Author’s Note: This chapter contains adult situations and language. Reader discretion is advised.
Three Days Later
I curled into the fetal position, laying on the bed in the swanky hotel penthouse Jeff reserved for our special weekend together. Since Saturday—the day that my life fell to pieces—I wallowed in my self-inflicted misery. The scene played in my memory when I closed my eyes to sleep; each repetition ripped the bandage off the gaping, but not quite fatal, wound.
Our last moments together before the fateful phone call were so loving and tender. We had hopes that our first child was conceived from the love we made; now, that possibility invaded my thoughts. What if he had succeeded? A baby now, without its father, would be the end of my non-existent singing career. Every outcome of that scenario ended badly for me and a child. How would I raise it alone? And more importantly, how would I afford it? I could barely survive on my own. I couldn’t let myself think about it.
My phone laid next to me on the bed, blaring the alarm I had set to remind me I had a flight to catch. Without blinking, I reached for it and turned it off. My arms wrapped around my chest to help ease the ache; it wasn’t working. When I squeezed my eyes shut, I could still see Jeff’s angry expression. I could still hear the heartbreak in his resentful words. Another tear rolled down my cheek and soaked into the already damp duvet. Is it possible to cry too much?
I dragged myself with a painful groan off the bed and into the shower. The water was as hot as I could tolerate, and I cried again in the steam. I needed to pull myself together. The last bit of soap rinsed from my hair, I turned the water off and stood there, dripping more than just the droplets from my shower. I reached for the towel and wrapped it around my long, red hair.
There wasn’t much to pack. One small carry-on suitcase only had my pajamas removed from it. The outfit I’d worn on the airplane still laid on the bed in a crumpled heap. Since changing clothes on Saturday night, I hadn’t been dressed again.
My taxi would arrive at 10:30 AM to bring me to the airport in Bridgeport. I had twenty minutes to finish packing and collect myself. My phone illuminated with the reminder; Jeff’s happy face smiled in the background. Seeing him felt like a sucker punch in the gut. With just minutes to spare, I left the suite with my suitcase and backpack. The garment bag containing the gown still hung where Jeff left it. I couldn’t bear to bring it home, and I knew the hotel would return it to him.
Jeff texted with information about my return flight before he left for his tour on Sunday evening. My fare home, which he had prepaid, waited at the ticket counter for me to pick up. I hoped he hadn’t rescinded that, too. I approached the ticket agent with my identification in my hand.
“Farmer,” I said. “There’s a ticket waiting for me.” I placed my ID on the counter and slid it toward her.
She typed my information into the computer, cocked her head, and smiled. “Destiny, right?”
“I have your ticket here.” She paused and shook her head with a confused expression. I felt my body tense. What had Jeff done now? “I’ve never seen this type of code on a fare before. Excuse me for a moment?”
What choice did I really have? “Sure.” With my answer, she stepped away from her computer terminal. I wondered if I could reach my investment contact at an odd time, and if he would release funds, should I need them. It would be just like Jeff to cancel my ticket.
I had waited about five minutes when she returned with a smile. “I’m sorry about the delay. You’re all set.”
“What was the problem?”
“The ticket was downgraded from first class to coach. I had never seen that code before. We usually see upgrades, not downgrades.” She handed the paper ticket to me with a friendly, but apprehensive, smile.
“Thank you.” I wasn’t about to complain. Jeff could have made my day even more difficult. I was thankful he didn’t. I checked my case and slung my backpack over my shoulder.
The walk to the gate seemed long. It could have been because I was anxious about my return home. Trying to contain my emotion was sapping my strength. I just wanted to curl up in bed and cry. Instead, I was walking through an airport, returning to the only home in the Shores I’d known. The first, and only home Jeff and I shared. The home I’d need to vacate within the month. Not to mention, I had to make a phone call I dreaded. Aunt Jenny and Uncle Paul planned to attend the wedding. The news of our breakup would be excruciating to tell her.
The airline called my row for boarding after first class. My seat was in the back of the plane near the lavatory, and in front of the engine. Thanks, Jeff, I thought to myself. This would be a noisy ride home. Passengers filed into the seats in front of mine; I prayed no one would claim the seat next to me. I wanted nothing more than to be alone.
It seemed my prayer would be answered, but at the last moment, a chubby, older man hurried down the aisle, checking his ticket. Oh no, I thought. Not here! Sure enough, he stopped at my row, pushed his glasses up onto his nose, and plopped himself down next to me. He smiled and extended a hand. I wasn’t really interested in pleasantries, but I took his hand, anyway.
“Destiny,” I said with a feeble shake. I turned my attention back outside the window.
“Where are you headed?” he asked. Perhaps the question was innocent, just small talk. I wasn’t in the mood.
“Me too!” Oh goody.
“Look,” I said, “I would like to be left alone. It’s not you…” There was that miserable glob of emotion in my throat again. “Please…” He watched a tear fall from my eyes and soak into my sweater.
“No offense taken, Destiny.” He turned away from me; I immediately felt guilty.
“I’m sorry, Gus. It’s just that—”
“You don’t need to explain. We’re just strangers on an airplane. It’s okay.”
Whew! “Thanks for understanding.” He shrugged and nodded my way, busying himself with a newspaper. I plugged my earbuds into my music player and tuned out of the world, if only for a couple of hours.
The flight felt as though we’d been in the air for a day instead of two hours. Gus said nothing more to me during the flight and left without incident. I gathered my backpack and stood, waiting my turn to exit the plane.
I needed a cab back into the city; a part of me wished that I’d run into Arthur again. My bag was the last off the plane, of course. I grabbed it and walked toward the throng of waiting cabs outside baggage claim. A young man approached me. “Where are you going, Miss?”
“Starlight Shores,” I said.
“I’ll take you.” He grabbed my case and stowed it in the trunk, opened the door for me, and held it while I got in.
He drove thirty minutes back into the city and stopped outside the highrise building where I lived. Things were so different than they were when I left on Saturday morning. I was so lost in thought, I didn’t hear the driver when he told me the fare.
“Oh,” I said with a sheepish grin. “I’m sorry. How much do I owe you?”
“Twenty-five.” I peeled off two twenties and placed them into his hand.
“Keep the change as a tip.”
“Are you sure, Miss?”
I nodded. “Mmhmm. Before you go, can I ask you a question?”
He nodded with hesitation. “Yeah…”
“Do you know an Arthur…” My mind skipped. I forgot his last name! “I mean, is there an Arthur that drives for your company?”
He shook his head. “Not to my knowledge, no.” Drat!
“Okay, thank you.” It was worth a try. I took my case and pulled it inside the door.
On the nineteenth floor, Tiffany stood waiting for the elevator. She was the last person I needed to encounter. She must have noticed I was out of sorts, because she couldn’t help herself.
“What’s eatin’ you, Ginger Snap?”
“Leave me alone,” I grumbled. I no sooner had my key in the lock when her hand was on the door, holding it shut.
“What does that man see in you? You’re always so nasty.”
“Last warning, Tiffany. Leave me alone.”
“Ooh!” she taunted me. “What are you gonna do? Cry? Call the cops?”
I turned around and advanced toward her, pinning her against her apartment door. “I told you to leave me alone!” I growled through my teeth at her. My fist was clenched, and I was hot. I might have been shorter and weaker, but one more jab from her would have lit my fuse.
“Alright, alright. Geez, you’re a bitch, Destiny.” She pushed me away and walked toward the elevator. I took the opportunity to go inside and locked the door behind me.
The first thing I saw staring back at me from the living room wall was the huge portrait Jeff and I had taken for our engagement announcements. We looked so happy and so in love, I wouldn’t have thought anything could destroy it. But I did. The grief hit me like a sledgehammer; I ran to my bedroom, collapsed onto my bed, and bawled until I fell asleep.
I allowed myself an extra day off work to recover from the disaster. Jared understood when I told him there was a family emergency. Sitting in the penthouse’s living room, on the loveseat I brought from home, I held my phone in my grip. Aunt Jenny’s phone number was dialed in. All I had to do was press Send. Why couldn’t I do it? Why was life so difficult for me? And then I remembered… It’s my own damn fault.
I took a breath as my finger hovered over the call button. Whether it was a muscle tic, or I actually meant to press it, was a mystery. The phone rang twice before Aunt Jenny’s musical voice answered.
“Hi Desi!” she said. “Are you getting excited about next Saturday?”
“Hi Aunt Jenny,” my voice trembled. There was so much turmoil in my soul, from the old nickname to my awful news. I wanted to crawl into bed and sleep until my birthday. “I have something to tell you.”
There was silence on the other end of the phone for a moment. “Is everything okay, Destiny?”
My heart pounded in my chest; I sniffled back tears that wanted to escape. “No.”
I heard the concern in her voice. “What’s wrong? Is Jeff okay?”
“I don’t know.” That was the truth. I assumed he wasn’t, though. “The wedding is off. Jeff and I broke up…” My voice faded to ragged sobs. Through the tears, I heard Aunt Jenny’s quivering voice.
“What happened? You two were perfect for each other.”
“It’s my fault. He had life-changing news, and I ruined it.”
“I don’t understand, Destiny. What was his news? How did you ruin things?”
Her questions sought only to find answers. To me, they ripped open the wounds that had only superficially closed. I couldn’t hold the emotion back any longer. I sobbed on the phone with the only aunt I knew, the only family I had that remained. While I wept, her soft whispers of comfort came through the phone over hundreds of miles; it felt as though she was right there with me, ready to hug me as I cried. I heard a question in the background, and a ‘shh’ sound in reply, along with the words, ‘The wedding is off.’ That didn’t help.
What seemed an eternity later, I collected myself enough to speak. “Jeff brought me to Bridgeport this weekend to tell me his news. We were going to have supper together at a fancy restaurant. He wanted me to know his band landed a recording contract. But before we got to supper, his agent called.” I took a deep breath and held it. “They’re on tour with Acidic Tides, as of Monday.”
Aunt Jenny was very aware of my troubles in Starlight Shores, so she understood the impact his news had on me. Or so I thought. “Well, that sounds like a good thing…? Isn’t it, Desi?”
“It is…” For Jeff, I thought. I couldn’t believe the jealousy that still invaded my thoughts. I resented him, and I had no right to do so. “He told me we needed to postpone the wedding indefinitely. At the moment, Daddy’s temper took over what Mama’s tender heart meant to say. I was jealous of his instant success after I’ve spent the last year struggling.”
“That doesn’t sound like you, Destiny. Jealousy and anger are grave transgressions.”
I sniffled into the phone. “I know. It gets worse.”
I took a deep breath and exhaled every bit of air from my lungs. What was I waiting for? “Jeff didn’t understand why I was so angry. Looking back, I’m not sure, either. But then I…” The emotion welled up in my eyes again; a tear rolled down my cheek and splattered onto my leg. “I screamed at him, Aunt Jenny.”
“What did you say?”
“I told him…” Breathe, Destiny. “I said I hated him.”
Aunt Jenny’s shocked gasp on the other end of the phone brought more tears. With her reaction, I was reminded how badly I’d screwed up my life. I wasn’t prepared for her next words.
“How disappointing, Desi. You were not raised to hate.”
I wanted to hang up the phone and throw it against the wall. But her words pricked at my heart; I knew she was right. “Mama and Daddy would be so disappointed in me, wouldn’t they?”
She hesitated, stumbling over her words. I don’t think she wanted to saddle me with more guilt or pain. “Oh, sweet pea, I don’t think you could ever disappoint your mama and daddy.”
You’re letting me off the hook? I thought. “You really think so?”
“I’m certain of it.” She switched back into comfort mode. “You must be heartbroken.”
To say I was heartbroken didn’t quite cut it. “I am devastated, Aunt Jenny. He was my soulmate.”
“Did he give you the chance to explain how you felt?”
I shook my head, as though she could see me. “No. I tried to apologize, but he wouldn’t hear it.”
“I can understand why he was hurt, but he didn’t give you the opportunity to make amends? That isn’t right, either. Couples fight, but in the end, they try to work out differences. It sounds to me, Desi, that Jeff wasn’t ready for the long-term commitment of marriage, especially with his career taking off.”
I hadn’t stopped to consider the possibility Aunt Jenny had presented. Maybe Jeff was looking for a way out, and I presented him with the perfect opening. “Maybe you’re right.”
“I think I am, Desi. There were other reasons behind his quick departure. If he loved you as much as he claimed, he’d have given you the chance to explain yourself.”
For the first time since Saturday, I felt better. “Thank you, Aunt Jenny. You make sense.”
“You’re welcome, kiddo. I’m always here if you need me, okay?”
“Okay. I love you and Uncle Paul so much. I’m sorry I won’t get to see you, though.”
“Maybe we’ll get a chance to come visit you soon. I’d love to see your new home.”
“I’d really like that.”
“I would too, Desi. We will talk soon, sweetheart.”
Again, I nodded my head as though she could see me. I really needed to stop doing that. “That sounds good.” We said our goodbyes and hung up the phone.
Two Days Later
The house I first considered when I moved to Starlight Shores over a year ago was still on the market. Its price had been reduced, and the listing changed to “as-is.” This was my chance to get a great deal on the home I wanted, one that was close to everything I needed.
I walked up to the door and knocked. Though the frame was bent and the door wasn’t plumb, the outside looked kept up with fresh paint and younger plants. However, that’s where the curbside appeal ended.
The real estate agent, a lady named Rochelle Watson, greeted me at the front door. A heavy aroma of decay and neglect assaulted my nose the moment I stepped inside. It took my breath away. The walls desperately needed new sheetrock, primer and paint, and I thought it couldn’t have hurt for someone to brush the cobwebs out of the corners. The floors were dirty and worn throughout the first level. In the kitchen were older, worn wooden cabinets, ancient appliances and countertops soiled with heavy dirt. I almost turned around and left, but I already loved the floor plan. Everything else could be fixed.
“You must be Destiny!” she said, her hand extended for a shake. “I’m Rochelle.”
“I am, and it’s nice to meet you, Rochelle.” I continued to look around at the house’s interior. Whoever lived here last did nothing to maintain it; its condition was revolting. “This is in really rough shape.”
“The owner had some problems come up and couldn’t spare the money on improvements. The price reflects its ‘as-is’ condition.” Rochelle ushered me into the kitchen. “They’re willing to give two thousand toward the appliances.”
I said nothing, taking mental notes on everything it needed, and how much it would cost to bring it up to my standards. Two things were certain; the appliance allowance wouldn’t pay for one new appliance, much less all of them, and the owners wanted WAY too much for this junk heap.
She led me on a tour of the house, covering every room on both floors. Though the second floor wasn’t nearly as bad, overall, it needed extensive repairs. “What do you think of it, Miss Farmer?” she asked.
The house was perfect for my needs, even if it was run down and musty. The location was ideal, close to work and the park. Once I got back on my feet, I could really sink some TLC into this fixer-upper. “It’s all the home I need. It’s just me for now.” I tapped my fingers on the kitchen counter. “I like it.”
Rochelle nodded, then continued her sales pitch as though the house was in perfect shape. “You can’t go wrong with this one, Miss Farmer. The central location will make it very convenient for you. You’re close to the park, the coffeehouse, and the Sing-A-Gram HQ is not far away.”
“What’s the list price again?”
The agent looked at her paperwork. “One hundred thirty thousand.”
This was where Jeff’s sage wisdom would come in handy. “I’ll offer one hundred even.”
“But Miss Farmer, homes are selling much higher than this everywhere else, and I can guarantee you that this property will—”
“Please don’t patronize me. I’ve researched this property extensively. I know it’s been on the market for over a year. It obviously needs work, which I’m willing to do myself. I’ve offered a generous price for it, considering all it requires.” I ran my hands over the hardwood carved fireplace. “Just because I sound like backwoods, it doesn’t mean I’m ignorant.”
“Are you certain you’re only twenty years old?” Rochelle asked me. The look on her face was priceless.
I nodded. “I was valedictorian of my graduating class.”
“Oh, nice!” she said. “High School?”
I nodded again. “College, too.”
“Um, did you say ‘college too’?”
“Yes ma’am,” I said. “I graduated last spring with my BA in fine arts. Top of my class.”
“At nineteen?” Rochelle looked a little more than incredulous.
“Yes. At nineteen. I will be twenty-one in a few weeks.”
“You’ll be a force to contend with in this town, Destiny.”
“I haven’t found that to be true yet, but things can change!” I wanted to switch the subject back to the task at hand. “So, one hundred even is my offer. I’ll be ready with a counteroffer if I need it. I suspect I won’t.”
Rochelle jotted numbers down on a preprinted form. “Who is your lender, so I can send the paperwork?”
“I won’t be using a lender. This is a cash purchase.”
“Pardon me for being so forward, but where does an almost twenty-one-year-old woman get that kind of money?”
I sat down on the ratty old loveseat in the living room. “Ms. Watson, my folks passed away almost three years ago and left the family estate to me. It had little acreage, but there was a sizable barn on the property with two stalls for horses and a greenhouse. Being in a rural town, a property like theirs was a turnkey investment for a young family just starting out, if they wanted to put in the time and effort to run a farm like Mama and Daddy did, that is. Me? Well, I never felt the call of being a farmer, despite my last name. My desires run bigger. Their farm sold for an acceptable price, which affords me my choice of starter homes here in the Shores. They saved and sacrificed my entire life to give me this chance. It’s a sacrifice I won’t take for granted, and I’m going to, as my daddy told me, ‘grab the world by the horns and give it hell’.”
“Your parents must have been extraordinary, and so are you.” When I stood, she held her hand to me. “Let’s get this offer ready to submit to the seller. It would surprise me if they turned it down. Let’s face it, we’re trying to put lipstick on a pig here.” The comment made me belly laugh. She wasn’t kidding, either. “They’re motivated to offload this house.”
“That sounds like a great idea.”
Two weeks later, Rochelle and I sat in the title company’s office and signed the papers to close on my new home. I couldn’t have been happier to get the purchase completed. It left me with just a week to move from the penthouse. Jared, Evangeline and her boyfriend, Trevor, helped me move in one evening. I discovered how little I had brought with me from Appaloosa Plains when we placed everything in the new house. What overcrowded the penthouse got lost in the square footage of my new home.
I spent a couple of nights cleaning the penthouse after I moved out. I was elbow deep in cleaning chemicals when I heard the front door open. “Tiffany, you’re not welcomed here!” I shouted out. My voice echoed through the empty apartment.
“Hello, Destiny,” a familiar, seemingly disembodied voice said. I spun around, and my heart fell through the floor.
“I… um…” I didn’t know what to say to him. I had the apartment for another couple of days. “I thought I’d clean it. You know…”
“I’m actually glad I caught you here—”
“I’ll go.” I turned to take my cleaning supplies when he grabbed my wrist.
“Don’t, Jeff. Let’s not say things we’ll regret later. OK?”
“I didn’t come to pick a fight with you. You left something in Bridgeport. I was hoping to return it in person.”
My heart pounded. I wasn’t sure I could handle seeing the item he intended to return. “Not the gown—”
“What am I going to do with it, Des? It’s fitted to you.”
“Please, no…” I felt the emotion returning. Seeing Jeff was difficult enough. Knowing he had the gown with him was more than I could take. “I will never wear it again.”
“If you do, fine. And if you don’t, fine; I don’t care. But I don’t need it anymore, and I’m not bringing it back home with me.”
“What did you hope to accomplish, Jeff? You made it clear that we’re done.”
“We are. But this is yours.” He handed me the dress, still in the garment bag. “I have no need for it.”
“Give it to your next girlfriend,” I said. I tried not to sound cold, but that’s not how it came out of my mouth. His hurt scowl triggered more emotional agony. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t have a girlfriend. That will never happen again. Thanks to you, I’ll spend my life alone.”
“How’s the tour going?” I had to change the subject. It was killing me inside.
“The Experience is wildly popular. Everyone loves us.”
“I’m happy for you.” I hoped it sounded genuine.
“Stop lying to me, Des. I know my success is eating you alive.”
“No, it’s not—” My emotions were getting the better of me.
“I see it on your face. I don’t even know why you asked. You really don’t care.”
That’s where you’re wrong! “I do care, Jeff. And I still love you.”
“I wish you hadn’t said that. I can’t reciprocate it. I won’t. I’m sorry.”
“I know it does nothing to say I’m sorry—”
“You’re right.” He stepped back and left the dress hanging on the door. “I need to go. I didn’t come to fight with you. My attorney will be here to walk through in a couple of days.” Before he left, he turned around and looked into my eyes. “Goodbye, Destiny.”
All the healing from the past month without him was undone by his last words. I sank to my knees in the empty living room and wept.
Four days after my twenty-first birthday, which I spent alone, I reapplied at the Sing-A-Gram company on the western Los Sueños strip. Based on my resume alone, they agreed to see me in the office the following day. The same man, Russ, did my interview. He greeted me in the lobby and showed me back to his office. Everything looked the same.
“Miss Farmer, I remember you,” he said, extending his hand for a shake. “You’ve decided to try your hand with Sing-A-Gram. You’ve made a wise move for your career.”
“Thank you for seeing me,” I said. “I’ve had a rough time by myself, so I’m hoping this will help me get my name into the city.”
“We will do everything we can to help you on your way.” He fiddled with my application, I supposed, perusing my work history since my arrival in the Shores. “You’re still working at the Flying V?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
“You’ll need to resign from that position before we can assign you to jobs within the city. That represents a conflict of interest with the proprietor.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “I will turn in my resignation tomorrow.”
Russ nodded his head. “There are two different costumes you’ll be required to wear. For most jobs, the standard singing telegram outfit will suffice. Some customers, however, will request a more risque performance. You’ll have a separate costume more suited for those types of jobs.”
“What will I be required to do?” I was almost afraid to know the answer.
“Do you know how to pole dance, Destiny?”
Pole dance? “Um, no.”
“Don’t worry. It’s an easy skill to attain. We have a three-day class you’ll take, and you should be ready by the end. Tawny is a skilled teacher.”
What was I getting myself into? I wondered. “Anything else I should know?”
“How comfortable are you with partial nudity?” Russ asked. I sat and stared at him like a deer in the headlights of an oncoming car. He must have read my face, because he chuckled. “I’m guessing you’ve never done a striptease before. We’ll train you on that, too.”
“Are you certain this is necessary to get noticed, Russ? I mean, this seems a little over the top—”
“Miss Farmer, every singer in Starlight Shores pays their dues. The Sing-A-Gram is the fastest way to get yourself into the public eye. As I told you two years ago, you could choose to sign with an agent, but they can be expensive for someone who is just starting out. Or you can go it alone. That route is never recommended.”
I sighed. Everything about this gig seemed dicey, but I was a desperate woman. Eighteen months in the Shores, and I was no closer to being on stage than I was when I first arrived. “Okay,” I said. “Sign me up.”
“You’ve made a smart choice, Miss Farmer. I would recommend just using your first name. The name ‘Destiny’ is tailormade for a job like this one.”
If you say so, I thought. “Okay.”
I was horrified to discover what pole dancing really entailed. No wonder it was an easy skill to attain. But I’d already resigned at the coffeehouse, much to Jared’s dismay. I was committed to making this job work to my benefit.
I worked extra hard to learn and master the dance moves I’d need for the night jobs. For the first three weeks at Sing-A-Gram, I was assigned to daytime work. Each time I sang for a client, I left my card with them, hoping for return business.
The first evening job I had was for a wealthy executive in town. I dressed in my costume, pulled my hair up into a ponytail, and gazed at my reflection in the mirror. I almost didn’t recognize myself. Who was I? I wondered.
Since the job site was poorly lit, I applied my makeup a little heavier than usual. My lipstick was a dark, blood red, which matched the satin material of my bodysuit. It had a deep, plunging neckline and it hugged every curve, leaving nothing to imagination. It almost looked like something I’d have worn in the bedroom for Jeff. Instead, I was leaving my house wearing it. I must have been out of my mind.
The job was on the twenty-sixth floor of a high-rise office building in downtown Starlight Shores. The temperature was frigid that night, so I stood in the building’s entryway for a few moments to warm up before taking the elevator. There was no one around; every business in the building was closed for the evening.
After taking a deep breath, I pressed the button for the elevator. I was confident in my ability to do the job I was hired to do, or so I thought. I wasn’t prepared for what awaited me in that office building.
The elevator opened up right inside the office. An older man, who looked to be in his late fifties, sat at the desk. He stood when I approached. “You must be Destiny,” he said. The man wasted no time, taking my hand in his and placing a delicate kiss on it. “You are stunningly beautiful. Just what I needed on a lonely, snowy night like this.”
I blushed and took one step backward. “Thank you.” My mind raced with everything I’d learned. Would I mess up the dance moves? Would I remember my script? I was worried about all the wrong things. “So, what is your pleasure tonight?” I asked, keeping to my script.
The man leered at me, licked his lips, and took a step toward me. “You are, honey.” Before I realized what was going on, he’d embraced me close to him and kissed me. I was certain THAT was not on the list of approved services. He released me, then took my hand in his. “Come with me.”
Every warning bell sounded in my head. “No, thank you,” I said, walking backward.
“I won’t hurt you, Destiny. Please? I hear you have a beautiful voice.”
“What is it you want, Mister…?”
“Fournier. Leonard Fournier.”
“Okay. What do you want, Mister Fournier?”
He took my hand again and tugged at me. “Come back to my office with me.”
My duty was to please my customer. But there were limits to what I would do, job or no job. “I’d rather not.”
“I promise I will not hurt you. Destiny, you’re my employee tonight. You’re compelled to obey me.”
Against my better judgment, I followed Leonard Fournier into his office. It was then I recognized the logo on the wall. Binder Clips Center?! “Wait…”
He wore an amused look on his face. “Yes, Destiny. I own the stadium. I understand you are the most talented young lady on staff at Sing-A-Gram.”
I blushed again, but his statement made me feel no better. “Again, Mister Fournier, what is it you want from me?” I knew I was in a precarious position. I couldn’t say no to him and keep my job. On the other hand, I had personal limits. How far was I willing to go? The very thought of it scared me silly.
He patted the seat next to him on the leather sofa where he sat. “My wife is out of town, Destiny, and I’m a lonely man in need of companionship tonight.” He put his arm around my shoulder. “I wanted the best singer in town, you know, to cheer me up.”
I stayed on script and in character, though I was no actress. I hoped my nerves would stay in check. The perspiration beaded on my forehead. My mouth was dry as sawdust. “What song would you like to hear?”
“What is your favorite song, Destiny? I want you to sing it for me, a cappella.” He leaned back on the sofa and stared at me.
“It Hurts Both Ways,” I blurted out. It was the name I gave to Daddy’s favorite song, the one I promised myself I wouldn’t sing anywhere until I recorded it.
“Who sings that one, Destiny? I have never heard of it.” Leonard ran his finger down the side of my face. This man was old enough to be my daddy. I was determined I’d never let him take advantage of me.
“It’s an original.” I winced and bit my tongue a little harder than I intended.
“I’d rather hear you sing something popular. Let me gauge your talent for myself.”
Though I was relieved he didn’t want to hear my original composition, I felt no better. “How about Katie Price’s big hit?”
I saw him wrinkle his nose. “If you must…”
I slowed my breathing and concentrated on the words to my favorite song. I hummed the first note in my head, then began to sing. The tune was spot-on; the lyrics came easy. I sang the whole first verse of the song when I noticed his unrelenting stare.
“Dance, Destiny. Show off your moves.” I knew what he meant, but I didn’t want to do it.
“Please, Mister Fournier…” Maybe by appealing to his human side, instead of the lustful man that sat in front of me, I could eke some grace out of him.
“Dance, Destiny. Dance like your job depends on it, because it does.”
The funny thing about exotic dancing I learned that night. Doing it in front of co-workers wasn’t difficult. But performing for the owner of the biggest show venue in town is a whole other thing. I walked to him, moved my body, and performed the dance moves I’d been taught. I closed my eyes, wanting to be anywhere else but in that room with him. He pulled me closer and kissed me again. “Strip for me, Destiny. Let me see that gorgeous, twenty-one-year-old body.”
I felt fear rise in my throat. It was something I’d rehearsed dozens of times without the striptease, though I knew the dance moves by heart. My skirt came off first, revealing my blood red bodysuit. My hips gyrated to music I heard only in my head. Mr. Fournier reached for the clasp on the back of my suit and, with the flick of his finger, he had it undone. One more move would cause the costume to slide down my body, exposing me.
Instinctively, my arms crossed over my chest, hiding from him anything he could have seen. “I’m sorry,” I cried, “I can’t do this.” I grabbed my coat and ran from the office and into the waiting area. His heavy footsteps were behind me. This can’t be happening! I thought. In a panic, I ran for the elevator door and pressed the ‘Down’ button. The door opened, and I stepped inside. I stood inside the lift, pressing the button for the first floor repeatedly until the door closed. He missed it by a second.
Safely in the building’s lobby, I ran to my car just outside the door. My hands shook with fear and shame fumbling with the lock. When I finally got it open, I flopped into the seat and locked my door. That was the moment I vowed to never take another night job. I wish I’d stuck to the promise I made that night. I would have saved myself considerable pain.
Six Months Later
Summer festivities were bustling in the Shores with the start of concert season. A multi-band event would play at the Binder Clips Center mid-summer. The tickets sold out in minutes; every band that would headline was well-known and very popular. Even if I wanted tickets to a rock concert, I couldn’t have gotten them.
Russ called me into the office the night of the concert. He wanted to discuss a job opportunity, one he said I would be wise to accept.
“Destiny, I have a rather large client performing at the Clips Center, and they want my best talent for a birthday party tonight after the show. You’re it. If you agree, I can assure you a bonus and a raise, assuming my client is pleased with your performance.”
I was excited. Maybe this would be my ticket to the big time. “I’d be honored.”
“They’ve requested an exotic dancer/singer for a birthday party. I don’t know who the guest of honor is, as they have kept everything on the down-low. Just remember your script, and for goodness’ sake, please don’t disappoint this client. They are my biggest account. I’m counting on you, Destiny.”
“I won’t let you down, Russ. You have my word.” He gave me a winning smile as I turned to leave his office. I would prepare for the party at the Sing-A-Gram headquarters, then drive to the Clips Center from there. My costume—a skin-tight, baby pink satin bodysuit with a fluffy bunny tail, and a set of rabbit ears I’d wear in my hair—was freshly dry cleaned and in my wardrobe. I applied a sheer base of scented powder on my skin. It helped to put my costume on with little struggle.
I gawked at my reflection in the mirror, dressed and made up. You really need to find a new job! I told myself. But the night contracts paid more than daytime jobs, so I tolerated it. I dabbed a glob of gloss onto my lips and straightened the costume before I walked to my car.
The lights emanating from the Clips Center were brilliant, almost as though the sun appeared overhead. Outside, I could hear the band onstage playing their set of rock music. It really wasn’t my cup of tea, but a job is a job. I parked my little car in the lot and walked to the side entrance.
A man dressed in a security uniform answered the door. “Can I help you?”
He caught me putting the headband into my hair; I gave him a sheepish smile. “I’m with Sing-A-Gram. I’m working the birthday party tonight.”
He pulled a penlight from his pocket, grabbed the paper tacked to a clipboard, and checked. “Destiny, right?”
He pointed down the hall backstage. “Go down this hallway to the second right. Take the elevator to the second floor, then it’s the first door on your left.”
I smiled at him. “Thank you!”
His eyes scanned my costume; a crooked smile crossed his lips. “Break a leg, sweet thing.”
I ignored his comment and hurried down the hallway, following his directions. Second right, up to the second floor, and first door on the left. Inside the room, I could hear sounds of laughter and talking. I gave myself a quick pep talk, then knocked. The door opened a crack, and someone peeked out.
“You must be the entertainment,” she said. “The birthday boy doesn’t know you’re coming, but we’re going to walk him out blindfolded. When he sits down, we yell ‘Surprise!’, then you start your routine. Okay?”
I nodded. “I usually begin turned away from the crowd. Will that be a problem?”
She giggled with glee. “Oh, that will be perfect! He’s going to love this.” She tucked her head back inside the room, awaiting the ‘okay’ from the crowd. There was an uproar, and then a thumbs up. It was ‘go time’.
She guided me into the room, and everyone got quiet. It was a little odd, but I thought nothing of it. I took my place on the stage they had set up, ready to sing my opening line on her command. A commotion started behind me; I could almost feel the excitement in the room. I knew it would be a night to remember.
Boy, was that an understatement.
They situated the guest of honor, still wearing a blindfold, in a seat that was front and center in the room. I heard the go signal, took the mic, and spoke in the most sultry voice I could muster. After the first verse of the song, I turned around. My client sat spellbound by my voice, still blindfolded, until my first note of the chorus. When our eyes met, I froze, and I heard his audible gasp.
Jeff? What the…?!
I couldn’t stop the performance I had been paid handsomely to do, so I swallowed every bit of emotion that welled up within me. I closed my eyes and pretended, if only for a moment, that it was just Jeff and me back at the penthouse, and I was doing my level best to lure him into my bed. But when I opened them again, the only expression I saw was one of disgust and disappointment.
A young brunette woman bounded out from the back room, all smiles and giggles. She ran to Jeff and sat in his lap, confused by the look on his face. She whispered to him, and he shrugged in return. I tried not to think about it as I continued my act.
I danced up to Jeff, winked at the young woman with him, and she giggled, left his side and went to sit with the group. Part of my paid routine was a lap dance, something I had only done once before. That it was Jeff should have made me more comfortable with it. Instead, I was nervous and felt more than a little dirty.
When I finished, he took my wrist and yanked my body down close to him. “I need to talk to you,” he said. His words were forceful and harsh. Suddenly, I was cotton-mouthed and I couldn’t sing the rest of my number. None of that seemed to matter to the crowd, who were cheering my name in a drunken clamor. Jeff’s hands on mine were firm as he pulled me from the crowd to a quiet backroom.
Though he’d never been rough with me before, he pushed me into a chair. His actions had every hallmark of a jealous boyfriend, without the boyfriend part. Jeff paced the floor without saying a word, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little frightened.
As he had done during our last fight in Bridgeport, his face displayed every emotion he felt. Anger was the one he expressed, and he did so right in my face. His breath reeked of stale beer and spirits. I suspected he might have been drunk.
“What the HELL was that, Des?! I mean, you tell me you hate me, and then you come on to me like a cat in heat?! Is this what you’re doing now?”
“I don’t see how my life is your business! You ended our relationship almost a year ago!” I spat back. “The last I remembered, I was on my own here!”
He knelt in front of me, took my hands, and wiped tears from his eyes. “Are you so jealous of me, Des, that you’re willing to sell yourself to find success?” Ouch.
“I-I…” I didn’t have an answer for him; the tears in his eyes confused me. Does he still have feelings for me? I wondered. “I don’t know—” He stood as I spoke, interrupting me.
“How can you NOT know?” Jeff looked down his nose at me, wearing an angry scowl on his face. “I don’t even know who you are anymore! I’m so happy I dodged a bullet by breaking our engagement. You’re disgusting.”
His words ripped open old wounds, ones I thought had healed long ago. I sat in the chair, breathless and stunned by his hateful words. This must have been what I sounded like to him the day of our fight. Tears flooded my eyes and ran down my face. “I’m not jealous…” I whispered under my breath.
“Then what is it?”
I shrugged. “I’m tired of struggling, Jeff. You walked into fame and money so easily, and here I am, two years later, still trying to make my way…” It was then the awful realization hit me. I WAS jealous of him, and bitterly so.
“Be glad your folks aren’t alive to see you now, Des. I bet they wouldn’t be so proud to see you selling your body, and your soul, to the lowest bidder—”
My hand connected hard with his cheek. With shock and horror, my hands covered my face. My mouth opened to verbalize an apology; only an unintelligible squeak left my lips. Jeff said nothing. He only turned around and left me in the room, weeping bitter tears.
The Next Morning
An overnight letter arrived at the house with a familiar return address on it. I was excited to see it; the envelope bore Aunt Jenny’s beautiful penmanship. I signed for the letter and ran back inside and to my bedroom to read it. I opened the inside envelope, which bore her handwriting. It only said, “To Destiny” on the outside. My finger slipped under the flap and opened it.
There are some things I need to tell you, but I never could say them in person. I hope you will understand and take these things to heart, with the love and affection they are meant to convey.
I got the strangest phone call tonight from Jeff. I couldn’t imagine what he wanted, knowing how he left you almost a year ago. But he had some things to tell me, things he was concerned about. It’s clear he still has feelings for you, and those feelings led him to call me tonight after his birthday party.
Is it really true, Destiny, that you’re working as an exotic dancer? You’re walking down a dark road, sweetheart. It is a life you will have a difficult time escaping if you continue down this path. I know you don’t see it now, because you’re so rooted in it. I pray that you see where you’re headed before it’s too late.
Desi, I never wanted to burden you with more pain than you already have, but I can’t leave my words unspoken. Sweet pea, you’ve lost your way. You’ve forgotten where you’ve come from, and where you’re going.
I fell backward onto the bed, the letter still gripped in my fingers. I couldn’t believe what I was reading…
The truth is, Destiny, your mama and daddy would have loved you no matter what. But I believe, if they could see what you’re doing, they wouldn’t like it. You’ve gone somewhere they never wanted you to go, and you’ve become a woman you weren’t created to be. And yes, I believe they would be disappointed in the path you’ve chosen to take.
There IS good news, though. You don’t have to stay on the path that leads to destruction. Return to your roots, seek the wisdom that’s written in the prayer book your father gave you, and get back to attending services. You know in your heart that the answers you seek lie there, Destiny.
I wish your Daddy and Mama could be there to see you realize your life’s dream. Know that they will be watching over you and cheering you on. Always remember that you are so loved. Remember the promises you made to your mama and daddy. Never forget where you’re from, and how you got where you are. Be true to yourself and your family, Destiny, and you will never fail.
All my love,
I crumpled the letter and threw it at the wall, crying bitter tears. Who was she to tell me which path was right and wrong? But her words repeated in my mind, convicting me letter by letter. The prayer book Daddy had given me was tucked into the nightstand next to the pistol I kept there. I opened the drawer and removed the book I hadn’t touched—much less read—in the years since his death.
Its brown leather cover was worn from use; the pages inside bore Daddy’s notes and insights. Inside the front cover, his words were written with his own hand:
Destiny, take this with you. Read it often and let its wisdom guide you. Never forget where you’re from, and to whom you belong. Remember whose daughter you are. I love you more than words can tell you. Love, Daddy.
My fingers traced the letters he’d written on the page; a single, salty teardrop splattered on the thin paper. I knelt by my bed, my hands clasped together, and I talked to Daddy for the first time in a long time.
I’m sorry for how I’ve acted, for what I’ve become. And I know, Daddy, I have disappointed you and Mama. I’ve lost my way, and I’ve forgotten my promise. But I swear to you now, from this day forward, I will do nothing if it doesn’t bring honor to our family name. I will work harder than ever to make you proud of me, Daddy. And if I never accomplish what I’ve set out to achieve, then let it be said that I took my last breath bringing glory to you and Mama. I will love you until the end of time.
I climbed up into bed with Daddy’s book still in my hands. I let the book fall open to a non-specific page and read the first thing that I saw.
“You will always harvest exactly what you plant. Bitter seeds will produce anguish and pain, while good seeds make an abundant harvest.”
It was almost as though Daddy was right there with me, speaking the words I read in his book. A chill ran down the length of my spine; my skin rose in goosebumps. I took a deep breath and exhaled. A peaceful calm washed over me, a serenity I hadn’t felt in a long time. My eyes welled with tears. “Thank you, Daddy. I hear you, loud and clear.”
That afternoon, I walked into Russ’ office at the Sing-A-Gram headquarters. I didn’t even knock. He sat behind his desk looking none too pleased with my performance the evening before. He looked as though he was ready to speak, but I put my hand up to stop him.
“Russ, I know what you’re going to say. I can’t continue my employment here. I’m so sorry—”
He never looked up from his desk. “Our client called me this morning about your subpar performance last night. It took some sweet talking, but I managed to keep the account.”
“That’s good,” I said. Did he even hear me?
“All of this said, Destiny, you are still the most talented young lady I have on staff. I can overlook your performance… this time. But you’re on probation for six months, and you’ll need to take more dance classes—”
Well, he answered that question. “Russ, I can’t do this anymore.”
He finally lifted his eyes to meet mine. “I’m not accepting a resignation. I need you on staff.”
“Then I won’t resign,” I said. “I quit, effective now.”
“What about your singing career? You’ll be finished before you begin if you leave now.”
“That’s a chance I’m willing to take. I can’t continue to sell my soul for a quick buck and a little notoriety. I’m sorry.”
“You will be,” Russ said, almost as a warning. “You’ll go nowhere without us.”
“Then so be it.” I turned on my heel and walked away.
“Destiny, wait!” Russ called out. I kept going and never looked back.
My next stop was the Flying V coffeehouse. On my way inside, I grabbed the “Help Wanted” sign that hung in the window and brought it with me. Jared’s wide grin greeted me as I walked through the door. “It’s so good to see you!” he said.
“Hi Jared. I am hoping you still need someone to fill this position.” The sign I held in my fingers waved as I held it out. “I just quit my job at the Sing-A-Gram.”
“I could hug you!” he said. “I haven’t been able to fill your position with someone trustworthy and hardworking.”
A smile crossed my face. “I’d love to come back, if you’ll have me.”
“When can you start? I could use you now.”
“Now is good.”
Next Up: Chapter Five, Generation Two
Sunny’s Love Letters & Envelopes by ShakespearesSunshyne at Secrets Of The Six Killers
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