I have some big changes going on in my personal life. So, while I am focused on this, and with it being the holiday weekend I didn’t get a lot of work done on the Real Pacer Hill. Instead I am posting an unedited chapter of Facing Fire, a novel that will be available for my patrons by next year. I hope you enjoy!
“An emergency meeting?” Brittany asked as she entered Wedding Planner Manor and found all of us sitting around one of the tables we used to interview new couples. “Is this about you fainting at the wake? Because I think we all understand.”
“I took pain pills on an empty stomach and then added a bunch of alcohol to it.” I shook my head. “Lesson learned. But, we are not here about that, today. I called you all here because I’m leaving town.”
I started passing envelopes to each of my employees, and they looked back at me with curious eyes.
“I need help. I have realized I can only take on so much before I start sinking. And, as it turns out, I took on way too much here lately. So, I found a therapist and I’m going to go away for a while, to work on myself.”
“Holy hell, Natalie,” Tyler whispered as he opened his envelope. “What is this?”
“This is a bonus. This is me asking you all to hang on with me as I pile all of this extra work on top of you.” I gave him a weak smile. “I want to be enough for everyone in my life. Right now I feel like I can’t do that.”
“Don’t worry about the Manor. We got it. We got you,” Brittany said with a smile, as she squeezed my hand. “You get out of here and do what you need to do.”
“Are you maybe pushing me out because you don’t want to be called out?” I asked, as I raised an eyebrow at her.
“Is this about the Austin thing? Because I need you to know that he told me he wasn’t with Lily anymore.”
“Is that supposed to make it better?” I snorted at her. “Girl code, Britt. Even if your friend isn’t with her ex, you never touch him. He’s off limits, especially when his ex is your boss’ best friend.”
“Well, it takes two to tango,” Lindsey pointed out.
“Mm, you would know since I hear you’ve been hanging out with Chris Schultz since Jana broke it off with him.” I gave her wide eyes, and her cheeks turned red. “Anyway, the point is that I trust you all, I love you all and I need you all.”
“And you got us,” Tyler promised as he gave me a wink. “Go fix yourself, girl. And hurry back when you’re ready,”
Everything was almost perfect.
I just had one more thing that needed to be done before I got on the plane and disappeared to South Carolina for my emotional rehab.
Elaina Pacer agreed to meet me at Coffee Break, though she seemed anxious about it, as if she were worried that I was going to pick a fight with her over Oliver.
She sat in the corner booth that I had claimed as my own, staring at her laptop as her fingers worked to type an email.
“What’s up?” she asked, as I joined her. She had a large iced coffee in front of her, and her best friend sat at the closest table to us, as if she were backup in case anything went wrong.
“We’ve worked together for a couple of years now-“
“And I don’t want that to change.” Elaina was quick to interrupt me. “Oliver said that you two had bad blood and I don’t want whatever happened between you two to get between us.”
“We’re professional acquaintances, Elaina. You can have a relationship with Oliver if you want. That has nothing to do with me using the hotel for wedding venues.”
Elaina looked relieved. “So, you’re not here to yell at me? Because, I really hate pissing people off and the second he told me that you two used to be a thing I was terrified you would be mad.”
“No, I’m not mad, but woman to woman I’m here to give you a warning about Oliver. Loving him came with a price, and I don’t want you to end up losing what I lost. You don’t have to listen to me or believe me. I’m sure you’ll leave here and call him just to be told a story about how I’m a liar. Maybe, he’s already tried to tell you that. All I can say is that I wish somebody had given me a warning first, and even if you don’t listen, I owe this to myself. I want to walk away from here knowing that I did the right thing.”
“Are you talking about the night of your engagement party?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but at a loss for words I just nodded my head.
“He said he caught you cheating and lost his mind.”
“That is the narrative he created.” I accepted my green tea from Eden with a smile. “At least he can own up to the part where he lost his mind. That’s progress.”
“Were you not cheating?” she asked.
“I was with Tyler Ross, my assistant. He was helping me make plans for our wedding. Oliver walked in, and he didn’t look right. I tried to talk to him, and he just kept staring at me. That’s when all hell broke loose. He started throwing our plates at me, and I went running through the house to get away from him. And that’s just the start. He was threatening to kill me by the time the night was over, and I spent months dealing with him stalking me, until he met you. I should really be thanking you. I should be overjoyed that he found somebody new and he’s not my problem anymore, but I can’t just look the other way and allow somebody else to be hurt without at least telling you the truth. And, that’s all I came here for. I have places to be. And I’m not going to sit here and pressure you to leave him because that’s not my place. You’ll do what you will with this information, and my conscience is clear. And now, it’s time for me to hop on a plane and get my mind clear.”
I stood up, giving Rhiannon Hart a nod as she studied me with a concerned expression on her face. I wasn’t sure that Elaina heard me, but I could tell that her best friend was receptive of my warning.
Walking out of Coffee Break, I felt a weight lift off of my shoulder. I hopped into my car, and alone, I headed to the Roy County Airport.
For the first time in a long time, I remembered how to enjoy my own company. I felt safe with myself. I felt content and I hoped that by the time I made it back home, I would remember how to love myself.
“Hello?” Lily answered.
“I just wanted to let you know that I’m at the airport, now. Once I get on the plane I’m going dark.”
“Natalie, I’m worried about you. I don’t like this plan. I hate the whole thing. You should have let me come with you or something.”
“I’m going to be alright,” I promised. “Hopefully better than alright. I just want to know you’ll be okay. You’re going to get up and go grocery shopping and do all of the things to take care of yourself, right? Just promise me that you’re not going to sit in the house falling apart over Austin.”
“I won’t,” she answered, with a little sniffle. “Don’t forget you’re mine, Natalie.”
“And, you’re mine,” I answered with a smile. “I’ll be in touch soon.”
Landing a meeting with Brooke Lawson from Touch of Gold magazine was the first item on my agenda after I checked into my hotel room in North Carolina. I went straight to her office, which was filled with journalists busy typing and talking over one another with their various ideas. The receptionist didn’t seem too impressed at the sight of me, as I was still in leggings and a baggy t-shirt that I wore on the plane. My hair was tied back in a knot on my head, and if I looked as exhausted as I felt, I couldn’t blame her for judging me.
“Can I help you?” she sneered.
“I’m here to meet Brooke,” I said. “Just tell her it’s Natalie Mascinick.”
“She doesn’t have you on the books for a meeting today,” the woman said, with a snap of her chewing gum.
“Tell her I am here,” I ordered, my expression turning severe as I glared at her.
The woman turned her back to me and picked up her phone. She hissed into the receiver like a pissed off snake, but when she turned back to me she wore a smile on her face.
“I’m sorry for that misunderstanding, Natalie. I didn’t realize that I was looking at wedding royalty.”
“Thank you,” I snapped, as she pointed me towards a closed door that said Brooke’s name. “If you have any iced coffee, I’ll take some. The biggest size you have with extra vanilla, please.”
“You got it.” The woman gave me a smile. “Anything else?”
“A grilled chicken honey mustard wrap would be everything right now.” I gave her a wink before closing the door of Brooke’s office behind me.
“Girl!” she sang, snapping her fingers above her head. “What are you doing here?”
“I have a thing. A big thing and I’m going to give it to you to type up for your magazine.” I took a seat on her couch, lying my head back. “I may need to squeeze in a power nap, first.”
“What is the big thing?”
“A domestic violence survivor telling her story and opening up a non-profit to support other domestic violence survivors.” I sat up with a smile on my face. “How is that for your ‘awareness’ column?”
“That’s a big thing.” Brooke stood up, with that gentle look on her face. She took a seat on the edge of the couch as she studied me with her big blue eyes. “A huge thing. And, I am thrilled that you’re coming to me to do it, but I want you to be sure about what you’re walking into. There are people who will empathize with your story, there are people who will blame you and there are even people who will try to hold it against you. No matter how much good you do, somebody is always going to try to drag you down. When you go public, you’re setting yourself up for all of this. If you weren’t an old friend of mine, I wouldn’t even bother telling you this because you’re sitting on gold. But, I am invested in you, Natalie. I don’t want to see you go through anymore bullshit at the hands of that man.”
“You knew, didn’t you? When you sat me down to do that article about Mariah and Jackson’s wedding, you knew.”
“Of course I knew.” Brooke smiled though I could see her eyes watering. “It takes one to know one, and I’ve been on the receiving end of that bullshit. I’ve been laid out on my bathroom floor wanting to die because some fucking man with nothing going for him made me believe that I wasn’t enough. More people go through it than we know, and more abusers get away with it because their victims are either too ashamed or scared to speak about it. What you want to do could make a difference for so many people, and the selfish part of me is ready to start typing right now. But, every ounce of good creates a pound of bad, and I want you to consider that.”
“Well, I guess I’ll have to make so much good that the bad can’t keep up, won’t I?”
She smiled at me. “I guess if we’re going to do this, we need to make it huge. I’ll have to get writers to work with us, and see if I can find some more victims willing to make some noise. How much time do you have?”
I pictured Cole sitting at home, waiting on me to come back. For a second, my heart hurt for him, but I went to South Carolina with a mission. I had healing to do and a story to tell.
“As much time as it takes,” I answered.
“Okay,” Brooke said with a nod. “We are going to do this. Let’s go eat dinner and talk. What do you think?”
Reliving my trauma with Brooke became my therapy. Telling her about the fight that Oliver started over a text from one of my clients, and ended by pushing me down a staircase in a rage, or how he constantly threatened to light the house on fire with me inside of it whenever I did something he didn’t like, made it easier to breathe. Reliving the night that he kicked me out of his car on the side of the road because I pointed out the house that my sixth grade boyfriend lived in, or rehashing how he regularly called me names when he wasn’t getting his way from me, or even forced himself on me in the bedroom if I tried to deny him sex, made it easier for me to sleep at night. Once she had completed my story, I felt whole, and I was able to sit with Brooke while she interviewed other domestic abuse survivors, allowing them to tell their stories right alongside me. My piece would grab people’s attentions, but it was their stories that would help impact change.
Brooke came up with the idea that after the magazine went live and hit stands the next day, I should post a video to Touch of Gold’s social media accounts to announce my plans to open She Speaks. She brought in a whole team to do my hair and makeup, and while they worked, I stayed focused on my phone. I finally turned it on to invite Cole to spend my last few days in South Carolina with me. I sent him his ticket information and the hotel information, but he never answered me, and that was the night before I was set to record this video.
“Are you okay?” Brooke asked, when she took a break from her own work to come sit with me. “I’ve been told that you seem distracted.”
“Just waiting on a guy,” I answered. “Hoping that he didn’t forget me.”
“Have you looked at yourself in a while, sweetie?” Liam, her makeup artist, asked me. “Who the hell is gonna forget you?”
“And, even if this man is stupid enough to let you go, there will be another. There is always another.”
“Except this one, I have loved since I was fourteen. And, I think you only get one of those,” I said with a nod. “So, hopefully he just forgot how to answer a text and he shows up, because if not I get to mend another broken heart.”
“Or you could always try with Shade.” Brooke nodded to a muscular man standing up at his desk as he smiled in our direction. “He’s a major flirt and has never taken a relationship seriously in his life, but the man is terrific in bed. I’ve used him to mend a few heartbreaks.”
I let out a scream laugh before I could slap my hand over my mouth. “Brooke!” I gushed.
She raised her eyebrows at me. “Hot, isn’t he? I’m just saying, I saw you looking.”
By the time I completed recording the video, Cole still hadn’t answered my texts. I said a tearful goodbye to Brooke before walking out of the Touch of Gold office building, heading off to what I felt sure would be a weekend alone.
Fighting off heavy disappointment, I walked through the hotel and stepped onto the elevators where a weird man in a white tank top and a pair of black athletic shoes, with expensive tennis shoes, kept raising his eyebrows at me.
“What the fuck?” I whispered, shoving past him when the elevator reached my floor.
I walked into my suite and slammed the door closed behind me. Spinning around to throw my purse onto the bed, I almost hit Cole right in the face.
“Cole?” I whispered, as he reached out for my hand and pulled me into a hug. “You’re here?”
“A really nice friend of yours named Brooke messaged me and told me that I should be here. She gave me the information on your hotel and helped me get in here.” He smiled, as I fell onto the bed and pulled him down with me. “She must have some great connections, because they were ready to carry me out of here until she called.”
“She’s Brooke Hawthorne. She’s the creator of Touch of Gold and I just spent a long while pouring my heart out to her about everything. And, I have never felt better.”
He gave me a playful smile as he asked, “Then why are you crying?”
“Because you showed up.” I pressed my hand against his cheek. “I have become so used to people letting me down that I forgot what a relief it is when someone shows up. You have no reason to be here. I didn’t leave you with anything to hold onto, and yet you still came through for me.”
He smiled. “That’s love, isn’t it?”
“Is that what this is?” I whispered, before pressing my lips to his.
“I have never been more sure of anything than I am of how much I love you, Natalie.”