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In the Event of Love: A Delightful Second Chance Romance

In the Event of Love: A Delightful Second Chance Romance PDF

Author: Courtney Kae

Publisher: Kensington


Publish Date: August 30, 2022

ISBN-10: 1496738950

Pages: 320

File Type: Epub, PDF

Language: English

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Book Preface

I jab my purple mani at “archive email” and hope management@peakperk feels the sting of Lilac Lover through the interwebs.
Fern Falls. Like some café could lure me home after seven years. Funny how Dad talks about me when he can’t be bothered to send more than a text every other week. The five-hour drive between that minuscule mountain town and Santa Monica is a freedom I won’t surrender, and I’m booked at least through bridal season 2088.
“If it isn’t Morgan Ross,” a voice booms above the roar of the bar. A collar of white chest hair peeks out from Frank’s BIG WAVE DADDY tank top as he leans across the counter to swipe at a glob of something that might be salsa.
I should have had a second glass of wine prior to coming here. Bartender Frank is a buzzkill. I banish my cursed Android to my pocket before it summons more ghosts from my past. “Frank.” I tilt back, praying to the core workout goddess I don’t topple off this bamboo stool. “What’s it been? A year?”
Wish it’d been longer, but my co-worker Sonia loves Five-Dollar Margarita Fridays—and I’ve exhausted my cancellation passes. The Sand Bar is between our apartments, making it tough to skip when she knows my plans for tonight (chilling with my succulents).
Tomorrow, we’ll tie up final details for our biggest wedding yet, and then I’ll be too busy to visit this charming place with all the noise, the people, the sticky-syrup smell, the people, the literal sand piled along the molding, the peop—
“Thought I’d only get to see your face in the Times, but here she is, in the flesh! And in my bar!” Frank smacks the counter so enthusiastically, I jostle, gripping the stool for dear life.
Wearing Manolos to a bar with a beach complex was a terrible idea. As far as I’m concerned, the floor is actually lava. “Ha. Thanks, Frank. That was no big deal.”
It was a huge deal, and I still love being reminded of it, even six months later. The LA Times article flashes in my mind with the pastel photo of the puppy tea party I ran for a local influencer celebrity. It brought so much buzz to The Barnes Events Company, Johanna put me on the McTannum and Sparks wedding, our top-tier celebrity clients. Well, Lexi Sparks is A-list. Chad McTannum was a child soap opera star, and now he just parties so hard and so often that even the tabloids stopped caring. But if all goes well, I’ll be promoted to launch our sister site in New York come January. As far away from my hometown as I can get in this country and closer to running my own business, something that’s all mine, that no one can pull out from under me. Take that, management@peakperk.
“So, tell me. Whatchya drinkin’?” There’s zero counter space, just Frank, as he sprawls closer and whisper-yells, “And is Spum really dishing out a mil for the bachelorette party?”
I nearly choke on my own saliva. I hope whoever gave my clients that god-awful couple name is only referenced by explicit innuendos for the rest of their existence. I give Frank my best Don’t Fuck with Me grin. “So, Big Wave Daddy’s big into gossip mags, is he?”
Frank stands up (thank god) and raises his hands in faux innocence. “Hey, just thought they might consider the most happening dive on the strip is all.”
If my mouth weren’t already dry, I’d choke on my spit again. I’m done with the sweet part of Don’t Fuck with Me. I spread my palms on the counter (regretting it instantly) and look Frank square in the eyes. “Lexi Sparks wouldn’t consider holding her bachelorette party at your bar if—”
“If it didn’t come so highly recommended!”
I snap my gaze to Sonia as she sidles up beside me, all overly cheery as always, brown skin glowing, brown curls flying, a margarita glass that could qualify as a small country in each hand.
I sigh. No one can stay mad around Sonia. It’s sorcery, really. And why we make the best team. I bust the vendor’s balls, and she makes them smile while they comply. Frank’s doing it now.
“Nah, Sonia. You’re too kind.” He’s literally blushing. I didn’t think his face could get more “hopped off a tanning bed like this.” He’s sunburning as we speak.
“We’re considering lots of places, but we’ll add The Sand Bar to the list, okay?” she chirps, as she hoists onto a bamboo contraption and slides my marga-pitcher before me.
“Those are on me,” he says to Sonia and winks, like we should sing praises of his ten-dollar generosity; then, hallelujah, he gets called to the other side of the bar.
My shoulders relax the slightest bit now that we’re Frank-free. “Why are you nice to him?”
“Girl, he’s harmless.”
“He’s gross.”
“True, but the nontoxic kind. Which you’d know if you ever met me here anymore! I miss our weekly drink nights!” Sonia sips her sunrise-colored slush, and guilt brews in my gut. She really does try to be friends with me, so of course, I started keeping her at a distance once drinks turned into deeper conversations. Fern Falls ruined friendship for me. Specifically, Rachel Reed ruined friendship—and romance—for me. And I will not dwell on something that happened over seven years ago. It’d be great to have you around again. Yeah. Real great to relive the most humiliating and painful moments of my youth, thanks so much, random café manager.
“Gross nontoxic isn’t really selling the whole socializing thing, Sonia,” I chide as I take a long drink of mango-rita . . . and, okay. I taste what she sees in this place and hate that it’s absolutely delicious. I suck down another strawful. Or five. Thanks to the rosé I deemed as necessary prep for The Sand Bar, this liquor shoots straight to my head, replenishing the buzz that Frank dampened and then some.
She serves up some major side-eye, dark curls falling over her orange tank-top strap.
“Don’t look at me in that tone,” I say, lips wrapped around my sugared tequila injection.
Sonia narrows her eyes. “What’s going on, Morgan?”
“Black roses.” I slug another gulp and ignore the fact that half my pitcher-glass is drained, and I can’t really taste the alcohol anymore . . .
That dragged-out a means business. I mean to fully avoid all questions of a personal nature. “Lexi won’t budge. Will we need to get them imported, or can a local florist come through?”
“Imported. Definitely. But don’t change the subject. I’ve only seen you drain a drink that fast one time before, and . . .”
I clutch my glass, drink faster, throw caution to the brain freeze. Damn Sonia and her attention to detail. Getting an email from Fern Falls is not the same as my two-year-old breakup with Josh Taylor. I hate that she witnessed me that night in all my martinied glory, and there’s no way I’m about to unpack my Fern Falls–fucked past in The Sand Bar. No way I’m going to let one stupid email and the stupid memories of the stupid people it’s chained to take me down. Instead, I inhale the rest of my drink and say something so horrifying, my Manolos already despise me for it: “Let’s dance.”
Sonia peers at me like I just suggested an evening of sledding down Third Street Promenade.
I laugh and tug her through the tight crowd onto the dance floor . . . or the part of the floor mostly cleared of sand, where people bump along to some sort of electronic beat. There’s another version of myself, the regular one, standing in the corner with her arms crossed and her blond hair pulled back in a bun, planning an extra-horrific hangover so I’ll never attempt this again. Screw it. I want to forget that email. I want to forget Dad and how we haven’t had a true more-than-surface conversation in years. I want to forget his terrible ex, Christy, who was the cause of our family’s implosion. And I definitely want to forget goddamn Rachel Reed, like I’d been forgetting her every day until that email bombed my in-box. I want to be free again.
I shake out my hair and relish how it sways against my shoulders. Sonia beams, and the serotonin jolt of her high-wattage smile hits so hard, I actually start dancing.
She squeals. “Look at you go, girl! Get it! I haven’t seen you like this since the Rodriguez wedding!”
Fair. The last time I dragged Sonia onto a dance floor was at her cousin Marco’s wedding, the first event we pulled off without a single hitch. We partied until two a.m. Well, it’s almost ten now, and we’ve got an upcoming event we’re gonna ace again, and that’s worth dancing for. Good things are coming, and no email can stop that.
“Listen,” I yell above the noise, “we are badass and we’re gonna knock this freaking Spum wedding out of the park, okay? We are moving to NYC to be our own boss bitches!” I don’t even care that I embraced Spum or that my words slur or that this place smells like tropical sunscreen in the dead of fall. I just want to ride this awesome buzz (okay, more on the drunk end of the buzz spectrum, thanks to my pre-gaming) and let all the worries fall away.
Sonia tilts her head back and laughs. “Yeah! Those positions belong to us!”
I grit my teeth, shake my ass, and let that worry bounce off, too. There’s no way Johanna’s gonna pass me up for that promotion. I’ve been her top planner for years, helped her build this business from the ground up. Soon, I’ll be in a new city, an even bigger place to get lost in. It’ll be me, a fresh roster of A-list clients, and a chic apartment with closets packed full of designer clothes I buy with cash.
That’ll be it.
Then I’ll be something.
“NYC has nothing on me,” I yell, then shake faster. Free, free, free.
A sly smirk creeps across Sonia’s face. “The hottie at your back looks like he wants to be on you.”
As she finishes saying it, a sultry voice wafts on the pineapple-laced air. “Hey, wanna dance?”
Some rainbow-hued disco ball flashes, making me squint as I glimpse his profile. He has a dark hoodie pulled low on his brow, so I can’t even see his eyes, but his razor-sharp stubbled jawline summons my insta-reply. “Yes,” I breathe.
Then the corner of his lip tilts up into a crooked smile, and R.I.P. me. R.I.P. me into the goddamn ground.
Thank the Sweet Lord Jesus for blessing me with bisexuality.
I start to sway against him but glance at Sonia with a raised brow. She beams, a true wingman, and whispers, “You know I’m dancing off a broken heart, friend. Let’s go.” Then she throws her hands up and bops her head to her own beat.
My chest aches. Sonia has reason to hurt. Her girlfriend of two years just moved to the UK, and long distance is tough on them. What reason do I have? This pain was supposed to be over when I left home, when I took what little planning experience I had to LA, got an internship with Johanna, and threw myself into her business. I’m independent now, far from that small mountain town that crushed me, and all it takes is one email to feel the stab of all those broken pieces again? Fuck. That.
So with true dignity and swagger, I grind my ass into the beautiful stranger’s groin.
“Shit, girl.” He chuckles low in his throat and stumbles back, wrapping his fingers around my hips. “You’ve got moves.”
My heart squeezes again.
Whether it’s that damn email or my damn subconscious, I’m seventeen again and at my high school graduation party, right back beneath those twinkling lights, among soft music. Rachel’s lips meet mine. Right before we never speak again. The worst part is that I don’t blame her for cutting me out of her life. Watching Christy break Dad’s heart, break our family in front of the whole town that same night, made me want to break something, too. Rachel happened to be the closest thing. Collateral damage. And even after a lifetime of friendship, a glimpse of more, I wasn’t worth hearing out, forgiving. I wasn’t worth it.
For the second time tonight, I rebel. Push the pain back down where it belongs. The regular version of me storms out, promising hexes atop hangovers as I reach over my shoulder and press a bold finger to Beautiful Stranger’s lips. “No talking,” I whisper in a husky voice that belongs to no form of myself whatsoever.
He smiles, revealing a flash of white teeth, and my thoughts stop in their tracks. My body acts of its own accord as I turn into his neck and run a hand over his chest. His solid, well-formed chest. He slides his palms around my back and pulls me against him, hot, hard, encompassing everything.
There is no other version of me but the one here, now, in this gorgeous man’s arms, my insides bursting to life with lust and thrill and thoughtlessness.
I want more of it and run my hands higher, dig my nails into the soft cotton of his sweatshirt. Strobe lights skew each movement, stroke, touch.
This won’t hurt a thing.
Free, free.
The music crescendos, and he crushes his lips to mine.
Nothing else exists but his firm, sweet mouth, his tongue coaxing mine. I push back his hood and trail my fingers through his lush, silky hair.
My knees go weak, my blood buzzes, my brain’s a black hole of bliss.
This is the whole wide world and it is so, so good.
Then the real world invades. Lights flash, and I pull away, blinking.
The music spikes, but the crowd is frozen around us.
“Morgan.” Sonia’s voice materializes beside me, jarring with its urgency.
“What’s wrong?” I ask groggily.
Her face is all screwed up, like it was that time a birthday clown showed up wasted and pantless. Everyone in the crowd is holding up phones. My gut lurches into my throat. They’re all pointed directly at me.
I pat my clothes. Shit. This was not the night to wear tight white slacks. Did I tear them while dancing? It’s the end of the month, but did I start my period again? Great. I’m gonna go viral for being that girl with torn, bloody pants kissing a hot-ass guy. Oh my fucking god. I look up at Hot-Ass Guy, and whatever buzz I was riding screeches to a halt. The hood of his sweatshirt slaps his back as he runs for the exit, flocked by his friends.
Sonia takes my hand and tries to do the same with me, but my legs are heavy and everything is thick and bright, like swimming through piña colada pudding. People crowd too close with flashing phones and yell things like, “What’s your name?” and “How long have you two been hooking up?” I’m sweaty-cold-can’t-breathe as I stumble with Sonia out the door.
I gulp fresh air to fill my too-tight lungs, run my clammy palms along my thighs. My heart’s running sprints. “What—happened—”
Sonia braces me with a steady hand on my lower back.
She bends down and shows me her phone. Instagram fills the screen.
It’s me. The photos. They’re all of me. My body snaked with that guy’s, plastered in an infinite, multi-filtered grid.
I barely hear her say, “I’m so sorry, Morgan. I had no idea with the hoodie and the lights,” before I hurl mango margarita into the gutter, splattering my precious Manolos.
For once, I don’t give a shit about shoes.
That wasn’t just some guy. It was the very guy whose face was once on covers of BuzzWhir News for running stark naked out of The Viper Room. And I am the biggest idiot in the motherfucking USA, which says a lot.
I dissolve onto the concrete, swiping the back of my hand across my mouth, reckoning with what I’ve done.
That guy was Chad McTannum.
One half of Spum.
The whole of my career is over.
Curse the asshole who invented windows.
I scramble to draw the curtains, and rushing out of bed does not bode well for me. I trip on the shameful remnants of last night: white slacks, gray blouse, and those damn dirty Manolos, puddled upon my vintage rug as evidence that it all was not, in fact, a terrible nightmare. Shoes never looked so guilty. I throw them across the room, where they slam into the side of the hamper. Traitors.
My life cannot be so fragile that one night—one minute—changes everything. The memory of that kiss makes me rush to the bathroom, where I hurl more evidence of my demise into the toilet. Fucking Chad McTannum. How could I have been so dense? What event planner doesn’t recognize the face of her own client’s fiancé?
I flush and slump to the side, cold tile against bare legs, and run a mental scan of the one in-person meeting I had with Lexi Sparks.
It was back in March, with Johanna and Sonia in the main conference room at The Barnes. She came along to confirm her assistant hadn’t booked her with an actual barn. Half her face was veiled in Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses, and her whole six-foot-one entourage was adorned with black suits, dark eyewear, and Bluetooth earpieces. It was like that scene straight out of her reality show when bodyguards followed her so closely, she accidentally kissed one of them instead of her date. Tiffany, her petite, blond, bubbly-to-mask-paranoia assistant, did all the talking—talking that grew progressively higher-pitched the longer the meeting lasted. Which, now that I recall, couldn’t have been more than ten minutes.
Tiffany tapped on her tablet and set a date between Ms. Sparks’ modeling, acting, social, and spa commitments. Lexi did an over-the-glasses scan of us with every ounce of Hollywood producer’s daughter attitude she possessed, pushed them back up her pale pinprick of a nose, nodded at Tiffany, then sauntered out the door with a trail of suits at her heels.
Tiffany blustered up the handbag and full Starbucks tray she toted (because “Ms. Sparks might want a soy macchiato or hibiscus refresher at any given point”), said she’d be in touch (yet didn’t say that meant a minimum of four times daily), then tripped through the door.
So, no. Unless Chad was disguised as a security guard, I’d never actually met him. Until last night.
I groan and melt onto the tile.
Too much pre-bar wine, a margarita that could flatten Lexi’s guest list, and email-induced rage are my only excuses. Otherwise, I would have had to notice him. Even with the lights and that stupid hoodie, he reeked of the white cis male privilege that’s enabled his decades-long, washed-up actor mantrum.
I rest my head against the wall and zone out at the view of my apartment through the frame of my bathroom door. I am this: clean lines and surfaces, pale neutrals swathed in filtered light, houseplants in favor of pets and picture frames, fridge stocked with cold brew and mail-delivery meals, expiry labels face-out.
I am not the girl I was last night.
I am not the girl I am now, moping on herringbone-patterned marble.
And I am definitely not the girl I was in Fern Falls.
I am Morgan Ann Ross. Planner to the stars. Near-future promotee to The Barnes, NYC, running the show and my own damn life. Cool, collected, in fucking charge.
I peel myself off the floor and splash cold water on my face; take in the girl in the mirror.
Maybe she’s dehydrated and the only Californian in need of Vitamin D, but her balayage is well-blended, and her brows are on point. I’ll slap some concealer beneath my eyes to highlight the blue part of the gray, march down to The Barnes, and work this whole thing out with Johanna. Drink some water and cold brew and fix this shit.
Good morning, Morgan.
I freeze as Google announces my fate.
It’s seven a.m. on Saturday, November twenty-sixth. Currently, in Santa Monica, the weather is sixty-five degrees and sunny. Your commute to work is twenty minutes by foot, one hour by car. Your horoscope for today says beware of trouble with work, sex, love, social life, self, routine, thinking, and creativity. You have one hundred three notifications. Have a great day.
I hold my breath as Do Not Disturb shuts off and my purse transforms into a vibrator, nearly launching off the armchair.
I run across the room and scramble for my phone, clutching it like an anchor as I sink onto the edge of my bed. Each ping and flash across the screen swaps my self-affirmations for a splitting headache as I read the first cancellation:
Hey, Morgan. Sorry to do this in a text but Hedges and Stones can’t afford to associate with this kind of press. We’ve got an album dropping with Sony and have to look our best. Good luck finding a band to perform if the wedding’s still on. Peace.
The cancellations roll in—one text, email, DM, tweet after another. Caterer, lighting, venue, some favor company I haven’t used in five years.
I skip right over the text from Dad checking in about the holidays. No sense in replying now, as my plans consist of self-imploding.
Time dissolves into doom as I scan and scan and scan.
Then the most dreaded one lands the final blow and I fall into the pillows, flimsy pep talk armor shot to shreds.
A tweet from the blue-checkmarked avant-garde avatar that is Lexi Sparks, to her 2M followers:
Morgan Ross is a whore. Can’t believe I trusted The Barnes. She’ll never work in LA again. Fired, obv. #VictimizedForMyFame #MorTheWhore
I lurch off the bed to make a beeline for the toilet when my phone rings. It’s Johanna’s ringtone. The one that sounds like a fire alarm.
“Hello,” I choke out as I freeze mid-lunge and swallow stomach acid.
I brace for a yell but shouldn’t. Even in the worst-case event scenarios, I’ve watched her calmly pull someone to the side for making a disastrous mistake, then seen that same vendor sobbing in the bathroom ten minutes later. Johanna Barnes doesn’t need to yell.
“Be in my office by eight.” She hangs up.
It’s seven-thirty.
Looks like I’m heading to my annihilation by foot.
* * *
I make it to hell with three minutes to spare.
Dread has turned my life into The Upside Down. Entering the charming boutique-style storefront of The Barnes used to feel like walking into a living dream, but today, the door carves me out as I push through it.
I stand in the entrance, clutching my purse in one hand and my chest with the other, taking in everything I stand to lose if this meeting ends in heartache. The business has evolved so much since we moved in, since Johanna hired me at eighteen straight out of Fern Falls. We’ve evolved, too. From mentor/ mentee to boss/employee, but the heart in this place still beats strong. I tread slowly. My flats tap on the glossy concrete, then sink into the plush rugs I helped pick out. Blues and greens to set a calming tone. I run my fingers over the smooth back of a wooden chair and take in one of the four white tables placed throughout the room, a succulent terrarium in the center of each. Will I ever be able to hold a client meeting here again? Sit with them and reference our past events and current vendors, browse fabrics, florals, caterers, cakes, music, photographers, body paint, dog dresses—anything imaginable to make each event perfect, from the basic to the flamboyant? Goddamn, my gut hollows out. Before clients like Spum, the events were more simple, sincere. I loved that high of working with people, honoring major milestones in their lives, being the one they trusted to make their celebration worthy of all the time and work and love that led to that moment.
It’s why Johanna’s trusted me all these years. Maybe I’m not worthy of being that person anymore, of being trusted at all.
A clicking sound snaps my gaze to the coffee bar in the corner. . . where my nemesis, Miles Knocks, leans against the wall and glares over while pressing BREW on the Keurig. I’m usually out of the office, running my own events, on Saturdays. I’d work a milk-chug contest at a frat party right now if it meant avoiding him.
I fix my eyes on the lovely fiddle-leaf fig beside Miles, because I’d like to keep down the protein bar that I scarfed on my sprint here. Miles has worked at The Barnes for a third of the time I have, and has tried to steal my clients since day one. For a while, he got into the office before anyone else and went through my upcoming events. If there was a task on my list for that week, he was sure to bring it up in front of my client to make it sound like I was falling behind (“Oh, Morgan, you’d better move on that hotel block before the massage convention comes through”). There was no massage convention, and the event was ten months out, but I still spent two hours convincing Mr. Reynolds that his meditation retreat wasn’t doomed. The only way I got Miles off my back that time was to be in the office before him. He surrendered when our arrival battle reached three-thirty a.m.
He waves like he’s on a parade float, the sleeve of his gray blazer riding up to flaunt a neon-orange watch that makes his white skin look fluorescent.
Even in my hangover chic black slacks and beige cardigan, I hold my own against him any day.
He’s sporting his trademark look: garishly bright slacks he calls “fashionably edgy.” Today, they’re ketchup red, just a few shades bolder than his hair.
“You know, Morgan, I’m disappointed,” he says, as the coffee machine warms water with a growl.
I cross my arms. “That you don’t have better fashion sense? Understandable.”
He snorts. I don’t look at him directly.
“I thought getting that promotion to spearhead the East Coast branch would be a fun challenge. I was looking forward to seeing you at least try to beat me. It would have made the work day entertaining.”
I school my features and meet his bland, beady eyes. “It was never your challenge, Miles, because you were never in the running.”
He sneers as the machine hisses and spits out his coffee. “Tell that to Johanna. And your new nickname. Which is trending, by the way.”
Before I can recover enough to bark a retort, Johanna’s office door creaks open.
Hashtag Mor the Whore vanishes from my mind as Sonia strides out, eyes red, cheeks blotchy.
Shit. Shit, shit, shit. “You okay?”
She raises her chin. “I will be.”
Godammit. I understand disciplinary measures coming my way, but Sonia’s? What the hell did she do wrong? If I get fired, she’ll have to assist Miles, and holy hell, that would be a universe of hurt she doesn’t deserve. The weight of responsibility bears down on my chest. I was supposed to be the one leading the fresh team in New York. My eye catches on Johanna’s placard beside her door: JOHANNA BARNES: C.E.O., THE BARNES EVENTS COMPANY. I’ve imagined my own placard at the future New York office more times than I can count. MORGAN ROSS: DIRECTOR, THE BARNES EVENTS COMPANY, EAST COAST BRANCH. My plan was to promote Sonia to Head Events Planner, giving her a bump up while I got mine. My eyes burn, forcing me to clear my throat. I’ve done so much to get here. Proven myself through years of flawlessly executed events. I wanted this to be it. I wanted to finally be enough.
“Are you doing okay?” she asks, voice cracking.
I blink fast, her face coming back into focus. “Fine,” I lie, keeping my features smooth, brave. “Thank you for being there for me last night.”
“Always. I’m so sorry I didn’t realize it was Chad sooner.”
“Sonia, this is not your fault.”
“I know. But I’m still sorry about all of it. And you know it’s not yours, either, right? It’s not your fault, Morgan.” She rubs her arms and holds my gaze.
Her words hit like ice water.
I’ve berated myself all morning, and she’s . . . right.
I was upset. I drank and danced at a bar. Isn’t that pretty standard bar behavior? But Chad McTannum asked me to dance while incognito and engaged, and come to think of it, without a trace of alcohol on his lips. Not that intoxication would have excused his behavior; it just proves how willful it was. He went into The Sand Bar with a motive, and I was the victim who happened to be there—and the one taking the brunt of the fallout. Where’s the Chad the Cheater hashtag? He’d love a scummy fifteen minutes of Twitter fame.
Righteous anger heats me into a living, breathing, burning man. I won’t only fight to keep my job; I’ll make sure Sonia retains hers, too.
“Let me know if you need anything,” I say, straining to keep any rage from my tone.
“You, too.” She places a hand on my arm, then walks out, sniffling.
I face the gaping maw of Johanna’s office door, grip my purse strap, and charge into the mouth of the beast, fully ignoring a dark chuckle that comes from the coffee bar. If Johanna is going to let Sonia and me go for this, she isn’t the person I thought she was.
The woman herself sits in a dusky pink desk chair, typing away, the soft glow from her computer doing nothing to ease the frustration on her face.
Her brows knit together, dark eyes scanning the screen as she taps at her keyboard. Even under stress, she’s the epitome of elegance. Her dark curls are piled high on her head, effortlessly stylish, and both her silk lavender blouse and berry lips pop against her dark brown skin. She waves a perfectly manicured hand toward a chair facing her desk and puts the other up to her earpiece. “Listen, Tom. I’m fully abreast of our contract terms, and we are well within the window to cancel without penalty and with a full refund. I expect to see the deposit reimbursed by day’s end, or the next call you get will be from my lawyer.”
My stomach sinks as I sit. Thomas is our contact at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Lexi wanted her rehearsal dinner.
My boiling rage lowers to a simmer.
All of this is so messed up, and Johanna has to deal with it because of me. After all we’ve been through, this is new: this feeling of letting Johanna down. It makes my limbs leaden, and my neck flushes hot. Maybe it’s for the best if she lets me go. If leaving is what it takes to save The Barnes’s reputation, to not let her down again, I’ll accept that. I won’t let anyone suffer because of my mistake.
She takes off her earpiece and gives me her full attention. “Morgan—”
“Johanna.” I shuffle in my seat, straightening as much as my tense muscles allow. “You need to give Sonia her job back.” My voice is firm, confident. Like someone who feels those things. Like the Director of The Barnes Events Company, East Coast Branch.
Her features twist in confusion. Then she stands, rounds the front of her desk, and sits in the chair opposite me. She leans forward, resting both elbows on her navy slacks. “That’s really what you think of me?” she asks, making direct eye contact.
I cradle my purse in my lap and swallow the brick in my throat. “No. I saw her leave upset, and I don’t want anyone to suffer because of my error in judgment.”
“Ah,” Johanna says as she reaches for a to-go cup from her desk. It’s from Violet’s, our favorite café around the corner. She hands me the cup, purple flower logo face-out. I wrap my fingers around the warmth of it, and the lavender scent makes me go the slightest bit languid. All the memories of late-night planning sessions hit me right in the feels. Before she hired Sonia and Miles, it was her and me and hustle and grit and lattes from Violet’s. We were close back then, grabbing drinks after work. She still invites me to her daughter Brynn’s birthday parties, but now we don’t call each other just to catch up as often. The thought of not having her in my life anymore twists my stomach into knots. I couldn’t drink this coffee if I tried.
“Figured you could use one as much as me.” She raises her own cup in salute.
My palm sweats against the cardboard sleeve. “Please tell me straight. Is this a ‘let go’ latte?” Lexi’s tweet flashes in my mind: Fired, obv. Great. I can never have a latte again.
“Morgan. I’m not letting you go.”
Instant relief washes through me. I should have known Johanna would have my back. I wince for second-guessing that, then tense all over again. “What about Sonia?”
“Sonia is going to the UK,” she says calmly.
My face scrunches. “Why?”
“She wants to work things out with Bridget, and is taking a month off to do so.”
I take a slow sip of my drink. Rich floral notes focus my mind. Why would she leave right now? How could a long-distance relationship be more important than her own career, her income? Even with the wedding canceled, there’s so much more work to do. We have to get right back on our feet, not let Miles or McTannum or any other prick win.
Johanna catches my gaze. “And I want you to do the same.”
My neck stiffens in surprise. I search her face for the punch line, but it’s deadpan. “Johanna, I don’t have a girlfriend overseas.” Wish I did, though. Then I wouldn’t be kissing asshole actors in disguise.
Johanna sets her cup on the desk, leans back in her chair, and crosses her arms like a parental figure. I fidget in my seat. By the time I left home, Dad and I hardly spoke at all. I moved five hours away to escape that loneliness. The kind that comes from being cohabitants instead of family, each unspoken word burrowing deeper and deeper until apologies are too far down to reach and better left buried.
“I want you to take December off.” Her tone is as firm as her stare.
“No.” The word flies from my mouth.
“Morgan.” She leans forward, lacing her fingers together like she’s strapping in for a long ride, shimmery rose gels on display. “I’d like to think we’re a family here. I know your character and how devoted you are to your clients, so I know what you did was unintentional, and I fully blame Chad. You have a backlog of unused vacation time, and I’m making you take it. I want you to rest and recover.”
I sigh and stare at my cup. Run my thumb over the corn plastic lid. Unfortunately, Johanna makes perfect sense. This scandal will be history after the holidays, replaced with the buzz and plans of a brand-new year. Stepping back for a bit would be the smart thing to do. I squirm. Taking a month-long break, though, could be detrimental to my career. Miles will use every moment I’m gone to get a leg up on that promotion, while I’m stuck at home with jade plants and Schitt’s Creek. As much as I love David and Patrick, the Spum wedding filled my holiday plans. There is only so much TV a girl can take before she paints a face on her couch and tells it her deepest secrets. I don’t want a Wilson in my living room. “Johanna. I want to head my own team at the new site. I’m not going to step down and let McTannum ruin that for me.”
I already let the drama with Christy, Dad, and Rachel strain my high school career. I won’t let this jerk mess up my actual job.
“Morgan,” Johanna says, and sighs. “I haven’t seen you take so much as a coffee break in months. You don’t know how to operate on anything other than stress.”
“That’s not true.” But even as I say it, my knee bounces and my free hand itches to check the notifications on my phone, although I know they’re a trash fire. I’m programmed to be on high alert for the next X factor. I have to tackle a new event. It’s the only way to move forward, to show that my past can’t control me. To prove I’m not the pushover I was in Fern Falls, the Morgan who felt worthless and had no idea who she was.
Johanna’s tone is gentle as she continues, “Christmas is in four weeks. Our biggest wedding of the season is canceled. Miles and I can handle the smaller events. Go take time off, and when you return, we’ll talk about that position.”
I stand so fast I nearly drop my coffee. “Talk? I thought it was a done deal. Are you seriously considering Miles?”
Visions of high-rises and cocktail parties, Broadway tickets and Met visits stutter and fracture, replaced with the image of Miles’s ear glued to Johanna’s door. I can practically hear him breathing from here.
“Morgan. I want what’s best for you, not only my company. We just confirmed the lease for the space in New York, and hiring will begin after the first of the year. There’s a lot ahead, and a fresh team and cross-country move is going to increase your stress. I’m not saying no; I’m saying take some time. Discover things that matter to you besides work and other people’s celebrations. Find something of your own to celebrate. Take a vacation. Visit home. Care for yourself, and then we’ll talk about you caring for a team and starting the new year off fresh.”
I place my coffee on the desk and sit back down, heart rate returning closer to normal. She’s right. I know it in my bones and hate it with my soul. Four weeks of nothing but time and loneliness stretch before me. I can’t even try to be a real friend to Sonia, because she’s gone, and who knows if she’ll come home.
Home. Johanna said to visit home. The room brightens, my mind fog clears, and Miles Knocks can one hundred percent suck it. I’m fixing this if it costs me every shred of pride to do so, and how much of that do I have left, anyway? What I do still have is one shot at that promotion, to prove I can handle whatever stress comes my way. To truly start over and reach the level of success I’ve only ever dreamed of. To finally prove myself. “What if I told you I have an event that could fix everything?”
Johanna raises a brow and sweeps her hand in the air for me to proceed.
I grow supercharged as the details string together. “I got a request to run a fundraiser in Fern Falls. Where I grew up.” My voice pitches higher at the mention of my hometown, and I shiver at the thought of going back, the possibility of facing people from my past after seven years away.
“So you’d be working still?” Johanna asks. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
No. I can’t lose this chance. “Think about it.” I lean forward. “City girl returns home after a scandal, runs a charity event. I get the slowed-down holiday you want for me, and if you send reporters to the event, The Barnes will get press coverage, associating us with a wholesome, small-town occasion. It’s Hallmark-level perfection.”
No need to confess my holiday home will be an Airbnb where I can hole up and avoid anyone and anything to do with my childhood. I’ll still be working and lapping Miles for this promotion; that’s all that matters.
Johanna rubs her chin.
She’s considering this. My knee bounces harder.
“It’s a good idea,” she says cautiously. “Is this really what you want?”
“Yes,” I holler, bursting from my chair. Yes to winning back my career, no to being home. But it’s a small price to pay for the future of my dreams. A little fundraiser, a few weeks tops. How hard could it be?
“Okay,” she says, steepling her fingers. “Go for it. Keep me posted on what you need and when you want a press release sent out. I’ll put Miles on administration.”
All at once, The Upside Down turns right side up. PR solved, career saved, Miles my bitch.
I reach out my hand to shake on it, but she raises a finger. “On one condition.”
My insides freeze.
Her brows perk up her forehead. “You take time off while you’re up there, Morgan. I mean it. Text me photos of snow or something. Show me you’ve rested and recharged.”
Sure, snap some pictures of myself in a puffy coat, drinking cocoa, putting my feet up in a rented cabin. Easy as a small café fundraiser.
I grin like I’ve been given a second chance at life. “Deal.”
We shake on it, and I head to the door.
“And Morgan?”
I peer over my shoulder.
“Happy holidays.” She smiles, replaces her earpiece, and settles back in front of her computer.
“You, too, Johanna.” The season will most definitely be happy now. Brimming with that joy, I retrieve the archived email on my phone, head down, spirits high, as I exit her office.
“Went that bad, huh?” Miles asks without feeling, leaning against the wall beside Johanna’s door.
I don’t look up as I type out a quick reply to the Peak Perk Café:
My contract is attached and I charge travel expenses. I’ll send you my housing invoice in advance. See you this coming Monday to begin planning.
I’m gonna take these hometown jerks for all they’re worth, no regrets.
But first, to deal with this jerk.
He stands before me, arms crossed.
“Miles?” I say, my voice achingly sweet.
He smirks like he’s about to receive all the respect he deserves, which he is.
“Go fuck a pair of plaid capris.”
His mouth falls open.
I smirk and stride out the door, the world righted and laid out before me. Just a little hometown detour, and everything I want will be mine.
Free, free, free.

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