed that was my cue to leave, so I thanked her again and left the lobby.
I opened the door to this beautiful, shiny red vehicle and got in. The scent of the new car reminded me of Jeff’s Camaro at college. There were so many knobs and lights on the dashboard, I didn’t know what half of them were. The key slid into the ignition, and the engine fired on the first try. I couldn’t feel the motor idling, nor could I hear it. I checked my phone for a diner or restaurant nearby and found one near the city center. That was my first stop.
The diner actually ended up being a coffee shop with a small stage outside, I surmised, for live entertainment. I wondered if they were interested in an aspiring singer/songwriter just starting out. I walked inside and ordered a coffee with a blueberry muffin. After I got my order, I found a seat at a corner booth, sat down, and dug my laptop from my backpack.
I’d lost track of time sitting there, doing research on properties in the area, when a young man approached me. He had two cups of coffee in his hand and stood there, waiting for me to look up. He cleared his throat. “Is anyone sitting here?” I recognized the voice immediately. But how?
“Jeff?” I hopped up and hugged him. “What are you doing here?!”
“Hi honey,” he said. “I couldn’t resist a trip down here to see how you’re doing.” He sat next to me with a perfect cup of coffee, my name written on the cup. That sly dog.
“How did you know where I am?” I couldn’t remember telling him, or anyone for that matter, where I’d gone.
“I have my ways,” he said with a smirk. “What are you up to? How can I help?”
I turned my laptop around, which showed a map of the city with all available properties on it. “I’m researching this house,” I said, pointing at an older home near the park. Its location was ideal, but it needed some work. “They want more than I’m willing to pay for it, because I’ll have to replace the appliances and rip up the carpet.”
He looked at the house, studied the room layout, and considered everything it needed. “Go about fifteen thousand off their list price, or ask for a carpet and appliance allowance that will make up the bulk of what you’d save.”
“So a hundred thirty thousand?”
“Oh yeah, no more than that for sure.”
“You sound like you’ve done this before, Jeff.”
He smiled, then looked away. “A few times. That’s how I’ve made my money, Des—real estate. Pop gave me a broken down property for my eighteenth birthday. We fixed it up, and I sold it for ten times what I paid for it. I was addicted. That hobby helped me finance my college career and everything we’ve done together, including that rock you’re wearing on your finger. At almost twenty-two, I’m worth a few million dollars.”
“If you’re that successful in real estate, then why go to college?” I thought it a valid question. Jeff had a good head on his shoulders.
“Music is my lifelong dream, just like you. I would never be content buying and selling real estate my whole life. It’s just a hobby.” How could I argue with him on that point? I understood chasing dreams with passion. “I have a house now in Twinbrook that, if it sells, I stand to profit close to a million. The market there is booming. We took a shack and renovated it. But the trick is location. The house is in a prime spot. Excellent schools, magnificent view, convenient location, and it’s on the river. Waterfront property is hot.”
I couldn’t even imagine a million dollars. The concept was so foreign to me. The whole topic made me uncomfortable, so I changed the subject. “Why are you here, besides seeing me? I know that can’t be the only reason.”
Jeff gave his trademark grin. “You know me so well. I found an apartment, well, it’s a penthouse, really, in the downtown area. You can move into it while you’re looking for a house, and when you don’t need it anymore, I’ll flip it.” He kissed my hands and rubbed my fingers between his.
“I don’t know what to say.” It wasn’t the first time Jeff had left me speechless, and I was sure it wouldn’t be the last.
“I have a couple of days here. We’ll get you settled. Any furniture I buy, I’ll just sell with the apartment. It won’t be a problem.”
“Jeff, your generosity amazes me. Thank you.” Amazed wasn’t the word. Dumbfounded was more like it.
“I sign the papers in the morning, and you can move in afterward. For tonight, I have a room in a nice place right outside of Starlight Shores. It’s nicer than the roach motel you stayed in last night.”
I still didn’t know how I deserved such luxuries, but I decided I wouldn’t question it anymore. “Stretching out sounds good. I’ve been sitting here for hours.”
“Pack up your laptop and let’s get out of here, then.” He stood and held his hand for me, wiggling his fingers. That made me laugh. I stuffed my papers and laptop back into my bag and stood. We walked together to my brand new car.
Jeff drove us to a beautiful resort five miles from the city limits on the opposite side of town. The hotel was nestled into the foothills of the mountain range, which ran from just south of the city to Sunset Valley to the north. The grounds were beautiful; two pools, an onsite spa, and a five-star restaurant sat adjacent. This was even nicer than the hotel inside the airport in Sunset Valley, and I was impressed.
He opened the door and allowed me entry first. The suite was a contemporary design with clean lines and bright colors. A single king bed, a sofa and living chair, a desk and dresser, walk-in closet and full bathroom were inside this enormous suite. On the desk sat a vase of beautiful, long-stemmed red roses. I swore he owned stock in flower companies, too.
“What do you think, honey?” he said, wrapping his arms around my waist. “Isn’t this beautiful?”
I nodded. “It really is, Jeff. So different from the hotel at the airport. This one is more casual.” The room looked lived in, which surprised me. “You didn’t fly in this morning, did you?”
He chuckled. “No, sweetheart, I took the private jet here last night after you called. I couldn’t bear you being here alone.”
“I can handle myself—”
“Admit it, Des. You missed me, and you’re so happy I’m here. That doesn’t change the irrefutable fact that you’re going to be okay here alone. I know you’re a strong, independent woman. But you love being kept, don’t you?”
How could I tell him no? Yes, I loved being spoiled. I loved that he was here, too. I blushed when I told him, “Yes.”
“Since you said you needed to stretch out, you rest. I’ll grab your bags for you and bring them in. Do you have your gown with you, or is it on the truck?”
I didn’t know what he was up to, but if it was anything fancy, we were out of luck. “On the truck. I have nothing but comfortable clothes, except for one interview dress.”
“That’s okay, babyluv. We can order room service tonight and spend the night in. Or, if you’d like, we can hit the town and paint it red. See the sights together, dance at the club, sing karaoke?”
I hadn’t sung karaoke since I left for college. Mama and Daddy saved and sacrificed to buy a karaoke machine for me when I was much younger. It didn’t have many songs on it, but I mastered all of them. With Jeff, it could be fun, though I doubted a lounge would allow me in. I was, after all, still underage at nineteen.
“Let’s just stay in tonight. I need some ‘us’ time.”
Jeff winked at me and smiled. “I could use some of your snuggles and kisses. What a fantastic idea.”
The penthouse that Jeff bought was a two bedroom, two bathroom apartment. It was suitable for the short-term and just what I needed. Jeff helped the movers the day they delivered the contents of the farmhouse. By the end of the day, we had the second bedroom full of boxes and furniture. What didn’t fit there spilled over into the living room. We piled boxes under the windows and ordered take out that night.
Jeff stopped at the store on the way home and bought a bottle of champagne, two glasses, and a couple of candles. I dug an older blanket out of a box and spread it out on the floor. I didn’t bring the dining room table and chairs with me from Appaloosa Plains. The set was just too big for what I needed. I was ready when Jeff walked back into the penthouse.
“It looks cozy in here,” he said, setting his parcels down on the kitchen counter.
“Thanks. I couldn’t find much. There aren’t any plates or flatware yet. I can’t find where I packed them.”
He chuckled a bit. “It’s okay. Sandwiches don’t need plates or forks.” He brought the glasses over and set them on a box, along with the chilled bottle of champagne. “I bought us a celebratory bottle of Dom. I hope you’ll like it. This stuff is a bit on the dry side.”
I shrugged. “It’s okay. I don’t think I’ll drink much of it, though.”
Jeff walked toward the bedroom, where we’d been sleeping on the floor. “I’m going to get comfy. These jeans are cutting me in two.” He slipped off his pants and into his pajamas. I walked in behind him and followed suit. We’d gotten dressed and undressed in front of each other so often, it was no longer a big deal. He hugged me close to him and kissed me. “I love these PJs, Des. They’re so cute on you.”
I blushed. Even though he complimented me every time I wore them, he still flustered me. “Thank you.”
We walked back into the living room; I made my way to the window and peered through the glass out onto the city. From the penthouse apartment, there wasn’t a spot in Starlight Shores we couldn’t see. The view was breathtaking. Jeff walked up behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist.
“This is an even better view than I could have imagined. I’ll be able to flip this for a pretty penny.”
“It’s incredible to see everything from up here. Though I’ll love staying here, I’ll miss you when you leave.”
“I still have three days left. I’ll leave for school right from here. Mom will understand.” He kissed the back of my neck; my legs went weak. He knew just where to kiss me and did it often. We sat on the blanket together. Jeff popped the stopper from the champagne bottle and poured two bubbly glasses of the light amber liquid. We sat together, our glasses held for a toast.
“To us, Des. Our first real home together.”
“Cheers!” I concurred, though it was more his home than ours. He’s the one who laid out the money for a top-floor apartment, after all. I didn’t put a dime into it.
We sat together on the floor, laughing, kissing, sharing dinner together. The candles had burned almost to nubs; he picked up the bottle and stopped it, extinguishing the flame inside. The only light in the room entered from the windows. It was perfectly romantic.
He leaned forward to kiss me, laying me back a bit. My hungry mouth met his in a passionate kiss. Since the incident back at school, he hadn’t pressed the issue with me, just as he promised. But that night, I was feeling amorous. Before we pulled away from the kiss, I sucked his bottom lip into my mouth. Jeff looked at me with a shocked expression, and then we laughed.
“What are you up to, Des?”
“I’m feeling a little frisky,” I said. “The night has been perfect, don’t you think?”
He nodded. “Why are you bringing this up now? I thought we agreed—”
“Jeff, when we said goodbye in Appaloosa Plains, the regret almost ate me alive.”
“Regret? About what?”
“Denying you. We’re getting married. That should be good enough, right?”
“It’s a big step, babyluv. And once we cross a certain point, I won’t be able to stop. Think about it.”
“Jeff, I already have. I’m so ready.”
“You’re positive, Des? What about your promise?”
“Your promise to me overrides that one.” I looked at the diamond ring I wore on my hand. My lips pressed to his one last time. If I couldn’t convince him with this, I’d sleep on the floor out here. I moved closer to his ear and whispered, “Please, make love with me?”
Jeff picked me up and carried me into the bedroom, not uttering a single word, and closed the door behind him.
I decided to live in the penthouse, much to Jeff’s delight, until our wedding, to avoid unnecessary real estate transactions. Though it was more than I needed, I worked to make it comfortable and homey. He left a renovation fund so I could paint and do repairs as I saw fit. It was, after all, my home until after the wedding. The money I had from the house was placed, with Jeff’s help, into short-term investments earning a decent rate of return. I had everything all figured out.
My next step was securing employment. From all I understood, the Sing-A-Gram was the place for aspiring singers to begin their grind to the top. I had my resume polished and ready to go. This was my one shot at getting my name out to the masses, a chance to show off my natural talent. I had a callback interview within two days of submitting my resume.
The weather the morning of my interview couldn’t have been nastier. Rainy and raw, dark and depressing. It didn’t matter; I was a sure thing at the Sing-A-Gram with my stellar resumé. Starlight Shores would never know what hit it.
Dressed to impress with my hair and makeup done, I walked into the Sing-A-Gram office for my interview, exuding confidence. The interviewer, named Russ, greeted me in his office.
“Please, Miss Farmer, have a seat.” He pulled a chair out for me, then walked to his seat on the other side of the desk. “So tell me, Destiny, why you want to work for Sing-A-Gram.”
“I’m new to Starlight Shores, and I understand that this is where aspiring singers come to start a career on stage.”
He gave me an uneasy smile. “It says here on your identification that you’re nineteen years old. I’m afraid that’s a problem.”
I shook my head. What?? “Why is that?”
“County ordinance prohibits employment of a minor to a job of this… uhm… nature. You know, where there is the potential for adult situations.”
“Adult… what now?” This was news to me.
“Some of our clients request jobs of a more risque nature. You would need to be twenty-one for such a position.”
This was disappointing, and not what I wanted to hear. “Is there any other place in town like this, someone that will hire a nineteen-year-old?”
Russ shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. You can always sign with a talent agent, or choose to go it alone. But agents can be pricey, and going it alone is ill-advised. Come back when you’re of legal age, Miss Farmer. We’d love to bring you on staff here.”
I wasn’t sure I’d still be in Starlight Shores when I was twenty-one. I just nodded and thanked him. On my way to the car, I pulled my cell phone from my purse. Jeff answered the call, even though I knew he’d be in class.
“What’s up, babyluv?” I could hear concern in his voice.
“Hi Jeff. I was just going to leave a voice message. It’s not that important right now.”
“It must be important if you’d call midday. Something’s wrong; I hear it in your voice.”
He could read me like a book. “They can’t hire me at the Sing-A-Gram. They told me I’m too young to do the type of work they do.”
My news likely took him by surprise. “What type of work is it, Des? I thought it was on the up-and-up?”
“He told me there was a possibility the work would be of an adult nature, and they couldn’t hire a minor for it, something about county ordinance.” I shrugged.
“Well, that’s BS, Des. I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have to put up with that sort of thing for a job!”
“I’ll just get a job here waiting tables. It’s all I know how to do besides working as a stagehand. None of the venues are looking for that sort of help.”
“Baby, I’m sorry. I need to get back to class. I’ll call you later, okay?”
“That’s fine. I love you, Jeff.”
“Love you too. I’ll talk to you later.”
After I hung up the phone, I drove myself to the coffee shop on the main drive, the one near the park. I wanted a treat, and I needed a place to sit and regroup. It wasn’t as easy as I’d imagined it would be here. I needed Daddy’s sage advice. He always had the right answer. Unfortunately for me, he wasn’t around.
The sign on the front window in the coffee shop said, “Now Hiring.” Maybe it wouldn’t be so terrible to wait tables at the coffeehouse. I asked for an application when I got my drink, and I sat down to fill it out.
A half-hour later, an older man approached my table. “Excuse me? Are you the young lady who requested an application?” He could see I was still working on it, but I answered him anyway.
“Do you mind if I sit? I’m the owner here, and we’re so desperate for help that I’d like to do an interview now. Is that okay?”
Shocked didn’t quite describe my feeling. “That’s perfect.”
“My name is Jared.”
I held my hand for him to shake. “Destiny.”
“So Destiny, do you have experience with waiting tables? It’s okay if you don’t. I can train you.”
“I worked at the diner back home in Appaloosa Plains for a year.”
“Good. How about a barista position? Have you ever done that type of work? How are you with learning recipes and menus?”
I sat back with a smile. “Though I’ve never worked in an environment like this one, I’m a quick study. I have an eidetic memory.”
Jared sat back and stared at me. “You’ll do. When can you start?”
“I’m available. I have no other work lined up, and I have bills to pay.” It wasn’t entirely true, but I still needed to work. Every little step would push me forward in my quest to find success in the city.
“Let’s do your new hire paperwork now, and I’ll start you on my morning shift tomorrow. I’ll train you myself.”
I nodded. “Sounds good.”
I stopped at the grocery store on my way home. My phone rang in my purse with my arms full. I knew it was Jeff; it was his ringtone. I hurried into the penthouse and set my bags down on the counter. My frantic voice answered the phone.
“Are you okay, honey? You sound frazzled.” I could hear even more concern in his tone.
“Yes, I was trying to reach the phone before it went to voicemail. I had my arms full.”
I heard him sigh with relief. “Oh good. How did the rest of your day go?”
“It went well! I landed a job at the coffeehouse by the big park.”
“Well, that’s unexpected. But I guess it will help you while you choose a talent agent, right?”
I let it slide. I couldn’t afford to hire an agent. He should have known that. “Yeah. The job will put food in the fridge and pay for the utilities. I never thought I’d work as a barista. Surprises abound here in Starlight Shores.”
“Well, that job is only temporary. You’re way too talented to struggle there. Your big break is around the corner, Des. I feel it in my bones.”
“Yeah, so I’ve been told.” It was too bad I didn’t feel it in my bones. I was starting to think that moving to the city was a mistake. “Are you certain you don’t want me to move back to campus with you?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Are you having doubts, Des?”
“It’s been a disappointing day. Talent agents are too expensive, Jeff. I’ll need to make a name for myself on my own.” I sighed. “Pull myself up by the bootstraps and dig in.”
“It sounds like you need a break. Why don’t you go to the spa for a day? Get a massage, do a makeover, have your hair done all pretty.”
It sounded amazing, but I didn’t have disposable income to do that type of thing. “I can’t, Jeff. You know that—”
“Have them bill me. I don’t care how much money you spend, Des. Treat yourself. Or take it from the renovation account. You can sign on it just like I can. It’s a joint account.”
“I appreciate the thought. There are more important things than pampering myself. I’ll be fine.”
He huffed his displeasure into the phone. “If you say so. I want you to be happy.”
“I am happy. Today was just a frustrating day. It’s bound to happen in a city where every other young girl wants a piece of the pie. It’s just not my day to have a slice, that’s all.”
“I wish I could come this weekend. I can’t get away, and it kills me to know you’re doubting yourself. You’re so much better than that.”
I let that slide, too. It didn’t seem talent or ability mattered, just a willingness to sell one’s soul. It frightened me to consider what I’d do to get noticed. “I need to go, Jeff. I need to put the groceries away. They won’t walk into the pantry by themselves.”
He snickered on the other end. “Okay, sweetheart. Call me when you need a boost. I’ll call you tomorrow night after class.”
“Sounds good. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Des. Talk to you tomorrow.” I heard the click of the call disconnecting and then silence.
My alarm went off at four o’clock the next morning. My shift started at five-thirty, but I was a quick jaunt from the coffee shop. I showered to wake myself up a bit, and dressed in a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. Jared would give me an apron to wear on my shift when I arrived.
The shoes I used to wear at the diner were packed away into a box of unknown location. Drat! My boots were all I had. And though Daddy wore his everywhere, mine just weren’t that comfortable. I made a mental note to search for the shoes when I got off work that day.
I walked back to the bathroom to give my teeth a quick brush, then pulled my hair back into a ponytail. If it was anything like the diner, Jared wouldn’t allow my hair to be worn down around my shoulders. I gave myself thirty minutes to drive the five minutes to the coffeehouse from the penthouse.
The neighbor met me in the elevator on the way downstairs to the parking garage. She gave me the once-over and then a half-smile. “You the new girl?” she asked.
“Mmhmm,” I nodded. “Destiny.”
“Hey,” she said back. “Who’s that dude hanging around you? Is he single? He’s totally adorable. I wouldn’t mind gettin’ with him, if you know what I mean.” She winked at me and nudged my arm.
“That’s Jeff, my fiancé.” If she was trying to be friendly, she was on the wrong foot.
“Hmm, okay. Well, that’s too bad. When’s your wedding? I might have to invite myself.”
Are people always this forward here? I wondered. “We’re getting married out of state. Sorry.”
“If you get married. When he meets me, you might have a problem keeping him.”
Now I was getting ticked. “No, I won’t have a problem. Jeff is in love with me.”
“I heard you two goin’ at it a few nights ago.” I gave her a dirty, incredulous look. “Yeah, the walls are paper thin. I’m tellin’ ya, if he was my guy, he’d have been a lot louder, ‘cuz I know how to please my man.” The elevator reached the bottom floor. It was a good thing, too. I was furious!
“Whatever,” I muttered under my breath and hurried to my car. The door swung open with my hard tug and nailed my shin. I squealed in pain, angry that I let her get under my skin. That was going to leave a mark; it hurt like hell.
I fumed all the way to the coffeehouse; Jared was already inside preparing for the morning rush when he saw me waving at the door. He let me in and smiled.
“Well, you showed up this morning. I guess that’s half the battle! Good to see you, Destiny.”
“Thanks,” I said and reached to rub my shin. A good-sized lump was forming under the skin. If I didn’t get ice on it soon, it would look like an eggplant. “Do you have a bag I can stick some ice in? I clobbered my leg on the car door this morning, and I feel it swelling up.”
“Ooh, I sure do.” He walked to get a sealable bag, scooped two shovels of ice into it, and ran his fingers along the top to secure it. “Here. Sit for a few minutes. We’ll go over the coffee recipes while you put ice on that leg.”
He showed me the menu, and the instructions on it to make each coffee drink. I didn’t need to take notes. I repeated each recipe in my head twice, then handed the card back to Jared. “All set.”
“Just like that?” he asked. I nodded my head and smiled. “Well, let me test you. I’m a customer, and I want a caramel macchiato. How would you make it?”
“What size?” I asked, without skipping a beat.
Jared gave me a sly grin. “Large.”
It was a trick. “We don’t offer the macchiato in the large size. How about a small or medium?”
“Prepare two shots of espresso and set them aside. Pour a shot of vanilla syrup into the cup. Froth two cups of milk and pour that over the syrup. The espresso shots go into the cup on top of the milk, and then a bit of foam. Drizzle everything with caramel syrup.” I smiled. Not bad for only seeing the recipe twice.
“Is it stirred?”
“No, sir. But, if you would like it stirred, I’d be happy to do that for you.”
“Well, Destiny, I’m impressed.”
I gave him a confident grin. “It doesn’t hurt that it’s my favorite coffee drink.”
“I think you’ll do just fine without me this morning. We’re still short a waitress, so I might pull you to wait tables if you’re needed there. Just work that southern charm you have; you’ll be fine.”
“Thanks.” Ugh. There’s my accent again. It’s not southern, it’s country! I thought. Appaloosa Plains got plenty of snow in the wintertime.
About halfway through the morning rush, Jared pulled me into the dining room to wait tables. It was my chance to shine; I loved interacting with the customers. As a barista, my contact was limited to taking an order and making it. By the end of my shift, I had almost two hundred dollars in tips, which wasn’t terrible for my first day.
I went into the break room to hang up my smock; Jared followed me in. “Destiny, I’ve never seen a waitress hustle like you did today. I’ve also never seen a waitress pull in two hundred in tips before, either. You earned every dime of that.”
I blushed. “Thank you. Hey, while I have you here…” I swallowed hard. This was going to be a tough question to ask, but I needed to know. “Who hires entertainment for the stage outside?”
“Oh,” he huffed. “The proprietor does all the hiring for the coffeehouse. He works solely with talent from Sing-A-Gram, and Ernie’s agency. If you aren’t signed with one of those two places, no prop in town will even look at you.” He sat down and patted the spot next to him at the table. “Is there a reason you ask?”
“Yeah, I’m trying to break into the business. I’m not having as easy a time as I expected I would. Sing-A-Gram won’t hire me, and I can’t afford an agent yet.” I knew it was a long shot. I shouldn’t have opened my mouth.
“Why won’t Sing-A-Gram hire you? Is it your accent? Some folks around here don’t care for the drawl.”
I shook my head. “No, they said the job was adult in nature, and I’m prohibited from working there as a minor.”
Jared cocked his head at me. “Honey, you’re the age of majority here in the Shores at eighteen. The only thing you can’t legally do is drink alcohol.” He looked at his hands, grimy with coffee grounds and silt. “I don’t know why they would tell you that.”
I took a deep breath and sighed. “Oh, I think I know.”
He nodded. “Well, their loss is my gain. At the end of sixty days, I’ll bump your base wage up a few dollars an hour, so you don’t go wandering anywhere else!”
“Thanks, Jared.” As much as I appreciated the gesture, I didn’t move to Starlight Shores to wait tables in a coffee shop. Though I’d had a good first day, I was left wondering the true reason Sing-A-Gram wouldn’t hire me.
I walked across the street to the bank where Jeff and I had our joint account and deposited everything but fifty dollars into it. That was mine to do with as I pleased. I would need a new dress for auditions and working the crowds at Verde Park, but I’d need to save money to buy it.
Since the coffeehouse was in proximity to the park, I wandered down into the fairgrounds, where workers were preparing for the annual Spooky Day festival. The fair ran for the last three weeks in October. A few concerts were scheduled, but no one I’d heard of before.
A few other freelance entertainers roamed the area in front of the performance stage; most of them were magicians or acrobats, but one singer stood off to the left side of the stage. He had no stage presence at all. Timid, soft-spoken and in need of a confidence boost, he stood out of view from most park attendees.
I walked to where he sang and listened for a few moments. He wasn’t that bad a singer. I dropped a few dollars into his tip jar and smiled. He stopped what he was doing and walked to me.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m Grant.”
“Destiny,” I said. “You’re quite good. You should be out front with the wand wavers and the bendy people.” I tried to make a joke, but it fell flat.
“I haven’t been here long enough to earn my spot up front. It’s only been a few weeks. But I have to find steady work soon. I haven’t eaten in a week.”
My heart broke in two listening to him. He wasn’t much older than I was, just trying to make ends meet. It could be me if I didn’t have Jeff watching out for my best interests here. “Come with me, Grant,” I said. “I work at the coffeehouse. Let me buy lunch for you.”
He backed away as though I was possessed. “Oh, I couldn’t let you do that, Destiny. But thank you.”
“Are you hungry?”
He nodded with great enthusiasm. “I’m starving.”
“Please let me bless you? I’m a singer, too. But I’m lucky. My fiancé takes care of me.”
His brown eyes got wide as saucers. “You have a guy? Oh, I can’t…”
I snickered. He was kinda cute, but not my type. “I’m not asking you out, Grant. But I’d really like to buy you lunch. Please let me?”
I nodded. “Yes. It’s okay.”
“He won’t come beat me up, will he?”
“No, of course not. He’s not even in town right now. He’s up at Sim State.”
That seemed to convince him. “Okay.”
We walked together to the coffee shop. Jared was still behind the counter when I approached it. “Order anything you’d like,” I told him. “I’ll have my favorite, Jared.”
Grant ordered a deli sandwich with chips and a coffee. I sat with him while he ate, making small talk of little consequence. One thing I had to know—what was the atmosphere like at the park? How easy or difficult it would be to scrounge for work?
“You said you haven’t been in the park long enough to be out in front. What did you mean?”
“The long timers will put you in your place if you step out of line at the park.” He lowered his eyes from mine, almost as though he was ashamed. “It’s how I got banished to the side stage area.” He shrugged and sipped his coffee. “I shouldn’t complain. It’s better than restroom duty.”
“The last I checked, Grant, it’s a public area. Be assertive and stand up for yourself. They won’t try that with me. I’ve wanted this since I was seven, and no one will stop me from pursuing my dreams.”
“Maybe so,” he said, taking the last bite of his sandwich. “They might make life a living hell for you if you cross them, though. Be careful, Destiny. They’re ruthless.”
His words were not a hindrance for me. I was determined to make my name known in the city, and perhaps the world. “What if I’m more ruthless?”
Grant chuckled at me. “You’re too sweet to be like them, and you seem pretty grounded.” He took my hand and patted it, looking deeply into my eyes; the gesture was eerily familiar. “Never forget where you’re from.” His voice echoed, as though it was otherworldly.
Was that… Daddy’s voice? A chill ran down my spine; the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I felt nauseated and flushed at the same time. Daddy used to tell me that all the time. But it couldn’t be, could it? “Wha… what did you just say?”
“I said you’re too sweet to be like them,” he repeated.
“No, after that.”
Grant looked at me with a confused expression. “You seem pretty grounded?”
“After you said that. You said something else.”
He shook his head. “That’s all I said.”
He must have thought I was a lunatic. But I saw his lips move, and I heard the words escape his mouth. I was sure of it. “No, you told me not to forget where I’m from.”
He laughed nervously and backed away from me. I’d made things uncomfortable for him, as evidenced by his body language and facial expression. “I swear I didn’t.” He glanced at his watch and stood. “I need to get back to the park. Thank you for your generosity. I won’t forget it.” He didn’t stick around for my reply; in a moment, he was gone.
“Yeah… you’re welcome.” I sat there lost in myself, that too-familiar emotion in the pit of my gut. After he left, I still sat there trembling. With tears rolling down my cheeks, I acknowledged the advice I’d been seeking all along. “Thank you, Daddy,” I whispered.
Up Next: Chapter Two, Generation Two
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